How a young Jehovah's Witness found an escape and a Teacher suddenly appeared.
I escaped Texas in my mid-20’s -- a fugitive of my own life--fleeing westward into California with a dream of- I know not what.
I knew nothing useful - it was only Bible knowledge.
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 spirit had burst.)
What talents I possessed naturally I now made the focus of everything.
I would somehow become...something. Artistic something, I hoped.
I knew I couldn’t go on existing--inside the narrow tunnel of the Jehovah’s Witness way of life.
Minimum wages. Door to door ministry. Lots of religious meetings. Waiting on Armageddon.
I moved West to the ocean.
I sought a job as close to Art as I could find.
Now, in California I could apprentice as a caterpillar and one day find my wings.
I saw an AD in the Los Angeles Times Help Wanted.
An art "factory" needed artists!
What follows is my encounter with an old Japanese man.
MY FIRST SENSEI
Miyoshi, cheerful without smiling, raised his head and nodded; setting his gaze serenely upon me.
That was the first day I saw him.
The pupils of his eyes were mysterious black.
“Konichiwa” he spoke with a hint of smile wrapped in mischief.
His slight bow triggered a mirrored response in myself.
Over the next year and a half, I’d get to know this man.
Myioshi was boxed within himself, or so it seemed.
A box within a box reveals more boxes.
He was both riddle and pun and his laughter danced in my ears.
I didn’t know it at the time, but he was my first Sensei.
(When the student is ready, the teacher appears. -Siddhartha-)
“In Life there are two ways:
1. With Nature and 2. Against--this is how our art and life are to be crafted. Traditional Japanese life is with Nature. We surrender to our place as a falling leaf surrenders to the journey of the wind.”
I used to go off by myself and giggle with the other artists about Miyoshi and his “fortune cookie” style of speaking.
Sometimes I’d write down his words. Why? I don’t know.
But I did keep that little pocket tablet.
I see now, of course, I was an ass; indulging in mimicry of his style, thinking myself awfully clever. I missed the point entirely.
We struggle with people who are different.
We are spooked.
However ...It is the role of the student to surrender to his teacher. Not in my nature, of course.
“In the Western world, men 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.”
Arriving in California was a getaway from Texas and the proximity to familiar JW settings.
My wife and three kids continued to attend meetings. I made excuses to avoid going.
I was about to make NEW friends who were NOT JW's.
“Do you have a garden?” Myioshi asked gently.
“Without a garden, nothing in your world can grow.”
“Say wuh?” I was puzzled by this style of speaking.
“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?”
“I feel like I am - what kind I don’t know. I’m willing to learn how to do it right.”
“Art isn’t about getting it right.”
“Well, you could have fooled me!”
“A fool can learn technique. Getting it ‘right’ is the fool’s technique. Other fools are fooled by technique.”
“Okay - what is your definition of fool’s technique?”
“Duplication of form. Monkey see--monkey do. That can be learned by any fool.”
“Well, okay. Is this what Art Schools teach!”
“Not Art. Western schools teach students how to lie. A true teacher of Art must instruct his students how to see.”
BOYLE HEIGHTS California
I had obtained an “Art” job working in a factory churning out objects representing decorative and artistic products at a reasonable price. My place in this industry was to be the ‘monkey-see monkey-do” duplicator of wall paintings.
Long rows of easels and artists churned out copies of paintings to be sold en masse as though they were valuable 'object d’art.'
I’d grab a palette, paints, brushes, and my canvas exemplar to be copied, one stage at a time.
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 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. Paint-by-number level of creativity :)
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 a 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 also 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.”
TRIANGLE INDUSTRIES : NOVA ART
I started to love the 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 for a non-existent Artist with a fake name, biography and romantic tale of Dickensian struggles and conquest were crafted and attached to the paintings: a legend or story to romanticize the dreck.
All crafted into a counterfeit biography and Certificate of Authenticity. Think about it - a bogus guarantee the lie is a real one.
The unwary customer could be cajoled by the wording and adventure of it all.
