Mayumi Oda is a small person who works on a vast scale, whether it’s making enormous paintings of goddesses, starting an organic farm on Hawaii, diving deep into Buddhist practice, or working for a peaceful, nuclear-free world. She has big visions and then she throws herself into realizing them, giving herself without restraint to her art and her projects, as well to the people she works with. Her art exhibition, called “Prayer for a New Birth of Japan,” opened at the Honolulu Academy of Art on May 24, 2012. Barbara Gates and Susan Moon interviewed Oda for Inquiring Mind in the fall of 2011.
Inquiring Mind: You were in Japan last year at the time of the earthquake. Can you tell us what your experience was?
Mayumi Oda: It was the most frightening thing. On March 11, 2010, I left my home in Hawaii and flew to Japan. A friend picked me up at the airport, and we were on the way to the village of Morokino when the earthquake happened, but I was too far away from it to feel it. I didn’t even know about it until my sister-in-law called me from Hawaii and said, “Are you all right? Are you not dead?”
I had been invited to Morokino by one of Japan’s big lumber barons, Mr. Morita, who had recently ordained as a monk in the Jodo Pure Land tradition. In the fall of 2011, Mr. Morita had seen my art show in Nara, commemorating the fact that Nara, where Buddhism took root in Japan, had become Japan’s capital 1,300 years ago. The show was called “Invitation to a Buddhist Utopia,” in reference to the ecological values of traditional Japanese Buddhist culture. Mr. Morita had invited me to help make the village of Morokino into a Buddhist utopia.
I was sitting in Mr. Morita’s house in Morokino when we heard about the meltdown at Fukushima. It gave me chills, because this is what I had been worried about for so many years in my work as an antinuclear activist. I had made many giant goddess scrolls to bring healing energy to this antinuclear work. And there I was, in Japan, at the very time when a meltdown was happening.
We didn’t know exactly what was going to happen—this is how it is in a meltdown. The bad news kept getting worse: a few hours later, we heard about the tsunami wiping out so much of northern Japan. We sat in Mr. Morita’s house watching it on TV. We got more and more horrible news, one thing after another. I had gone to help make a Buddhist utopia in Morokino; instead, we were faced with unbelievable disaster. I said, “We’ve got to do something. Let’s bring the goddesses in.” We decided to bring the big thangkas of goddesses to Morokino, the ones that I did especially for my work as an antinuclear activist.
IM: You were evoking the goddesses to help in some way.
MO: I hoped the thangkas would help Morokino rejuvenate. There were only about ten people still living in that village, all of them over eighty, and they had given up long before the earthquake. Morokino and other villages in the region had been rich in agriculture—rice, tea, arrowroot, beans and vegetables. But you can’t make a living with agriculture alone.
There I was in Mr. Morita’s house, talking about bringing the goddess thangkas to the village and doing an art event to heal the earth, and at that very minute people were being wiped out. I had no idea how many people were dying. The need for healing was so real and urgent.
We decided to do the event on June 9th. It turned out that this was an important day for Morita-san’s family, because an ancestor of his had committed suicide on that day. So we had an event for the healing of his family, for Morokino and the surrounding villages, for everyone who suffered from the tsunami and the earthquake and, of course, for what happened afterward in Fukushima. By a lucky coincidence, a Tibetan Buddhist practitioner and sound healer named Silvia Nakkach had been invited to Japan to do a workshop at that time. So we invited her to our event to do ceremonies for healing and to lead us in chanting. Three Jodo Shin priests came, and we circumambulated the whole village. It was in the middle of the rainy season, but the amazing sun came out, and the thangkas we carried were not drenched.
Later on, in August, a typhoon came and the whole area was badly flooded. The lumber business had already been declining because people couldn’t afford to buy wood, and now Japan was in such a mess, we realized we couldn’t go on with the Buddhist Utopia project there, at least not for now. Besides, I didn’t want to focus on that village alone. I wanted to work with a bigger vision, bringing in the feminine, and sustainable agriculture—principles I’ve been developing on the farm in Hawaii. So we decided to focus our healing work on reviving an ancient Shinto pilgrimage that had passed through this whole region for centuries.
IM: Can you tell us about the pilgrimage?
