Making Footprints Not Blueprints

S07 #07 - What a kite can tell us about the making of a modern, creative, free-spirituality or religion (“jiyū shūkyō”) - A thought for the day

October 28, 2023 Andrew James Brown/Caute Season 7 Episode 7
Making Footprints Not Blueprints
S07 #07 - What a kite can tell us about the making of a modern, creative, free-spirituality or religion (“jiyū shūkyō”) - A thought for the day
Show Notes Transcript

The full text of this podcast can be found in the transcript of this edition or at the following link:

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The Cambridge Unitarian Church's Sunday Service of Mindful Meditation can be found at this link:
"New Heaven", written by Andrew J. Brown and played by Chris Ingham (piano), Paul Higgs (trumpet), Russ Morgan (drums) and Andrew J. Brown (double bass) 

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A short thought for the day” offered to the Cambridge Unitarian Church as part of the Sunday Service of Mindful Meditation

During August, whilst working on translations of essays by the twentieth-century Japanese Unitarian and advocate of a creative, free-spirituality or religion, Imaoka Shin’ichirō-sensei (1881-1988), I came across a short speech called, “Know Thyself,” given in 1978 to the first-year students of the Seisoku High School (正則学院) where he was Principal. At one point in it, he asked his students a rhetorical question: “Have you ever experienced flying a kite?” and he goes on to point out that: “There’s an opposition between the direction of the wind and the force pulling the kite string, but it’s precisely because of these oppositional forces that the kite flies perfectly. Human relationships are the same.”

Yes, indeed, and this immediately brought back to mind a short story by Somerset Maugham (1874-1965)  called “The Kite” of which I am very fond, and which, in 1948, along with three other stories, was adapted for the screen in a successful British black and white film called “Quartet.” 

In this story, young Herbert Sunbury, portrayed by George Cole, has always loved flying kites, a passion shared with his parents. When Herbert decides to marry Betty, tension arises due to his mother’s disapproval and Betty’s embarrassment over Herbert’s kite-flying, which she sees as childish. To maintain marital harmony, Herbert agrees to abandon his passion. However, after a while, he’s tempted by an unfinished kite design of his and begins secretly to work on it again with his mother and father. Betty discovers his deception, leading to an argument and Herbert moving back to his parents’ house. In a fit of rage, Betty destroys his new kite, prompting Herbert to cut off financial support and, in consequence, he’s imprisoned. A prison visitor learns of Herbert’s predicament, organizes his release, and also visits Betty to suggest one way she can save the marriage. The story concludes, as perhaps you can imagine, with a reconciled Herbert and Betty flying a kite together on the local common.

Although Maugham’s story can initially look extremely light-weight and inconsequential, to my mind it’s a rather beautiful and simple illustration of something very fundamental about how the world works, both physically and psycho-spiritually. Something Imaoka-sensei also clearly saw and sought to pass on to his young students. It reveals to us in a very easy-to-understand way that oppositional forces must be in appropriate balance so that, not only can kites take off and fly, but so too can any human relationship or set of relationships. 

Anyway, once Maugham’s story was back in my imagination, I began to wonder about how the same metaphor might be extended to an entire religious tradition? So, imagine my surprise and delight when only a couple of weeks ago I came across the following point made by the important Japanese philosopher, Nishitani Keiji (1900-1990) in a talk given in 1971 to a Shin Buddhist Association in Kyoto. In it, he begins to address the question of how to revive the fast-fading fortunes of Buddhism in modern, highly industrialised and secularized Japan. He said:

“Like a kite caught in a tree, we must try to fly it once again from the beginning. It is quite important for us to ponder how to raise it higher and higher, once we have been able to make it fly again. On the one hand, when a strong wind blows, the power of tradition must be put to work. But on the other, we cannot fly a kite if its tail is too heavy. It is of the utmost importance to strike a balance between these two inclinations; toward modernization and change, and toward tradition” (On Buddhism, SUNY Press, 2006, p. 36).

