Last fall in Chapel Hill, I heard Kazuaki Tanahashi, a Japanese artist, poet, translator of Zen Buddhist texts and tireless peace worker, read his peace poems. Every so often he stopped to pick up a brush and draw the calligraphic characters that expressed some aspect of the poem on poster-sized paper, using vigorous, focused and economical movement. The many people gathered in the room, whatever their politics, raptly took in his words and his activity.
About a month later, in upstate New York, I participated in one of Kaz’s workshops. We experienced the pure effort of just brushing ink on paper, directly expressing ourselves. It didn’t matter that most of us had no prior experience with writing these characters or with the traditions of brush painting. One’s state of mind, however it was in that moment, appeared on the page. And whatever manifested on our paper, the entire day was suffused with kindness, openness, patience and generosity–Kaz shared it with us and we shared it with each other. It was a practice of peace, and this practicing peace–being peace–is limitless.
Kaz points out that in 1949, Costa Rica abolished its army. He thinks this is a good first step, and founded A World Without Armies to further a seemingly impossible and utopian goal–that of global demilitarization. But even impossible vows can be fulfilled, and each person matters. Here’s an example.
In Oregon, there is a Zen monastery led by a woman who was born on Aug. 9, 1945, the day the atom bomb was dropped on Nagasaki. Jan Chozen Bays connects her path of practice in Japanese Zen to her coming into the world as so many died. The monastery is dedicated to Jizo, who is the guardian of the deceased, of women, children, travelers and the sick. As the 60th anniversary of the bombings approached, Chozen got the idea of making a Jizo image for each victim, and bringing them to Japan. This meant creating 270,000 images–and certainly reflected the monastery’s name, Great Vow. How to accomplish it?
Chozen’s friend Kaz had a suggestion. In Japan, Buddhist texts are sometimes copied by hand as a devotional act. Similarly, Jizo images could be drawn, traced or stamped on page-sized cloth panels and sewn together into banners like prayer flags. So, in Chapel Hill and all over the country and around the world, in the midst of more war, thousands of people created images of Jizo, sending a thought of peace with each one. Buddhists, Christians, members of the military and their families, children, survivors and I, the child of a World War II veteran who fought the Japanese in the Pacific, made panels, sewed them into banners, and sent them to Oregon. Before a pilgrimage took them to Japan last month with Kaz in attendance, half a million Jizos had arrived at Great Vow. Maybe Kaz’s vow can be accomplished, too.
Kazuaki Tanahashi will be at the Chapel Hill Zen Center, 5322 N.C. 86, on Friday, Sept. 23, for a book signing at 7:30 p.m. and a reading and calligraphy demonstration at 8 p.m.