Interviewsand Articles


A Conversation with Ron Nakasone: Form and Formless Form

by Richard Whittaker, Feb 25, 2016




photo: Jerry Hsu

One evening, I found myself giving the Reverend Heng Sure, abbot of the Berkeley Buddhist Monastery, a ride home from a talk he’d given. In the course of conversation, and knowing my interest in talking with artists, he asked me if I’d heard of Ron Nakasone.  Actually, a couple of years earlier someone else had mentioned Dr. Nakasone to me and suggested I might want to meet him. Heng Sure agreed, telling me that Ron was a master of large-brush calligraphy, a Buddhist priest and happened to have been his PhD advisor at the G.T.U. Would I like an introduction?
I would.
     That was how, a few weeks later, I found myself having coffee across a little table from Dr. Nakasone, or was it Reverend Nakasone? In any case, this amiable stranger put me at ease right away.
     A few days after our conversation, Dr. Nakasone sent me the draft of an introduction to a book he was working on about the topography of Huayan Buddhist thought. A question he addressed is how does one make intelligible to others certain moments of realization, or of seeing? As we’d talked over coffee, he’d touched on this question in terms of the struggle of the artist.
     At least a year had passed since our conversation over coffee. And in the meantime, I’d published a fascinating interview that his former student at the G.T.U., Peter Doebler, had done with Ron about his practice of the art of sho, or calligraphy [works & conversations #31, Jan. 2016].
     I thought it would be interesting to have a broader conversation with Dr. Nakasone and one afternoon we met at his home in the East Bay where Jerry Hsu videotaped and recorded our conversation.

Richard Whittaker:  I thought it would be interesting to learn more about your background. You were born in Hawai‘i, right?

Ron Nakasone:  Yes. Born and raised in Hawai‘i.

RW:  I think you're third generation?

RN:  That's right. My great-grandfather traveled to Hawai‘i from Okinawa. I believe in 1904. Then after two years or so he called his two sons, my grandfather and his younger brother. So my family has been in America for over a hundred years.

RW:  As I recall your great-grandfather did an extremely courageous thing—the way he left Okinawa and went to Hawai‘i, right?

RN:  Well, in those days when they left they homeland, they never expected to go back. And I think that in itself takes quite a bit of guts, if you ask me.

RW:  I would think so.

RN:  I remember traveling back to Okinawa with my mother when I was eight or nine. It took ten days from Honolulu to Yokohama, you know, by steamship. Then we took a plane from Yokohama to Naha, a DC-3 [laughs]. So even then it's quite a trek.

RW:  Yes. And I was struck by another thing I read, that your father had been farming in Hawai‘i.

RN:  That's correct.

RW:  And you all lived close to Pearl Harbor?

RN:  That's correct. It's called Iroquois Point. It's just next to the channel that goes into Pearl Harbor.

RW:  Good heavens! So the farm was destroyed when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor?

RN:  Well, on December the 7th the farm was strafed. My aunt was out on this water tower waving to the Japanese pilots.

RW:  Oh my god.

RN:  They could see the faces. It was that close. But the farm was relatively intact. But the next day they were ordered to leave. We learned later on that apparently it had already been planned, that all the Japanese farmers were kicked out.

RW:  You had to leave because you were Japanese?

RN:  Well, we learned that later on, when we were applying for redress, and all of those documents came out.

RW:  So then you were interned? Your family was interned?

RN:  Yes. They were interned. Yes. They were allowed to go back during day because they had livestock and things of that nature. But my father did lose his farm. And he never really financially recovered from that.

RW:  Oh, gosh. He took up carpentry, I think?

RN:  He farmed a little bit here and there, but eventually he became a carpenter. After high school, or maybe during high school, he had learned some carpentry. So he had a skill. But he also went to school to become a welder. But because he was Japanese he was unable to get a job at Pearl Harbor or other military bases where they needed welders. So he had to work for industry. Anyway, that's pretty much the story. I'm not too clear about his early experiences. But that must have been very painful for him and the family. Yes.

RW:  That's a great trauma. In all the trauma that was taking place.

RN:  Sure.

RW:  And am I right in thinking that your father had a kind of feeling for craft, a certain ideal maybe for something well made?

RN:  It's hard to know because we lived on the farm and we had to do everything by ourselves. So I picked up a lot of skills from him: carpentry, plumbing. I don't like to do those things, but I can do little things. I'm not afraid to venture into these things if I need to for myself.

RW:  I think I read that a particular temple carpenter had been kind of an ideal for your father.

RN:  Oh, yes. He would mention Hidari Jingorō, a very famous carpenter in Japanese woodworking lore. He wanted to prove his worth. So he cut off his right hand, according to legend. One of the skills in the Japanese carpentry is to be able to plane a piece of wood like a strip of paper for the whole length. And he was so good he still was able to do it with his left hand. So that's the story.

