Awakin Calls » Ron Nakasone » Transcript
Ron Nakasone: A Calligrapher's Pilgrimage
Guest: Ron Nakasone
Moderator: Richard Whittaker
Host: Makala Kozo Hattori
Richard: I would say to begin with it was through my own relationship with art that Ron Nakasone came into my life. I heard about him many years ago. I was asking somebody what was the art part about art and religion at the GTU, Ron has been a professor at the GTU (Graduate Theological Union) in Berkeley. Someone told me when I asked about art at the GTU, "you should talk to Ron Nakasone." For some reason it didn't really happen. The universe didn't really support it. There was so many different things going on that I never got around to it.
Then a few years later, I was talking the the Reverend Heng Sure, who many of you know. We were chatting and Heng Sure said, "Do you know Ron Nakasone?" I said, "I've heard of him." Heng Sure said, "You should meet him. You know he was my advisor for when I got my PhD in Buddhist Studies at the GTU."
That was the thing that tipped me over to making the effort to actually meet Ron. That was a few years ago. Over the past few years, the man Ron has begun to unfold. This is a very interesting man with many different facets.
We were laughing about the theme today: A Calligrapher's Pilgrimage. I was saying we don't really have to stick to this too closely. And Ron said, "Well, you know, a pilgrim always has the option to deviate or take another turn and get back to the path."
I thought instead of starting into the art aspect of Ron's life, we could touch on the Buddhist aspect, because Ron is a Buddhist priest. We know he is a calligrapher. He is an author, a scholar, and also a Professor at Stanford in the Geriatric Studies department down there where he gives insights into Asian approaches to aging and dying. I'm sure that that doesn't exhaust all the other things that Ron does. That just opens up. This is a man that does many different things.
We might deviate a little from the theme. I don't think we will start with art.
Kozo: I totally agree: it is more than a calligrapher's pilgrimage. It like a spiritual pilgrimage; it is a life pilgrimage; it's a scholar's pilgrimage. I whole-heartedly support you guys deviating from the theme. 15:01
Richard: So Ron, would you tell us a little about how Buddhism comes into your life?
Ron: Of course, I'm a third generation Japanese American--Okinawan American, born and raised in Hawaii. Buddhism was always part of our life, so to speak. We didn't understand the rational behind it, but it was part of our yearly ritual, as in New Years and visits to the temple for marriage and funerals, so this is where I began my Buddhist experience.
Somewhere along the line, i became interested in art and Buddhism. I went to Japan with my wife to study Buddhism there. In the meantime, I got involved in calligraphy. You may know Masao Abe, the zen scholar and priest; he introduced me to my calligraphy teacher, Morita Shiryu. It was a most lucky event for me--a karmic meeting--because I continued my Buddhist studies and my calligraphy ever since. And one of course builds on the other. I have been very fortunate.
R: Well, you grew up in a Buddhist family.
Ron: Well, kind of a Buddhist family. The Okinawans are more shamanic in nature, but our spiritual experiences are multilayered.
Richard: I read somewhere that there are different kinds of Buddhist, different categories of Buddhism. I've heard yours described as Shin Buddhism.
Ron: Yes, I'm ordained as a Jodo Shinshu priest. That would be the most popular denomination in Japan and also in Hawaii and continental United States, primarily because the immigrants that came from Japan came from areas where Shin Buddhism was very strong.
Richard: Does Shin Buddhism incorporate any of the shamanic practices?
Ron: No, Shin Buddhism is a kind of fundamentalist sect. Buddhism by that time in 12th century/13th century Japan had become overly ritualized, overly intellectualized, so the spiritual founder of Jodo Shinshu is a man named Shinran Shonin. He tried to demystify Buddhism and made it very simple so that everyone could understand, especially the people who are the underclass in Japanese society--the farmers, the fishermen. He read and rezoned very logically from Buddhist sources that one does not have to practice for 20 years in all these austerities and study these things, but all that one really needs is faith.
Also, he worked on the premise that each one of you no matter how low your birth status may be possess the Buddha Nature; you are already the Buddha. So this was an encouraging...gave great confidence in the poor and illiterate people who are always being suppressed. And since we are already the Buddha according to Shinran, when we repeat the term Namu Amida Butsu, this is an affirmation of gratitude as we are already saved.
In traditional Buddhism a mantra is a kind of efficacious way of one purifying the mind and body to attain Buddhahood, but Shinran twisted all that around and said, "Since you are already the Buddha, the uttering Namu Amida Butsu is an affirmation of your faith." So this was a revolutionary kind of thinking in Buddhist circles. 20:20
Richard: Well that is fascinating because I've never heard the word faith in the same sentence as Buddhism, not that it doesn't belong there, just because I've never thought of it being a part of Buddhist thought.
