Interviewsand Articles


A Conversation with Zoshi: Spirit Carver

by Richard Whittaker, Mar 2, 2013



My introduction to Zoshi came via Ron Nakasone, a professor at Stanford and the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley. It happened one evening at Kallan Nishimoto’s Flytrap Studios in Oakland, California. As Nishimoto says, “Zoshi is one of the few artists who lives and breathes his spirituality into his work seamlessly and completely.” Ron had confided to me that besides being an artist, Zoshi is also a Buddhist priest. I felt I was entering into another world.
     That evening at Flytrap Studios I felt something intangible I hadn’t found in other art events. Zoshi's work crossed boundaries. It was folk and traditional Buddhist, and contemporary western art, too. 
     That evening was full of surprises, a bento box dinner, Taiko drumming and a play by Zoshi's daughter-- who I'm guessing was perhaps 10 years old. Afterwards Zoshi addressed a room of maybe seventy-five of us. Listening, I thought maybe there is such a thing as a spirit carver.
     What would it take, I wondered, to get to know this artist a little better? Asking Ron was all I needed to do. A few months later, I found myself a passenger in his van with his wife, Irene, an expert koto player; Ron’s colleage Ed Yeh, GTU professor emeritus; and a young Thai Buddhist Studies graduate student. We were all headed for Zoshi’s home and studio in Sebastopol, California.

     Before I turned the recorder on, Zoshi asked me how long I’d been doing the magazine [works & conversations]. He said it was good that I was helping artists... 
Richard Whittaker: Yes. Most artists have a hard time.
Zoshi Takayuki :  Yes. Yes. Exactly.
RW:  You’ve been doing wood carving for how long?
Zoshi:  That Buddha is first Buddha I carved.
RW:  That little one?
Zoshi:  Yes. [he brings it over] I never carve before. But I wanted Buddha statue. I look for a long time. I tried to buy a good one, but expensive. I made this in 1981-’82. In 1981 I came to the United States. I joined peace march. I walked from Los Angeles to New York. About seven people walked whole distance. I was one of them. I find this piece of broken wood in Kansas. And I carved it. When I come back to California I carved this part [the stand].
RW:  That was your first piece?
Zoshi:  First piece. But in my brain I hold imagination of Buddha. I saw so many Buddhas in Japan and I wanted to get my own Buddha statue. So I just carved. I had already picture in my brain.
RW:  Can I hold this? This is beautiful.
Zoshi:  This is walnut, black walnut. 
RW:  What did you use to carve this?
Zoshi:  [laughs] I brought a couple of knives from Japan and a dry bonito. Japanese people use dry bonito for cooking many way. Dry bonito is very hard so I use knife to shave off thin piece and chew it.
RW:  I see. So did you get the Buddha’s expression just how you wanted it?
Zoshi:  [laughs] First time. So how to carve that? It took a long time. This piece changed my life. After, I was very happy. I made my own Buddha statue. But after, somebody would ask me, “Could you carve one like this?” And also carving for me—I love the carving. It’s more focusing.
RW:  Is it a meditative kind of process?
Zoshi:  Yes. And for my character, carving is very good.  Because sometimes I have to forget everything because of carving time. I have an electric bill or an insurance bill, that ordinary stuff. It’s easy to forget—just keep carving. That is good! Or it’s bad—because I’m married and have family and stuff [laughs]. But just focus carving. It’s not how everybody lives, but I can. This was done in 1982. So almost, let’s see…
RW:  That’s 31 years ago.
Zoshi:  Yes. After 1987 I just focus on carving. Before I work at Tassajara Bakery in San Francisco. I love baking.
RW:  But in 1987 you started carving full time?
Zoshi:  Yes. I moved to Napa.
RW:  Were you connected to any kind of a Zen practice?