RW:  That's the story your father had told you?

RN:  Yes.

RW:  I see. I mean, that could lead directly into your own work in calligraphy, in the art of sho. And I just read the interview that Peter Doebler did with you about that. But instead of going there, I thought I would make a jump and ask you about your own teaching about ageing in Asian views of ageing and dying.

RN:  I wrote an article called “Growing Old in Asian Cultures.”

RW:  Okay. And you've done some teaching at Stanford where that's the subject. Isn’t that right?

RN:  That's correct. Stanford has a program that was initiated about 30 or 40 years ago called ethnogeriatrics, meaning caring for elders from different racial, cultural and ethnic groups: Japanese, Korean, Chinese, Filipino, Black Americans—because medicine and care-giving was quite localized to white, Euro-American males, not females. So lots of research was done on Euro-Americans, but the ethnic populations were neglected.
     So Stanford initiated what’s now known as ethnogeriatrics. The focus was on non-Euro-American populations—what was referred to as “underserved populations.” I don't know how they found me [laughs], but they called me, and I started doing conferences with them. I would be a guest speaker. And finally I became part of the faculty there.

RW:  I see. And who were the underserved, as you were saying?

RN:  Well, those populations.

RW:  You mean in this country?

RN:  Yes. For example, if an elderly Japanese-American person went to a hospital in America, they would be treated, of course, but there was a cultural gap. First of all, with the language and secondly with etiquette—how to talk to elders, touching—all of these things are quite different across cultures—colors, room numbers.
     For example, in Japan we don't have room numbers with the numeral four because the word for death in Japan is shi. It's the same pronunciation as the number four. And you don't put people in the ninth floor because nine is ku. Kurushimi means to suffer. Little things like that.

RW:  I see.

RN:  So you can skip a number and have the same floor— little things like that.

RW:  Little things that would actually amount to something.

RN:  Oh, yes. And then food. You know, we don't like meat and potatoes [laughs]. We want rice. And we like to eat with chopsticks rather than forks. So I guess in many ways it's like medical anthropology. And if you grow up in the culture, we thought nothing of it. But for an outsider, this was a great revelation, apparently.

RW:  Yes. We would know nothing about that. And you mention color as a factor.

RN:  In China blue is a mourning color. So you wouldn't decorate a room in blue. You know, it's very simple. So we would go around, a team of us, to nursing homes. And we would train other people who served elders.

RW:  Is this under the auspices of Stanford?

RN:  Yes. We would go and offer training. And I would go out and be asked to give lectures on death and dying, Japanese ways of dying, mourning rituals, old-age rituals. They call it late-life celebrations—and death rituals, things like that.

RW:  So do you concentrate pretty much exclusively on the Japanese in terms of Asian ways of ageing and dying?

RN:  Mostly Japanese, because that's something I know very well intuitively. But I've done some work on Thai elders, some Chinese—things of that nature. At least I know the framework. If I went to China, for example, I might not know the exact vocabulary, but I know the framework in which to pose questions.

RW:  So you could determine the specifics?

RN:  Yes.

RW:  Would you say something about your Okinawan heritage? I understand that there's some significant differences in terms of the culture of Okinawa and the culture of mainland Japan.

RN:  Yes, quite a bit. Okinawa was an independent nation until 1879. In 1879 the Japanese came with their army, kidnapped the king, annexed Okinawa, and made it into a prefecture. They took the king and his entourage to Tokyo as kind of a hostage. And so that was end of an era for us.
     The old name for Okinawa is Ryūkyū. The languages are similar. But there was a deviation about 1500 years ago. So in the Okinawan language, there are many very ancient Japanese words that are not used today in Japan. But because Okinawa is kind of a backwater we kept the old language. And culturally, of course, we're quite different. The Okinawans were great traders. They went to China, Japan, Korea, Southeast Asia, to Thailand, Indonesia, to Malacca to trade.
     And they were in a good location because, in the past, sailing ships could not go a long distance before they would have to get fresh water and fruits, or whatever. So Okinawa was ideally located on the outskirts.

RW:  So people from other cultures would stop in Okinawa to restock their ships.

RN:  Yes. And so the Okinawans made a lot of money [laughs].

RW:  I read something you wrote about the history of Okinawa and how at times it was taken over by other powers. So the Okinawans learned to adjust. And they had to adjust over and over. And one of the results was that there came to be an openness to new ideas, new cultures, new conditions. Out of necessity. But then it became engrained, a kind of openness to the new. Is that fair?

