Kotoha English

KOTOHA・ENGLiSH by Stephen Earle

Remembering Odano Sanae
An excerpt from KOTOHA: WORDS, CHARACTERS, AND LIGHT-TRANSPARENT ENERGY, bySteve Earle
Chapter 2 _ Time
chapter3_ LIFE AND THE EVOLUTION OF HUMAN INTELLIGENCE
Chapter4 _THEANATOMYOF MEANING

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        Early on June 11, 1977, I traveled from Kyoto to Nagoya to attend Odano-sensei’s monthly lecture for the first time. After joining a friend inside the Shinkansen—the friend, a native of Nagoya and the person from whom I had learned of this event, had boarded the train in Osaka—we changed in Nagoya, first to a local line and then to a streetcar, to arrive before ten at the designated classroom within the grounds of the Atsuda Shrine.
The name Odano Sanae, spoken in connection with novel observations regarding language, had come to my attention several years prior. This lead, however, had been given with no information as to where or how it might be pursued, and so I had put it aside. Then, from my friend, I learned that, by coincidence, people I had come to know from a four-month stay in Nagoya during my second year in Japan had formed a study group around her teachings and that Odano-sensei, a resident of Tokyo, was spending much of her time fostering the progress of this group.
Although her talk had yet to begin when we entered, Odano-sensei was already standing at the head of the room. My initial impression was that of a small woman projecting unassuming self-confidence and robust energy; she appeared much younger than the sixty-nine years that I knew to be her age. She was quietly listening as another woman standing beside her spoke passionately about something, but her eyes were on the room, and as I circulated to say hellos to the friends and acquaintances from three years earlier, I detected a wisp of amusement.
I had, by now, been living in Japan for four and one-half years, having arrived in the fall of 1972 at the tender age of twenty-two. My initial plans had been to stay for about one year, however, almost upon arrival, I fell into a new life and a new career surrounded by new people, a new culture, and a new language, and those plans had long been abandoned. Akemi and I met early on and were married in 1974; we were living midway between Kyoto and Osaka, our first daughter was, by now, two years old, and I was commuting into Osaka to a small, otherwise all-Japanese company that was exporting natural foods. So I was, by the time of this first encounter with Odano-sensei, ensconced in the local way of life and conversationally fluent in ‘everyday’ Japanese.
As I quickly discovered, however, when—after a summary introduction by a gentleman to her right—she started speaking, Odano-sensei’s use of Japanese was hardly ‘everyday’. “Ever since I was little,” she began, “I have been infatuated with the thought of nature. Given that man didn’t create nature, I reasoned, human achievement can only occur because nature allows for it, and human creativity does not hold a candle to the creativity required to construct a universe. So when I became old enough to ask, ‘what does it mean to be alive and human in the natural

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universe,’ the only place to begin, I decided, was from the premise that humanity is a creation of nature. And what distinguishes man from other life forms and the rest of nature is his ability to think rationally, to acquire knowledge, and to communicate—none of which would be possible were it not for the phenomenon of language.”
From here she launched directly into the conclusions of her thirty years of inquiry regarding the nature of words and meaning. She wrote as she spoke, and soon the blackboard was covered in a maze of characters—arranged, not in sentences and paragraphs, but schematically: Single characters were analytically broken down into their components and transliterated into other characters bearing the same sounds. Although I struggled frantically—in the hope that I night make sense of it later—to record this process in my notebook, I was quickly left behind.
She spoke without break for two hours, never once referring to notes, each sentence following spontaneously from the one before. I couldn’t see her eyes—they were closed to slits—yet I could also tell that she was fully aware of her audience. And her voice, forceful but not loud, had a timbre of both urgency and clarity that seemed capable of penetrating walls—as indeed I was to affirm on subsequent occasions when, running late, I would find the assigned room by tracing this voice up stairways and down corridors.
While most of what she said during that first encounter—we broke for lunch and then reconvened for an afternoon discussion period, finishing at four—was lost on me, I could appreciate the manner in which she was using words to describe the essence of language, and I also gleaned that, to her, there was no distinction between the essence of language and the essence of life. Furthermore, the role of written characters in the scheme of things was, it seemed, to render the intangibility of this essence in objective form: I came away with a vague but intuitive sense that words and letters—and not only the characters of Japanese but the letters of the alphabet that appeared indiscriminately on the same blackboard—might say far more than was commonly assumed. And that was enough to bring me back the following month and each month from then on.
When, after two years of eager commuting to this monthly forum, a change in my employment placed me just outside of Nagoya, I became a regular member of the Nagoya study-group meeting twice a week. Sensei was usually present at these sessions, however the group had by now generated sufficient momentum to carry on even when she was not. My sojourn near Nagoya was to last for two years, and then I was to transfer again, this time to Tokyo; I continued to attend her monthly lecture in Nagoya, and I called on Sensei at her Tokyo residence when she returned

