My first job in Australia was with a company, where we developed and produced ultrasound equipment for medical diagnostics. I was hired as a draftsman in the mechanical ingeneering department. How I got this job was another interesting story, but unrelated to this one.
The team I was part of, worked on the mechanical design of a scanner, a product requiring high precision and miniaturisation. Allow me to explain a bit about research in mechanical ingeneering.
More than in other fields of ingeneering, such as electronics, civil or software, during the stage of prototyping, it is necessary for most components to be manufactured mainly because they cannot be bought, except a few nuts and bolts and the occasional ball-bearing.
The quantities are very small, often one‑offs. Moreover, there are stringent demands on accuracy, much higher than later in production. Therefore, mechanical design teams include a workshop with various high-quality tooling machines.
Since the quantities are small, it does not warrant the employment of a specialist for each machine. Quite often, ingeneers would work on them, mainly for components not requiring high accuracy. In our case, we needed a person for the more demanding jobs.
These all‑rounder guys are highly talented and very rare, rare as hens’ teeth. Not only would they know how to operate all these machines and have a high sense for all sorts of material, but more importantly, they were are skilled and have an extremely high pride in their work.
It is in their nature to continually challenge themselves to the utmost accuracy of work and better their quality of workmanship. The output of an ingeneering team would rise and fall with the abilities of this one person. Mostly they have a background in toolmaking.
He was a prototype of such a person. Not only was he an essential and integral part of our team but also a real comrade. His knowledge and sense of materials, their behaviour, treatment and machining characteristics was an inspirational contribution to crank up us ingeneers.
However, owning all those excellent qualities, it was inevitable, him behaving like a Prima Donna, occasionally. Since this was known and accepted, there was room for this behaviour.
He would carry on about the finish of a component or its accuracy. He could not buy just any drill bit from the local hardware shop. No, it had to be imported from this particular German brand. Sometimes, his allures got on our nerves, sometimes, we teased him, and sometimes, they spurred us on to higher achievements.
While still living in Germany, I had been employed by an American company for several years. During this time I held technical seminars to an international audience… then the conversation language had been English. I felt quite comfortable speaking English.
Most participants of such training seminars came from other non-English speaking countries. Still, in the Western World English had been the standard language at international meetings. Generally, English was a tool for communication, conveying data not feelings. Words and sentence structures were plain and simple and mostly consisted of what we had learned at school.
This evoked in me misleading confidence about my English language skills. And not to forget, my style of English that I had learned at school was at least ten years old, and this time span, a language would have changed.
When I arrived in Australia, I had been confident about my English speaking skills. Was I up for a life-changing experience? No way! The revelation began with starting my job with the ultrasound company, my first job in Australia.
During the first few days, I was the new guy, the migrant… true blue? All was so exciting. My colleagues simplified their way of talking, but I was unaware of this. One-third of them were migrants themselves, and I had hardly any problems communicating.
Things changed, quickly.
As it happened, with my work team, I was the only non‑Australian. Now and then, I heard phrases, which puzzled me. Generally, I understood enough words to decipher their sense but on worryingly often occasions, I had no idea what they were talking about.
Initially, I felt too uncomfortable to ask. However, the friendliness and the support of my colleagues eased me, and when it happened again, I asked.
For a moment there was stunned silence. They gave each other perturbed looks. My request strictly opposed Australia’s most stringent etiquette: “The taboo of language.” Admitting that I didn’t understand required someone to explain. This was not on.
One was brave enough to step over and explain the meaning of the proverb in question and even its derivation. It was Connor. The others nodded with embarrassment or said they had not known this detail. Just to compensate for Connor’s faux pas, somehow.
Those strange ways of saying things occurred more and more often. I lost my inhibitions for the asking, sometimes turning it into a boisterous demand. A standard answer developed: “Go and ask Uncle Connor.”
Colin’s workshop was half the length of our open plan office away, and sometimes, such incidents happened too often, and it seemed too far to go. Then we laughed and let it be, until next time.
The separators between the workspaces were about one and a half meters high and not very soundproof at all. Our neighbours could easily follow some of our conversations, especially, when they held in a teasing tone. One day a woman’s head appeared over the partition and helped out… explaining the saying in question.
It was Lily, a sure and confident woman, who soon turned into Aunty Lily. Her desk faced the divider to our square, she often overheard our discourses in Australianisms, and occasionally, her comments were evoked even unasked. Nevertheless, through this proximity, she became the one most referred to.