RN:  That's a fair assessment—and they were minority people; I guess the word is “peripheral” peoples—wherever they may be; that's a metaphenomenon. We have to be able to negotiate two different cultures: our own and the host country, as it were.

RW:  I can't help wondering if there’s a comparison between the Jewish and the Okinawans. I never thought of it before.

RN:  It could be. I'm sure the Jewish people have the similar experiences, have been kicked around.

RW:  That's what I mean. The Jewish people have had to learn how to function under different laws, different customs, different powers. And one thing that one gains from that, potentially, is a kind of alertness and…

RN:  Resilience. Because we have to maintain our own identity. And the Okinawans do it through song and dance. They love to sing; they love to dance; they love to drink[laughs]. So there's a certain kind of camaraderie. We know of each other by our names; there are certain surnames that are Okinawan, and not in a Japanese. So we can identify people.

RW:  Have the Okinawans been successful in holding onto their culture, do you think?

RN:  That's a hard question. The further we get away from the homeland, as it were, it gets harder and harder.

RW:  And on top of that, there’s all the technical change going on. And here you are living in the Bay Area! I expect there’d a big impact on traditional cultures with the erosion of traditional values and so on—for instance, related to Asian ways of ageing and dying, what is happening to respect for the ancestors? I mean, what do you see with the spread of Western technology and values, and the way history disappears?

RN:  Yes. It's very painful in many ways. It's really a different worldview. The Okinawans, and most traditional societies that emphasize ancestral veneration, fundamentally, it's kind of a shamanic tradition—that we share this world with enumerable disembodied spirits, including our ancestors. And it's very difficult for contemporary people to accept something like that now because they assign this to superstition.

RW:  Exactly.

RN:  So it's sad. But the only way we can really counter that is to make sure our children respect us. I mean, cultivate that. I'm not sure if it's a belief in the spiritual, but at least there should be respect and acknowledgement that they did not come here by themselves. They have a long lineage of which they can be very proud.

RW:  I remember reading, maybe in high school, something about certain tribal cultures, something about ancestor worship must have been mentioned—and what came along with that was how superstitious these primitive peoples were. It was a very dismissive view.

RN:  Right.

RW:  And I wanted to ask you, how could one talk about a respect for your ancestors being quite the opposite of a superstitious view but, in fact, a view grounded in some really thoughtful principles that I think we could easily respect if we only understood what the ground of the issue is.

RN:  From all my studies, and my own experience, that ancestral veneration is really based on the virtue of gratitude. That's all it is. And this is a virtue that’s not very much appreciated or taught in the West—gratitude for all living things.
     And shamanism has that. That's why they say there's a spirit that exists in the rock or the tree, or the ocean or the pure water. And we should be thankful for that—and for our parents, our grandparents. So we need to teach our children, and people around us, that this is indeed a worthy virtue to cultivate.

RW:  And didn't you also say that we need to understand something more about our interconnectedness and our interdependence?

RN:  Oh, yes. Well, you know that's a prime Buddhist ideological construct. Buddhism believes all beings, all things, all time is interconnected—that my life here, my existence here, is dependent upon all these things.
     I'm very important, you know. I'm the culmination, in many ways, of all the past—the labors of my parents, the bravery of my great grandfather, the suffering of my father. He said, “You need to go to school.” So they worked hard to educate us—things like that.
     On the other hand, the Buddhist notion of gratitude also entails great responsibility because if we're all interconnected we can't screw up. You know, when we screw up everything around us, everything collapses. If I do something bad, it's not only me who is affected, but my wife will be sad, my daughter will be embarrassed, all my ancestors will be shamed [laughs]. We have to think in those terms.

RW:  And thinking in those terms is not a fantasy, right?

RN:  No. It's real.

RW:  It’s actually a real thing. That might be hard for people to grasp here in West.

RN:  When I first started, in the late seventies, early eighties, when I understood this cardinal Buddhist principle of interdependence, there was not much talk about it. And people made fun of me. I remember. It was not so much fun. But recently, because of the Internet—and that's a prime example of interconnectedness of all things—every computer terminal is a center and can draw all things to it. But also this one center can spread and disseminate information because of this interconnectedness.
     So the metaphor is very real. And I think this interconnectedness is becoming more and more accepted. We see that, for instance with environmentalists—we can't do any fracking now because it will affect our ground water. Those things were not too prevalent in the past, if I recall. So there is hope in this world! [laughs].
     We can all have righteous anger, in the sense that if a great company or a powerful person is screwing us up, we can all band together. You know a grass-roots movement is a demonstration of the strength of networking. Networking is power.

RW:  To be used for good or ill, I suppose.

RN:  Well, that's true.

RW:  When you go out and give a lecture, and the hat you're wearing is of a man who knows about Asian views of ageing and dying, I'm guessing you also have your Buddhist hat on. But maybe it doesn't have to be named “Buddhist.” But that's also related, is it not?