MO: Ever since Nara became the capital of Japan, 1,300 years ago, a pilgrimage followed an ancient route from Osaka and Kyoto through Nara to Ise, the home of the shrine to our sun goddess, Amaterasu. It dawned on me that the village of Morokino was once full of inns for pilgrims on their way to Ise. It’s about a three-day walk from Nara. And as more and more devastating stories were coming out of Fukushima, I thought it would be a good time to wean ourselves from nuclear energy and go back to solar energy. One way to encourage that would be to revive the pilgrimage and bring back our connection to the sun goddess.
IM: What a beautiful idea. Could you tell us more about her?
MO: Amaterasu is the goddess of the sun. It’s rare to have a woman be the sun goddess, because usually it’s the moon goddess that’s a woman. So in reviving this pilgrimage, we are reclaiming the mother goddess, who is our life. She is the one who gives us the nutrients for our land and from our land.
Amaterasu had been used by the Japanese navy and army during World War II as a symbol of Japan. She was the goddess of the Japanese imperial household, and she was misused in many ways. People still believe in her and she’s a major goddess, but they shy away from her now because of the association with Japanese imperialism. Recently, though, a lot of people have started to go back to Ise Shrine in her honor.
Every twenty years, according to tradition, the Ise Shrine is completely rebuilt. It’s called Sengu, “returning the shrine.” They’ve been doing this ever since the shrine was first built. In 2014 it’s going to be Sengu again. I thought it would be a good idea to bring back the pilgrimage in conjunction with Sengu. It could bring a new kind of business to the declining villages to build inns along the old pilgrimage road and provide work for the young people who don’t have jobs anymore. Most of the old pilgrimage roads are still there, and some of the old inns are still intact, but they aren’t in use. They need a lot of work. Young people could rebuild them and run them for the pilgrims. As a matter of fact, Mr. Morita’s beautiful traditional house was one of the old guest inns on Ise Kido, the ancient pilgrimage road, and he has begun to make it available for Buddhist and yoga retreats.
For many centuries, the shrine to Amaterasu was just for the imperial household. Then the people realized that they wanted to visit the shrine too, especially farmers, because farmers love the sun goddess. She’s very special to them. So in the seventeenth century they just started going. At first it was called the “hiding pilgrimage” because people ran away from home to do it, mostly young people, as young as seven or eight years old. The people who worked in the shops also snuck away. It was the only way they could go, because they weren’t allowed to leave their work. And the mothers carried their babies.
People established a culture of helping each other along the way. Local people provided the pilgrims with carriages, horses and huts to sleep in. The pilgrims carried ladles to receive food offerings, and villagers gave them rice, sushi, mochi. It was a self-realized movement, a huge people’s movement.
In the early years, the pilgrims wore white clothes, pure white, and later on they got very dressed up, and they started to dance and sing and have music. By the eighteenth century the pilgrimage was huge. Sometimes there were 10,000 people a day walking in the road. The biggest one was in 1813, with about half a million people.
As the pilgrimage is getting going again now, I’m asking a lot of young people to start singing about the sun goddess Amaterasu. If young people can dance and sing, you know, anything can happen.
It’s significant that the pilgrimage flowered during the 300 years of the Tokugawa period, because this was our cultural renaissance in Japan, when an ecologically sustainable culture based on spiritual understanding really developed. It continued right up to the Meiji Restoration of the nineteenth century, when Shintoism and Buddhism were separated and Japan started to become industrialized, but I believe we still have access to this sustainable and spiritually based tradition—we have it in our DNA.
Now, an amazing thing about modern Japan is that we have developed advanced technologies for all kinds of new energy sources, including solar, wind, volcanic and waves; we also have created systems for detoxifying the poisoned environment, for cleaning the air and water. We now have the chance to rebuild the sustainable culture of the past in conjunction with our computer revolution, which is both an information revolution and an energy revolution. It is so possible! I believe we can do this because Japan has a strong tradition of living in peace and harmony with others.
IM: People all over the world have been amazed at the spirit of the Japanese people, not getting totally freaked about the current crisis. How do you account for that?
MO: When the earthquake happened and Fukushima happened, I thought about Hiroshima and Nagasaki. I was a child of four, living in Tokyo, when Hiroshima was bombed. I remember seeing a lot of hibakusha (survivors of the atomic bombing) begging on the streets in Tokyo, and I was terrified. So after the earthquake I wondered: why does Japan have to keep facing such nuclear disasters?
I believe we have the resilience and the strength and the patience to cope with this. Both the Shinto tradition and the Buddhist tradition teach a sense of oneness with nature. Actually, I think that deep inside, Japanese people are Shinto people; they are identified with animism, and their hearts are connected to their gods and goddesses. This sense of connection with the natural world and its spirits is in our culture, and if we can tap into it, despair can be made into hope.
