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Hirokazu Kosaka: From a Buddhist Monastery in Japan to an Art Legend in L.A.

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KCET Departures asks, "What's your or your family's Los Angeles arrival story?"

Today, we hear from Hirokazu Kosaka, artistic director of the Japanese American Cultural & Community Center

Chapter One

"I was born in Wakayama Prefecture, which is a very ancient part of Japan. We moved to Kyoto when I was little.

"Where I came from was very traditional. My home was an 800-year-old Buddhist monastery. I was raised as a monk. I was trained in different disciplines such as calligraphy and Japanese archery.

"In 1966, I came here to attend what was called the Chouinard Art Institute and is now CalArts. I didn't speak English well but since it was a visual arts college, I just intermingled into the curriculum.

"Coming to the United States was a shocking experience. At Chouinard, every person had incredible individualism. Where I came from, all of the men wore shaven heads and black and white clothing an their character was not shown.

"But now you come to the art school and there is this incredible independence; you could do anything. But in the tradition where I came from there is an incredible non-egotism. In art school you need ego to create your character. There was incredible ambiguity in a way that I did not understand.

"At Chouinard, many faculty spoke about Zen Buddhism. And I remember Alan Watts, Allen Ginsberg, Gary Snyder, all of these people were into a sort of Zen phenomenon at that period.

"I did not know what Zen Buddhism was. I asked my father. He told me to read some of the Suzuki books in Japanese. So I read some and I became interested.

"My denomination is Shingon, which is much older than Zen Buddhism. It is very different. It is more a kind of Mandala system. It is very close to Tibetan Buddhism.

"I also knew some western paintings and western things but I also knew Japanese art had been very abstract. In the 12th or 13th century, monks were painting circles and triangles. In the 15th century you have these incredible gardens with pebbles and rocks.

Chapter Two

"So you have asked for my 'Arrival Story.'

"Arrival, meaning departure. They are conducive and interdependent.

"I think there is a bipolar opposition of words and different meanings. And this is probably a cultural difference but traditionally in Japan, there is what is called, 'veranda.'


"My mother used to tell me to go play in veranda. I am sure the American kids' mothers would tell them to 'go play outside' or 'go play in the backyard' but we used to have this incredible veranda.

"I always thought of veranda as a Japanese word, but in fact it is a Buddhist word and it is a Sanskrit word for 'in between space.' It is a very important space, not so much a language space but more of a kind of spiritual space. It's not outside, it's not inside, it is what Japanese call a buffer zone. A buffer of space and the notion of it is not 'yes' and it is not 'no' but infinite maybes. It is not black or white but infinite shades of grey.

"Every piece of art, music or poetry is precise in this nature of this incredible grey space. And I think Japanese - especially business people - they don't have this 'yes' and 'no' but infinite maybes. I think western business people have a difficult time negotiating with Japanese because of this kind of space in between.

"Being in the pop culture of the `60s and at the time of the Vietnam War was an inspiring but very difficult time - for myself and for the world.

"For example, calligraphy is handed down from generation to generation. A student learns not so much Japanese or Chinese characters or ideograms but spiritual guidance or the vehicle or instrument to put oneself into an awakening stage, which is called the 'ku,' or 'empty.'

"And I think that this kind of emptiness, this space called empty, has real cultural differences. When you say 'space' or 'empty' in English, the term probably means something is vacant or that nothing is there. But in traditional Buddhism when you say 'nothing' you are partially enlightened.

"In my archery, the notion of 'perfect shot' is to have immediate action without inner thoughts. When the archer, the bow, the arrow and the target become one we have this incredible void. This is considered to be a perfect shot.

"This kind of practice from Japan really evolved into my art at Chouinard where I did painting of course but also developed a kind of conceptual artwork. I remember doing a performance work called the Five Hour Run. I ran for five hours in an empty commercial gallery. When the audience came in, I had gone home and the gallery owner told the audience: 'You are breathing in his work.'

"[As part of the Pacific Standard Time program], the Getty Center commissioned me to do a performance. The work was called Kalpa.

"Kalpa is a Sanskrit word that I learned from my parents. When I graduated from Chouinard I went back to Japan and my mother gave me a congratulatory present - a fountain pen - and my father gave me this lacquer box. When I opened it it was filled to the top with poppy seeds. I asked them what this was? He said it was 'kalpa.' He asked me, 'Do you know that?'