Ron: Even if you are zenist, that is believe in meditation to purify the mind, you need quite a bit of faith because how can you spend 20 years sitting on the cushion doing meditation and not believing or having faith that this practice has some effect. So faith is actually very key in all Buddhism. They call it Bhakti.
Richard: Is there a devotional aspect to Shin Buddhism?
Ron: Yes, very much so. As opposed to the disciplinary schools that train the mind and body, Shin Buddhism is also known as the school of faith, the tradition of faith. Faith is not as easy as it seems. It is very difficult to have pure faith.
Human beings are very suspicious of people. Faith entails a kind of self-surrender. Self-surrender to the forces of the Universe or the forces that pervade the Universe in this case. A faith that you are already the Buddha and already saved.
Richard: Very interesting. You know as we were sitting here, we were chatting before the call. Ron you were telling me that in your experience here in the Bay Area, that you have run into the necessity for Christian Buddhist dialogue for many reasons, because you are here in a country that is primarily Christian traditionally. There are marriages between Buddhists and Christians. You were talking about how you thought deeply about this connection or encounter of the Christian and Buddhist faith. And for you it hasn't been an abstract thing; it has been a real thing. You marry Christians to Buddhists. You go to funerals where a Buddhist has died and there has been a Christian wife. So would you just talk about the Christian Buddhist encounter?
Ron: Sure. When I first came to Berkeley in 1987, Buddhist/Christian dialogue had been going on for quite a while, and I got involved in that being an academic, but prior to that I was a temple priest over in San Jose. And this Buddhist/Christian dialogue encountered in a very existential sense, not abstract at all. These encounters would be Buddhist/Christian marriages which is ok for a while because they are in love, but when the children come we have what they call interfaith child rearing--Buddhist mother/Christian father etc. or reverse.
And of course, funerals are very critical and very important, but as I mentioned earlier, I do recall very vividly of a Buddhist mother would bring her daughters to the temple very other Sunday. And I finally got enough courage to ask her, "What happened to the other Sundays that they are not here?"
"Oh, they are with their father at the Methodist Church, because he is Methodist, i'm Buddhist, we thought we should give our children exposure to two faith traditions." So that is a very concrete example of child raising and there is always conflict. Which holidays to celebrate for example.
The other that is more critical is funerals, interfaith funerals. And this I encounter with Buddhist parents and Christian children. So when the parents are alive it is fine. But when the children need to plan for the funeral of the parents, I run into all kinds of things to deal with, partially because the children cannot understand the rationale for a Buddhist funeral. This is a very real and existential question for the priests of course, but more so for the families and the children that need to sponsor funerals for their parents. Not only funerals, but in Buddhism we have a long memorial cycle--the first 7 days we have a service, 100 day, the first year, the third year, the seventh year, the 17th, 25th year service. They usually do not follow through.
This Buddhist/Christian dialogue between faith traditions is a very real and practical thing for most people.
Ridhard: You know since you touched on funerals, it reminds me that you have also been a professor down at Stanford in their department of geriatric education and your role down there is to help them understand Asian attitudes towards aging and dying. You also mentioned that you tried to talk to folks at the GTU into opening a division where they would teach things about aging and dying which is happening to all of us, but now in this culture where we are skewed in this direction. Would you talk about what you do down at Stanford in that role?
Ron; I've been associated with what we call the Stanford Geriatric Education Center. That center was set up by the Federal Government as a part of the ADA or something. But they opened these centers on aging across the United States and Stanford was one of them to receive funding for the past 25-30 years. And the focus was what we call ethno-geriatrics--geriatric care for non-EuroAmerican populations. That would be Japanese, Chinese, Korean, Black Americans.
So the expression ethno-geriatrics is a new term that was concocted at the Stanford University.
Richard: That is very interesting. I know that there are very practical realities that need to be understood, and you were telling me some of the problems that could happen in total innocence when people don't understand other cultures.
Ron: Well, as you know, the way different cultures and ethnic groups approach aging and death is quite different. And most of the models for ethno-geriatric care, for example nursing home care, is really modeled for the Eurp-American population. For example, they serve meat and potatoes. Japanese and Chinese would like to have rice. So just a little bit of tweaking, we would talk about these things to professional caregivers.
Richard: You said chopsticks.
Ron: Chopsticks. There was one case where they gave an elderly Japanese resident a pair of chopsticks and her whole attitude towards living in a nursing home changed. I guess it sort of like medical anthropology. But just a little bit of sensitivity to what people need makes people more comfortable, especially in a nursing facility may make all the difference in the world.
