Early in the morning when the sun lifts into the sky from the distance of the horizon, the treasure ship . . . sails towards me in a vision. When that treasure ship arrives I dream of loading it with rice and vegetables, wild flowers, beasts and people I love and setting sail toward the light of my lucky direction. I am at the helm.
Several years ago a naked goddess with full breasts and buttocks, red cheeks and red nipples, swirled her colorful scarf at me from a silk screen print in a friend’s kitchen. I came back to visit her often. As time passed the sisters of this goddess, thunder goddesses, wind goddesses, sea goddesses, goddesses of snow and the sunset . . . greeted me from the walls of other kitchens, living rooms, bathrooms. They trailed colorful scarves, ribbons and flowers as they cycled, sailed, swam into my dreams. It wasn’t until Thich Nhat Hanh’s retreat at Green Gulch Farm last fall that I met the creator of these goddesses. This was, indeed the perfect context to meet Mayumi Oda. Born in Tokyo in 1941, at the time of Pearl Harbor, Mayumi shares Thich Nhat Hanh’s understanding of the sufferings of war, coupled with a passionate commitment to the expression of joy.
Mayumi Oda, an internationally recognized artist and a Zen practitioner, resides in Muir Woods, near San Francisco Zen Center’s Green Gulch Farm. Drawing on the themes and motifs of traditional Japanese and Buddhist mythology, she celebrates women and the female form by changing the powerful masculine gods, the wind god, the thunder god and others, into their radiant, playful, female counterparts.
Inquiring Mind editors Wes Nisker and Henrietta Rogell interviewed Mayumi this fall and gave me the privilege of editing the transcripts. The following article is a collage of quotations from Mayumi, drawn from her interview with Inquiring Mind and her books.
The quotations are excerpts from Mayumi’s book Goddesses (78pp. Lancaster-Miller Publishers, 1981. Thirty-two color prints) and a pamphlet she wrote for an exhibition sponsored by the Institute of Culture and Communication, Mayumi Oda Retrospective (8pp. East-West Center, Honolulu, Hawaii, 1985. Four black-and-white prints).
Sometimes my goddesses burst from the sea like Venus; sometimes they float in the night sky. I love to sketch lettuce and purple cabbage spreading their leaves open like the mandala of the Buddha fields, revealing the mystery of creation.
I hope to make a positive and uplifting statement in my art. I hope to express the joyfulness and playfulness of female vitality. To me, life is basically suffering. But, as Thich Nhat Hanh says, “Suffering is not enough!” Why should I add more suffering by painting something awful and depressing?
At a time when I was very sad, I painted vegetables. Even when I feel sad and tired, the unfolding shapes of cauliflower, lettuce and purple cabbage gives me energy to create.
Out of pain and confusion, art is a means for my survival.
My past doesn’t seem to exist behind me, but here with me creating the present. I was born in the middle of World War II, on the edge of Tokyo.
My earliest memory is having a tantrum in my crib, being very, very angry. Huddled under the dim light, we listened to the news of the bombing in Tokyo. Sometimes air-raid sirens filled our town as well. I wanted to be somewhere else, where it was peaceful.
I have childhood memories of fearing that someone would kill me, of not having enough to eat, of being evacuated to the country and separated from my father and grandparents, of returning to Tokyo on a pack train. . . . Life-threatening experiences were primal for me. As a child I thought about death a lot, because it was very, very close. I was pessimistic about life.
My family was Nichiren Buddhist. I was forced to sit in front of the altar in gloomy rooms and we would chant together: NAM MYO HORENGEKYO, NAM MYO HORENGEKYO. Nichiren was a twelfth-century revolutionary monk who was executed because of his political views. Many who were leftists or anarchists took on Nichiren chanting practice. My paternal grandmother, Ai, was a Nichiren revolutionary in the 1920s. A devout Buddhist and a passionate socialist, she was admired by everyone as a woman of great compassion. Long before I was born, Ai committed suicide, possibly because she was ill with incurable tuberculosis and possibly because of her despair over the political oppression of the times. My grandmother, Ai, was my father’s ideal woman. So he tried to fashion me to become like her.
There were a lot of monks in my father’s family, but they were not regular monks. They never had a family temple and they were kind of revolutionary. On the other hand, my mother’s family were very civilized, cultured people from Tokyo, and they produced quite a few artists. My mother wanted me to be an artist.