The game turned hotter. My dear colleagues confronted me with euphemisms bearing sexual connotations, unknown to me. With a “Go and ask Aunty Lily”, they sent me off giggling. Unbeknown of the danger I repeated the phrase as accurate as I could. She cottoned on very quickly and scolded my colleagues. Even she had not been really challenged, playing embarrassed, she would pass me on to Uncle Connor.
All was drowned in much joy and laughter. With time, I developed a sense for the spicy sayings, but I still followed the ritual much to all our delight. Within a short time, I became the best-equipped migrant at the office. It contributed to me being more readily accepted in the work environment and spending more time with Connor. And we became friends.
Connor rode a motorbike, a BMW with a boxer engine and a cardan axle, both ingeneering specialities. He frowned at Japanese imports and attributed them with condescending expressions. Occasionally, I attended the ritual when he put on his black leather attire.
He could talk for hours about taking this engine apart, cleaning, and polishing it, assembling it, tightening every bolt and nut using feeler gauges, a micrometer and torque wrench.
In his last job, he had worked in quality assurance, and ‘chasing microns’ was his delight. I guess, there has never been a motorcycle engine assembled and tuned to such accuracy. I felt privileged when glimpsing parts of the meaning of the book title Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.
He enjoyed talking to me about this, not only because he believed, a German ingeneer would and could appreciate his passion but also because my field of study had been precision engineering. Undoubtedly, to some extent he was correct. However, I never pursued it to such a religious extend as he did.
Connor and Kendo
One day I watched Connor as he worked on the lathe. As he worked mainly for me, I realised, the component was not one of mine. He was very focused. When he stopped the machine, I curiously asked what this component was. “It’s a ring to keep my shinai together, I break it too often, and they are quite expensive to replace.”
The way he said this showed, he expected me to know what a shinai was. After my question, he explained with raised eyebrows: “It’s a bamboo sword for Kendo.” I knew Kendo had been the samurais’ sword training. During practice, they used swords made from bamboo, larger and heavier than the real sword.
This way I found out, Connor was a Kendoka, and he often broke his sword. My mind was leaping somersaults. I tried to imagine how this could happen; one must be very skilled and vigorous to break a shinai.
The next day Connor brought his bamboo sword into work, and for a few minutes, the workshop was transformed into fencing hall when he demonstrated several cuts and thrusts against an imaginary opponent.
I believe this was the first time in my life; I experienced the existence of an inexpiable power. I was too startled to say anything; Connor appreciated my silence. From then on I saw Connor with different eyes.
He never boasted about it, and I wondered why. In his other fields, he never had held back. Through snippets of information I found out, Connor had been involved in Kendo for only a few years and he had a steep career path in this martial art, irrevocably a sign of talent. In half a years time he would accompany Sydney’s best to a meeting in Japan.
During the next half year, our friendship grew closer. He invited me to his place, a small, old red brick house with some white rendering in a suburb with no fences. There were flower beds in the garden and flower boxes on the windowsills.
One could call it a European touch. Everything impeccably clean and tidy and I wondered where the woman of the house was. There was none, and I was surprised.
He showed me his bōgu, the Kendo armour. The outside is made from thick tarred cotton; it is padded with six to eight layers of cotton wool, all black, tarred on some section for added protection and massive. But worst of all was the breathtaking rancid smell; it stank of stale sweat.
He guessed my thoughts, and he told me, one would sweat several litres during one practice session. And you couldn’t wash the damned thing. It would never dry and start moulding. He added with a laugh: “Maybe this is yet another way to repel your opponent.”
Off he went to Japan, for two weeks. It had been a two-week tournament at the town of a befriended Kendo school. Several competitions a day. He ended up second best, only beaten by the coach of the Japanese. Wow. He appeared reticent talking about it; there was not much to say. “You go and do your best, it’s as simple as this.”
As a souvenir, he brought me a strip of cotton, about a foot wide and three feet long. It would be twisted and tied around the head as a cushion for the mēn the face-mask and to serve as a sweatband. Printed on it were two Japanese characters. Connor told me they mean Follow your Path. Fair enough was my thought. I had no idea about the significance of this expression.
I took it home, stretched it over an old fly screen frame and hung it on the wall in my study. It watched me writing papers, preparing lectures and many of my creative writings.
Seven years later, I moved to Brisbane. For following two years, I continued teaching at the local university and quite often I would meet up with Connor. However, when my fellowship with the university ended, I would fly to Sydney only occasionally. Due to this and his life having changed through being married, our friendship fizzled away.