Richard: To know and pay attention to small details can be so important, but you talked about the colors of the rooms.
Ron: Well, colors I'm not to sure. I know the Chinese don't like blue because it is the color of mourning, but numbers are very important. For example, four and nine are not good numbers, because the Japanese homonym for four is "shi" which means death. So never put anyone in a room number four.
Or the ninth floor is not good, because nine is a homonym for "kurushimi: which means to suffer. 31:21 So we can skip ninth floor. The little things like that can make a difference especially when you are not feeling too good. [laughter]
Richard: Absolutely. You can tell from the way Ron is laughing that he has a great sense of humor. That is one of the things I noticed right away.
You know when I first met you, you had to deliver your car to get it tuned up or something and you said, come on down to the garage and pick me up. [laughter]
Ron: Yes, thank you for picking me up. [laughter]
Richard: that was the first time we met, so I really didn't know a whole lot about Ron, but we were talking and having some coffee, and Ron is just a delight. We were chatting and I knew he was Buddhist something or another, and I've had Pure Land Buddhism touches me very deeply. I don't know what it is about that phrase. I just love that phrase. It goes right to my heart somehow.
And Ron said, "Oh, you know, I'm a Pure Land Buddhist." [laughter]
Ron: Not too pure though. [laughter]
Richard: There are so many different directions we could go. I would like to delve more into Asian views of aging, specifically the position of the elder. Just because a person has gotten old, does that make that person an elder or is an elder a kind of specific understanding of what aging can bring or doesn't necessarily bring. Would you talk about that?
Ron: Sure. Well the model for an aging elder, at least the model in East Asia, the countries that are impacted by Chinese culture where Confucianism is very strong. And book two chapter four of the analects, Confucius says something to the effect where he relates his autobiography in seven or eight lines, probably the shortest autobiography on record. He says, "At 15, I set my heart on learning. At 30, I took my stand. At 40, I was without doubt. At 60, my ear was in tuned to heavens ways, and at 70, I am able to do my heart's desire without transgressing the laws of heaven." Now this is a model from which the cultures of East Asia have modeled their education system and the process of growing old.
Notice that in this little autobiography, Confucius places great emphasis on eduction. Education is lifelong process. Education means self-realization and self-transfomation--ultimate transformation. And this model is a model I base my art/calligraphy. By which I was taught.
I have written about this any number of times, but when I first met my calligraphy teacher, Morita Shiryu, he and I were talking one afternoon, just chatting. And he tells me, 'I'm looking forward to growing old."
And I was just a young kid, 26 years old. He was maybe 58. And I was kind of dumbfounded. "Why do you want to get old for?" I asked. And he tells me, "I want to see how I will grow old and how my art will change."
And for some reason..at the time, I brushed it off as the rambling of an old man. [laughter], but I never forgot that for some reason. And when I was approaching 60 about that time when we end one's life cycle according to the Chinese zodiac, that came back to me. And I thought, "how true that is." Because my own calligraphy was starting to evolve and I could see the change. Even now, I relish when I pick up the brush again and I practice. What kind of lines will come out? How will it change? It is really exciting.
But we can say that with anybody in any circumstance or any discipline. Trying to master something you want to see how your skill changes and what comes out is different from what comes out when you did it when you were 20.
Richard: You know what stands out for me in this story is that there is no way just using words to explain to someone the difference between what you may come to realize and the actual experience of this. What you have alluded to in terms of your own calligraphy is that you at 60 began to have an actual experience of something. It is not the same thing as a thought or idea or words, right? There is no substitute for realization, to embody, to occupy some shift.
Ron: What happens to you, you know. There is an inner illumination so to speak. And you don't have to share that with anybody. [laughter]
Richard: You absolutely know it, right? In an instant, you just know. That to me is so interesting. It stops my thoughts.
So an elder, ideally, is a person who has experienced this kind of growth to the point where it is a knowing that is fully inhabited. But like you said with the Confucian story, at 70, he could realize his heart's desire without violating any of the laws of heaven. That is a very interesting statement.
Ron: Getting back to your original question, so in Buddhism an elder is not a person who is chronologically old, but one who has engaged in self-cultivation, self-transformation, and sellf-realiztion. An elder is an elder because he follows the Buddha's teachings and lives it and exhibits and mentors that teaching through his life. Not by words, but through his example. So that will be the ideal.
Richard: For some reason this is bringing up this idea of karma which you have written about in a book called The Ethics of Enlightenment which I have read a little bit of. A fascinating book which you wrote a long time ago.
