In conversation with writer Masanori Oe, one hears the word “discovery” quite often. It’s no wonder. Since the days of his translation of the Tibetan Book of the Dead into Japanese and his film documentaries on the psychedelic movement in New York City in the late 1960s, he has pioneered new directions in art, spirituality, agriculture and philosophy for thousands of people seeking an off-ramp from so-called “progress” in industrialized Japan.
Upon my arrival for the interview, I am immediately taken to his rice field. We sit among the rich greenery at over 1,000 meters of elevation, the crags of the Japan Alps rising behind us. The clear-voiced gentleman with the meditative features then tells me about his method of growing rice and vegetables without digging the soil or even pulling out weeds.
“This method allows the farmer to learn directly the way that plants relate with each other,” Oe explains. “There’s a lot of wisdom there. We’ve all seen the mistakes brought about from trying to control nature. What we’re trying to do here is to see what happens inside of us when we let ourselves be controlled by nature. It might not be easier, or produce the absolutely maximum harvests, but what humans need now is to relearn what we have forgotten about the spirit of life.”
Oe then takes me to his house where we sit down at a low table on which a small brass lantern burns with a tiny flame. “This is the same fire that started with the blast from Hiroshima,” he tells me. “The flame has been kept burning, and is now being passed on from person to person by the peace group Genki Mura as part of the movement against land mines. A Buddhist abbot, Mr. Yamada, is walking the length of the country with the flame, keeping it going in a spirit of reverence and prayer.”
As Oe tells me about his life, I am amazed at how many things a single person with a sense of vision can accomplish. Besides being an author and a translator, Oe is a human-rights activist, a sculptor and a woodblock-print artist, a lecturer and educator, and an interpreter of Hinduism, Tibetan Buddhism and Native American spirituality for Japanese audiences. But perhaps more than anything, Oe is a philosopher.
The central question of his philosophy came to him at age 3.
“It was the end of World War II,” Oe says, “and my mother and I were fleeing from an American air raid. As I ran along with the crowd, my foot got stuck between two stones in the bridge and I could not move.
“All of a sudden all the other people were far away, and I was alone, and a B-29 was bearing down on me from behind, and strafing the ground with machine-gun fire. That experience was what started my wondering about what happens when humans die. For me, from the very beginning, the idea that ‘I exist’ equaled the idea that ‘death exists.’ ”
Since that time, Oe has been relentlessly pursuing the question, “where from, where to?”
Japanese sentences often leave the subject implied, so I ask Oe whether he means where he as an individual came from and is going, or whether he meant the question in terms of humanity, or the cosmos as a whole.
His response shifts everything.
“In the Eastern conception of things,” he says, “the large external universe and the universe inside each person are not separate: They are the same. Thus the dreams that humans see are actually also the dreams of the universe. I don’t feel that an individual human’s origin and destiny are different from those of the universe as a whole.”
The first place that Oe looked for an answer to the question “where from, where to?” was in the New Consciousness movement in the U.S. during the 1960s. In his early 20s he lived in New York for four years and documented the antiwar movement and the experiments in consciousness carried out by Timothy Leary and others. He filmed the massive “be-ins” in Central Park as well as the protests against the escalating Vietnam War at the Pentagon in Washington, D.C.
After returning to Japan in 1969, Oe lectured throughout the country, showing his films and telling young people about the psychedelic movement in the U.S. “Today people think the word ‘psychedelic’ means just taking drugs,” says Oe, “but the main meaning is from the Greek roots of the words, ‘to reveal the soul.’ So if the method for doing this was drugs, that was O.K., but it also included yoga, meditation and the exploration of thought itself.”
Oe felt, however, that he wasn’t able to solve his deepest questions based on the ideas of the psychedelic movement alone. “A lot of people saw visions and gods, but many of them had difficulty understanding the meaning of what they saw. That, however, is not peculiar to psychedelic experiences. Most people experiencing the ‘real world’ often don’t know the meaning of the events that happen to them either.”
After traveling in India in 1971, he returned to introduce — through his films and his translation — some of the central concepts of South Asian philosophy and spirituality to Japanese people who had, due to many closed-country policies, been cut off from the wellsprings of Hindu and Buddhist thought.
During the ’70s, Oe lived in Tokyo, educating young people disillusioned with the materialism in Japan. He opened Hobbit Village, which encompassed a free school, an organic vegetable market, a restaurant and a bookstore. Many of the people who Oe taught during those years have since gone on to careers in natural medicine, organic agriculture, peace activism, wholegrain baking or therapy.
Oe has also written on Japanese traditional cultural preservation and the bunraku puppet theater, as well as on the science of the Gaia hypothesis, which posits the Earth as a single sentient, self-regulating being. He has published books on cosmology and alternative lifestyles, and a translation with original woodblock prints of a parable of spiritual seeking from Native America. He is currently organizing the upcoming Inochi no Matsuri (Festival of Life), a celebration that will feature forums on sustainable ways for humans to live in the next century. It will be held in Nagano Prefecture Aug. 1-8.
Through his travels and his study of the world’s great spiritual teachers, and also through his own experiences during meditation, Oe has found, if not the answer to the question he asked as a child, at least a crucial insight.
“We humans are used to saying things about death, such as ‘When I die and pass over into the next world . . . ‘ thinking that the phenomenal world and the spiritual world are separate,” Oe explains. “We talk about ‘over there.’ But there is no ‘over there.’ Over there is right here. It is only through and by means of death that life exists at all. There is no other world. Death is intimately bound together with life. When we die, we don’t ‘go’ anywhere at all. We exist in the midst of eternity all the time.”
I look again at the flame in the lantern from the atomic blast at Hiroshima, burning quietly now and emitting a peaceful light, and I sense intuitively that Masanori Oe has surely grabbed onto a corner of the truth.