Zoshi:  Yes. I met a great Buddhist monk when I came to San Francisco. When I was still in Japan, before I came to the United States, I go often to meditate at a Zen temple. I wanted to be a monk and I asked my teacher to take care of me, you know, like special ceremony to become monk. I didn’t show any carving to my teacher for a long time. You know, if I had time, I was carving like this. Then one day I brought him a carving. He said, “Okay, you don’t have to be a monk. You have to do this.”
RW:   When he saw your carving, he said this is what you have to do.
Zoshi:  Yes. Easy to say! But oh, how to? I worked in Tassajara Bakery a long time, but I really want to be a wood carver. But very difficult; how to get money? So one day I was kind of depressed and I stayed in bed. My friend call me, “Let’s go to Bob Dylan concert!” He already got tickets. “Come on!” I said, “No, I’m going to stay all day in the bed today. I tired.” But he said, “Come on!” So I went. It was in Greek Theater in Berkeley. So it start, music. I’m getting really excited and dancing! And suddenly, I got a vision. I live in Napa and the carving—I saw my future.
RW:  Wow.
Zoshi:  So I thought, okay, no more baking. If I was thinking I would figure out, this impossible! You know, just carving. But okay. No more figure out. I just took maybe a risky way. I move to Napa and rented a small, cheap space. And I just focus on carving.
RW:  So at the concert you saw this vision of what your life could be.
Zoshi:  Yes. I didn’t see that maybe very difficult to be involved with just carving. That’s why for long time I just struggled. But that vision made me just go. That is why I started. It’s kind of interesting. Always money is very difficult. No money, long time, you know. I have a cheap car, but no money to pay gas, so I can’t drive—that kind of situation for a long time. But little by little.
     First I tried to get the Buddha statue, because my life was—you know, my brother and my father commit suicide. So it was very difficult when I was young. I tried to survive. That time I start an interest in Buddhism. The Buddha statue for me is a very symbolically important object. I want to survive. That’s why I need a Buddha statue.
RW:  So the Buddha, what did he say? He came to show a way out of suffering.
Zoshi:  Yes. He teach a lot of different levels. My teacher helped me a lot at that time, how to see the world differently. Most of our suffering, we have a duality. So we separate good and bad. We always searching for the good side. But never can find because always, like asking for a piece of paper, please just give me one surface. I don’t need backside [laughs]. We only want the good side. We can’t separate. That was the Buddha’s teaching. So that made my eyes open bigger. I was never thinking that kind of style before. That’s got wisdom or some different way to see.
RW:  A search for some kind of equanimity. But that takes a meditation practice, doesn’t it?
Zoshi:  We need both. Buddhism is very intellectual, like a philosophy—a lot of it. But after that, we forget everything—the whole philosophy. At that time, meditation. So we need both.
RW:  Is the woodcarving like meditation for you?
Zoshi:  Maybe. But I don’t know how. If my life is very confusing, hard, emotionally difficult. If I start carving, yes, completely, my mind becomes very stable. So that is a big help.
RW:  I know another woodcarver who went through some big difficulties in his life. He had some demons. I asked him how he dealt with them. “I just go out and get to work,” he said.
Zoshi:  Ahhh. Exactly. Exactly. This is it. Long time, I wasn’t sure. Just I go to work. But now, I’m sure if I start work, it helps mind. It’s like a medicine for me, mind-medicine [laughs].
RW:  Have you come to a sensitivity with the wood after all these years, something you didn’t have when you started?
Zoshi:  Yes. I think so. Between that time and now, it’s very different how I see the wood. Now I see the wood more. Wood is already have a beauty. [points to a modest log, still with bark] This kind of wood, everybody see this just firewood, you know.
RW:  Yes. It looks like firewood.
Zoshi:  But for me, it is very, very possibility I can make something beauty. Already this one tell me; this one wants to be something. So I want to help. Before, I make it something.
RW:  You imposed your idea on the wood.
