I originally wrote this as a tribute to one of my greatest and most exemplary teachers who lived The Way 24/7. It was originally published way back under the title, “The Cutting Edge of Forgiveness”. I think now I would probably give it another title, such as, “To Have the Power and Not Misuse It,” or “Converting Darkness Into Light Without Theories About It,” or “Killing the Devils Whilst Giving Life a Second Chance,” or some other long winded thing. But I won’t.
Instead I’ll call it by it’s true name: “Katsujinken Applied In Real Life” It contains a lesson or two that seldom occur or are understood in today’s world. This really happened. It was more vivid than my skill to write about it, but I hope this modest effort will impart this dimension of intense living in the light.
Katsujinken Applied In Real Life
“Warriors, warriors we call ourselves.
We fight for splendid virtue, for high endeavour, for sublime wisdom,
therefore we call ourselves warriors.”
from the Aunguttara Nikaya
To Give Back a Life
The Islanders of the Torres Strait are a unique people. They are big, strong, lean, fast, powerful, coordinated and skilled. These Melanesians are tribal people who have sustained a powerful warring, seafaring and permaculture society since before the Vedic Era, if not longer. Powerfully litigious, they know their rights and they are prepared to fight for them if negotiations fail. And they fight for keeps, not points. There is no tapping. Well traditionally there was a lot of flapping around after your head was removed from your body and the winner sucked on your brainstem to ‘steal your soul.’ But that was the old, dark days.
Other than that they are the happiest, most spontaneously friendly, generous, sincere and warm-hearted people I have ever met. They love life. Scintillatingly clear minds and spirits from millennia of hunter-gathering, survival and war, they are tuned in, aware and almost mythical in stature. The natural beauty of the Torres Strait is such that one could be forgiven for believing they have been transported to a dream beyond this world. But do not be deceived. It is a dangerous place. It has its laws, its boundaries and its dangerous denizens. The realm the islanders live, love, dance and thrive in, may as well be another dimension. An almost mythical and intense domain not for the faint-hearted. The navigators of that realm, the islanders of both Eastern and Western Islands love people but they do not suffer fools. Nature’s law: ‘Get it right or die’ predominates here and the people there reflect it. Seldom are there second chances. But there is also a tradition of adopting the homeless. No child is an orphan here. And rearing and teaching young people to be good and productive communal citizens forms the hub of their social power and survival, only slightly dented by the white man’s gun.
There are many stories to tell of adventure there. Stories of peace, love and war. Some may never be told. Many of these stories died with Paul a few years ago. Paul was a respected elder and a powerful peacemaker though not necessarily a pacifist in the weak sense of the word. Here’s one of my favourite stories from the Torres Strait. It refers to the mighty Paul Sagiba, who is a descendent in the linage of King Dabad of Erub, now Darnley Island and the cutting edge of forgiveness. In his early days Paul was a “bad” man. Of pure warrior heritage, he was not one to be messed with and his reputation preceded him. As he matured he turned to Christianity, rather, the words and lifestyle of Jesus whom he considered a living example and his guidance to a spiritual path, though he understood well the old Zogo spirituality and could easily discern things. He understood the value of Zazen and having been a pearl diver, had much dealings with the Japanese, Melanesians, Indonesians and others and no doubt had good opportunity to compare notes. Pearling luggers from the days of sail and diving helmets, the old way. His knees still bothered him from the days when Islanders were exploited in deep waters for long hours.
Despite a history of few mild cases of the bends, Paul was an awesome fighter and in his bad old days before I knew him, I heard that it finally took a dozen men with truncheons to stop him. Like his ancestors before him he did not play fight, preferred peaceful interaction, but was unstoppable when necessary. In the end, he was banned from boxing because he was a quick knockout man, even with multiple attackers. The few times I saw him in action he fought well, he didn’t just box. But his greatest exploits shall forever be in the times I knew him, and before that, in the realms of peacemaking and building bridges between people, cultures, nations, races and healing many wounds to prevent avoidable conflicts. Paul was a carpenter/builder, a fisherman, a farmer, a friend of the people, a lover and in his own way a sage.