 

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there for the week or so that she did every month. Later, as the Nagoya chapter matured, the week in Tokyo became two weeks and then three, and my meetings with her became more frequent.
“Studying” with Odano-sensei was unlike any other discipline of which I knew then or have encountered since. Where natural philosophy—Eastern and Western—seeks to understand phenomena in terms of abstract principles, Sensei worked in the opposite direction: If the resolution of the phenomenal world is abstract, she reasoned, then the nature—the substance and mechanics—of that abstract domain is far more interesting than the phenomenal results it produces; thus, rather than seek to explain the phenomenal through the abstract, she chose to look within the phenomenal for what it could tell her about the antithetical domain of intelligent reason.
Thoughts, to paraphrase the implications of her work, are events: They occur in the now-here time-space of consciousness and against a backdrop of transparency. The thoughts of another, communicated across physical time and space through language, are likewise cut from that same fabric, and since the act of communication thus occurs, not just in physical reality, but in the conscious dimension that constitutes the listening of meaning, speaker and listener—whether they realize it or not—are communing in the currency of creative intelligence. And this necessarily implies an inherently human responsibility to use language—to speak and interact—with integrity.
When language is held in this context, I found, the details of living—since human life is one continuous linguistic event—take on a new level of importance, and time and again—especially when reflected against Sensei’s penchant for detail and scrutiny—the callousness with which I treated the miracle of everyday living would be made painfully obvious. Since words matter, small talk had no place in Sensei’s presence; she could strike like lightning if she sensed that we were engaging her with anything less than full attention.
The focus of conversation would always include her most recent discoveries through word-analysis as recorded in minute letters in her notebook, which she made available to us to copy, but it would also oscillate between Sensei’s detailed descriptions of current or past events and her interpretations of the universal intent hidden within these events. A quintessential storyteller, Sensei would recount, with cinematic detail, the epic and miraculous succession of occurrences that lead to the discoveries and conclusions underscoring her work; her eyes would close down again to narrow slits, and I had the feeling that she was reliving each story from within the moment in which it happened. Listening to Sensei speak, time seemed to slow—each moment held in poignant suspense—yet the hours flew, so that four hours later, when it came time to part, I would feel that I had only just arrived.

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Over the years, the four-and-one-half-mat sitting room just inside the entrance to her house in Tokyo has hosted thousands of such conversations with persons of all description. Among those visitors, I was the tallest and the only one with non-indigenous features; we often remarked in mutual awe upon the unlikely circumstances that brought us—this woman born at the beginning of the century in metropolitan Tokyo and me, almost twice her size and with many times her appetite, born in the middle of the century in rural New England—together. And although my imperfect competence in the Japanese language was an obvious factor in our discussions, never once did she compromise either the fullness of her ideas or their expression on my behalf; she demonstrated, explicitly and implicitly, that humanity, not culture, is the common ground upon which communication takes place.
During the early years of this relationship, in my twenties and thirties, I was subject to the same lightning-like discipline as were all of her students should we conduct ourselves, as was often the case, with anything less than full alertness. Later, especially during her last years, Odano-sensei often praised me—both when I was present and, as I know from recordings of these conversations, in my absence—for what she claimed I brought to her work. Initially I was at a loss as to how to take this ‘undeserved’ tribute. But then I got it. These complements were not personally directed—for indeed, I was hardly responsible for the acquiescence of circumstances conditional to my landing in her sitting room. Rather, they were an acknowledgement of a larger scheme, of which we were evidently both part, and in which my role might be construed—despite my ignorance of these circumstances—as that of an envoy dispatched by evolutionary forces of history and culture. That the adventure of life should have unfolded in this direction, that I should have not only been afforded this rarest of opportunities but also recognized it when it found me, and that I should choose to engage with her and engage with language in the way that she had demonstrated possible—this was the identity to which she was calling attention. And upon seeing this, neither my sense of self nor my appreciation for the miraculous unpredictability of life’s encounters—as well as the responsibility therein implied—have been the same.
Sensei sometimes described herself as “the epitome of self-indulgence,” a characterization that redefines the term: “I have always given in to my obsession for discovery,” she would explain; “I have pursued questions of truth and understanding with single-minded focus—to the point of forgetting even to eat or sleep.”
Sensei’s eating and sleeping habits are a matter of record: In her late teens she systematically cultivated the ability to control these functions, learning to live comfortably on a single meal and two hours of sleep per day. In her mid-forties, during the four-year and four-month construction of the original ìVãæê} Amekagamizu—her painstakingly