The idea of karma. My very brief understanding of the history of it which I got from you, Ron, is in the fifth century B.C. when the Buddha was the Buddha it was very widely thought and practiced that you could create good for yourself by doing rituals, by maybe animal sacrifice and doing rituals. Doing rituals the right way meant that you would help yourself in the afterlife.
Something happened there. What the Buddha did was evolutionary. In a way he sort of conceptualized the real meaning of karma. Would you talk about that just a little bit?
Ron: Sure. Well, according to Buddhist lore, the Buddha was an intellectual revolutionary because what he did with his reinterpretation of karma. In the society of India at the time there was a belief that one could through ritual purity one would be able to cultivate and mimic, as it were, replicate the rhythms of the Universe. That in itself is a kind of emancipation. All these things become denigrated over time. One or two generations, the idea is always lost.
But the Buddha says that no, one's spiritual emancipation is not determined is not determined by ritual purity or ritual correctness, but one's conduct. So instilled a moral matrix into one's personal action. So this was his revolution. So that is why he emphasized the good life--no killing, no eating of meat, things like this. And he had these eleven rules--no stealing, no lying. This had moral consequences. If you do good to purify your mind, this would lead to a better rebirth in the next life.
The other thing that the Buddha did according to the Buddhist is that at that time karma was understood to be a very simplistic idea. You do good and there would be a good result. But we all know that this is a very unrealistic proposition because we can only conduct ourselves if we live by ourselves in a vacuum, but we need to live with many, many people, and there are many forces in the world which we cannot control. So the Buddha proposed instead...instead of a single cause for good result, we have multiple causes and conditions which guide our lives and our intent. We may intend to do good, but we may end up doing evil, not by our bidding, but because we are caught up in circumstances that are beyond our control. This would be for example in time of war. Good men have to pick up an arm, a gun, and fight for his country and kill in the process. Or he is made to kill because someone breaks into his home. To protect his family he may have to do evil.
So the Buddha, says life is not too simple. [laughter] So this is an intellectual revolution, elaboration on the idea of karma which the Buddhist take credit for. 45:53
Richard: You know earlier you were reflecting about because of practical encounters with Christians and Buddhists and occasional difficulties that would appear at certain times, you found yourself thinking deeply about Buddhism and Christianity. I'm wondering what are the differences. Would you just share a little about this?
Ron: This is something that actually I'm thinking about now and this is the theme of my next book that I'm supposed to be writing. One of the things that I've noticed is that for example we all--Christian, Buddhist, Islamic people, people of faith--always bring their hands together in this kind of supplicational prayer. And phenomenologically it is all the same.
Richard: The Buddhists bring their hands together and the Christians bring their hands together and it looks the same.
Ron: Yes, the same. Phenomenologically it is the same. But I had to think about that because what is the basis for this gesture from a Buddhist and a Christian and what might that difference mean. Because of course with two different faith traditions. My conclusion after some years of thought is that both Christians and Buddhists emerge with their gestures and their rituals from two different sources, from two different positions. And for the Buddhists for example, the greatest question for the Buddhist thinker or philosopher, and this has been going on since the time of the Buddha, is what is the nature of the human mind. Now this is the absolute supposition of Buddhism. The Buddhist are concerned with what is the nature of the human mind? Is it good? Is it bad? Is it both good and evil? How do we control the mind?
The Buddhists are very good at meditation because they believe through meditation one can control the mind and therefore effectuate enlightenment.
On the other hand, the Christians, as far as I could tell, the great Christian question is what is the nature of diety, that is God. And what is man's or humanities relation to the absolute. This is the great question. So when the Buddhists bring their hands together in prayer they are honoring not diety or absolute, but they are honoring the Buddha in you or the mind in you. The mind that you possess. This is quite different from bringing your hands together in prayer for acknowledging absolute power of diety--quite different.
Richard: That is fascinating. I know that a couple of years ago someone sent me a book about the Christian prayer of the heart and the Sufi prayer of the heart and I think there are some people in the Christian world that seek to awaken what they would call the Christ Nature within, and I'm tempted to think that the Buddhist practice of meditation and stilling the mind would be also a way to allow some deeper truth to emerge that is more about the true nature of the mind. And I find those things to be potentially very reconcilable. What do you think of that?
Ron: Oh...I haven't thought about it too much. [laughter] I don't do too much thinking, you know?
Richard: That to me is a very Asian or Buddhist thing to say.
Ron: Well, you know, if you think too much you get crazy and I can't enjoy my flowers in my garden. [laughter]
Richard: Well, it's the Buddhist idea of no mind, right?
Ron: Well, no mind that is true. The thing about no mind is not to dwell on something that comes into your mind and let it go.
Richard: Ok. That is hard to do.