When I was eleven years old she (my mother) took me to see Siko Munakata’s woodblock exhibition, where I saw his Ten Disciples of Buddha. My mother transmitted her love of art to me by holding my hand and going over each print. She was still young and beautiful and her full white face seemed to resemble Munakata’s Kannon Bodhisattva. She took me to the cafeteria and bought me vanilla ice cream. Licking the silver spoon, I dreamed about my adult life as an artist and made a vow I would make my mother happy.
My father had studied Zen when he was young. At the dinner table he taught us about Zen. He would say, “Think about nothingness. What is nothingness? You have a minute, and in that minute is a second, and in that second there are millions of moments. You are here now. In the next second, where are you?” He would talk to me like this when I was five years old.
When, as a young woman, I went out into everyday life in Tokyo, I experienced attitudes and mores so very different from those in my family. I didn’t want to live in this tight and stifling Japanese society. Soon after entering art college I married John Nathan, a young American studying Japanese literature at Tokyo University. We lived in Japan until graduated from school, and then we moved to New York.
I was transported from Japan to New York at the end of the Vietnam War in the 1960s. People reminisce about the wonderful ’60s, but the clouds of the war were hanging over us; we were really depressed. John wrote a column for the Evergreen Review entitled, “Notes from the Underground,” about Satchadananda, Allen Ginsberg and Timothy Leary. Flower children, movements to legalize abortion and pornography were filling my life. I met many artists. Mark Rothko and Willem de Kooning had the most powerful effect on me.
De Kooning’s paintings were so violent, so full of raw passions, that when I was in his studio surrounded by them, I could not breathe. Rothko told me that he often read Shakespeare. Later, when I heard about his suicide, I understood what he had meant: His paintings were so intensely sad and burdened. I knew right away that I could not be a painter like them. I said to myself, “I am small,” “I am Japanese.” I kept questioning myself: “What is my art?”
When I gave birth to my first child, I felt my strength as a woman. I felt joy in being a woman and I wanted to celebrate it. I had an urge to draw a big-breasted Gaia, or earth goddess. I needed an icon for myself with which I could identify, an image through which I could grow. I used my art to create something to grow into. You draw it, and then you become it.
How do I approach Aphrodite? I give myself golden skin and long black hair and I am Aphrodite herself. I let the Aegean Sea and the South Wind wash me to Cyprus. All of us create our own legends.
I had my second son in Cambridge, Massachusetts. In Cambridge I encountered student strikes and the birth of women’s liberation.
Between taking care of two children and the house, I had very little time to create. I felt like I was going to lose myself. Out of desperation, my art became a survival force. Without creating art, I wouldn’t be myself. The children forced me to see who I was. Being an artist wasn’t a luxury any more. I needed to see myself as positive, strong. Through creating goddesses, I became stronger. . . . Through my creative process I have been creating myself. Goddesses are projections of myself and who I want to be.
As the urge to know myself increased I took a new interest in Japanese culture. I discovered that my own culture was a treasure box of writings and art.
I made my goddesses to explore Japanese traditional design, which is so free, extravagant and sometimes even wild. Goddesses started to play in the flowering fields of kimono brocade and swim in oceans of Hokusai waves. My free female figures brought old designs to the present.
In a quest to understand myself as a woman, I read a lot of books. I was inspired by reading . . . . mostly by the noveIs, poems and essays of two Japanese women Buddhists, Raicho Hiratsuka, a Zen practitioner, and Kanoko Okomoto, a Tantric Buddhist. Through them I experienced an alternative to the traditional view of women. They both saw women in an incredible light, strong. Both also talked about the life force they derived from their practice.
Both were Buddhists, and both had discovered through their Buddhist practice a source of vital power within themselves which they identified as a long-forgotten female vitality and strength—the creative power of the primeval woman.
In 1978, when John and I spent a year in Tokyo, I began to practice zazen, Zen meditation. I felt compelled to know myself more deeply. When we returned to the United States we moved to Muir Beach, next door to the Zen community at Green Gulch Farm. John moved with me, but not long after, we were separated.
