The Teacher Appears
He was Paul Miyoshi.
I passed by him; he raised his head with flashing white hair and set his gaze serenely upon me that first time. The pupils of his eyes were black, mysterious, as from another world.
“Konichiwa” he spoke with a smile wrapped in mischief.
There had been a slight bow which triggered a mirrored response.
Over the next year and a half, I’d get to know this man much in the way a box within a box reveals more boxes. He was both riddle and pun, light and shadow, and his laughter danced in my ears. I didn’t know it at the time, but he was about to become my first Sensei.
(When the student is ready, the teacher appears. -Siddhartha-)
“Two ways: with Nature and against--this is how art and life are chosen. Traditional Japanese life is with Nature. We surrender to our place as a falling leaf surrenders to the journey of the wind.”
My fellow artists and I used to go off by ourselves and giggle about Paul Miyoshi and his epigrams and “fortune cookie” style of speaking. We took to uttering a respectful mimicry of his style, thinking ourselves awfully clever. I see now in looking back over these many years how, initially, we missed the point entirely. Young men reared in Western ways are, in this way, against Nature. It is the role of the student to surrender to his teacher. That was yet to follow.
“In the Western world, men go against Nature. They build with nails, bolts, and steel. Cities are stone canyons like fortresses in a battle for supremacy. In Japan, traditionally we build without nails, without bolts, without steel. Our houses are made from trees. The bottom of our house is from the trunk wood of trees. The top is the branches of trees. In between, everything fits, slides, rests by clever interlocking joints, and gravity itself. Our windows are paper. Light diffuses into serenity itself. In the West, you use glass and must block direct sunlight by smothering your world in curtains and artificial bulbs and electric wires.”
I was a Texas boy in my mid-twenties. I escaped--a fugitive of my own life--fleeing westward into California with a dream of becoming an artist. I knew nothing about art at all. What I did know, I was full of in the same way foie gras is made.
In France, ducks are force-fed until their liver bursts. In Texas, I had been force-fed religious doctrines until my life burst.
What talents I possessed naturally were suddenly the focus of everything--I had decided it was time for this to be so. Instead of nothing, I would somehow become a something. I simply couldn’t go on the way I had been living--existing--inside the narrow tunnel of the Jehovah’s Witness way of life.
“Do you have a garden?”
“Without a garden, nothing in your world can grow.”
“The garden is a lesson in contemplation. How do you bring form into being from chaos? How does water flow? Nature flows, happens, shapes, and nothing can resist its power.”
“You are an artist?”
“That’s my goal.”
“Art isn’t about getting it right.”
“Well, you could have fooled me!”
“Any fool can learn technique. Getting it ‘right’ is the fool’s technique. Other fools are fooled by technique.”
“What is technique?”
“Duplication of effort. Duplication of form. Monkey see--monkey do. That can be learned by any fool.”
“Well, okay. What do you suggest in place of learning technique--which, by the way--is what Art Schools teach!”
“No. Not Art. Western schools teach students how to lie. A true teacher of Art must instruct his students in--first, how to see.”
Triangle Industries sounds exactly like what it was: a factory churning out objects representing decorative and artistic products at a reasonable price. My place in this industry was to be that of a line artist.
Long rows of easels and artists churned out copies of paintings to be sold en masse as though they were valuable object d’art.
As an employee, I’d grab a palette, paints, brushes and my canvas exemplar. Let’s say there was an order for a half dozen paintings of cockatoos. The example was the original painting and my job was to copy it. This was done in predetermined steps. The painting had been broken down into intermediate steps--or in-between canvas examples. The Designers created these paintings to copied from the get-go. It was like the Arthur Murray dance studio with black footsteps on the floor indicating where to place your feet in order to learn to dance the Cha-Cha. Each in-between stage required certain techniques--fast flourishes--to achieve the appearance of a ‘painterly’ final product passed off as an original. It was an exciting hollow experience which I looked upon as an apprenticeship. I was lying to myself. I was filled with dreams and this was cold reality.
“In Japan, the student of Art must live with his teacher day and night inside the hive with the other bees. It is an anthill of labor as well. It is a nesting on a high cliff or a school of swimming fish in a large pond. The student is absorbed into his place as the ocean and the raincloud feed each other’s existence.”
Yes, I started to love this shit factory and my new life. It felt like the joke about the guy who swept up elephant shit in the Circus parade. A bystander yelled at him, “Hey, why don’t you get a nicer job?” The man with the broom shouted back, “What? Leave show business?”
The fake paintings were--start to finish--fiction. A false persona was concocted for a non-existent Artist with a fake name, biography and romantic tale of Dickensian struggles and conquest attached. All of which became crafted into a counterfeit biography and Certificate of Authenticity. The unwary point-of-sale customer could be wooed and cajoled by the wording and adventure of it all. At least, that was the goal for Triangle Art.
