Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Hiroo Onoda - The Loyal Soldier

 In 1974, Philippine authorities became very concerned when they received reports of a Japanese soldier who had been threatening and apparently even attacking local villagers in a very remote region of the island of Lubang. Plans were put in place to deploy a special task force to subdue, capture or, if necessary, kill this soldier, who had already used deadly force on several occasions to prevent locals from approaching his position - one he had apparently defended for decades. The identity of this soldier was a complete mystery, given that the last known Japanese soldier in the area from World War II, lieutenant Hiroo Onoda, had been officially declared dead in 1959.

A Japanese student and explorer named Norio Suzuki, 
Norio Suzuki
who knew of Lieutenant Onoda and believed he might still be alive, became aware of the situation and asked the authorities for permission to approach (at his own risk) and communicate with this soldier, hoping to determine why he was so intent on protecting/fortifying his position in an almost uninhabited location. This permission was granted, and the young student went on a search for him in the hills of Lubang. Upon finding him, he waved a white flag as he approached the aging soldier, calling out
"Onoda-san, the emperor and the people of Japan are worried about you." Because he had used a well-defined wartime protocol - and called to him in Japanese - Norio Suzuki was able to go directly up to the soldier and ask him why he was so adamantly defending this location. The soldier - who indeed turned out to be none other than Lieutenant Onoda, having held his position for three decades - replied, “I am a soldier and remain true to my duties.” 

Hiroo Onoda at age 22

Onoda had received orders directly from his commanding officer, Major Yoshimi Taniguchi, to defend this position at all costs. 

It may take three years, it may take five, but whatever happens well come back for you, the major had promised.

All but three of Onoda's brothers-in-arms fled or were killed as American forces landed on Lubang on February 28, 1945. One of the three surrendered to Filipino forces in 1950, and two others were eventually killed by Lubang police officers.

There had been several efforts to communicate with Onoda and his comrades, but sadly they had resisted all such attempts to get them to surrender, dismissing the Japanese search parties and leaflet drops as "enemy trickery." The leaflets were filled with mistakes, and Onoda judged them as a plot by the Americans. 

The Japanese student Suzuki told the lieutenant that the war had been over for three decades, and - dutiful soldier that Onoda was - it was no longer necessary to defend this position. Lieutenant Onoda firmly replied that he would not stop doing so until he received direct orders from his commanding officer that he could now lay down his arms and allow others to approach this site. Stunned at first, Suzuki felt that there was no way he could peacefully conclude this seemingly intractable situation - and then he was suddenly inspired to ask the name and position of the soldier's commander. Onoda told him that it had been Major Yoshimi Taniguchi.  Armed (as it were) with this information, but fearing that he had almost no chance of finding this former military official, Suzuki was determined to return to Japan, find Major Taniguchi, and bring him back to this place to rescind the orders he had given so forcefully long ago, allowing Onoda to finally surrender.

After researching military history and records in Japan, Suzuki was indeed able to locate Major Taniguchi, who had long since retired and was living a civilian life as a bookseller. And thus it came to pass that the retired major returned to Lubang (at the request of the Tokyo government) to finally fulfill his promise. Japan had lost the war, said Taniguchi when he finally stood in front of his loyal lieutenant, and Onoda was at last relieved of duty. 
Hiroo Onoda and Yoshimi Taniguchi

The time-worn soldier sharply saluted his former superior officer, then wept uncontrollably.

Still sobbing, Onoda handed over his rifle (which he had kept in pristine working condition for three decades), approximately 500 rounds of ammunition, a few hand grenades and, finally, a dagger gifted to him by his mother when he was first deployed overseas.

Hiroo Onoda surrenders his sword to Ferdinand Marcos

As he arrived at the Lubang Island Police Station, he bowed to the people assembled there and laid down his weapons, saying, “I am Lieutenant Hiroo Onoda and I have received orders to surrender to you.”  On the morning of March 10, 1974, in Manila, the lieutenant, wearing his old Japanese military uniform, gave his sword to President Marcos in a traditional gesture of surrender. 

Although Lieutenant Onoda had killed at least 30 people in as many years, Ferdinand Marcos granted him a full official pardon, and Hiroo Onoda at last returned to Japan.

Hiroo Onoda and Norio Suzuki arrive in Japan March 1974

The central metaphor and lesson embodied in this tale of the loyal soldier invites each of us to ask what may be a very painful question: What defensive tactics or "orders" do I tenaciously cling to when they no longer serve me or those close to me (even though they may have served me well in a different time, place, or circumstance)?  When we explore this question fully, and step into surrendering behaviors and patterns that clearly no longer serve us, we open to the possibility of a powerful transformation into a new life.