Zen is supposed to free you to experience the joy of each moment. But Zen, in Japan, is associated with the Samurai tradition, so there is a lot of seriousness and stoicism intermixed with Zen practice. This is not all there is to Zen. If you read the wonderful stories in the Chinese Zen tradition you experience a kooky kind of playfulness and joy.
I was searching for a practice that fit my psyche. Soto Zen was more or less my style. But at the San Francisco Zen Center you feel a little bit like a Presbyterian practicing Zen. There is a certain lack of joy. Perhaps I haven’t completely found my style. And probably never will.
I haven’t grown with my practice. I’ve regressed. I wish I could regress all the way to get the freedom of a child. As adults we are so sure about what is supposed to be good and what is supposed to be bad, and we are burdened by many expectations. We are far from free. I would like to get rid of all the “goods” and “bads,” all the familiar expectations. Maybe when I am eighty . . . I’ll be like a child.
There are famous paintings of the Thunder God and the Wind God by the seventeenth-century painter Sotatsu. These Gods are angry and frightening. I simply transformed them into Goddesses.
Most of the goddesses I draw are inspired by known figures. To transform a god into a goddess I need to break through the expectation for conventional male images. If I don’t transcend the expectation, I can’t see the goddess. The famous thunder god by Sotatsu is an angry masculine, macho form. I wanted to make it more joyful, to develop more of its yin aspect. The powerful masculine aspect is hard to transcend, but once I have broken through the expectation, the power becomes joyous and playful.
To transcend expectation we must take flight into the unknown. The philosopher Wittgenstein tells a story that beautifully illustrates how difficult it may be to take this flight: Begin by imagining that you put sugar water in the bottom of a fly bottle; then you paint the top half of the bottle black. Flies enter, smelling the sweet sugar water, and go down to the bottom. Because the top half of the bottle is painted black, the flies think there is no way out. So they stay in the bottom and die. That, to me, is a metaphor for where we are and how we are struck, a metaphor for suffering.
To be stuck in the familiar is compelling, sticky-sweet like sugar water. It takes power to recognize that we can move beyond familiar expectations, that we can take flight into the unknown. We must realize that the bottle is merely painted black, that we can get out.
Sitting zazen is like sitting in an unknown space that is painted black. Nobody tells us what is there. We sit with it. Everything exists in this space. We are the ones who define the possibilities, the ones who think there is a limit because we believe it is black. But if the flies fly high into the space, it opens, it’s unlimited. We can simply fly high too!
Painting goddesses is flying into the unknown space. I am learning to fly high through sitting zazen and through my own visual practice. When I break through expectations I leave the sugar water of the familiar behind. Old ways of seeing can seem so sweet and comfortable. And the unknown space is scary. I love Bob Dylan . . . . to me he always goes in the black space. And that is why I am one of the few that always followed him, wherever he went, all the way. An artist has the power to stay completely in that new space.
The creative process is like sitting. You go through a lot of garbage, but it’s not visible to other people. What is visible is your sitting form.
In the lotus position, in the same spot sometimes for as long as seven days, you invest your whole body and mind. Your mind becomes a screen on which you observe your thought and emotions, your longing and your despair, as they filter through.
At one time, when I was going through excruciating pain, I stopped painting goddesses. I did a lot of self-portraits. I never show those self-portraits to people. They were just for me, for my cleansing.
Sometimes, in preparation for creative work, I do a practice which helps me cleanse my mind of thought. I do calligraphy of the sutras, which is called shakyo or tracing sutras. I usually do a Heart Sutra in Japanese with Chinese characters. I empty the mind so that inspiration may come in. And if it doesn’t, I clean the studio, I cook, I garden. Then, if inspiration comes, it shows me what to do. When you draw or paint, you feel like a filter. The images arise; you don’t search for them. So you have to wait around. Creating art is good patience practice!
I used to think of myself as an artist but I don’t so much anymore. Perhaps the image changed as I continued to practice zazen. In Japanese tradition, most of the great art is done by monks. The one that I particularly liked was done by Tessai Tomioka. He was a philosopher and a Shinto priest. Then he studied Buddhism and Taoism. He said that unless you purify yourself, you cannot become a good painter. “Don’t call me a painter,” he said, ”I’m not. I’m just cleaning myself and whatever presents itself, that will be my state, the way I am now.”