Zoshi: Yes. Wood want to be something. Okay, I help you. Like I sacrifice myself to the wood. Before, okay, I put my imagination into the wood. But now, this one tell me, “I want to be like this.” So now wood is more like master. I’m like servant or something, because more respect the wood.
    Last time I make a special statue for Oregon, you know, Eugene. I got a commission, so I carving Buddhas. I listen to this piece: okay, you want to be like this?
RW:  I see. So you let the wood tell you.
Zoshi: Yes. I never feel that before. Before, wood is just material. But now the situation is changed.
RW:  So now you might be out walking around and see a piece of wood and it’s speaking to you. Is that right?
Zoshi:  Yes. But not completely. Sometimes my imagination, some part I put in. But I try to listen more. I don’t know if this is just my imagination.
     One time very traditional Japanese musicians came. They use very old instruments, and I went to their concert, a very small concert. They use tzuzumi, old-style Japanese. Maybe the instrument want to make a good sound. That’s why the musician is like a service to the instrument. The instrument is more like the master. And after the concert, we had a chance to talk with the musicians. I said, “Your music is so beautiful, but at the end of the music, I saw your music instruments are more master, and you serve them. It is exactly the same for me.” They said, “Very, very old instruments, five hundred years old. So we are helped by them to make this good sound.” It’s like a service. So that’s kind of my feeling, little by little, with the wood.
RW:  That’s beautiful.
Zoshi:  Before, when I was working, I came home totally tired, but still I start carving until 2 or 3 a.m.. And why I keep doing? So I thought, yes, I like it, but not only like, it’s more than like—something like a prayer or sacrifice. So little by little that is how I understand something create. Carving, it took a long time, each piece. I was tired, but I still keep doing. Means not for money, not for shows.
RW:  Would you say that the carving is almost like a process of prayer? 
Zoshi:  Yes. Because the purpose is not for money.  Well, I like beautiful stuff, but not only beauty. I don’t know—maybe expression of myself. I have a body like any human being, but Buddhist teaching is that our essence is beyond that. To be ourself is to be a Buddha. It’s like a bigger body, like the whole cosmos.
     That’s why Buddha should be make highest beauty. That’s why in temples Buddha should be completely beautiful. But real self is higher than beauty. Reality is more than beauty. That is the Buddhist teaching.
RW:  With the mono-print I was looking at earlier you said it was about the idea of a body being part of the whole cosmos. So is that what you were talking about?
Zoshi:  Yes. That’s why I putting clouds in sometimes. In Zen teaching our self is equal to whole cosmos. So I never start out to be an artist. Carving is very good feeling. That’s why. I keep the feeling.
RW:  When you were in San Francisco and working at the Tassajara Bakery, did you ever meet Shunryu Suzuki?
Zoshi:  No. That time already he died. But I met his wife. We are good friends at the Zen Center.
RW:  You were in Africa. Tell me about that.
Zoshi:  It was 1993-’94. My friend from the Peace Corps went there. She said, “Come over! Africa so interesting.” At that time telephone Africa very difficult. At time I pretty crazy. I want to see Africa. I plan to be there only three months. But it was sooo interesting. So I extend and extend. I stay eight months, but I get very sick. I don’t want to go back, but that’s why I go back. I worked with Peace Corps people, help for craftsman.
RW:  You helped craftsmen?
Zoshi:  Yes. Peace Corps people help with design— they make beautiful—but so little more easy to sell. But I learned from them, too. It’s a very hard lifestyle. No electricity. And water is very difficult.
RW:  What were the most memorable things for you?
Zoshi:  Most is lifestyle, time. If here, oh, I have to stop because cut time up in pieces. Africa completely whole time I can use. Lots of time sketching in Africa. Here, I never sketch so much [gets sketchbook].
RW:  Look at this. Did you take any art lessons or did you just start?
Zoshi:  Just in high school I take some art classes.
RW:  Ron tells me you get commissions and that a lot of your work goes to Japan.