The following happened in 1971. I write this as a tribute to Paul Charlie Sagiba (1932-2003) a great leader of men, teacher, mentor, spiritual force and indescribable human being of uncommon caliber and the only real father I ever knew. Because of him, my Aikido gained context. This tale recounts the only time I knew him to seem to “lose” a fight and yet still convert this into a win for all concerned. It taught me that only a warrior of integrity can make the conditions for lasting peace. To have the power and to use it wisely.
Blessed Are The Peacemakers
It was Christmas Eve at Tamwai Town, Thursday Island. People were gathering to feast. Some young men, a small distance away, began to argue. Then it escalated into a brawl between the leaders of the two major gangs of the region, the Badu Boys and the Half Castes. People noticed and brought it to Paul’s attention beseeching him to put a stop to it. They always expected him to resolve altercations because he was good at it. In no great hurry, he quietly approached the two “boys”.
“Come on boys,” he said. “It’s Christmas, people are gathering to feast and be happy. We don’t want any trouble.” In the dark they did not know who it was, or with Paul this would have been more than sufficient. His reputation from the “bad old days” still preceded him. “Fuck off, old man. This is our business!”, one young thug replied. (Paul was 39 and in his prime) Now Paul never shied from trouble. Instead of leaving, he kept walking toward them. Lowering his voice to warning tone, “If you’re going to cause trouble why don’t you go somewhere and settle it between you? Somewhere away from the women and children.” I think he made an error of judgement and assumed this would be enough but neither recognised his voice the effect was wasted. He was out of range for a fist or a knife, but in a flash, one who had removed his belt, closed the gap sufficiently to unleash the concealed belt in the dark, swinging it hard. The buckle got Paul in the eye and surprised him. The others from both sides turned on him now. In the flurry they got him to ground and kicked him briefly, then suddenly bolted. Had they stayed, even without our backup, knowing Paul he would have got the better of them. Before we could cover the distance the bastards were gone in the night. They had not knifed him. These were bad men.
Paul was OK. He got up and grunted. He is an Islander of the old generation. It would take more than a few kicks to phase him. We put ice on his eye and got on with the feast. For him the incident was minor and the Christmas celebration proceeded as normal with only a slight dampener. In the old days, he would have sought them out and trounced them. If relatives joined to protect them he would have come back with sticks and or friends until the whole tribe if necessary was taught a lesson. This was the very necessary old ‘payback’ method of reparation commonly accepted in the region from the northern Gulf of Carpenteria to Niugini and Bouganville and most of Melanesia. In lieu of trade or exchange only war would determine outcomes. Not so long ago, failure to re-establish a clear dominance would mean he was fair game and his land, assets and womenfolk would be at risk. More attacks would then follow in waves. Kindness would be seen as weakness. But these were different times. The missionaries had brought Jesus and his teachings. (London Missionary Society 1871) He would forgive. Or would he?
We celebrated Christmas, but it was not long before informers emerged from the woodwork to provide the names of those who had dishonoured a respected elder. In the old days, these would be dead men walking and the belief that this was still so, was even now strong. So much so when the culprits realised what they had done, they immediately went underground. Hiding for their lives. One day, some months later, we were at sea again, as usual. That was our profession, fishing. A good life. The competition appeared to be fishing in our waters, and it was time to negotiate before things got rotten. It was not long before Paul and the captain of the other boat spoke on the radio for a while and decided to meet and discuss sharing and distributing rights to fishing spots. The elders cared about the people and always sought ways to negotiate disputes first and foremost. That has been the way since time immemorial. Most of the time diplomacy worked best. Among our crew the word was already out that the guy who had “buckled” Paul in the eye was on the other boat as crew. Our crew were convinced we would see a killing.