RN:  That's true. When I was much younger, I used to be kind of self-righteous. You know how it is. But as you get older you realize you can't tell people how to do things. You need to really teach by example. I guess mentorship is very important. And that's another virtue that elders can provide for us. And that's standard Asian teaching with successive generations of people. We look up to our elders. We look up to our heroes of the past. There are bad heroes, too. So we kind of ignore them. But there are good examples that we need to learn from. Who else do we have to learn from?

RW:  I like that. You mention that we have some responsibilities. The gratitude is not just, “I feel great.” But if I feel grateful I also have a certain responsibility to repay what I've been given.

RN:  Right.

RW:  What do you think—comparing the US with this ideal of rugged individualism, which is carried to extremes compared to the traditional cultures that you're speaking of where one feels dependent on the family and other people in the culture who are performing needed tasks that support everybody— how do you see this almost diametrically divided picture between the rugged individual and the culture that understands our interdependence?

RN:  Well, the idea of a rugged individual is very American. And of course that goes back in Western thinking. In American thinking the idea of autonomy is very strong. That's the basis for American law. And that, I suppose, would be the metaphysical, philosophical basis for rugged individualism. However, having said that and taking it from the Buddhist point of view, or the communal point of view, that rugged individual who crosses the Oregon trail, or whatever it is, and stands up to challenges can only do that because he or she is supported by the vast culture from which he or she emerges, from the way he speaks this language and the skills he learned to fend for himself in the wild.
     All this can only happen within a context in which he or she learned all those skills. And one learns that not entirely from oneself. One is supported by prior knowledge, as it were. So that will be the Buddhist answer to that.
     You know, I grew up in the mid-60s when the Vietnam War was escalating—a bad time. I became a conscientious objector. And I was very proud of that. But I was able to become a conscientious objector because there were people willing to go to Vietnam and fight. In a sense, we were all complicit. I can only be who I am, a pacifist, because the country allows me to do that. There were people willing to go over there, in Word War II or to Vietnam, to execute the national policy. So even in my own pride, I was complicit, in a sense. I was able to be who I am because there were others willing to do the dirty work, as it were.

RW:  It's interesting that you bring that up. That's true. Speaking for myself, it's pretty late in life for me to begin to feel some questions about who is this person, me? There’s this automatic, unquestioned taking for granted that this is my intelligence, or my talent—or with whatever I can do, it's mine. If I start to look a little more deeply, I realize this is something I got from my father, from my mother, and they got it from their parents. I have to begin asking how much of what I take for granted as mine really is mine? Or has it, in fact, been given to me?

RN:  You remember when the first Bush was running for president and Clinton said, “It takes a village to raise a child.” Bush said, “No, it takes a family. Not the whole village.” And he kind of mocked that, and there was a big back forth about that.
     The Buddhist view would be that it takes the whole village and, by extension, the whole world, the whole universe, to raise a child. That would be the Buddhist response.

RW:  Another way to frame this could be the West versus the East in comparing, say, the philosophy of the East with the philosophy of the West. There would be the individualism of the West. And I don't know what the opposite would be. It would be something greater than the individual, the ego, that one draws meaning from.

RN:  Sure. Well with rugged individualism one forgets the context in which he or she lives or operates, and is a rugged individualist. It's not only the West. In all societies that are small, or communal, we’re dependent on each other to grow our food, hunt, for common defense and whatever. So somehow it’s not so much the West, but modernization that has doomed this communal feeling.
     Modernization meant individualism—my personality is supreme, you know—all of those things, and especially the idea that we can exist only by our temperament— like those people [Bundy] that went up to Oregon and took over that BLM land. They didn't want to pay for grazing. That's rugged individualism, I guess. But they could only do that within the context that the American government sort of tolerates that. They were breaking the law. And unfortunately, or fortunately, we have to live with other people—even if you're a hermit [laughs]. You're a hermit because there's a society from which you can run away from and rail against.

RW:  A few minutes before we started this conversation I brought up this question about the tendency in the West to make things easier—labor-saving, increasing production and so on— and I remember a few years ago Apple advertised a mouse that only needed one click instead of two clicks. This was a leap forward, you see.
     I met an interesting man [Lee Hoinacki] who was unhappy about the advent of the automatic door. That technological advance made it easier for people to get in and out, but it also took away the possibility of the human interaction of holding the door for someone else.

RN:  That's true.

RW:  And technology seems to be eliminating more and more of our human interactions through automation and so forth, and with the digital revolution, we’re also having fewer face-to-face interactions with each other.

RN:  Yes.

RW:  In a way, it’s a very odd idea of progress. Do you ever reflect about this kind of thing?