Ron: Sure. It's hard to do. But what I do is I go to sleep. [laughter]
Richard: I think we are in the area of cultivation. The Buddhist question, what is the nature of the mind? That is a profound question. What one runs into very quickly is that the mind just keeps cranking on. It just keeps on worrying and thinking about the future, worrying about the future, dwelling on the past. What do you do about this problem of the mind.
Ron: Well the mind in many ways has its own will. It will do what it has to do. But within the Buddhist tradition the trick or the task is to be able to control the mind--to understand the mind, and they believe through understanding the mind, that is its operations, how does the mind see for example? how does that translate into neuropsychology? Buddhists have really thought about these things for 2000 years ago. And there are treatises you can read about these things. 52:42
So the task is how does the mind function? And if we understand how it works, we can control it. So they devised all kinds of methods in controlling the mind. That would be meditation. There are all kinds of meditation. The two fundamental kinds of meditation is zen meditation, in which the mind is to be stilled in order for it to slide into wisdom. We call it Shamatha Vipassana. That is a very old Buddhist term.
The other approach is the Vipassana meditation that is done by the Theravada and other sects. Their approach is to be aware of everything around you. And both are very difficult to cultivate.
Richard: There is a basic problem here. And that is that word learn to control the mind. I mean this word control is a very dear word to all of us. We want to control things, right? So that it works out to our benefit.
I've got my little toolbox of control tools that work a little bit; they fail a lot. But here is the question. Is my little toolbox of control tools going to do the job?
Ron: Well, I think you need a good teacher.
Richard: My sense is that those little control tools that I've got tend to be connected to clinging and that isn't what is going to be needed. The cultivation actually asks us to become aware of the things that function in this which we are attached to. We begin to see all this. To become more conscious of how it is really functioning.
Ron: The Japanese solution to this. The Japanese are funny people. I can say that because I'm Japanese. [laughter] What they did for Buddhism is that they transposed this disciplinary aspect into the arts. So they have kendo (the way of the sword) or Kado (the way of flower arrangement), or Shodo (the way of the brush). And their solution to this problem was to be able to master a craft. And through this mastery one rides the whirlwind. Rather than be controlled by the whirlwind, one harnesses the whirlwind and rides it.
Richard: That is it. That is the key difference. But to ride it, not to try to control it.
Ron: Yeah, but this is very old Taoist notion that the Buddhists picked up at the end of the 5th century. But anyway, that was the Japanese solution to this. [laughter]
Richard: So that takes us back to art. How long have you lived in California?
Ron: Since 1983 or something like that. I'm not sure.
Richard: In your tenure at the GTU, one of the things you did was you were connected to the art and religion. The doctoral program in art and religion. I know you are connected to Asian/Japanese art, but have you made any effort to look at the Western contemporary art world.
Ron: A little bit. Not as deeply as I've done in Buddhism.
Richard: What interests me is there's tradition you spoke of--the art of Sho and all the other arts that the Japanese developed as a way of inner practice or cultivation. And I don't see anything like that in the West. Do you?
Ron: They probably have it, but in East Asia it is institutionalized. It is codified. They institutionalize or codify these ideas. But I believe in the West it is not codified in these institutionalized forms, so you need to find a teacher. That is my sense.
Richard: Well, when you say institutionalized another way to look at it more integrated.
Ron: Yes, but any time you institutional something it is prone to abuse and corruption. [laughter]
Richard: This goes back to the nature of the mind. For some reason in my mind I have this phrase that suffering is based on ignorance. It's a Buddhist kind of principal. Do you agree that that is a Buddhist principal?
Ron: Yes. Well, the prime metaphor and prime concern for Buddhism is what is the nature of the human mind. The great foil for the mind would be ignorance, because enlightenment means wisdom. So the great foil for enlightenment is ignorance. Ignorance within the Buddhist context would mean ignorance of the true nature of reality which is among other things that all things are transient. And we need to accept this fact that all things change and most people do not take to this very well.
We want to live forever, so we have code blue in hospitals. This is all not accepting of the true nature of the transiency of human life. When you cling to that you suffer because you can't let go. [laughter]
Richard: The phrase all things are transient sounds like a depressing thought. The first ordinary reaction. That is sad. In the deeper reaches of Buddhist experience, as I understand it, one encounters a kind of joy or bliss. Can you say anything about that?
Ron: Let me take that back to aesthetics. The Buddhists say that all things are transient. The Japanese Buddhists believe--this is a Japanese aesthetic value--that it is precisely because things change that we must enjoy the beauty of the moment. That is why they like flowers. That is why they like the cherry blossom because it blooms and it is most beautiful and just after that it begins to die. So we have to enjoy the transiency and recognize the moment of great beauty in this transient moment. 63:13
Richard: In Shin Buddhism, does the word satori come up?