“The Japanese way of life is one of response. We go with the wind--we bend, and not against it--or we break. China is our wind. The power of its army is irresistible. Survival wisdom is the first Art. The greatest victory is that which requires no battle. That is the art of war. It is the art of life itself.”
Triangle Art was a challenge for me. I did not possess any painting technique because I was a pencil artist--a natural genius at portraiture. It was a steep cliff from that to painting. I used to explain, “You can be a Checker champion and a miserable Chess player.” I was forced to learn quickly and absorb if I was going to keep my job. I watched the other artists. I tried asking questions and that was my first mistake. Artists, for the most part, are inarticulate. They don’t know what they know or especially why they do this rather than that. It appeared to me it was as instinctive as sneezing.
“The Artist’s life is warfare and its lesson can by no means be neglected. Know this first, we can know what to do and be unable to do it. A religious man, for instance, knows all about heaven and his knowledge makes him no earthly good to himself or others. I fear this your failing so far.”
My Jehovah’s Witness life was no earthly good to me or my family. We were discouraged from higher education, ambition, achievement or innovation. Why? Our Jehovah’s Witness world was a Last Stand situation against invisible enemies at world’s end. We were protagonists in a Science Fiction fantasy. Our conventions were Comic-cons where delusion became reality--false reality. Nothing in this world, so we were told repeatedly, was worth a moment of our time. Our only purpose, mission, goal, and ideal was warning fellow earthlings to become absorbed into our ‘ark’ of salvation before Armageddon arrived. We were conditioned to check for Armageddon the way a fisherman checks the weather.
“The student must learn to see that all of Nature and Life is change. The end of the world for the caterpillar is birth of a new world for the butterfly.”
Jehovah’s Witness life is a busy life of treadmill activity and hamster cage futility. An intelligent person becomes enmeshed in an ongoing learning spiral with endless publications by the Watchtower Organization pumping out proliferating pages of propaganda. Little by little, the interior life’s flame is snuffed out, opinions vanish, and the only focal point in the universe is just over the other side of the finish line at Armageddon: survival depends on it.
“Art has one purpose. It is the voice inside the Artist struggling to be heard. It is the wind of change blowing against time itself, coming and becoming, knowing and going its own way. What does it say? What does it say? It says, ‘I am. I am here. I am here for a little while. See me. Know me before I go.”
Jehovah’s Witnesses have been rerouted from a path toward heaven into a side road detour to a park on the other side of the hill called Paradise Earth. No clouds or harps await those who make it across the finish line. The eight million Jehovah’s Witnesses expect a thousand years of cleaning up after the Battle of Armageddon. Like an army of janitors, repairmen, and sanitation workers, the task in Paradise is more grunt work--except--survivors will gradually become youthful and perfected by the end of the Millennium.
“Art is Life. Everything we do and say tells us our Nature. The empty heart hates aloud. The simple mind spouts opinions. The sage is silent. When the student is ready, the teacher appears.”
Jehovah’s Witnesses imagine themselves doing a great Education work in bringing Bible knowledge to the dying world of mankind. Quite to the contrary, there is nothing wise or eternal in their lessons. The content of their doctrine is inconstant, changeable, and fussy about little details. The phases of the moon are more predictable than the teachings of Jehovah’s people. The longer you remain a JW, the less certain your Truth is proved to be. So many ‘adjustments’ over so many years have made the garment disappear into a coat of patches and patchwork repairs. What the religion is really all about is Loyalty to a few men who tell you what you can and can’t do. Period. End of sentence.
“Art is finding simplicity and beauty in every gesture, thought, and deed. Nature is beautiful because it flows. Our lives are beautiful when we surrender to that flow of time. In the West, you fight against Nature refusing to grow old, to change, willing to destroy who you are to remain stone-like and immovable. Changing Life into a lie, a deception, a monument to empty ego is what the West drinks and breathes as they wonder at their own unhappiness.”
I was thirty-one years old when I was done with the Jehovah’s Witness lifestyle, belief, and “truth.” I had been sixteen years old when I was baptised. The in between years were nothing but hollowness, pretense, unhappiness, and waste for me. I had gone to jail, prison, and lost years of my life I’d never get back again. All for what? I wanted to fit in, do the right thing, please God, and teach others how to survive the End of the World. I was young, naive, and full of Absolute Belief that what I held to be true was the only truth.
