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Interview: Spiritual Genealogy Inspires Gratitude

Ancestors have shaped the lives and values of generations of east Asians.
Dr. Ronald Nakasone

Dr. Ronald Nakasone


The story of his grandfather and other elders fired the imagination of artist and scholar Ronald Y. Nakasone. He wrote about it in a recent issue of the Journal of Religion, Spirituality & Aging (Vol. 25, No. 1, 2013).

Dr. Nakasone is a member of the core doctoral faculty at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, California, and ethnogeriatric specialist at the Stanford University Geriatric Education Center in Stanford, California.

AHB reached him in Fremont, California.

Ruth Dempsey: So what is "spiritual genealogy"

Ronald Nakasone: "Spiritual genealogy" refers to ancestors that shaped our lives and values. Some ancestors I inherited, others I have chosen.

I received from my parents, grandparents, other elders and, through them, from more distant ancestors those life-lessons that prepared me to pass through this world.

I learned of their passage through life by growing up alongside them and through family lore.

I marvel, for example, at the courage of my grandfather. At the age of 16, he left the tiny hamlet of Wakugawa in northern Okinawa, Japan, and traveled to Hawaii. He made a new life for himself in a strange and often hostile environment. He spoke neither English nor Japanese. He left believing that he would never see his mother or homeland again.

Spiritual genealogy also refers to patrons of our chosen vocations. Since I chose Buddhist Studies as a career, I trace my lineage through my teachers, luminaries of the past and to the Buddha himself. Their lessons have inspired my studies, teachings and ministry.

My father became a carpenter after he lost his farm because it was situated next to Pearl Harbor. He would mention Hidari Jingorō, the legendary Japanese carpenter and wood carver to whom he looked for inspiration.

RD: What place does spirituality have in the culture?

RN: In traditional as opposed to modern cultures, an individual’s identity is linked to his or her place within the community and among the generations.

My immigrant forebears, like other Japanese who immigrated to Hawaii and elsewhere, seem to be especially conscious of this.

They identified themselves as issei or first generation immigrants. My parents thought of themselves as nisei or second generation immigrants. My spouse and I am sansei or third generation immigrant. My daughter is a yonsei or fourth generation immigrant. Each cohort generation is associated with different experiences and is reminded of their debt to previous generations.

I was born and raised in Hawaii to second generation Ryūkyūan (Okinawan) parents. Growing up in such a household I was unknowingly nurtured in a tradition that honoured one’s elders and the ancestors. This tradition is crystallized in a Ryūkyūan children’s song, Tinsagu nu hana (Balsam flower).

Stain the tips of your fingertips
With the petals of the tinsagu blossom,
Imprint the teachings of your parents
Onto your heart

You could, if you tried
Count the stars in the sky,
But you can never imagine all
The lessons of your parents

I was aware also of the innumerable ancestral spirits with whom we shared the world.

For example, my mother dutifully attended to three domestic shrines in addition to the ancestral shrine. I would hear her regularly report what transpired during the day. I did not know the significance of these shrines until I did some research.

I learned that besides the ancestral shrine, the three other shrines were dedicated to: the "kitchen god," who is the messenger to the great deity who lives in the highest heaven; the most distant clan ancestor; and ancestors of the branch of our family lineage.

A typical household in my mother’s ancestral village has a fifth shrine in the garden that honours the spirits of the land on which the house is situated. The current human occupants are essentially "leasing" the land from the original inhabitants.

Thailand and other southeast Asian peoples have similar practices.

The multiplicity of shrines recalls a time when our distant ancestors lived in small family units that were dependent on each other for mutual support. Elders passed on survival and life skills, including what was good and admirable.

Disembodied spirits made less and less sense as I grew older and education introduced other realities.

Nonetheless, after my mother passed away in 1991, I felt it was important to report her passing to her father and mother. It was a way of honouring her. While there are rituals to relate important milestones from afar, it is far better to deliver such news personally. So in the summer of 1992, my 14-year-old daughter and I visited my maternal ancestral tomb in Tomigusuku, Okinawa, Japan.

Tombs are located in remote areas away from villages and farmlands. They are normally visited during the spring equinox and for the July Obon observances (festival honouring the spirits of the deceased).

As we made our way through waist high undergrowth, my daughter asked, "What are we doing here?" I must have shared a similar sentiment when I visited the same tomb with my mother in 1952. I was nine.