By 1984 the Loyal Soldier Hiroo Onoda had taken what he had learned in the jungles of Lubang and founded the Onoda Nature School, a youth camp focused on teaching wilderness survival skills to Japanese youth.

I submit that this Loyal Soldier archetype also extends beyond our individual psychology, so that it can take root in a culture, a religious or ethnic group, or a nation. Examples that come to mind are the incitements to ethnic cleansing by the Serbs of the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s that explicitly used the Battle of Kosovo in 1389 as a rationale, or similar Crusades-era thinking that is taking root here in America that feeds the anger, fear and xenophobia of today's political climate in the United States. 

Some modern psychologists and philosophers have embraced the Loyal Soldier archetype as one that can deeply inform – and help us address – our dysfunctional behaviors and perspectives (on a cultural as well as individual level).  

Animas Institute founder and psychologist Bill Plotkin defines the Loyal Soldier in his book Soulcraft as “a courageous, wise, and stubborn sub-personality that formed during our childhood and created a variety of strategies to help us survive the realities (often dysfunctional) of our families and culture.” Although this definition is a bit of a departure from the actual story of Hiroo Onoda, the analogy is clear. The Loyal Soldier manifests initially as a noble figure – courageous and stubborn – that may have literally saved our lives as we were navigating the “battle ground” of childhood and adolescence. This soldier may have received orders from us at a later time in our lives where we explicitly needed his protection and ferocity.   Plotkin’s work centers around moving from an “ego centric” to a “soul centric” worldview, and part of this transformation involves “welcoming the Loyal Soldier home," thanking him for his service, and reassigning him to a new task that is attuned to our present circumstances.

Japanese culture after World War II had communal rituals in place that clearly recognized that most of their returning soldiers were utterly unprepared to rejoin civilian society. In these rituals each soldier was, as Father Richard Rohr writes, “publicly thanked and praised effusively for his service to the people. After this was done at great length, an elder would stand and announce with authority something to this effect: ‘The war is now over! The community needs you to let go of what has served you and served us well up to now. The community needs you to return as a man, a citizen, and something beyond a soldier.’”

Father Rohr (who founded the ecumenical Center for Action and Contemplation) reflects these rituals in a process he calls “discharging your loyal soldier.” When we surrender our outmoded defensive tactics and "orders, we afford ourselves the opportunity to serve at our highest potential, and to give ourselves - and those around us - the precious and truly timeless gift of being fully in the present moment.

Hiroo Onoda "The Loyal Soldier" video 
Music from "Priyagitah" by Benjy Wertheimer & Steve Gorn

Monday, December 20, 2010

Kirtan Wallah in a South Carolina Gym: A Tale of Hope, Love, Prayer and Iron

One of the keys to my sanity in a lifestyle that involves touring for nine months a year is keeping myself moving and active. Yoga has been a great help, as have my daily outings with Barkley to explore our new environs on any given day.

But there is a small primal corner of my psyche that still needs the catharsis of slinging heavy stuff around. Maybe it’s the same element of my makeup that caused Krishna Das to mistake me for an NFL linebacker when he first came to pick me up at the airport for the “Breath of the Heart” recording sessions ten years ago. Maybe it’s just part of the deal for a number of us with a Y chromosome, another component of the archetypal male psyche that plays a role in other cryptic rituals, like “male bonding.”

Whatever it is, it had a particularly strong hold on me one morning while we were touring the Southeast a couple of years ago. We were in Greenville, South Carolina, and, fortunately for me, Jacqueline Westhead (our beloved friend, booking agent, and percussionist/vocalist) was engaged in a training regimen that involved getting to a gym every couple of days. Our hotel had a deal that provided free access to the local Powerhouse Gym, so off we went.

When we arrived, I was reminded just how long it had been since I had availed myself of Nautilus equipment. As Jacq made her way to the aerobic gear, I decided to start my re-entry into the Nautilus world with the “Pec Fly” machine, one that I remembered as being a favorite from the old days.

I set it for what I thought was a reasonable weight and took my seat. As I began, it became quickly apparent that I was calling on muscles that had been on vacation for some time. So I threw myself into it with even more fervor, until I heard a kindly voice from behind me: “Whoa there, friend, you’re gonna hurt yourself like that.”

I turned to look into the smiling face of an extremely buff African-American man who clearly had spent a lot of time at the gym.

Laughing, he went on, “You’re working with way too much weight there, and the way you’re going, you might just find one of your arms on the other side of the gym.”

“Oh, thanks! Yeah, it’s been a while since I’ve worked out…”

“Here, let me help you out.”