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thorough selection of kanji characters most faithful to the essential nature of the fifty-one Japanese word-sounds—she lived predominantly on wild herbs growing in her own yard, and at one point she fasted entirely for twenty-one days. Even in more normal times, as when I knew her, her day-to-day diet rarely approached what constitutes, by modern standards, minimal subsistence.
Likewise, “Sleep,” she would say, “is a waste of time,” and the family with whom she resided in Nagoya often remarked that they never saw her asleep: She was awake when the last of them went to bed and awake again when the first of them arose in the morning. At the age of forty, at the bedside of her father before he died, she went for twenty days without so much as a wink. Yet her appearance never hinted of this self-imposed asceticism: One would not describer her as either underweight or anything less than a picture of robust health; she was consistently fresh, alert, and filled with enthusiasm.
Matters of health never occupied her attention. Sensei attributed her own good health—in spite of the physical extremes to which she had taken the art of living—to creative thinking and its effect on circulation: Her bloodstream, she said, was subject, as it passed with such frequency through the frontal lobes of her brain, to constant filtration; this, she said, is what rendered her impervious to fatigue, and even during her later years when her physical strength began to fail, her pulse and blood profile—as corroborated numerous times by medical practitioners in both Eastern and Western traditions—produced close-to-perfect scores.
The soles of her sandals, she observed during her active years, never wore out—or rather, they never wore more at one edge than any other but, instead, evenly along the whole surface. And although she disdained unnecessary exercise, she remained supple and resilient way beyond her years: Once in 1987—she was seventy-nine—when the conversation turned to the subject of flexibility, she effortlessly placed both palms together behind her back and, with fingers pointed up and little fingers resting on her spine, lifted both hands together so that the tips of her fingers reached almost to the nape of her neck. Then, remarking that she hadn’t tried this in years, she stood up, bobbed from the waist, and, with knees straight, effortlessly placed both palms flat on the floor.
I also remember—and I am digressing—one evening around this same time, when a cockroach went scuttling across the floor and took refuge behind a small cabinet in the corner of the room: I watched in disbelief—from experience I knew how difficult these critters were to catch—as, with a sheet of tissue in her hand, she rose to her feet, moved the cabinet out of the way, and, with effortless deliberation, picked the cockroach off of the wall.

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        Long before ‘recycling’ was even a word, let alone a fad, Sensei gauged the efficiency of her lifestyle by the amount of trash she produced. This was particularly true with regard to the item most indispensable to her way of life—paper: She wrote with precise accuracy in miniscule letters—when copying from her notebooks I would often fill an ordinary notebook page with what she had recorded in a square less than two inches (five centimeters) to a side, and her voluminous diaries are made up of two columns of script per single rule—yet even as she conserved her own use of paper, she also carefully appropriated every scrap—the back sides of mailbox stuffers, the inside surfaces of envelopes—that came through her hands. As smoking was one of Sensei’s few diversions—her daily consumption, after cutting each cigarette into three pieces and then smoking them, one at a time, in the end of a long mouthpiece, was the equivalent of about two cigarettes per day—even the paper linings of cigarette packages would likewise be turned inside out to make use of their clean white surfaces.
The motive behind this frugality was not financial but ethical: The universe, she often noted, never wastes anything, and therefore, given the role of humanity on earth as the embodiment of universal intelligence—that is, as a planetary life-form uniquely endowed with the language-based capacity for rational thought—human responsibility with regard to appropriation of the earth’s resources is subject to measurement against the universal standard. Sensei was both reluctant to accept anything she could not use and reluctant to throw anything away, and visitors learned to exercise restraint with regard to gifts. I recall once, in the mid 1980’s when someone gave her a disposable hand-warmer: Then just new to the market, these fist-sized packets, when kneaded, would give off chemically-generated heat for thirty or forty minutes and were then meant to be thrown away; Sensei, however, carried the used packet in her handbag to Nagoya so that she could mix its contents into the soil for the potted houseplants kept by her hosts. During her later years, after loosing the strength in her legs, Sensei lived almost exclusively on the sandwiches, rice balls, and other finger-foods that people brought with them, however, as a matter of principle, since nothing was to go to waste, leftovers—even when far beyond their prime—would eventually be consumed: When one of us mentioned to a friend that she had been treated to one of the friend’s rice balls, the friend responded in horror, “I left those with Sensei over two weeks ago!”
Her mastery—for that is as I experienced it—of the art of living never betrayed the adversity through which she had endured. For years, Sensei was almost unanimously rejected, to the point of persecution, by her peers: Support for her work during its most formative period—the 1950’s and 1960’s—was nonexistent, and from the moment that she began sharing her conclusions with anyone interested enough to listen, she encountered ridicule and