Ron: No, satori is a zen term. The Shin Buddhist term would be shinjin--true faith.
Richard: Can one take solace in some sort of view that if you get closer to the true nature of mind that somehow it is not personal, somehow we are all connected in some sort of greater reality?
Ron: Well, one of the virtues of true understanding to Buddhism is not only that all things are transient, but that all things are interconnected. We rise and we fall together as one living body, as the Buddhist would say. [laughter]
Sarah Hatch: Do you see the same spiritual teaching in all the main religions of the world? The pure teachings of the founders of the faith? Do you see many of the spiritual similarities between the teachings of Buddha and Jesus, Muhammad, Moses, Krishna, and the manifestations of all major religions?
Ron: Boy, that is a hard question. I like to think so in the sense that all of these teachings and spiritual cultivations really address humanity's greatest yearning. That is to be free from suffering, and also point to our aspirations that we all need to be happy and free from suffering. That is all I can say in a very general sense.
Kozo: And maybe the means of freeing ourselves from that suffering are kind of different paths to the same pagoda.
Ron: Well, of course, people respond and give different expression because of circumstances and time and the material they have on hand through their highest ideals. In my study of different faith traditions, there seems to be a different means of cultivation to this goal. Now, this especially true for the formal religions, the formal faith traditions, the large faith traditions. I'm not sure about the non-institutionalized faith traditions such as shamanic traditions and things of this nature. That is a whole other area of discussion.
Pallavi: Thank you so much for such an enriching morning. I'm going to start with telling you a little story about funerals in my family and hopefully a question will emerge. My great grandfather was a very religious man. A hindu and he would do a 24 hour puja. And he was very well known to burn camphor on his bare palms, as a part of the ritual. And after a while that became kind of gimmick and people would come to see that, so he stopped doing that.
A couple of years ago I found out that for someone who was so devout and religious all his life, he actually told his family towards the end of his life not to do any karma rituals, which was very stunning to hear for me being that he was so devout. Very recently I found out that he wrote about kundalini.
If I go down generations, my grandmother who passed away about 10 years ago, and in my family I have a parent working for an eye hospital, and we are very familiar with eye donation. You know, donate your eyes when you die. And my grandmother kept reminding my mother before she died, "don't forget to donate my eyes." But she was particular about the karmic rituals. And at her funeral none of the male decedents were there. I was there as a daughter, but I wanted to do the last rights for her, but I didn't out of respect for her.
One more generation, my mother recently told me some shift. She has worked in the hospital for 25 years. She said, "Don't do anything for me when I die. Donate my body to a medical institution for research." I'm kind of stunned at that statement. So my question really is...you know you were talking deeply about funerals and karma and in some sense we have to let go of our body and the decedents have to decide what to do with the person's remains after they pass on is also deeply embedded in our society depending on which religion we are born in. What are your thought about the two aspects of this: the soul after life aspect and what do the people you leave behind do with your physical remains. Do you have any thoughts on that paradox? You can say it is moral or immoral or karma, but in terms of the two souls dancing, the parent and the child.
Ron: This is a different question. It has to do with commingling of different cultures. And each family and each generation will have to do and understand this in a different way. I know my answer is very abstract and very general, but I have found in my experience as a Buddhist cleric that we are moving further and further away from the way things were done in the homeland. I think this is a very natural progression. Sometimes I don't like it, but I also understand that we live in a different culture and our children themselves don't understand the true significance of the way things were done in the past. So I don't think we should make any judgment.
The only thing I would say is that I would hope that the children of Buddhists parents would honor their parents in a Buddhist way. Sometimes they don't. The forget these rituals and things. But sometimes I get angry, but I try not to impose my feelings and judgments on the children or grandchildren.
Pallavi: I understand what you are saying, but I'm asking what is your view of this from a deeper/higher soul perspective about the funeral rite itself, what gets done or doesn't get done based on the wishes of the person who has passed on. So from a spiritual perspective.
Ron: Now that is a difficult question because I always thought the funeral ritual crystalizes a faith tradition, whether it be Hindu or Buddhist. These rituals come about through long years of tradition and custom. Whether they link up to notions of karma or retribution, I can't say. It is really a matter of our world view. I'll have to leave it at that.
Pallavi: Thank you.
Kozo: When you talk about homeland rituals being shifted when they come into a new culture. There seems to be a speeding up of rituals, for example getting a black belt or chanting during funeral rituals. It seems that that patience and perseverance and grit seems to be dropping out. Do you find both in your calligraphy and your practice of Buddhism that those ritual practices or that type of cultivation dropping out and that being a hinderance to a larger awakening?