I got up and he sat in the machine. “What you want to do here is keep good alignment and use a smooth continuous motion, like this.” He brought his shoulders up and back, lengthening his side body symmetrically.

Hmmm … head of the arm bones back, side body long… sounds very familiar to anyone who has spent time with Anusara Yoga…

“Remember,” he said, “to keep an even flow with each rep, and keeping it slower will allow you to get more benefit with less weight, less strain on your shoulders. Here, now you try it.” He cut the weight on the machine to just over half of what I had been flailing around with.


I sat in the machine again, and, following his advice, began again. The ease of the movement and the immediate benefit I felt from the improved alignment more than compensated for the bruising my ego experienced. He talked me through each repetition with focus and care.

“Thanks again, man,” I told him. “You really helped me out! What’s your name?”

“Emmanuel. I come here all the time with my friend Curt over there.”

Curt, a middle-aged and somewhat stout man with brilliant blue eyes and a cautious but warm smile, walked over from an adjacent machine and we shook hands. “My name’s Benjy. My friend Jacqueline and I came down here today to work out – we’re passing through. Great to meet you guys!”

Meanwhile, Jacq had seen what was going on from across the room and came to join us. She introduced herself to both men.

“So what brings you both to Greenville?” asked Emmanuel.

I noticed a beautiful pendant of a cross hanging around Emmanuel’s neck at about the same time that I saw that Curt was wearing a Christian revival T-shirt. I had a sudden sinking feeling that telling them we were touring around the country leading kirtan might not be all that well-advised.

“Uh, well, we’re musicians on tour.”

“Wow. That’s great!” Emmanuel went on, “What kind of music do you guys play?”

Jacq shot me a look that let me know that she was having thoughts similar to my own.

“Well, it’s a … bit hard to explain,” I said. “My wife Heather, Jacqueline and I … we, um, travel all over the country singing to God with groups of people.” I held my breath for a heartbeat or two, wondering what I might say next.

Both Emmanuel and Curt lit up visibly, having the effect of pouring sunlight into the harsh fluorescent light of Powerhouse Gym.

“Man, that’s absolutely incredible!! Hey, are you guys OK if we pray for y’all, right here and now?” Emmanuel’s bearing and glistening eyes radiated an aura of unswerving agape love.

And Curt’s smile broadened as the tentativeness evaporated from his body language.

“Yes, yes, we’d love that,” I said, breathing again, offering my own unspoken prayer of thanks for the gift of sharing just enough information.

So the four of us stood in a circle in between the rows of metal machines, clasped hands and bowed our heads.

“Dear Lord, please watch over Heather, Jacqueline and Benjy as they make their way around the world to sing your praises,” Emmanuel began. “Keep them safe as they spread Your love across this land … please bless them in all that they do.”

“We’re so glad that you brought them here today, Lord, and may they ever raise you up in praise wherever they go. In Jesus’ name … amen.”

We stood there, silently, eyes closed, holding hands a few moments more.

Emmanuel smiled over at us once again. “Believe me, it’s been a real pleasure meeting you both.”

“It has for us too – we are so grateful. Hope to see you guys again soon,” I said. “May you both be richly blessed.”

“You take care of yourselves,” said Curt softly. “Praise be to God.”

“Praise be to God,” I echoed.

We each looked one another in the eye, slowly releasing our hands. With a last farewell smile, Emmanuel and Curt walked up to the front desk of the gym, talked for a moment with the guy behind the counter, and stepped out the front door, leaving us to bask in the light of transcendent Love.

What a blessing to have met Curt and Emmanuel, whose Hebrew name literally means “God with us.” What a great lesson we were given in the power of love to overcome a broad range of differences in cosmology, philosophy, and dogma.

As Ram Dass states so eloquently in his new book, “Be Love Now”:

“Although you may devote yourself to an aspect of the Beloved, like the guru or the deity as mother, child, or lover, you are in it for the love, not for the attainment, not for the object. It’s one of those wonderful paradoxes you encounter on the path. You can’t attain it; you have to become it. In the process subject and object, lover and Beloved become One. “

Once I had allowed myself to step away from my assumptions and focus on love (as our newfound friends were doing in their love for God), our seeming differences could fall away and we could ourselves become Love. To use a beautiful way in which Ram Dass might frame this spiritual landscape, we had each stepped away from our egos in such a way that we could see each other as souls.

“Open your eyes of love, and see Him who pervades this world. Consider it well, and know that this is your country.” -The Songs of Kabir LXXVI

“tu surat nain nihar”

Translation by Rabindranath Tagore