Zoshi:  Yes. Japan also not many people doing carving. But a lot of factories make Buddhist statues.
RW:  I see. When you’re carving, how important is it for you to get the expression on the face just right?
Zoshi:  That connects deeply to myself. That part I can’t control, just show. That’s why it’s so interesting, good or bad. So in Africa I teaching carving class, many different people. Each person makes own style. I have a lot of African sculpture. Is so beautiful.
RW:  [looking through Zoshi’s African sketchbook again] Beautiful. This must have been enjoyable. Was it?
Zoshi:  Yes [laughs]. I just go there and sketch. So little by little I very lovely sketching. First time I find sketching so fun. But I come back here and I don’t do anything. You know?
RW:  Now you were walking from Los Angeles to New York. Why did you decide to do that?
Zoshi:  That is very coincidence. When I was in Japan, Zen temple is across from my house. So in morning before I go to work, I go there and sit in meditation. And sometimes I helping in temple business. One day the master say next year special event walking through United States. If you interested, I can introduce you. So that is, wow! Because I dreaming I want to go to United States. In Japan I have a hair salon because my mom have six hair salons. She very good businesswoman.
RW:  She had six hair salons?
Zoshi:  Yes. I tried many different jobs. Always never success. Always I’m feeling I’m a failure. But one time, my mom maybe one store she give up. So I asked, maybe I try hair salon? She say, okay. So that for me is wonderful. I like it. For about eight years I work in that kind of business. But I find I not business person. So much work, always. Then my mom find a big hair salon inside a department store. We put in a lot of money and I have a lot of responsibility. I go there with no windows and I think, no, not my prayers. At that time I feel my lifestyle getting very tight—a lot of pressure. But inside dream, I want to go United States—you know, searching freedom. But I had to pay back a lot of loans. So five years I work hard and pay back completely all money. I want to save store and then go United States. My mom is not happy, but she say, okay. At that time, the temple monk tell me about peace march next year in United States protesting nuclear testing. Peace march to get signatures to send to United Nations. That is our purpose.
RW:  At that time you were still in Japan?
Zoshi:  Yes. At that time my brother commit suicide. Older brother dies, so suddenly my mom says, no—because in Japan character, the older man should always take care of the family. I second son so, before, I have a good freedom. But my brother die and suddenly my situation is changed; everything getting so hard. But I, please, one year break. My mom say, okay. So I joined walk.
RW:  Your mother gives you permission to go for one year. Then you go to Los Angeles for the march?
Zoshi:  Yes. Walk eight months. And I carve this [pointing to the Buddha figure nearby]. And little time I stay in California.
RW:  Then you went back to Japan?
Zoshi:  Yes. And when come back my mother, no, you are my only son. And like I say, our house is very close to the temple. So my mother accept, okay, I can be a monk. Maybe if I didn’t go to United States, I follow that plan. But I come to United States and I get so much exciting experience. I was still young. Thirty. And I start carving Buddha. On peace march I saw so many stuff, nuclear missile base.
RW:  You saw the bases?
Zoshi:  We go there and we chanting. And little by little I think—missile created by human being. I think how much kill in one moment, that kind of missile. That’s the purpose of a missile. That’s a terrible idea.
     In Buddhism teaching our mind have ten different levels. Top one is Buddha, bottom one is hell. So I thought missile make a hell, that kind of mind. How to say this? Well, I am human being; I the same. I have also a hell. Everybody have. So what is the highest level? I thought Buddha, also a human, create Buddhism. This is more peace, or more pray, or more wisdom—more highest mind create.
     In Japan, lots of Buddha statues. But when I was in Japan I don’t feel is something special. You know, unconsciously we receiving peace vibrations from Buddha statues. In United States, we need more peace vibrations. Missile is like destroy vibrations, you know? Symbolically is destroy vibrations. Buddha statue is peace vibrations. Someday overcome.
