I had heard about this story before, but never from someone who was there. Stanley Pranin of Aikido Journal, recently re-published an interview with Shoji Nishio Sensei from 1983. He told this story about Koichi Tohei Sensei training at the Iwama Dojo:
“Mr. Tohei went to Hawaii in 1953. On his return, he brought back a leather coat which was impossible to obtain at that time in Japan. It had fringes like the ones you see in western movies. He had a leather coat when it was impossible even to obtain leather shoes… I really thought it was amazing. Then, that coat was skillfully stolen. That was what had happened when I turned up for training. I saw that all of the uchideshi had been made to sit in seiza and Mr. Tohei was shouting something. Then I heard that Tohei Sensei’s coat had been stolen. At that time Mr. Noguchi, Mr. Genta Okumura and Mr. Sunadomari were some of the uchideshi.
Then O-Sensei appeared asking, “What’s up?” When Mr. Sunadomari explained what had happened O-Sensei responded: “Oh, it was stolen, was it?” (Laughter) Then he came into the dojo. Tohei Sensei also sat in seiza because O-Sensei entered. O-Sensei started to walk around them. We were really wondering what he was going to say. What he said was: “You’re the one to blame, Tohei.” Then, he disappeared. Tohei sat silently for a while. Then he, too, disappeared. Everybody was relieved and started training. (Laughter)
After practice, I was leaving for home and ran into O-Sensei who was on his way to the bathroom. I went up to him and said, “O-Sensei!”. He said, “Ooh!” I asked, “A few minutes ago when Tohei Sensei had his coat stolen, you said he was the one at fault. Why did you say that?”
He answered, “Don’t you understand why? Those who practice budo shouldn’t have that kind of spirit (kokoro). One shouldn’t show off things which people desire to have. You can show off things you can give, but otherwise you shouldn’t. Poor man, he took the coat because he wanted it. However, by taking it, he became a thief. It’s all right to have the coat stolen, but he was made a thief. Stealing is a bad thing, but the man whose coat was stolen committed the original sin. He created the occasion for an opening (suki) in the man. As a budoka (martial artist), that’s bad.”
And this in turn reminded me of a similar Zen tale:
“When Bankei held his seclusion weeks of meditation, pupils from many parts of Japan came to attend. During one of these gatherings a pupil was caught stealing. The matter was reported to Bankei with the request that the culprit be expelled. Bankei ignored the case.
Later the pupil was caught in a similar act, and again Bankei disregarded the matter. This angered the other pupils, who drew up a petition asking for the dismissal of the thief, stating that otherwise they would leave in a body.
When Bankei had read the petition he called everyone before him. ‘You are wise brothers,’ he told them. ‘You know what is right and what is not right. You may go somewhere else to study if you wish, but this poor brother does not even know right from wrong. Who will teach him if I do not? I am going to keep him here even if all the rest of you leave.’
A torrent of tears cleansed the face of the brother who had stolen. All desire to steal had vanished.”
[From Zen Flesh, Zen Bones compiled by Paul Reps]
It is not known what happened to Tohei Sensei’s coat, or the thief who took it.