Kazuaki Tanahashi, 85, is a Japanese calligrapher, Zen teacher, author, translator, and activist, well-known for his “one-stroke” paintings and international environmental and peace work. Tanahashi has spent decades working to relieve suffering as the founding secretary of Plutonium Free Future, a fellow of the World Academy of Art and Science, and the founding director of A World Without Armies.
His latest book, Painting Peace: Art in a Time of Global Crisis, is his version of a “letter to a young artist.” The stories and musings it collects are meant to help artists, activists, and others develop their own ideas for working effectively on behalf of people and the planet. Bringing about social transformation may seem like an impossible task at times, but Tanahashi’s down-to-earth hopefulness—and his willingness to practice what he preaches—suggest that it is possible to effect change if we’re willing to think outside the box and commit to doing what we can.
Do you think there’s a difference between art that comes out of times of crisis versus times of peace?
Yes, of course. I think when the world is perceived as peaceful, artists create personal, pleasing works; they aren’t as concerned with social issues. For instance, I first became politically active as an artist in the late 1970s because of the escalating nuclear arms race. I was living in San Francisco, and I did not know if I would wake up the next morning. I wasn’t sure if there would still be a world! There was a feeling of urgency, and I wanted to do something to change the situation, to become free from this horrible threat of global suicide.
In the Fall 2010 issue of Tricycle, you said, “When we’re approaching war or when a catastrophe is about to happen, artists have to make a choice. We need to choose our passions. We need to decide where we can do the most good with our art and our writing.” It seems that’s what you’re doing with this book. Can you speak about this?
Obviously, none of us can do everything. There are many problems and many things fueling those problems. So it’s important to make a choice about what we do. We can think about what each person is good at or passionate about—or what is most urgent. Based on this, we can pick a small number of things to be engaged with.
We need to learn to be effective. We cannot waste time or resources. We need to think and act deeply. Contemplation can be our action; maybe just sitting quietly and doing nothing. That is essential, because from there we might have some deeper insights. From there we can move into action. Action, at its most basic, starts with taking action in the mind.
In your new book, you outline the Four Commonplace Truths, which are principles to guide social engagement. Can you tell us about them?
When Engaged Buddhism was beginning to develop in the West, my Buddhist activist friends began thinking, do we need a new set of principles, or are the four noble truths, the most basic teaching of Buddhism, good enough? Can we simply use the four noble truths as the basis for our actions for social transformation? I thought, well, we don’t know, but it might be helpful to have some principles that just focus on social transformation. I talked to these friends, and we came up with the idea of the Four Commonplace Truths.
The first one is “No situation is impossible to change.” In a way, it’s the flip side of “Life is impermanent.” All things change. So often, we take this as something passive or negative—we have a good situation, but it can change quickly. But if all things change, this means we can help change current situations for the better.
The second truth asks, “How do we make our efforts effective?” [In Painting Peace, Tanahashi describes the second truth as “A communal vision, outstanding strategy, and sustained effort can bring forth positive changes.”] In the Buddhist community, we don’t talk about being effective. Sometimes we see it as a bad thing to talk about results. Especially in Zen, non-achievement is an ideal. But at times, non-achievement is arrogance. We can’t afford to be non-achieving. While achievement for selfish purposes can be bad, anything we do [for the greater good] needs to be effective and successful. So one time at a Buddhist Peace Fellowship meeting, I said that maybe we should learn from business people and the military—they are masters of being effective! [Laughs.]
This horrifies people. But, as a student of aikido, I observed my master and the martial art’s founder Morihei Ueshiba as he showed us how to move the body to get maximum results with the least force. To do this, you have to practice, practice, practice to the point that the body can move without thinking so much. I’d like to apply this principle to being effective in the social sphere. We need to have a common goal with other people. If we are working for social transformation, then we need to have the best kind of path, the best strategy and tactics. We have to maximize the results with limited resources and capacity.
The third truth is “We can all help.” Everyone can help create change. No one person can actually change society. But everyone can help—even people who are bedridden or weak or have very few resources. And if everyone can help, then “No one is free of responsibility.” This is the last principle for common action. We all bear some responsibility.
You write about the similarities of the art-making process and the way social movements take hold. What can activism learn from art?
Artists know that we have the power to create something unique, or beautiful, or powerful. And not just visual artists but writers, too. Writing can be very powerful. It can change people’s consciousness. It can change language. It can change society. Music can do that, too. So, artists know that any painting, any action, anything can bring forth change. Little by little, we become more confident in this.
One of the worst things to happen in human history was the nuclear arms race and the potential for global suicide. We have acquired this capacity, and we are not so far from the kind of all-out nuclear war [that we feared during the Cold War]. But millions of people worked to stop the nuclear arms race—we were able to change one of the worst situations in human history.
Today, we are facing a population explosion, and we don’t have enough food and water to feed everyone. This and climate destabilization—water levels and temperatures rising—are our current great crises. But change is always possible. If we had the ability to avert the greatest crisis in the world, I think we have the capacity to deal with different aspects of these new global crises, too.
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