RN:  A little bit. And I would agree that the automatic door is a good example. Opening a door for someone, that interaction is very important—even for just that one interaction. I really think so. Yes.

RW:  The post office that I go to doesn’t have an automatic door and just earlier today, someone held the door for me. I thanked him. Even at Starbucks this morning I parked and a guy got out of his car across from me. And who's going get to the door first? I thought, “I've got to restrain myself! I think I’ll let this guy go first.” So he went in first. But then he held the door for me! He said, “No, you go first.”

RN:  There you go.

RW:  It might seem trivial, but it was actually a very rich moment. There was something nourishing about it.

RN:  Sure. That's a very Confucian moment. Confucius would say that we learn humanity through etiquette. That's fundamental. That idea is still quite prevalent in East Asian and other places. And I think almost any traditional society had that.

RW:  You know, instead of calling it “an idea,” I would like to call it an understanding. I mean, would you go along with that?

RN:  Okay. Let's see. Confucius believed that we learn humanity through our relations with people. And our relations with people are governed by some basic etiquette. That is, greeting, “hello.” “You first.” “No, you first.” So we cultivate a loving heart for other people. This is fundamental Confucianism. Very simple.
     In my dealings with people, especially Asians, because I kind of know how to deal with them [laughs]—and I understand with Christians, it's guilt that motivates them—but with Asians it’s relationship that you cultivate; that’s how you get them to do things for you [laughs].
     I don't mean in a cynical way. You do them a favor and later on, you call them up, and say, “I need favor.” And they're supposed to remember that. So when I was working on this encyclopedia [Asian American Religious Cultures], I used this relationship to get people to write things for me [laughs].

RW:  It's refreshing that you would be so transparent about that.

RN:  [laughs] Maybe we can edit it out! [laughs]

RW:  Every stick has two ends, right? So you’re supposed to remember that I helped you, and now you help me. That's kind of self-serving.

RN:  Right.

RW:  Okay. But is there another side to that? Something one might call it “the Good,” to get Platonic about it. Is there a greater good there? I’m guessing a Buddhist would say there's something fundamentally good, and needed, there.

RN:  Right. The Buddhist would say (this is not my idea, it's a very an ancient idea) that by doing mutual good for each other, we uplift all of us. We rise and we fall as one living body. That would be the Buddhist answer.

RW:  How do you feel about that?

RN:  Pretty good.

RW:  Do you subscribe to that?

RN:  Yes. Even if we do a little good and it doesn't move the earth or humanity, that little act of kindness uplifts all of us as human beings. And conversely, it will demean all of us as human beings if I do something that's untoward to someone else, or to the earth, or whatever.

RW:  That seems an important thing for more of us in the West to embrace. I was reading something about a Native American view about speech—that speaking, giving voice, is to send something out into the world, and once it goes out it will have its effect, its action will ripple out. So it’s wise to exercise a certain amount of care about what you give voice to.

RN:  Sure. Not like some politicians I know [laughs]. That's true, I would say. Yes.

RW:  Because of this interconnectedness…

RN: …what goes out as beneficial will have lasting beneficial effects.

RW:  And conversely; right?

RN:  Oh, conversely, yes. Yes, that's kind of what karma is.

RW:  What would you say about karma? That's a big topic.

RN:  [laughs] It's a big topic.

RW:  It's a great topic. Could you share some of your thoughts in regard to the value and the efficacy of karma as a real idea, a real principle?

RN:  Well, like any idea, it has its flaws—ideologically. Karma is not special to Buddhism. When the Buddha came around, karma was already operative in his world. He had to use that to accommodate to the conditions of the world.
     So he reinterpreted it. And now, karma is very cause and effect. Simply, it means if there's a cause, there's some impact. That's very simplistic. But Buddha says, well, you know, that's true. But there are also conditions, which cause karma to deviate, to modify itself. For example, if I went across the street, I have the will to cross the street. But I may be struck by a car and couldn't fulfill my own destiny, as it were. Similarly, I want to go to school and become a doctor, but my father died. I have no money. So the conditions around the will might be modified.
     So the Buddhist idea of karma is really one of causes and conditions. And that's his contribution to Indian thought.

RW:  Causes and conditions.

RN:  And we can create karma three ways, according to ancient India—through mind, through speech and through action. Mind is visualization, so we have a mandala. And for speech, we have mantra; and then we have mudra, you know, all these funny fingers positions that we have.
     So these are the three ways that karma is created. And we can use these, later Buddhists would say, mainly from the Tantric tradition, to effectuate our own spiritual progress. And they believe there are many forces that traverse the universe and we just have to ride one, or tap into one, of those, and we can ride it to enlightenment.