"Yes, I knew the word. The notion of the word kalpa is about time space without conjunction. There is a huge box in this earth where once in 100 years, man opens this box which is filled with poppy seeds. He takes out one seed and puts the lid back.

"Then another 100 years come and the man opens the box and takes out another seed. He continues to do this every 100 years until the last seed is taken away from the box. This was my mother and father's gift to me.

Chapter Three

"I went back to Japan when I graduated in 1970 and my student visa expired.

"I saw images on TV on the 5 o'clock news or the 11 o'clock news - incredible amounts of war scenes from Vietnam. I come from a very Asian country, a Buddhist family, and I saw children and families getting killed.

"One scene that really shocked me was of this young monk. He walked with a gasoline tank in his hand and just sat in meditation and poured the gasoline over and burned himself. And you could see the audience of city people came and sat and put their hands together. They were not saving him but they were with him.

"There were children and women and families circling this incredible frame of enlightenment and I saw it a couple of times. I heard there were five monks that protested the war and died but I saw only two, I think from Saigon and Hanoi. I wondered if I could do something to protest this war?

"So in Kyoto, I did this piece called Soleares. It's a flamenco piece and it is one of the oldest. And I knew how to play flamenco guitar and so I played it and I had a razor blade on my index finger and I was bleeding like hell and we had about 100 people in the audience and it was bleeding onto this white paper on the floor.

"I was playing the flamenco guitar for the Soleares piece for about an hour with this repetition and then I packed and from Kyoto took a train and the ferry and went to Shikoku Island and I started walking with two other monks. It took me three months to walk this path, it was 1,000 miles.

"Again this monastic life became very important for me. I came back with my head shaven and ordination had started. And so it lasted three years learning this practice.

"I returned to Los Angeles in 1976. The headquarters of my denomination asked me if I wanted to be a minister. There was no such thing as 'minister' in Japan because everyone is Buddhist. Since I spoke English and Japanese, they wanted someone here in Los Angeles to take over the Sunday school.

"I say I was asked to come, but this was a command. I ministered in one of the temples here locally. Today many of the people, the congregation, know me as a Buddhist priest and not as an artistic director.

"After a few years of ministering I knew I had to go beyond funerals and memorial services. I went to New York and then Boston where I worked at the ancient library at Harvard University. I also worked at a Boston art museum* helping curators.

"Around that time, the JACCC was developing. In 1983 they asked me to help. It was like it was kind of a destiny. I look at the space and time in that and I don't force it. I don't question it. Everything is interdependent. I think that is the kind of monastic training that I practice. So everything I don't go against something.

"I mean, there is a vertical space and a horizontal space. Vertical space is kind of this accumulation of accomplishment, which is ego. But in horizontal space there is no such thing as attachment so you let it go and it flows with nature.

"Look at this garden [adjacent to the veranda at the JACCC]. There is no such thing as water fountain here - which is vertical space, it's against nature. Everything is floating horizontally.

"The English language is written horizontally but I think it is spoken vertically. Japanese is written vertically but it is spoken horizontally.

"We have four seasons in western culture but in Japanese there are 72 seasons. If you do not know those 72 seasons you are not writing Haiku poem. You will not understand Haiku poem.

"My mother owns 72 seasonal kimonos in the closet. I too have to be very conscious of these kind of fragmented seasons because in Kyoto there is an incredible dogmatism about the 72 seasons. There are festivals. There are confectionary stores that only sell one particular sweet for one season.

"These fragmentations give you a kind of arrival and departure of this incredible lineage of transition. And transience. I think that that kind of sensitivity enables you to be in this moment and you catch this life.

"I think I come again and again to Los Angeles because there is no tradition here like where I come from. But here, there are 120 cultures and 120 languages spoken. I know this because I work with different cultural institutions.

"Kyoto is an ancient silk road. Los Angeles is a contemporary silk road. Within this cultural integration, this is the heaven for artists to create new culture and new art. Los Angeles is an incredible place."

-- Hirokazu Kosaka
(as told to Jeremy Rosenberg)


Photo of Hirokazu Kosaka (the archer, center), courtesy Hirokazu Kosaka / JACCC

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