“When the Catholic priests arrived in Japan, the Emperor asked these Western holy men what they wanted. The priests humbly explained how their mission was to teach every soul in Japan about God and his son, Jesus, so that they might become Christians and avoid the fires of Hell. The Emperor sat and listened quietly, absorbing every word through his interpreter. Finally, he asked a question of the holy men. He asked, “If the people of Japan died ignorant of your God, your Jesus, of the Bible’s teachings--would your God send my people to burn in Hellfire for their ignorance?” The priests cried, “God is gracious. He does not hold anyone accountable for what they do not know.” The Emperor grew angry and replied, “Then why did you tell me this?” He had them killed.”
Soon inside Triangle Industries in the Nova Art department, I rose to become the head of the Artists as a Supervisor because I had figured out more efficient methods of achieving the multiple paintings and filling the orders.
I designed a monetary incentive system whereby each artist could earn more money by turning out more work. It was, in effect, giving each person the option of becoming their own task master and rewarder of effort. With the approval of the company’s owner, Richard Friedman, an efficiency expert was brought in, Erich Tilscher, to establish the framework of this new system and make certain it was up to industry standards.
“The Artist speaks to God through art in returning to the world what is removed from it by living upon the land and using its resources to create beauty. For the Buddhist, the Divine is not a person on a cloud with a white beard and tablets of rules. No, the Divine is the blending of Nature with nurture, the cooperation of design efficiency with flow, the measured motions of music to refine the ear and the heart, the flavor of food in elegant presentation.”
Paul Miyoshi sculpted animals out of clay to be made into statuary for homes and gardens. A mould could produce as many statues as orders written by salesman out in the field. Plaster animals had to be shaded with the artist’s brushwork and sealed in lacquer to a high gloss finish. The hollow inside was filled with just enough concrete to make it heavy. In fact, the heavier the statuary, the higher the price it fetched at market. A lightweight statue felt worthless while a heavy one bespoke value in the mind of the consumer.
“There are roads which must not be followed, armies which must not be attacked, towns which must not be besieged, positions which must not be contested, commands of the sovereign which must not be obeyed.”
In the end, the religion of Jehovah’s Witnesses abuses its members by stripping away the beauty of discovery, curiosity, opinion, and empathy for others unlike ourselves. It is an empty and egotistical stance against the rest of the world. Everyone who is NOT a JW is ‘worldly’ and a dupe of demonic influences. The only hope for the world at large, so they teach, is to become a Witness and obey the men at the top. I left the Kingdom Hall for the last time in tears and it took me another thirty years of struggle to scrape their ways from my bones and marrow. It was like quitting smoking. My body started to rid itself of poisons and I became reactive and craving for the rigid certainty and habitual predictability. That is--until it faded and my natural health blossomed.
The last time I spoke to Paul Miyoshi, was the day I left Triangle Industries to become the General Manager of an etching studio one of Triangle’s chief designers was starting on his own.
After explaining to Miyoshi where I was headed and what I planned to do, he took hold of my sleeve and walked me off to a quiet corner of the factory. His head was bald on top with grey hair hanging on the sides and back. His beard and moustache would have done Hollywood proud. His bushy eyebrows fluttered like flower petals in a breeze as he spoke and his dark eyes glimmered like moonlight on still pond.
“You asked me once why I work here instead of my own studio. You asked me why I did not start my own atelier with my own students. I have never answered you. Am I correct in saying this?”
“Yes. I figured you’d tell me when you were ready. Are you ready?”
I laughed. Paul had a tremendous mischief in his humor. His bursts of insight always carried a laugh. He told me it was like serving a small slice of orange at the end of a heavy meal. The last taste cleanses the palate and leaves a sweet tang.
“My family died in Nagasaki. I was sent away to Art school in Europe at the time. My father had saved money for years to pay my way. Art saved my life from the atomic bomb which incinerated my mother, father and two sisters.”
His unexpected words at that particular moment were paralyzing to me--like a jolt of electricity. I am seldom at a loss for words--this was one of those times.
“When I received the news, I performed a Buddhist funeral ritual. Today, with your leaving, it is a little like death to our friendship. Not as sad, of course. But--I would tell you of this ritual and its message is my parting gift. Okay?”
I could not begin to explain the sudden rush of forces in my heart at this moment. My intention was a casual goodbye. It was almost a mere formality for me, I confess. As ever, Paul Miyoshi did not take life in such a throwaway fashion. I nodded in answer to his question and he leaned in to whisper loud enough for me to hear--but not loud enough that I didn’t have to strain.
“We write the story of our life with our finger on the water. We paint the beauty of our love for others in our deeds. We pass, like the river, only once through this valley of sunlight and moonlight. What remains is our Art.”
And we shook hands. We bowed. I went straight to the restroom and wrote down what Miyoshi had said. I did so with tears.