RW:  This would be a Tantric view?

RN:  Well, not exclusively, but that's their belief.

RW:  You have some familiarity with a broad range of religious ideas and practice. I mean, you taught at the GTU. And I was going to take a little step into the question of art and religion. But before we do that, I wondered when you bring up, when you talk about Asian views of ageing and dying, your concentration is mostly from the Japanese perspective. But do you have some familiarity with, let's say, an Islamic perspective? A Taoist perspective? I mean you've spoken about the Confucian perspective. And Shinto would be Japanese? And then there are shamanic perspectives—all these different perspectives, including the Christian, which has migrated to the East also.

RN:  Sure.

RW:  What's your relationship with those different aspects of thought and religion?

RN:  Well, I make a distinction between a single-center view of the universe, which would be the Abrahamic traditions—Christianity, Judaism, Islam—and the multi-centered universe. And Buddhism is the latter. And most non-theistic faith traditions like Shinto, shamanic tradition, Taoism, Confucian, belong to the non-monotheistic traditions.
     This is how I distinguish. Now, the Abrahamic traditions have a specific kind of standard in which all things are viewed. It's a standard in which we judge right and wrong. And from my own understanding, this is where the problem comes in. And Buddhism is not included in that vision.
     So the views of growing old and ageing in Asian societies reflect this basic difference.

RW:  Okay. Now I forgot to mention Hinduism.

RN:  Well, Hinduism really is a monotheistic tradition. They have all these versions, but everything comes from Vishnu, and whatever. It really belongs to what I like to call a single-centered worldview.

RW:  As a single-centered worldview, Hinduism seems to have a spread this out into all kinds of lesser deities. 

RN:  Yes. They're very tolerant—minor gods, major gods. But they all go back and are subsumed, or emerge from, a single source, which is Vishnu, the creator.

RW:  Okay.

RN:  It's hard to know what these traditions have to say about growing old. But my view is that with all of these faith traditions, it's a very simple thing. They ask, and try to answer, what are our greatest aspirations? For Buddhists the aspiration is to be freed from suffering—for all beings to be freed from suffering. And every faith tradition has that.
     The problem with faith traditions is that once some guy writes something down, then we have problems. Because then we say, wow he said that. Here is what he means! And all the commentaries arise, and we have all this philosophy.
     So all faith traditions deal with very simple things, like what are our aspirations as a human being, as a people, as a community? What are our greatest aspirations? And what are our deepest yearnings? They're very close together. Our yearnings are to have a stable life, no war, so I can educate my children. And in Syria now, and in Middle East, the yearning is for peace.
     And another thing they have is what are our greatest beliefs? So these are the three things I think these faith traditions have. Belief can be, well, I believe in one god. Or, I believe that the whole universe is sacred. Then the philosophers come in and try to make sense of these things, when in the past we believed these things. In the past people believed in these things intuitively. It's the philosopher that screwed up all these things, and the theologians. And they build the institutions, and all hell breaks loose [laughs].

RW:  It has. Well, contemporary Western educated views tend to do away all together with religion.

RN:  Right.

RW:  This basically is scientific materialism. I think of Richard Dawkins as kind of the poster child for this view. Let me put it this way—how do you answer the view that we don't need any metaphysical meaning or any idea of intelligence or purpose behind the universe?

RN:  I haven't spent much time thinking about these people. But I would say that they probably have a point. There may not be any meaning outside, what should I say, some metaphysical, supernatural force. And the Buddhists will probably subscribe to that. However, the Buddhist would say, there's meaning with relationship with people. And I say that because the Buddha says there are certain questions that should never be asked: Is there life after death? Where did I come from? Where are we going?
     The Buddhists don't ask these questions. They don't entertain them because the Buddha says the greatest question is your own spiritual liberation. And that you can do by yourself, through yourself, through meditation and the support of your community. That's what the Buddhist would say. And even these people, they can say there's no meaning, because they're reacting to the view that there is meaning in the world. So, you know, their position is dependent upon this context.
     With those people I would probably go out and have some beer and have a good time [laughs].

RW:  Yes. Well the Dalai Lama apparently said if science can prove any of our understandings are wrong, we'll have to change them.

RN:  Well, of course.

RW:  I thought that was good. But instead of going further with that, maybe we can move to some questions around art and religion. You were at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley with their doctoral program around art and religion. So people could go into and get a PhD in art and religion.

RN:  That's correct

RW:  Would you describe that program? And why is art and religion one of their doctoral categories?

