I Opened the Gate, Laughing: An Inner Journey
by Mayumi Oda
(76 pp., Chronicle Books, 2002)
Reviewed by Ronna Kabatznick
World-renowned artist Mayumi Oda has written a beautiful new book, which like Goddesses (Lancaster-Miller, 1981) includes art drawn from her vibrant body of work and a text telling her own story. The painting on the cover, set in a lush garden, shows a buxom woman just about to dive into a giant purple leaf. A gold sash is tied around her ample waist, and plants envelop her hands; a butterfly hovers nearby. The total effect is mesmerizing.
Oda’s story is equally powerful. She was born in Japan during World War II and has lived through the difficulties of war, divorce and broken dreams. Her commitment to motherhood, gardening, painting, antinuclear activism and her daily Zen Buddhist meditation practice become her path and her passions.
Perhaps most touching is Oda’s gratitude to American Buddhism for bringing her native religion to life again for her. The aliveness she felt in the Western teachings enlivened her creative experimentation and expression. This reawakening was not without its challenges. She writes with grace and simplicity:
We entered the meditation hall, which was called the Zendo. It was often very cold, without heating. Facing the white, stark wall, about forty people would sit together in lotus position, feeling their breath going in and out. My crossed knees hurt a lot. Sometimes my spine was screaming. But after sitting for two hours, I always felt my cloudy mind become clearer, as if muddy water were settling the silt in the bottom of a bottle.
Oda’s paintings have blessed the covers of many books, including those by Sandy Boucher, Gary Snyder, Rick Fields and Ed Brown. Her paintings are part of the permanent collections at many museums, including the Museum of Modern Art in New York and the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. The colorful and whimsical images in this book are replete with flowers, frogs, radishes and bees. As Oda teaches us, the garden and the dharma are one.
The dharma wheel turns and turns, creating, changing every moment, yet continuing. Why do we think we are different from plants? Do plants die? Do we really die? We came of emptiness, and return to emptiness. Being in the garden gives me a great feeling of rest.
Ronna Kabatznick is a psychologist and writer. She is currently teaching at a Buddhist university in northern Thailand with her husband, Peter Dale Scott.