A mutual friend related the following story to me. When Connor’s wife was ready to deliver their first child, Sydney was hit by a high flood. At the same time, when Connor drove her to the hospital, he crossed a low bridge, and a flood wave washed the car into the shallow river.
Only slightly bruised, Connor could climb out of the car, and carrying his wife, he waded to the riverbank. An ambulance took them to the hospital. Connor had decided if it would be a boy his name would be Noah. It was a boy.
As it happens in life and everyone, I met people, we became close friends and believe it would be for a lifetime. I was told we meet people for a particular purpose, as part of our learning. And when the lesson is over, they make space for new teachers.
What had I learned from Connor? About Kendo? How a person lives his dedication and passion and succeeds! This sounds quite a bit, but somehow I felt there was more to it.
During the first few years, whenever I looked at the sweatband, the feeling that had filled our friendship was called forth. And this was very often. However, after some time, even this significant symbol stepped back and blended into the backdrop of furnishings.
As years went on, my interest entered new realms, such as philosophy, religions of the world, and the Japanese form of Tai Chi called Tai Kyoku Ken. One book had a dominant influence on my way of looking at the world, the Tao Te Ging the Book of the Virtuous Path, said to be written by Lao-Tse.
The thoughts conveyed in the Tao (the way) became my primary guideline, and the writing on the sweatband Follow your Path revealed its profoundness. Questions about my Tao directed my thoughts and actions. Where it was and how would I find it, how would I recognise it, and whether it would be the right Tao.
Please, be aware, above I called it the thoughts of Tao and not Taoism because Taoism is a religion. I spent some time searching for Lao Tse’s ideas in Taoism but could not find any.
In my experience, this happened with many religions, the thoughts of the master tattered once he had passed away. The students ‘refined’ their master’s wisdom and proclaimed themselves to masters. They tuned their master’s wisdom more palatable to attract students and suiting their own the needs to increase their authority and power.
My professional career ended far too early. Times of profound doubt in myself and my abilities had to be surpassed and living in this new world turned out to be a substantial burden. Points of choice, crossroads, appeared but seemed to offer no alternatives at all.
Like a piece of wood on the stormy sea, I felt pushed along, tossed and tumbling. And sometimes, I was like an immovable rock at the bottom of the ocean, or a meaningless grain of sand on a beach, a stagnant puddle on a muddy road.
Where was my Tao? Is this my Tao? Innumerable times I stared at the two characters on the sweatband, brooding, doubting and hopeless. And even no answers came up, sometimes it restored my will: Follow your Path.
I learned to live life differently, focusing on the presence, the good, the positive. Stepping into the unknown very often, it became a habit, something quite ordinary. And then, one day I read: “You cannot be anywhere else but on you Tao.” Evidently, this rocked my thought structure.
Once I became settled with this idea, I realised, searching for the Tao, trying to find and trying staying on it is irrelevant. I told myself: “If it is the foundation of your existence, you stand on it all the time, whether you are aware of it or not, there is no need for searching and assuring your adherence to it. Doesn’t this make it so easy? And as you walk, you walk on it, and you make it.”
Why had I met Colin? As I had moved on in life, our friendship and receiving the sweatband, its significance had escalated beyond imagination. Follow your Path. Would I have survived without this phrase?
The True Meaning
Years later, a friend of mine had a young Japanese woman as a lodger. One day, when I visited this friend, I took the sweatband with me, more to have a point of conversation rather than out of curiosity. I asked the Japanese woman about the meaning of those characters.
She recognised them as Japanese, but she could not tell me the meaning. First I thought it is because of her limited English vocabulary, but when I suggested using the dictionary, she said it would not be in it. I could not understand this. Aren’t all words in the dictionary?
Years passed, and my interest turned towards Chinese history, its music and with it came my research on the structure and components of Chinese writing, and the characters.
I learned: the style of writing, the combination of symbols and addition of lines depends significantly on the mental development and wisdom of the writer and the characters permit such expression.
More complicated characters are built upon or are combinations of simpler, more standard versions. Through adding strokes, their philosophical profundity deepens. For example, some symbols used in the Tao Te Ging are misread by someone who had not occupied themselves with this type of matter.
Writing about this, one event vehemently returned to my mind. From the late eighties onward, I studied of the I Ging which translates: the book of change. It is the fortune tellers handbook and the oldest Chinese book.