RN:  I'll give you my view. From the Buddhist standpoint, or at least from a traditional standpoint, East Asian or South Asian art is really… Oh, let's make it very concrete. Sculpture, temples, paintings, something that's tangible—we call it “material religion” now. A piece of art—material religion—represents religion, not because it has a Buddhist theme or a Christian theme, or whatever; it’s only true religious or spiritual art if it conveys something of the spiritual experience.
     So even if I did a painting of Bodhidharma, it may not necessarily be Buddhist art because it may not express or convey anything of the experience of Buddhism, or the truth of Buddhism. That would be my definition of religious or spiritual art.

RW:  That's a very interesting definition. And would you say something about how do we know when a work of art expresses something of the spiritual?

RN:  How do we know?[laughs] Well, if the creator, the artist or dancer or poet, is able to embody, that is, live that life then his or her work will naturally give expression to that tradition. Now, the Renaissance really screwed us up because people began to sign things. Individualism, you know. A rugged individualism.

RW:  Right.

RN:  But in the past, of course, artisans never signed their work. Only from the Renaissance. Well, in Asia they did, they signed it. But if and when a piece of work embodies the tradition, then that is a representation, or rather, an expression of that faith tradition.
Now, how do we recognize that? You know, that's a big question. And I would say that a great piece of spiritual work, reaches beyond its confines, embraces, and draws you in. Then we would know. So it's an intuitive thing. It's not something that I can quantify. So that's the hard part.

RW:  You're saying that the piece of art that truly does embody something spiritual can be felt?

RN:  Well, “felt” is good—it can be known.

RW:  Okay. Can be known.

RN:  Yes. Because feeling is a kind of knowing.

RW:  Yes. That's something we don't understand much in the West, I don't think, that the feeling is a modality of knowing.

RN:  Well, you know you love somebody. You know it.

RW:  I don't dispute it. I think it's unfortunate that it's not understood more in the West, that there's an intelligence of feeling.

RN:  Oh, yes. Very much so.

RW:  And not everybody has the same degree of openness, so…

RN:  Well, it's hard. It's hard.

RW:  So you may have a piece of a true religious art, but someone might not feel it.

RN:  They may not be open to it. And oftentimes it has to be cultivated, like my calligraphy. It's a very subtle art. And it has to be cultivated. So I was lucky in a sense that I was able to cultivate this after so many years, through so many years. I'm very fortunate. But you know that cultivation also sensitizes me to other forms of art. And I appreciate that.
     When you do these things, you never know where it’s going to turn out. You know, when I started 40 years ago, I was interested, but I didn't know where it would lead me.

RW:  There's no way to think your way through where you might go. You take the step and then something opens.

RN:  Right. You have to have faith somehow, whether real or intended, that something will come of this. But you never know. The only way you can know, as far as I can see, is that you have a mentor who went through that, an elder who went through life.

RW:  Yes. Yes.

RN:  And so elders are good teachers.

RW:  In Asia there are art forms, Japanese traditions—like the art of sho, is a very good example—where, as you said in your interview with Peter Dobler that, "At its best, in that practice one becomes a human being."

RN:  Did I say that?

RW:  Well, yes. I mean the quote is not exact. But there's something about the practice in the context of Zen Buddhism, the practice of brush painting, say, or archery, or whatever is being practiced—there's the outer part, but equally important, essential, is an invisible inner part to that. And you said there’s something in there about learning how to be human being.

RN:  I recall that now. That's true, because once a person masters a craft or anything, he masters himself… It's a human project to master something and, in the process, I'm sure you learn something, not only of the craft, but of yourself. It can be auto repair, gardening. To acquire this skill, one reacts with the material, in this case the soil, the plants, the flowers. So I enjoy my flowers [laughs]. Every chance I have, I'm out there.

RW:  I was just going to contrast some of the Eastern understandings of art that where there's a mentor, a master with the West, where mostly we don't have that at all.

RN:  We don't have that.

RW:  There isn't any idea of any spiritual aspect, really. Maybe with Rothko, and a few other Abstract Expressionists, there might have been something along those lines, but not like in the East.

RN:  I've been very fortunate. I've had good teachers. I've met good people who became good teachers—whether I stayed with them for a long time or only a few minutes or a few days, whatever. But, you know, it takes a certain kind of recognition on my part that this man is a teacher. Or this woman is a teacher.

RW:  Yes.

RN:  So I've been very fortunate.

RW:  Now one thing that your experience embodies—and this wouldn't be exclusive to the East—you said that when you started brush painting, you didn't know where it would lead. But it has led somewhere; right?

RN:  I think so.

RW:  In terms of your own experience.

RN:  Oh, yes. Definitely.

RW:  And in terms of your own experience, you didn't know where it would go.

RN:  That's true.

RW:  And you've had experiences that you wouldn't have been able to understand before, right?

RN:  That's true.

RW:  I don't want to put words…

RN:  No. That's true. I got to meet you. I mean, that would never happen. And you met Heng Sure

RW:  Yes.

