June 2021 Message

Let's Gogh and Let Gogh
by Rev. Dean Koyama

I recently had the opportunity to experience the Immersive Van Gogh Exhibit in San Francisco. Now I have to admit, that when Linda made the proposition to go and invite the entire family, I was soft-boiled at best with enthusiasm. I remember going to the Museum of Modern Art in New York, looking at the many pieces of art and sculpture wondering, “What am I doing here?”, “I don’t get it,” and “I could have put a mop, broom and a dust pan together as a sculpture.” But you should also know that I am the type when I do go to a museum, I like to read about the displays (not just the title and date). The other day, we took our extended family to the Oakland zoo, and I had to be constantly strongly reprimanded to keep up with the group as I was busy reading the detailed displays about each animal and their environment and habitat. I like to find out about the backstory, or the reason why the artist did what he/she did. I need the explanation of why the artist employed one technique over another. In other words, I can’t always tell what the artist is trying to have me experience and just by giving me a title, artist name and date of creation, doesn’t always help.

So it was with this sense of trepidation that I approached our afternoon in San Francisco to view an artist that I knew was famous but not really familiar with. I had seen some of his more famous paintings in photos, and knew that Van Gogh was known for cutting off a piece of his ear, but I wouldn’t be able to tell you much more than that. Fortunately as we climbed the staircase to the exhibit hall, I was delighted that they had some monitors mounted on the wall showing pictures of his work and giving a brief biography of Van Gogh. But again, I was strongly urged to “Hurry up” and I could only find out that Van Gogh became an artist late in his life (at age of 28 as he died at the age of 37 by a self-inflicted gunshot wound). Van Gogh only saw one of his painting sold while he was alive. He was very close to his younger brother, writing over 800 letters. It was this brother, Theo, who was largely responsible for having collected and preserved over 800 paintings making it possible for the rest of the world to catch up and realize the genius of his brother.

The exhibit was something that none of us expected. We entered a dark room and we were filled with images of his paintings on all four walls including at times on the ceiling and the floor. The images were accompanied by a beautiful soundtrack, so not only were we treated to a visual experience but we were given an auditory encounter as well. And in addition, through technology, the images were animated giving life to the strokes of the brush as if we were witnessing Van Gogh painting right then and there.

There is a progression to the art of Van Gogh. He begins with dark images as many of his subjects and themes deal with poverty. Later he is introduced to Japanese prints with their vibrant colors and he then begins to focus on nature, but without a doubt, Van Gogh led a very troubled life. It is sad that Van Gogh, himself did not get to witness the recognition and admiration as an accomplished artist in his lifetime. The reasons why are unclear and it is sad that he felt that his life was so agonizingly bleak and painful, that he felt that the only to escape was to bring his life to early end, despite the pleasure and joy that his work now brings to many.

Perhaps part of the reason was that he felt his life was not going in the direction he wanted it to go. Perhaps part of the reason was that outside of his brother, he, himself was not able to accept, himself just as he was. Perhaps he felt that he deserved more opportunities than what he was given. Perhaps he did not grasp the opportunities that were presented to him at the time. Unfortunately, we are left with just these questions that even if answered will not change what has happened.

June is the month that we recognize as the beginning of summer and the end of the school year. It is marked by High Schools and Colleges honoring their senior students with Graduation marking the completion of their many years of hard work devoted to study and learning. Graduation is, indeed, an accomplishment but it is by no means the end of a lifetime of learning, growing and development.

Often at Commencement ceremonies, we hear speeches telling these new graduates, as they are about to embark on a new phase of their lives, that they have to grasp and take hold of all the many wonderful opportunities that are there right before them. It is a message of hope and perhaps a start of fulfilling their dreams. But what about those who are not sure of their direction and path? Or what about those that just because of bad timing or bad luck find themselves in a situation where they have to postpone their wishes and dreams? Do you only get one shot to grasp and take hold of your life?

It is said in South Africa that there is a way to trap a monkey by using a gourd. The gourd is hollowed out and filled at the bottom with extra weight like sand or rocks so that the monkey cannot lift or carry it. Then, nuts and fruit are placed on top of the rocks and sand to entice the monkey to reach in and grab them. But the hole at the top of the gourd is only large enough to allow the monkey’s open had to go through. When the monkey grabs the fruit and nuts clenching his hand into a fist, the monkey cannot get its hand back out. The hole is too small to let the monkey’s hand out as long as it is holding the treats inside the gourd and the gourd is too heavy for the monkey to carry it or tip it over. Because the monkey will not let go of the treats, it becomes caught and trapped.

It is obvious that if the monkey does not want to be caught, all it has to do is let go of its attachment to the treat. Perhaps, that is what happens to us as well. We get caught up in our attachments to certain things and we cling to them with the fear of letting go thinking that our prize of happiness will disappear. We may be holding on to things tighter than we should. They may be the thought of money and material possessions. They could be mistakes, grudges, anger, and resentment and perhaps even our dreams. Sometimes we may be holding on to these attachments so tight that we find ourselves trapped and restricted.

I heard of a story similar to that of the monkey’s hand and gourd by Rev. Mikame of the San Jose Betsuin. She told the story of Gazan, a monk at the Tenryu-ji temple in Arashiyama of Kyoto, Japan.

Gazan loved kids. When children visited the temple, it made Gazan so happy. Gazan wanted to encourage children to continue coming to the temple so he had brought out a big jar full of candy and told them that they could have as much as they wanted. The kids got so excited and they shoved their hands to grab as much candy as their hands could hold. But after grabbing the candy in the jar, they were unable to get their hand out of the jar with the candy. No one could do it.

The kids all complained that it wasn’t fair, that it was all a trick. But Gazan smiled and said, “Put your hands out in front of you.” And as he went to each child, he poured candy into their open palms.

Gazan told them that candy is not something you should try to grab, but it is something that you should receive with appreciation and care. This is what is meant by the word, itadaku or itadakimasu means that I humbly and respectfully receive. When we say this before we eat, we are saying, I am humbly and respectfully receiving the life of this fish, this cow, this carrot, potato, this water, to nourish my body so that I may continue to live my life and perhaps one day realize Buddhahood. It means to humbly and respectfully receive life just as it is.

Gazan taught the children, that it is not about grasping and taking this life with a closed hand, but rather, with an open hand and heart, we can receive all the many wonderful treasures that this life has to offer. Yes, we must take hold of any opportunity that presents itself to us. But at the same time, we must also reexamine what we are grasping and holding on to. Perhaps there will be times in our lives that we have to let go and move in a different direction. Let us also accept those times, not as a defeat or disappointment, but simply as another adventure.

Then we can begin to Gogh and truly live a life of gratitude and Nembutsu.

Congratulations to all the graduates and continuing student of life!

Gassho, Rev. Dean