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Interview: The Art of Self-Cultivation


At fifteen I set my heart to learning.
At thirty I took my stand.
At forty I was without doubt.
At fifty I understood the way to Heaven.
At sixty my ear was attuned [to Heaven's ways].
At seventy I followed my heart-mind desires
without transgressing the way [of heaven]. – Confucius

In a recent essay, Dr. Ronald Nakasone described growing old in Asian cultures as an adventure of learning and mentoring. His reflections offer another lens on the many landscapes of aging. Nakasone is a professor of Buddhist art and culture at Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, California. His essay appeared in the journal Generations (Vol. XXX11, No. 2, 2008).

Dr. Ronald Nakasone

Dr. Ronald Nakasone

AHB reached Dr. Nakasone in Berkeley.

Ruth Dempsey: You describe life as an adventure of self-cultivation that extends into old age . . .

Ronald Nakasone: That’s right. In my essay, I highlighted the wisdom of three Asian elders within the framework of Confucius’ life-review. At the age of 70, the master looked back on his life and identified six distinct stages in his education. It has become increasingly obvious to me, as I venture into elderhood that more often than not, elders have an uncommon wisdom that comes from being around a while.

For example, long-lived elders have the rare gift of patient listening and deep gratitude that comes from being knocked down and working through their disappointments and losses. This journey cultivates wisdom and ease.

RD: Children learn self-cultivation early. Can you give me an example from your own childhood?

RN: I grew up on a farm in rural Hawaii. From a young age I was given responsibilities to care for the farm animals and to do odd jobs. I suppose learning one’s place in the family is the beginning of self-cultivation. My mother reminded me of an ancient proverb: At the age of 10, a son could do the work of his father’s right arm. I must have been a super son. I always completed my chores in a wink, so I could run off to swim at the nearby beach.

RD: Becoming an elder in Japanese culture means becoming a mentor. Can you describe one of your mentors and how he influenced you?

RN: I have been fortunate. I have had many mentors. My first models were my parents and grandparents. My grandfather began work before the sun was up; my father often worked until after the sun set. Later in life, I was most impressed by my kendo, Japanese fencing sensei or teacher, who placed great value on promise keeping.

Early one snowy Sunday morning, he knocked on our apartment door to tell me that he was unable to keep our appointment. He located us by asking residents in a strange neighborhood quite a distance from his home. Irene and I had just moved to Kyoto and had no telephone. I had not given him my address, mentioned only the general area in which we lived. In traditional hierarchical Japanese society there was no need for him to extend such courtesy to a novice student. Since then I go to great lengths to honor promises.

RD: Your essay features many inspiring stories. I liked the one about the grandmother.

RN: Yes, for the article, I tried to locate elder mentors from my own life, but I chanced on the grandmother story in The Lioness in Bloom. I think the story is typical of elder wisdom. I have come to appreciate the insight women have of human nature and their gentle mentoring.

RD: Hitting age 60 is a big deal in Japan. Why 60? And how do you celebrate?

RN: In the past, few people lived to be 60. It’s a major milestone in countries that follow the Chinese zodiac. Sixty years completes one life cycle and the beginning of new one. The occasion is marked with great fanfare and feasting. The “newborn” elder is adorned in red, perhaps a red hat or vest. In Hawaii, the elder is presented with a double red carnation lei. Red represents birth and life. In Japanese, a newborn is called akachan, “little red one.”

RD: Japan has many late-life celebrations . . .

RN: Yes. In Japanese culture, the 60th birthday or kanreki begins a series of late life celebrations. Following on that, the 70th, 77th, 80th, 88th, 90th and 99th birthdays are auspicious milestones.

The 70th year is koki or a “rare age celebration.” The eight-century Chinese poet Tu fu wrote, “Since ancient times, the age of 70 has always been rare in human life.” In a time when life expectancy was 50 years, to live for 70 years was indeed a rare event. The 77th year or kiju is a joyous event. The 80th year is sanju. Beiju celebrates the 88th year; the 90th year is sotsuju and the 99th year is hakuju.

These late life celebrations give elders milestones to look forward to, and [these celebrations] are public expressions of filiality. For example, my mother, to mark her father’s 90th birthday, not only sponsored a banquet, she built him a new house. Mother warned these late life celebrations could be expensive because after the “official” celebration elders expect an even bigger birthday bash every year thereafter.

RD: The mentoring process continues on even after death. Can you describe the Japanese memorial cycle for me?

RN: In addition to late celebrations, traditional Japan has a long and complex mortuary and memorial cycle. After the funeral, the family sponsored – some still do – a service every seventh day until the 49th day to mark the day of departure. Subsequently, a memorial service is held on the first, third, seventh, 13th, 25th and 33rd year anniversary of death. On the island of Okinawa, the 33rd year memorial service marks the complete transition of the individual to an ancestral spirit or kami.

After the service, the family usually enjoys a communal meal. It is a time to share memories and reinforce family ties. Through participation, children come to know that they are part of a complex family relationship that extends into the past. In a real sense, the honored deceased is the host; he or she is the reason for the family to gather.

Outside the homeland, the community has abbreviated the traditional memorial cycle. Today families often live great distances apart, and modern work schedules make it difficult to observe the ritual calendar.

RD: Up until recently, aging was a family affair . . .

RN: My grandfather immigrated to Hawaii in 1906. During the past 103 years my family’s memories of our ancestral traditions have faded. While we still honor our elders with late life celebrations and memorial observances, our approach to aging is not appreciably different from the modern life-style of most American families. Long distance caregiving, in-home care, respite care for the caregiver, assisted living and nursing care, living wills, medical power of attorney and long term care insurance are now part of our lives.

RD: Finally, what do you value most about aging the Asian way?

RN: Asian cultures still maintain much of the traditional image of elders – that they should be respected and cared for. More important, elders are expected to grow in wisdom, a great responsibility perhaps. But I am looking forward to this continuing journey. Who knows where this adventure will lead?