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censorship. During the 1970’s and 1980’s, while the number of people touched and affected by her grew into the thousands, she was consistently misunderstood and misrepresented. And in her final years, even though her physical existence was confined almost exclusively to her seat in the four-and-one-half mat sitting room, her belongings arranged within reach in an arc around her, she continued—at her own insistence—to live alone. Yet never once did she complain. Sensei was proof that equanimity is self-generated—that it occurs independently of circumstances. Having chosen a path less traveled, she accepted wholeheartedly the hardships inherent to this path, and just as she attributed the essence of both life and language to the same, always-present and exclusively-positive energy, she also interpreted every difficulty—every setback, every painful experience—as an act of providence and an opening through which to achieve a fuller understanding of the universally parental intelligence and its intentions: Universal time moves in only one direction, and that direction is toward a brighter future.
“I am a sample,” she liked to say. “The trans-parental intelligence must have decided that, out of the four billion people on earth, there was room for one aberration like me.” The sample that was Odano Sanae was—like the written characters of language from which, as the formal objects of abstract thought, she derived sustenance—an open book: Hers was a life lived among ordinary people in modern times, without either pretense or ulterior motive, yet true—to the letter—to her word.
A sample is not the same as an example, and Sensei never advocated her manner of living as one to be emulated. In allowing us to observe her life, however, she provided us with incontrovertible evidence of the all-provident absolute reality of which she so often spoke. She was extraordinary in her plain and simple honesty. And in demonstrating what it means to live with integrity, she enlarged the greater possibility of what it means to be human.

After moving back to the United States in 1988, I entered a new phase in my relationship with Odano-sensei. My visits, now dependent upon the work demands that took me back and forth to Tokyo, necessarily became less frequent but continued at the rate of several times per year; if—as I was flattered to be told—she looked forward to these occasions with great anticipation, I certainly did as well. Sensei had retuned to fulltime residence in Tokyo, and I would call in advance to arrange the date and time; her voice never portrayed her age. Then on the appointed day—often fresh off of an airplane the day before—I would climb the hill from the train stop, slide the latch to her gate, and step into her special time-space as though I had never left. The four-and-one-half mat room was a unique corner of the universe where the frivolity of the worries upon which I was expending most of my vitality would again show up

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with comic clarity; even if only to be reassumed outside of her gate, the weight of this mantel was always noticeably reduced.
Upon my parting, she would insist upon shaking hands—I will never forget the feeling of that hand: Softer than the softest baby, pleasantly warm but not hot, and not dry but exuding no moisture.
The last time I held this hand was on November 16th, just eight days before she died. Upon my visit the night before, she had been conscious enough to recognize me and to say my name, but on that final evening, while her hand felt as it always did, her attention had moved on to an inner dimension where, I imagined, she was intently observing the dividing line between life and death. The last word anyone was to hear her speak, I was told later, was shiawase—a word that speaks volumes about her life: In its usual meaning çK shiawase means simply, happiness; the content of that happiness, however is éå shi çáÇÌÇπ awase, confluence with words, or living in accord with the energy that is the absolute standard of language and meaning.
While the outward signs have yet to suggest that this is so, the script of history, I venture, has been indelibly altered by her presence in the world: Odano Sanae opened a new path of human inquiry, and her life was testament to a next step and new direction in human evolution. If, as a person, she now lives only in the memories of those of us with the fortune to have known her first-hand, as an idea she belongs to the transparent fabric of time and space: Her life was a promise whose time has surely now come.

Steve Earle
January 1, 2002
Richmond, Virginia