RW:  You mean the peace vibrations might be able to overcome the destructive vibrations some day?
Zoshi:  Yes. But you know peace march we are more voice. We are shouting—Peace! Peace! But this Buddha vibration more strongly attracts somebody’s brain. So that is why one day I start to carve the Buddhas. I have the time. And when walking, my mind getting very simple.
RW:  During all those long hours of walking?
Zoshi:  Yes. Because in Japan I was always searching something, and always deep inside, there was some anger. But walking eight months, inside getting very— something getting clear what I want to do. That is when I start carving Buddha statue. In Japan busy time. I never can do that, carving Buddha. So that situation, walking—completely faced to myself a long time, walking. At that time I am getting clear. I think ahead. Okay, I carving more Buddhas—another way of peace march. No more shouting.
     Because on peace march, inside not peace. Always fighting. Like always shouting, “Peace!” And sometimes people there don’t want peace because working for weapons company. So they are sometimes throw stone. I got beer bottle hit my head. Sometimes car come and they throw stones and bottles. So then if we throw against them it start war.
RW:  Yes.
Zoshi:  So I thought—without words, but with vibrations is stronger. So if inside we have peace I think it is stronger, most create peace. Because after peace march, there was so much fighting, I feeling unclear.
     One time in a book I find—yes!—this answered my whole question. The book said one person try to put leather over the whole world so any person could go barefoot. That’s imagination. But if we put on shoes, wherever we go we are on leather. Just small piece of leather fit on foot. This whole world completely make peace is impossible idea. And if inside, no peace, and try to cover outside with peace that’s why always frustration. That way never can make peace. But one person quiet, inside make peace, he see whole world peacefully. Most people focus on outside world. Outside world is our mind’s reflection.
RW:  That’s beautiful. Can I ask one more question about your carving?
Zoshi:  Yes. You know, I carve more than Buddhas. But if I make something different it always has same vibration, same feel. Not only Buddha statue.
RW:  Yes. You make many different carvings. But you have this very large carved figure outside, maybe seven or eight feet tall. What is that about?
Zoshi:  About six years ago I got commission. I went to Japan and we talked. That figure, a monk dreamed it. This is very unusual statue.
RW:  That figure came from a monk’s dream?
Zoshi:  Yes. So I came back and three months I working on this piece. Then they wanted to see how the process was going. So I sent photo. They say, “Oh, no! Sword left hand!” So I have to stop. I have to find another wood. I carve, and it’s finished. I send it to Japan. Figure extend right hand. If person take hand, then okay. If not take hand, head cut off.
RW:  Wow. Do you think you’ll do anything further with that?
Zoshi:  Yes. If I see, I want to finish.
RW:  You’re waiting to see what it wants to become.
Zoshi:  Yes [laughs]. Maybe I do soon.
A few days after our interview, Zoshi sent me the following:
I have been living 63 years. So I have so many kinds good or difficult exprience in this life. But same time I got a lot of impressive experience. I saw great movies, books, art, music, people, nature. Sometimes I get deep emotion from movie, art or music. And when I was young I keep, stay same feeling long time. 
     It seems from since I was young keep depositing a lot of impressions, inspiration, a stir, affection, emotion into my mind. So it’s like I have a bank in my mind, but this bank almost full up with so many emotions of beauty.
     Now it’s time for withdraw all my experience from bank in my mind for expression. For me it difficult use words. My experiences are put into color and shape. That is much more easy for me. So when I’m carving something unconsciously oozing all kinds emotion from my experience. This is very fun for me because I can reconfirm my emotional experience by color and shape.
     I’ll keep getting experience until I die and I’ll keep expressing until I die. Without this experience of emotion I can’t keep working. If I can’t feel any emotion in my life, I’ll stop any work. It seems this is the death of creation.

About the Author

Richard Whittaker is the founding editor of works & conversations and West Coast editor of Parabola magazine   


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