We were con Artists in a real sense.
“The Japanese way of life is to 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.”
My art factory role at Triangle Art was a challenge for me.
I did not possess any painting technique because I was a pencil artist--a natural at portraiture.
It was a steep cliff from that to painting.
I scrutinized 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. Know this first, we can know what to do and be unable to do it. A religious man knows about heaven and this makes him no earthly good. I fear this is your failing.”
My Jehovah’s Witness life was no earthly good to me or my family. We were discouraged from higher education, ambition, achievement or innovation.
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 false reality.
“The student must learn to see that all of Nature and Life is change. The end of the world for the caterpillar is the birth of a new world for the butterfly.”
Jehovah’s Witness life is treadmill activity and hamster cage futility; an ongoing learning spiral with endless publications by the Watchtower Organization pumping out pages of propaganda.
Interior life’s flame is snuffed out, individual selves vanish, and the only focal point is the other side of the finish line at Armageddon: survival.
“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 are like an army of janitors, repairmen, and sanitation workers.
The reward- the task in Paradise- is just more grunt work--laboring to repair the world as you become more youthful. This world, these "other people" are nothing much at all but potential customers for propaganda.
“Everything we do tells us our Nature. The empty heart hates aloud and spouts opinions. The sage is silent.
When the student is ready, the teacher appears.”
Jehovah’s Witnesses imagine themselves doing a great Education bringing Bible knowledge to the dying world of mankind.
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. 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 thought and deed. Nature is beautiful because it flows. Shaping to changes.
Our lives are beautiful if we surrender to that flow of time.”
I was sixteen years old when I was baptized.
I had gone to jail, prison (conscientious objector), and lost years of my life I’d never get back again.
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 I had the only truth. THE truth.
“Catholic priests arrived in Japan; the Emperor asked these Western holy men what they wanted.
The priests explained their mission was to teach Japan about God and 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.”
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 salesmen out in the field.
Plaster animals required enlivening with the artist’s brushwork and then 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 the market. A lightweight statue felt worthless while a heavy one bespoke value in the mind of the consumer.
“There are commands of the sovereign which must not be obeyed.”
― Sun Tzu, The Art of War
I left the Kingdom Hall of Jehovah’s Witnesses for the last time in tears and it took me another thirty years of struggle to scrape their ways from my bones and marrow.
My thoughts and dreams started to excrete poisons and I became reactive and craving for the rigid certainty and habitual predictability. Odd reactions, back and forth--until it faded and my natural mental health blossomed.
I spoke up. Spoke out when questioned.
The ultimate insubordination to the old life. I embraced my new life.
LAST CONVERSATION with MYOSHI
The last time I spoke to Miyoshi, was the day I left to begin a new adventure in an etching studio across the city.
Miyoshi 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 mustache would have done Hollywood proud. His bushy eyebrows fluttered like flower petals in a breeze as he spoke and his dark eyes glimmered.
“You asked me once why I work here instead of my own studio. Why do I not have my own atelier with my own students? I have never answered you.”
“Yes. I figured you’d tell me when you were ready. Are you ready?”
Myoshi 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 the war (WWII). 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. When I say, my life is Art - it has deep meanings.”
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 death to our friendship. Not sad, of course. But--I would tell you of this ritual and its message is a parting gift. Yes?”
My intention was a casual goodbye. It was almost a mere formality for me, I confess.
Miyoshi did not take life in such a throwaway fashion.
I nodded in answer to his question and he leaned into say barely loud enough for me to hear--but not loud enough that I didn’t have to strain.
“We write the story of life with our finger upon a tablet of water. Paint the beauty of love in our deeds. We pass, like the river, once through this world of light and shade.
All which remains is our Art on the canvas of hearts. The people who are friends.”
And we shook hands. We bowed.
I went straight to the restroom in tears. I wrote down his words. Last night I found my little tablet from the old days. There he was, a portrait in words for my first Sensei.
Yet, already there - his words - on my tablet of heart.