IM: How did goddesses come into your art?
MO: When I started representing goddesses in my own art, it grew out of Shintoism. The first time I painted a goddess I had just had a child, and I had the experience of my body changing into, you know—
IM: A goddess!
MO: Yes, I got big and became like a Neolithic goddess figure. I was giving birth to a boy child during the time of the Vietnam War, and I needed solace and strength. Connecting with primeval goddesses helped me. I didn’t take on Buddhist practice until ten years later.
IM: What practices sustain you now in being able to continue to do your work?
MO: I get up really early and I sit every day before I start the day. Then I do yoga with my students at six o’clock, and then we do a small service and about thirty minutes of zazen together. And then the day goes on. I usually sit again, by myself, at night. Yoga and meditation keep me in a place of hope. They always bring me to the divine. When disaster comes, somehow I don’t feel upset. It’s a challenge, and I have faith that there must be something new to do.
Now I am studying Ananda Moy Ma. She was kind of an avatar, an Indian guru and saint. She died in 1982 in India. Now she’s a Hindu goddess. She inspires me because of the process she went through, a physical process and a physical practice of devotion. That’s what I do too. Zen Buddhism didn’t give me a direct loving connection to the gods and goddesses, and I missed that, so now I have a more devotional practice. It’s a kind of prayer. Gods and goddesses are beloved to me.
I recently learned that Daisetz Suzuki, the great Zen scholar, became a Jodo Shin believer and a follower of Amida Buddha at the end of his life. At a difficult time like this, I need to connect with a greater divinity. It could even be Jesus, you know. Just calling his name—it gives me tears. It’s kind of strange that all of a sudden I need somebody to give me that kind of support. Maybe it’s because I’m getting older, and like Daisetz Suzuki at the end of his life, I need a practice full of faith and heart.
IM: Do you bring this kind of devotion into your morning and evening meditation?
MO: When I am alone I do. I call on Mother—and mother, to me, is Amaterasu. I feel a really strong connection to Mother Earth. It’s so real to me.
In Nara, there’s a small temple from the eighth century called Renjyo-ji, and it’s Amida Buddha’s Pure Land temple. There is a female representation of Amida Buddha in this temple, and she’s one-of-a-kind in Japan. By an amazing coincidence, I was given the opportunity to lead a retreat doing goddess practice in this temple. Usually the statue of the goddess can only be seen in May, and we were there in October. But the widow of the priest, who takes care of the temple, gave us permission to chant the name of Amida Buddha in front of the statue. So we just cried and chanted. I do this kind of goddess practice not just for women—it’s to bring back the feminine to us, and especially the feminine in Buddhism, but it’s for everybody, men too.
I have to thank women’s practice of Buddhism in the United States during the ’80s and ’90s. It gave me so much strength and beauty, and a connection to the feminine part of Buddhism, which Japan could not offer me. Now I want to help bring back that feminine part of Buddhism in Japan. I don’t know how I’m going to do it, but that’s what I’m doing.
IM: Could you talk about the role of your art in this inspirational work?
MO: My show at the Honolulu Academy of Art is opening in May. I want to offer a fresh impression of Buddhism, to express what’s really happening now, and to do it in the old-fashioned Japanese style. I’m doing a huge Amaterasu scroll, a 600-panel screen of mostly women marching on the Ise pilgrimage road, with old people and dogs and horses. I’ve done some hand scrolls in the 13th-century style, using traditional sumi ink, brushes, and papers, promoting a vision of a sustainable solar life. And I’ve done a scroll I call “Vegetable Nirvana,” where Buddha takes the form of a daikon radish.
I do believe it’s possible to bring the strength of the feminine back to Japan, to bring back the culture that believes in the sun goddess, the oneness, the whole universe and the earth. I express this in my art. And this is why I have to go back to Japan, to take part in transforming this absolute disaster that we’re facing into hope.
To make a tax-deductible contribution to the Morokino Project, make checks payable to “Inochi,” specify “Morokino Project” on the check, and mail to Mayumi Oda, P.O. Box 1907, Kealakekua, Hawaii, 96750. Also, visit www.inochi.us. For information about helping with Japanese earthquake relief, see www.united-earth.jp. For more on Oda’s organic farm and retreat center, visit www.gingerhillfarm.com. For Oda’s website, visit www.mayumioda.net.