There was a murmuring among the crew. Murder on the high seas was not uncommon in the region. Sharks remove all evidence. And the big white pointers were around a lot lately. A delegation, with Paul, made their way in an outboard dingy to the other, bigger boat. I was boat cook at the time cooking for the crew of 45 odd. Paul instructed me to cook extra because we were going to have guests. The other captain was a “friend” of Paul, another elder from the Western Islands. In the old days before the missionaries, these two groups were traditional enemies, but would form alliances if troubles erupted with Niugini. Huge wars were fought. Now it was more friendly rivalry. As was his way, Paul showed his power by visiting the other boat first with only a handful of offsiders. Thereby, he also set a precedent and his return invitation could not then be declined without a major insult no-one could risk. By now the crews of both boats were convinced that the fate of the “Buckle” was sealed. Under the circumstances, if their own elder gave the word, they would even do the dark deed themselves. And never speak a word of it. “Accident at sea” would be the official version. No-one wanted Palm Island for life. (Prison for Aboriginals and Islanders compliments of “The Protector” from the white government.). This guy had wronged a highly respected elder, a great fighter and leader of the people and potentially compromised a longstanding truce between two tribes. Anything was now possible.
Time ticked slowly. I cooked double, with much extra for the expected guests as is custom. The crew began to speculate on the fate of “Buckle.” They were certain they would witness a major incident. After a long, protracted period, two dingys returned. I later heard from the crew who accompanied Paul that he immediately spotted the “Buckle” who was trying to hide and just as they were about to return, pointed to him and said, “Bring him too.” They did. In the old culture, when two chieftains who were friends made an alliance like this, such little men as had committed misdemeanours became expendable. To all means and intent “Buckle” was now a dead man walking. And he knew it. Have you ever seen a black man become white with fear? It is a chilling shade of grey, never to be forgotten. And the smell of fear which exudes from one upon whom the death sentence has been pronounced is equally as terrible. They arrived. We ate.
“Buckle” did not seem hungry, but he ate. To not eat food offered in the customs of the region, is a supreme insult which could have speeded up the inevitable. The now pallid “Buckle” tried not to show his fear by shrinking in a corner. But he could not hide his involuntary shaking with terror. “Eat, eat plenty!” Paul welcomed as is the custom. If he was aware of it, he ignored the other man’s distress. Surely he must have noticed. Everyone else had. I too, did not feel too endeared toward “Buckle”. He had assaulted my father, sensei and mentor and I was reluctant to offer food to such a one. Paul got in quick with cordial and friendly, “Feed him too, feed him plenty. Feed our guests, Nev.” So I did. In the old customs this could often mean poison. Often just to paralyse so the victim could witness their own slow execution. It was rumoured that some of these ‘customs’ were still practised in secret. “Buckle” knew this and tried to hide his terrified shaking but he could not. It got worse. Nor the skin pallor which gave away his terror. I started to feel sorry. Everyone pretended not to notice, but you could have cut the mood with a knife. It hung in the air like death. “Buckle” was too afraid to get up a leave in case it would be construed as an insult. He wanted to vomit with fear but kept swallowing. And forcing himself to eat. And looking downward all the time.
We ate and waited.
For many long hours after that, the captains planned and negotiated, sometimes looking at maps, speaking privately and out of earshot, occasionally glancing our way. It went on and on. We were bored and wanted to work. Suspicion about the discussion arose among the crew. In their minds, it was not a matter of, if, but when and how. Perhaps the captains were plotting the disposal of “Buckle” among them. This petty miscreant, a known bully when backed up by his gang. Everyone, even his workmates were now distancing themselves from him. The crew expected a murder. Occasionally someone gesticulated, trying not to be too obvious. We found ourselves wondering what it was the captains were were discussing and why it was taking so long. Everyone assumed it was more than just fishing rights. The tension was becoming more palpable with each long minute. Also, it was getting cold as the wind rose and we wanted to move, to work, not just sit like this which was most unusual. But we sat. And waited. The elders are not to be questioned.