Ron: It is true about Buddhist rituals, most people do not like the priests who chant long sutras. It is really unfortunate. That is my view. Modern day people in American and Japan have no patience to sit through all of these rituals. They think that it is full of baloney. [laughter] But I'm not sure about the black belt thing, but in America people ask me to teach calligraphy. I will take on a student from time to time, but they have no patience. I say, "it is going to take you 10 years at least, minimum, even if you practice everyday, to get any good." They don't come back. [laughter]
I don't take any students anymore because I don't have the patience.[laughter]
Kozo: So, Ron, do you feel like when you don't have that 10 year dedication or even the dedication to sit through a 20 minute sutra...
Ron: You are talking to a traditionalist, so I would say it's too bad it's not happening. Something is lost when we abbreviate our practices. Americans say, "Well, you take an introductory course, intermediate course, and advance course, and now you are a master." We all know that this is not the case.
The other day a good friend of mine who is an old Confucian scholar, we were walking in Berkeley because I have a piece up in one of my exhibits there at Expressions Gallery. And I'm kind of an old-time, old-fashion guy. I said, "You know, Ed, we don't belong in this world anymore. [laughter] The world has passed us by." It is a different world. Whether it is good or bad, I just don't know. I think it is bad, but I should not make a judgment. [laughter]
Richard: I think what Kozo is talking about I really can relate to that. There is something to be gained by persevering. To me it might have to do with cultivation. This kind of practice. How do we get beyond our attachments to our comfort? It is a struggle isn't it? There has to be a payment, right? You can't just do 2 years, now I'm the master?
Ron: No you can't do that.
Richard: You have to make some payment, right?
Ron: [laughter] Like a true capitalist. [laughter] I wouldn't use the metaphor of payment, but that is true. I do believe that mastery for anything whether it be a craft or one's own life that's self-cultivation. And it takes a lifetime to cultivate one's...to know one's self. Being an old traditionalist person, I think that this would be a good way to go and cultivate and instill such ideas into our children and grandchildren, generally speaking.
Richard: We touched briefly on rituals, and part of this traditionally in rituals, I think, has to do with sacrifice, so I'm just kind of wanting to stay on this topic. Maybe instead of using the word payment, we could substitute the word sacrifice. You have to give up something, maybe, in the service of a wish. In the service of a wish, there is something of a finer quality, to appear it may be necessary to persist a kind of discomfort or something that is running against my short term desires.
Ron: Sacrifice. You use the term sacrifice as a kind of training, as a kind of discomfort. Well, to master anything, a craft or discipline or Buddhist studies or whatever, is not easy. And it takes perseverance. Of course, the more one practices the better one becomes. But practice should be done under the guidance of someone who has been there before, that is a good teacher. Otherwise, practice becomes meaningless or worthless or you may go on to the wrong path. So the trick is to have a tradition in which this idea is very important. The institutionalization of discipline is very good in this sense. Now in America we don't have that, so it is very difficult to know if a person is matured or has mastered the craft. It is very difficult to know. At least, in Japan, that would be a kind of gild system where one becomes a master craftsman, one has mastered a certain amount of things. So, in that sense, it is very good.
Again, anytime you institutionalize something, it is always prone to abuse, and there is lots of that. There is lots of false teachers, as it were. So, I'm not sure how to answer that question.
Richard: You pointed out that a teacher is needed, but ideally a real teacher.
Ron: A real teacher, yes. That is hard to come by.
Richard: Because I can get lost in illusion or delusion.
Ron: Most people are, yes. [laughter] My take on all this is that we are too serious about cultivation and the spiritual path. I remember I was in Thailand once talking with a monk. I joked and joked, and we would laugh. And he said, "Oh, this is a happy monk."
I said, "the dharma is joy.84:51 [laughter] And the dharma is laughter. I think of Therevada monks in South East Asia, the monks tend to be very serious. There is very little humor in Therevada Buddhism. [laughter] In Mahayana, they dwell on humor.
Richard: Oh, that is nice.
Ron: In the Zen temple there are lots of humorous stories.
Albert: Would mind speaking to the concern which is often brought up whether the personal Buddhist spiritual practice is expressed and celebrated in community, service, and activism? Perhaps some reference to teachers and practitioners who have been examples.
Ron: In Mahayana Buddism and even Therevada Buddhism, the highest ideal of Buddhism is not the enlightenment, but compassion. Both of course are two sides of the same coin, but unless one practices what one preaches, it is worthless. When I was studying at Harvard University, one of the gates said, "Enter to grow in wisdom." As you left the campus another gate said, "Now lead the world to serve humanity."
