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Befriending the Demon

This is a retelling of the story I heard in a workshop. Years later I found it printed in Ram Dass and Paul Gorman, How Can I Help? (New York: Alfred A. Knopf. 1985), p 167-171

It was a hazy afternoon in Tokyo. The commuter train was only half full: afternoon shoppers, a few early commuters.

Suddenly the peaceful atmosphere was shattered by a bellicose voice cursing almost incomprehensible invectives. The car door slammed open. A huge man staggered in. The laborer was big, drunk, and dirty as he sneered at the passengers. A woman standing near the door held a small child.

Screaming, he swung at her with the back of his hand sending her spinning into the laps of an elderly couple. It was a miracle that no one was hurt. The mother and the others scurried to the other end of the train. The drunk kicked at their retreating backs. When he missed, he became so enraged that the tried to rip one of the seats off the floor. His hand was cut and bleeding.

Just then, the car door closed and the train lurched forward. The passengers froze. They were trapped with a maniac.

Also on the train was a man named Terry Dobson. I understand he lives in the Boston area now. But this was over thirty years ago when he was young and idealistic. He had been studying aikido eight hours a day for three years. Aikido, like karate and kung fu, is a martial art. Among other things it is a subtle and powerful means of fighting.

Terry thought of himself as being fairly good at it. He loved to grapple. But his one regret was that his martial skills had never been tried in actual combat. As a student of aikido, he was not allowed to fight. His teacher said, “The essence of aikido is the art of reconciliation. Whoever has the mind to fight has broken his connection with life. If you try to dominate people, you are already defeated. We study how to resolve conflict, not how to start it.”

Terry listened to his teacher and tried hard to follow his advice. He went so far as to cross the street to avoid some of the punks who hung out near the station. He felt exalted in his forbearance. He felt both tough and holy.

But in his heart of hearts he yearned for the absolutely legitimate excuse to save the innocent by destroying the wicked. “This is it,” he thought as he stood up. “If I do not do something quickly, somebody will get hurt.”

Seeing him rise, the drunk focused his rage on Terry. “Ah ha!” he roared. Terry lightly held onto the commuter strap over his head and gave the man a long look of disgust and dismissal. He planned to take this turkey apart, but the drunk must make the first move. Terry wanted him real mad. So he pursed his lips and blew him an insolent kiss.

“Alright,” the big man bellowed, “You’re gonna get a lesson in manners.” He gathered himself to rush Terry.

A second before he moved, someone shouted, “Hey!” It was ear splitting. It had a strangely joyous, lilting quality – as if you and a friend had been looking for something important and finally he came upon it, “Hey!”

Terry wheeled to his left, the drunk to his right and stared down at a little man on the train seat. The gentleman must have been in his seventies and was dressed immaculately in a dark suit and tie. He took no notice of Terry but beamed delightedly at the laborer, as if he had a most important and most welcome secret to share. “Come here,” the old man said in easy vernacular, “come on over here and talk to me.” He waved his hand lightly.

As if pulled on a string, the big man staggered over. He planted his feet belligerently in front of the old gentleman and roared above the clacking wheels, “Why the heck should I talk to you!”

The drunk now had his back to Terry, who stood poised, ready to drop him in his socks if he moved another inch toward the old man.

The old man continued to beam at the laborer. “What ’cha been drinkin’?” His eyes sparkled with interest.

“I’ve been drinking saké, and it’s none of your damn business,” he bellowed. Flecks of spittle spattered the old man.

“Oh, that’s wonderful,” the old man said. “Absolutely wonderful. You know, I like saké too. Every night, me and my wife — she’s seventy-six you know — we take a little glass of saké out into the garden and sit on an old wooden bench. We watch the sun go down. And we like to see how our persimmon tree is growing. My great grandfather planted it and we worry whether or not it will be hurt by the storms. But it has done better than one might expect when you consider the quality of the soil. It is gratifying to see when we go out and enjoy the evening.”

He looked up at the laborer, his eyes twinkling. The drunks face began to soften as he struggled to follow the old man’s conversation. His fists unclenched. “Yeah,” he said, “I love persimmon too. … “ His voice trailed off.

“Yes,” said the old man smiling. “And I’m sure you have a wonderful wife too.”

“Naw,” replied the drunk. “She died.”

Very gently, swaying with the movement of the train, the big man began to sob, “I don’t got no wife. … I don’t got no home. … I don’t got no job. … I’m so ashamed.” Tears rolled down his cheeks. A spasm of despair rippled through his body.

Now it was Terry’s turn to feel ashamed. Standing there is his well-scrubbed innocence and his make-the-world-safe-for-democracy righteousness, he felt dirtier than the drunk.

The train arrived at Terry’s stop. As the doors opened, he heard the old man cluck sympathetically, “My, my. Now that is a difficult predicament indeed. You better sit down here and tell me all about it.”

As Terry stepped off the train, he turned for a last look. The big man was sprawled across the seat, his head in the gentleman’s lap. The old man was softly stroking his filthy, matted hair.

A moment later, Terry was standing alone in the station as the train rolled down the tracks. He thought, “At last I’ve seen aikido tried in actual combat. The essence of it is love.”