Profession: Zen priest and hula instructor
Tell me about growing up on the Big Island of Hawaii. I grew up in a small plantation town. The plantations were pretty big when I was born, in 1950. One of my grandfathers worked on them. He came over from Japan and started to work in what I would say were slave conditions. They had supervisors, what they called lunas, who would be riding on horses and even had whips. The other grandfather, on my mother’s side, started out as a postman in the volcano area, and then he opened a general store, in the town of Paauilo. He also opened a Japanese school there and was the head of the school. Because of this school, he was thought to be a leader of the Japanese community and that’s why he was arrested during World War II. He was interned in Honolulu on Sand Island, where they had a little internment camp. He had high blood pressure and died there nine months later. So I never did get to meet that grandfather. But he left nine children with my grandmother, who had to run the general store and raise all the children. And my grandmother also had a coffee field. I think there were about five or seven acres of coffee growing there that she had to manage, along with help from her children.
How did your grandfather’s death in internment affect your family? Well, it’s interesting; my mother’s side of the family, they never really talk about it. But they do say that when the FBI came they gave him just a couple of hours to get packed up and say goodbye. Can you imagine that? So they really don’t talk about that period, but it must have been a big hardship. My mother was 16 at the time. Pearl Harbor was bombed on her 16th birthday. It was really tragic, not only for our family but for many families.
Now you’re a kumu hula, a master hula teacher. I am a master hula teacher after studying for 12 years, when my husband and I returned to the Big Island of Hawaii.
So it wasn’t something you learned growing up? You learned later in life? I asked my mother at age six to take me to hula classes. (Laughs.) I didn’t remember this, my mother told me. And I took hula for two years with a wonderful hula master, Louise Beamer. And then after that I took it off and on, and then studied seriously when I returned to the Big Island in 1988.
Is the hula a religious dance? Yes, it started in religious ceremonies and the temples in Hawaii. It was done for the gods, to entice the gods to come and be with the people. That’s what it was originally strictly used for. And then it came out of the ceremonies and temples into the world with the musicians and dancers. You had court dancers for the royalty, and then you had traveling bands of performers and entertainers, but it’s still very much the ancient dances in honor of the gods and the goddesses of nature. And they all have a deeper message, what we call kaona. It’s like a hidden message that, if you knew the original composer, you would know for sure what the composer meant, and if not, then it’s kind of like Zen koans. You just work on them until the meaning makes itself known to you.
Interesting. Kaona even sounds like koan! It really does, yeah, and in Hawaiian you’re dancing it too, so it’s working on you on many levels, not so much intellectually, but the body wisdom.
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