RN:  One of my students. He led you to me and he led me to you. And things like that. So that's all karma, you know [laughs].

RW:  Yes [laughs]. I think it's fascinating that the limitations of our thought, which in the West we have so much confidence in, which is perfectly expressed by Descartes' cogito ergo sum. I believe my thinking can get me anywhere. And my ordinary thought is a very limited tool.

RN:  That's true. I would agree with you.

RW:  There are many things I can’t see that way.

RN:  But ordinary feelings can.

RW:  Say more about that.

RN:  Well, the mind is not the only way we know. We feel, we dance, whatever. You know, this can lead us to wherever we want to go.

RW:  Would you that say that's an Asian understanding? Or maybe traditional societies and cultures understand that?

RN:  Well, in the West, of course, we put emphasis on the written word, that is, the intellect. But the human experience is more than just thinking. It's also feeling.

RW:  Yes. If we just think life is just thinking or entertaining ourselves, we really shortchange ourselves.

RN:  Sure. But this is the whole focus of Western education. You know the first thing they do in the curriculum is to get rid of art and music [laughs].

RW:  Absolutely. I’m remembering that we had a conversation a few years ago. When I picked you up at an auto dealership. You dropped your car off.

RN:  Yes. To get it fixed.

RW:  Yes. I think you’d been reading a book about what it is that the artist does and the word “topographic” came up. This was about one aspect of what real art could do. That is, the artist at times has an experience, which hasn't ever been brought into form for the culture at large. And sometimes an artist succeeds in bringing something like that into form. I think you were saying that this was a way of mapping an experience, and making it visible for others.

RN:  Yes. I think the book I was referring to was A Giacometti Portrait by James Lord. He was sitting for Giacometti who was painting his portrait. And every time Giacometti, at the end of the day, would say, “This is going nowhere.” And he would destroy it and say, “Let's start again tomorrow.” And this went on for weeks.

RW:  Okay.

RN:  Finally, the guy said, “I’ve really got to get back to New York.”[laughs]
     “So soon? It's almost there. Can't you stay another day?” [laughs]
     So that went on and the portrait was unfinished, of course.
     I think that's what an artist struggles with. But everyone struggles with that. So how do we give that thought or feeling form? That's the meaning of “formless form”—giving form to the formless. We all do that. We all struggle with that. I struggle with words. English was very difficult for me. I didn't grow up speaking English. I grew up speaking what they call Pidgin English.

RW:  So you spoke Japanese then at home?

RN:  A little bit, but we grew up speaking the Pidgin English we grew up with in Hawai‘i, a kind of Creole English—or Creole Hawaiian, I guess. So I learned English in school.

RW:  I see. Okay. “Mo bettah.” [laughs]

RN:  “Mo bettah.” But all artists struggle with that. Not only me. Not only Giacometti. How to articulate—in my case, through line and space. For the painter, there's color and form; for the sculptor, form and space; for the composer, sound.
     We all struggle with this. For you it's how do you give form to this interview? How do you translate it into words and images on the printed page? Editors do that. Editor is the worst job! [laughs].

RW:  You know from experience, right?

RN:  I know from experience.

RW:  And in the Peter Doebler interview you were speaking of this, of giving form to the formless, that is, giving form to those intuitions and feelings, those understandings, those glimpses and insights one might have. And those interior things are formless.

RN:  That's true.

RW:  That was so helpful to have it expressed this way.

RN:  And, you know, it's a problem of translation, too. What is the best media to give form to what you're feeling, or intuitively know? So it's a problem of translation.

RW:  Well, absolutely. And a friend of mine, an artist, said the biggest problem for an artist is not to be deluded. What he meant by that is, I might feel like it's there on the canvas. But is it there, really?

RN:  Sure. And what is the authentic feeling or thought? That's a hard one. That's a hard one.

RW:  It's a mystery because there are works of art that have lived for centuries, and they still touch us.In architecture there are the pyramids, for instance. They still touch us. So that's a big mystery, isn't it?

RN:  Yes. That's why poets have it hard—that is, artists. We all struggle with that, even people in the sciences. They have an intuition of what the universe is like - theoretical physicists. They make some mathematical formulations. So they're trying to give form to their intuition of what the physical universe is supposed to be like.
     I don't think too much about these things, you know. When it gets a little hard, I go and take care of my plants [laughs]. Or get a bottle of beer [laughs].

RW:  You go get some medicine.

RN:  Yes. My wife and daughter try to moderate my medicinal intake [laughs].

RW:  [laughs] Well, thank you, Ron. And thank you, Jerry.

RN:  Okay. We went on for an hour and half. Talk is cheap. So now, the work begins.


About the Author

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


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