During my early studies of this book, I also attended a course in silversmithing. As a training piece, we are asked to make a small box with an ornamented lid.
I could have designed just any old ornament, but for such an important project I wanted something special, and I selected a character from the I Ging. The hexagram 11, called T’ai, translated benevolence, was the one I considered the most potent and desirable virtue and this has not changed.
I painstakingly copied the Chinese character from my I Ging. With the consent of my teacher instead of a box, I designed and manufactured a belt buckle.
There was a young Japanese man in our class, a real show-off. He looked at it and screaming with neighing laughter: “It is such a small character, but it means enormous.” Why would this fact cause such a hilarious reaction?
He was disinterested when I tried to explain. I realised, he did not even know the word benevolence; neither did several other course participants. It requires a sense of the meaning of benevolence to see how from a primary symbol such as enormous the meaning of a sublime word can grow.
In Brisbane, I met a Japanese man who had been an artist in Japan. He looked at it and said without hesitation: “It means metal heart or iron heart.” He continued. “Written in this way, the Chinese way, such symbols have an auspicious content. This one is a common inscription on objects of Martial Arts. It gives the bearer determination, courage, and passion.”
Indubitably, he was correct. The sweatband and more so the inscription had been meant for Connor, a Kendoka, and someone had chosen it for him.
I felt rebellious, refusing to accept this information. It could not be true. It seemed to me that iron heart was the direct translation of the two symbols like it had been with enormous and benevolence. What was the sublime meaning of iron heart?
What had happened to Follow your Path? My life had depended on it. I observed myself. Where the foundations of my life’s beliefs shaking? I listened; they were not. Was my life’s philosophy crumbling apart? No. Surprisingly, life went on just like before. Something highly significant to me had disappeared and, as it appeared, nothing had changed.
Follow your Path had not lost its meaning. In the early days, I needed the physical, visual presence of the sweatband and the symbols. At present, its loss was immaterial; the meaning had grown to an essential part of my life, and it had become independent of the physical symbol.
What had changed my life during the last two decades was ‘my knowing’ of the meaning of the symbols, namely: Follow your Path. During that time, I had no doubt about its meaning. For its effectiveness, it had been unimportant whether it was actually correct or not. My ‘knowing’ made it work.
Knowing versus Believing
I find this to be the point where the distinction between knowing and believing turns murky. Nevertheless, the story demonstrates the power of the mind, whether one calls it this, or by any other name.
Can we take this understanding further? What about all the things we know? Why don’t we doubt? Could we live in a world where we must question everything? I mean everything; everything we take for granted, consider it scientifically proven or call common sense.
We observe nature or a scientific experiment; and when we have discovered a process which allows us to reproduce the results any time or a mathematical formula permitting us to predict the outcome when parameters change, then we say, we know.
Subsequently, we take this as sufficient grounds to build with it the reality we call our own. We trust in our abilities to observe, and we elevate the observation to the level of fact. Haven’t we learned how distorted our vision, our individual perception generally is? Why would we still trust what we see?
I believe we have to. Without a framework of an accepted undoubted so‑called reality, our brain would go nuts.
Now, if this is the way it is, where is the limit? Could we imagine a culture with a belief system, which includes the metaphysical? Who draws the borderline, anyway? Is there a culture where people could levitate, walk on water and through walls? Where they live of air, or better let’s say, chi, the life energy, the subtle matter?
Funny, we give it all sorts of names, it is a word of our world, but we don’t believe it. Why then would we have words for it?
Someone said: “If you can imagine it if you can describe it, draw a picture of it then it can be manifested, become a reality.” However, are we able to actually create something real or will it again only turn out to be another hollow image and one day we wake up and see its falsity?
The power of the mind: does it, can it only create what is inside the mind? Probably, what we don’t know, we can’t manifest. In there, are we able to hold images, imaginations and believes beyond doubt? If we can, then we can, manifest. On a molecular level, an atomic and subatomic level, things are mainly made up of almost nothing anyway.
At the time when modern science used the word atom for the smallest particle we knew at the time, we believed it is something finite, something indivisible. The word atom comes from the Greek word atomos meaning the indivisible. In the days of the old Greece, when we look back, all seemed very simple. There was earth, fire and water and ether, holding everything together.
What modern science had called an atom, they “knew” then, that it was indivisible. Today, we know, it is not. Today we find: the closer we look, the more we find nothing.
In conclusion, what we see and touch is nothing, and we gave it shape and substance with our mind. Oops. And it all started with Uncle Connor.