The water was starting to get choppy and we would miss our catch for the day. This waiting, and the mounting cold simply added to the tension, but of course nobody dared comment other than to whisper among themselves of “Buckles” impending fate. “Buckle” knew it was his end and he would soon be meeting his maker. I think by now he was resigned to die. But not entirely. He still wanted to live. There was no escape as the waters were shark infested and we were far out in the Coral Sea outside the Barrier Reef, in the great Pacific Ocean. Surely his captain had sold “Buckle” out just to keep the peace. “Buckle” was outnumbered just a little more than a tad. He simply squatted in a corner, alone, trembling continuously. He looked like the loneliest man on earth at that time and you could feel the dark cloud in the air reflecting the approaching storm. After many hours of long “island time” covering all manner of hard discussion, negotiations and endless cups of tea, the talks finished. Paul got up. The other captain got up as well. Whatever they had decided together would be final and accepted between them. These are men of their word. They appeared satisfied.
With a demeanour of dark severity upon their faces, they began to slowly walk our way, “Here it comes”, said the eyes of the crew. Some murmured it. “Buckle,” just sat there with resignation all over him, unable to make eye contact, looking down. He was a broken man. He had accepted his fate and was almost unconscious with fear in a lather of profuse cold sweat. The other captain and crew got into their dingy and were about to cast off to return to their boat. “Buckle,” remained frozen in the same spot looking downward still as buckets sweat poured out of him dripping onto the deck. He was sitting in his own wet patch, a picture of unimaginable misery.
Suddenly… Paul moved toward him… Flashing bright white teeth contrasting with his dark skin Paul smiled warmly at “Buckle,” simultaneously detached and compassionate as only a true warrior of ancient traditions can. It was like the sun coming out unexpectedly from the behind the blackest storm cloud. “Aren’t you going back? We don’t plan to keep you here,” he quipped. “Buckle’s” eyes and mouth opened in surprise and he came to life so unexpectedly I think he even surprised himself. He took the cue and just as the others were casting off, quickly leaped into the dingy, nearly falling into the shark infested waters, trying not to show the fear that Paul might suddenly turn and change his mind. Had he fallen in, the “prediction” would have come true and with talk it would have been attributed to the “warrior’s power”. Fortunately for all it did not. They left.
We all began closing down for the night and prepared for tomorrow’s work. It was getting dark and stormy.
Months later, with a full catch aboard, we moored at Thursday Island again. Buckle was on the wharf waiting. He had heard we were coming and had decided to adopt this elder. “Hi, ‘uncle’ Paul, “ he greeted. “Can I help with anything, carry or run an errand?” As it did with Paul, most things ended in warm friendship, the past put behind and sacrificed to a positive focus of a rewarding future. From that day on the boat, “Buckle” had become a changed man. He had quit drinking and drugs, given up gangs, even tried to reform the others. He quit molesting the island girls as gang boys tend to do. He had also taken up a course in carpentry, joined a church and was planning to marry. From that day hence “Buckle” became a good citizen and never looked back. He would often be seen mending the homes of the same grandmothers he used to steal from. He was now a protector. The new year saw a new “Buckle” emerge. The old one had somehow died.
Paul said nothing more about the incident. The lesson having been learnt in the fullness of spirit, the matter was dropped. He preferred to sit around a campfire and joke and tell stories of ancient adventures making people laugh and cry, remember times long gone and learn of ways almost lost. Most of all he loved to see people safe and happy. And stories tell of the leadership of Barunah, Paul’s father, another powerful peacemaker and navigator of sea and souls, and each generation of chieftains all the way back to King Dabad himself as well as being the mightiest of warriors, were as magnanimous as Solomon, thereby guaranteeing survival for all, in this sometimes terrible domain. This and so much more I witnessed during this most transforming of apprenticeships I was fortunate to endure, survive and enjoy.
The privilege of association with these spiritual giants in a realm of intensity and raw nature has indelibly seared itself upon my soul. They lived, and still do, in the hearts of many and my own. I lived and dwelt in that unique domain with them and still do. To live a life blessed by power and compassion combined: and to be able to witness it in action and to learn great things not written in books but in living example, is worth more than all the paper in the world. Notwithstanding, I remain my own person and do not hang my foibles on any supposed ‘lineage,’ rather take full responsibility for navigating the course of my life and remain thankful to God for the rest.
© Copyright Nev Sagiba 2003
“The supreme excellence is not to win a hundred victories in a hundred battles.
The supreme excellence is to subdue your enemies without fighting them.”