Now, it powerfully strikes me that what is true of Buddhism in Japan is also true of our own liberal, free religious tradition here in the UK, that which comes from the Unitarian movement. Today, it, too, is like a kite firmly caught in a tree and so I think we can learn something very important from Nishitani’s words and also from some of the reflections made upon them by modern scholars such as Robert E. Carter. In the following quotation Carter is, like Nishitani, talking specifically about Buddhism but, as you listen, don’t his words address exactly the same issues we have been struggling with in the last few decades?   

“Buddhism . . . is like a kite caught in a tree, away from the winds of change. Isolated from secularization and modernization, technology and science, religion generally has been sealed away from change, leaving a huge gap between secular society and religion. The ‘inside’ of religion has had little to do with the ‘out-side,’ the secular world. And the secular world has been increasingly uninterested in religion. A central theme of these lectures is finding a way to bridge the gap, and to make religion, and Buddhism in particular, relevant to the modern world” (On Buddhism, SUNY Press, 2006, p. 5).

And this week, looking back over the past three to four years, it began to strike me that the kite metaphor allows me to map and better understand our recent history together. And I hope it does the same for you.

As the pandemic began we, along with every other Unitarian church, became acutely aware that our tradition’s kite was caught firmly in a tree and was now in danger of being torn completely apart. Fortunately, however, during that difficult time, here in Cambridge, we worked hard to try to untangle it and, in my opinion, we got it back safely on the ground and began to take a good, long look at the damage, and assess what could be done to begin fixing the thing. 

Then, with our kite on the ground, we began to find ways to re-tension its spine and spar and remake its sail. It strikes me that this was what we were mostly doing in the round of the three life of the church conversations we had, which helped us prepare to resume face-to-face meetings at the end of lockdown. 

And thirdly, having untangled and repaired the main body of our kite it seems to me that all the recent work we have been doing — particularly in connection with Imaoka-sensei’s creative, free-religion or free-spirituality, what he called “jiyū shūkyō” (自由宗教 see note at the end of this piece) — all this has been the equivalent of remaking the tail of our newly restored kite. For Nishitani’s metaphor to work for us, it’s vitally important to be absolutely clear that, although it is deeply connected to the Unitarian tradition, what Imaoka-sensei’s thought and practise offers us is a tail that doesn’t hold us down by being too heavy, but one frees and steadies our kite, giving it a strong, stable sense of direction in the extremely strong winds that are blowing everywhere around us at the moment; not only in the literal winds related to climate change, but also in the strong, and extremely illiberal cultural winds of ethnic, religious and political conflict. We really do need such a tail because, as Nishitani realised, any kite without the power of tradition it will simply dance about wildly, get tangled in tree branches or be dashed to the ground. But, at the same time, a kite will simply not fly if its tail is too heavy. 

Imaoka-sensei’s “jiyū shūkyō”, seems to me to be just the kind of tail our creative, free spirituality needs. As I have just mentioned, it’s neither too heavy to weigh us down, nor too insignificantly light to be able to steer us effectively and stably into the wind. I remain convinced that, if we are willing consciously to attach it to the struts, spars and sail that is all of us as a congregation, it is a tail that will help us to rise up and fly confidently in these storm-lashed times. 

I cannot but help think that getting such a kite up in the air, one emblazoned with our motto, “We need not think alike to love alike,” is one beautiful way to help more people see that, despite the storms everywhere, there are gentle, loving and genuinely free ways to be together in the world. 

But that larger hope aside, it is clear that kite flying brought Herbert and Betty back together and gave them a new, shared sense of purpose for the future. And so I also hope that kite flying of the metaphorical kind I have just outlined might also help to bring us back together with a new, shared, creative, free spiritual sense of purpose for the future.

Time will tell and, maybe, just maybe, I’ll see you on the local common sometime soon . . .



Just to remind you, a few weeks ago drawing on Imaoka-sensei’s own writings, I defined “jiyū shūkyō” (自由宗教) as something in which,

“ . . . together, in community, people are able freely to interpret critically various religious beliefs and claims, can find freedom from rigid, authoritarian hierarchies, can freely incorporate diverse religious elements into their own and the community’s faith and practise and, as I so often talk about, can claim the all important freedom to be tomorrow what we are not today.”