You can train to be a physician, but if you never practice your skill, all the training and wisdom is for not. It is only for yourself, and that is a very selfish kind of ideal. Ideally, this is what the Buddhists should do: to share whatever merits, she has gained or learned with all humanity. Now, there are also many examples of this throughout the community. I'm sure you can find them.
Examples, there is the Buddhist's Peace Fellowship here in Berkeley which tires to live the Buddhist ideal. This in many ways is a social contract theory of methodism. Because many Westerners came to Buddhism with this idea. But the ethnic Buddhist temples and churches like where I was have been going out to the world mainly focused on their own community. They have so many needs. And they do go out beyond there communities, but it take a great effort. So this is just a practical matter. That has been my experience.
Kozo: Thank you, Ron. I wanted to ask you about kyogai. You define it as spiritual dwelling place, although in Japanese culture, kyogai can mean your economic status or where you are in life. But you really emphasize the spiritual dwelling place aspect of it. Where are you in you kyogai?
Ron: I wish I knew. [laughter] I'm a little better today than I was yesterday. Maybe I'll be more matured tomorrow after this interview experience.
You are correct. Kyogai originally referred to socio-economic status. But in Japanese Buddhist culture, kygogai refers to one's spiritual attainment, one's spiritual dwelling place, where are you in your spiritual life, in your spiritual cultivation. The task, this is what I learned from my study of calligraphy in Japan, the task for the calligrapher is to give form to this spiritual dwelling place. This is a responsibility that you have. To share what one has to the world. What else can I say?
Kozo: Can you flesh that out for us. As a calligrapher, how do you...?
Ron: The prime example of kyogai in calligraphy in Japanese circles/Buddhist circles is the zen master Hakuin Zenji. The 17th century zen reformer. We can read his work because many of his works are preserved. We can see from his earlier calligraphy pieces to the latest ones a growth, a spiritual growth. We can see this through his calligraphy because in his early years he writes like anyone else--very controlled, very clear. But as he gets older, it becomes freer. He, as it were, has mastered himself and the brush that he doesn't really care what other people think. He just wants to give form, and he gives form, he give expression to his spiritual maturity, and especially his later works which is almost amorphous, ill-conceived as it were, but one feels a power that comes from a very profound source of an individual, not his mind, but his being. Mind is only part of one's being.
Richard: That to me is so crucial--that we got to the word being here. We don't use that word in this culture--being. The whole meaning of being is something lost to us.
Kozo: With this idea that you mentioned earlier of a Buddhist elder who mentors others with his life. Like how you can see in Hakuin who mentors others with the calligraphy of his whole life where you can see the progression. I find a very similar thing where Jesus said, "My lesson is my life."
Ron: Yeah, you can do something great. Or I can have a brilliant piece of calligraphy that is almost a fluke. It happens to all of us sometimes. We have a brilliant move. They make a basket. I'm watching the Warriors and Steph Curry is brilliant not just because one shot but he is consistent so far throughout his career. So in the same way, spiritual people turn to their teachers or elders or Native Americans or community leaders as their mentors, not because of one great thing they did, but because of their cultivation, transformation throughout a lifetime.
Of course, this age puts a great emphasis on that. It is true for every society. These are the people whom we turn to and look to that really validate any faith tradition. When we see a good Buddhist, we think maybe there is something to this faith tradition. Or good Christian person. So it is a lifetime thing [laughter] That is my experience so far. Tomorrow I may have a different idea.
Kozo: How can we as the larger Service Space community support your work, support you life work now?
Ron: Well, what can I say? I don't have an answer. Just let me do what I'm doing. [laughter] Like a country western song, "don't hold me back." [laughter] If I make a mistake tell me, though. If I screw up. If I make a mistake, remind me. Not too often though. [laughter]
Kozo: Ron, thank you so much for sharing with us today. When I look back at this call, there is so much there that I've experienced that has taught me in a way, not so much words, but the humor and the laughter and the humility and just the wisdom and the clarity has really been a powerful experience for me personally and I'm sure for many of the listeners. I just want to thank you so much for sharing this space with us.
Ron: I usually don't get this much praise. When I go home, my wife and my daughter are going to get after me. [laughter]
About Awakin Calls
Awakin Call is a weekly global series of deep conversations with inspiring changemakers. It is an all-volunteer offering and is completely free, without any ads or solicitation. Read more ...
Subscribe To Newsletter
To stay updated about guest announcements, fresh content, and other inspiring tidbits, subscribe below and we'll send you a weekly email.
If you have any questions, feel free to drop us a note.