RD: What about your own spiritual upbringing?

RN: Growing up in an isolated rural Hawaii, I participated in annual and other rituals that punctuated the year. But I did not understand their significance, except that it was a time to see my cousins and friends and to enjoy party food.

New Year’s was and still is a most important event. The days before were hectic: bills had to be settled; the house cleaned; new clothes prepared; and shrines readied. The New Year must be greeted, even today, with everything in order. This was an exciting time. As a child, I received money and other gifts, and I was able to drink all of the soda pop I wanted.

Not all events were festive. I remember how bored I was sometimes, especially at funeral and memorial services where I had to behave. I recall many deaths; a younger brother died when I was four, and I lost a cousin shortly after.

Funerals and memorial services, like marriages and births, were community events. Looking back, of course, these experiences were part of my spiritual upbringing. I did not know the meaning of these rituals, but through observation and participation I witnessed and felt grief and loss. I intuitively understood the difficulties of life.

RD: In 2011, you attended the Uchinānchu Taikai Festival: what was that like?

RN: The first Sekai Uchinānchu Taikai was held in 1990. "Sekai" means "world." "Uchinānchu" is the expression the people of Okinawa and others who live in Ryūkyūs Archipelago use to refer themselves. "Taikai" means "Great Festival." It is held every five or six years.

Attending the festival with my immediate family was a great experience. There were six of us. In addition to me, my wife and daughter, we were joined by my sister, brother and his son. It was the first trip to Okinawa for my brother and his son to see their roots. It was nice to visit a place where everyone in the village is a relative.

More than 5000 Uchinānchu from 24 countries gathered and paraded through Kokusai Dori (International Avenue), the main street of the prefectural capital, Naha. The street was lined with well-wishers, who waved and shouted "mensore, mensore" (welcome, welcome) during the hour long procession.

Many participants dressed in costumes of their countries. Some Uchinānchu women from Brazil paraded and danced in their samba outfits. They were popular. One Uchinānchu from the Las Vegas contingent appeared as Elvis.

We marched as participants from the local Northern California Okinawa Prefectural Club. Our dress was bland; we had yellow t-shirts.

During the weeklong event, many villages held a reception for their kinfolk and neighbours who had returned for the Taikai.

We made a special effort to attend the reception sponsored by Nakijin, the ancestral village of my grandparents. It was a good to be with kinfolk who shared the same geographical roots.

RD: You describe participating in rituals at the family tomb . . .

The Nakasone family taken in front of the ancestral tomb on Yagan'na Island in the Yagaji Naikai (Inland Sea), Oct. 14, 2011. Courtesy of the Nakasone Family.

RN: Pilgrimages to the family tomb are simple and joyous solemn affairs. These family rituals are passed on from one generation to the next.

Each family has evolved its own ritual style, but the intent is the same: to remember and honour the ancestors.

After cleaning the grave site, flowers, food, incense and sake are offered as sacrifices. The head of the family identifies those present and asks the ancestors for their blessings. After the service, the family normally enjoys a communal meal at the grave site. It is a time to share memories and reinforce family ties.

My paternal family tomb is located on Yagan’na Island in the Yagaji Inland Sea. Visits must take into account the tides. Low tide exposes a sand bar that links the island to the mainland, so we need to return before the tide returns.

Each visit has been spiritually visceral. An inexplicable feeling of awe arises, knowing the remains of untold generations of my forebears were just beyond the tomb’s entry.

It is also a joyous feeling knowing that I am part of a long generational cycle. It is comforting that I, too, will be an ancestor.

RD: Traditional Japan has a complex mortuary and memorial cycle. How does it work?

Naneji Naikai (Hanji Inland Sea), Japan

RN: The mortuary and memorial cycle is part of a series of rituals that begin at birth and continues through major milestones in the life cycle.

If one is fortunate enough to become an elder, the Japanese observe a series of late life rituals that commence with one’s 60th year. Kanreki or 60th birthday celebration, according to the Chinese Zodiac, marks the completion of one life cycle and the beginning of another.

For reasons I have yet to fully uncover, the 70th, 77th, 80th, 88th, 90th and 99th birthdays are also important milestones.

In the past when life expectancy was 50 years, kanreki was an occasion for great joy. The elder is adorned in red, a color that represents birth and is often honoured with a gala party.

In addition to offering elders milestones to look forward to, these public celebrations are didactic. They reinforce the reciprocity between young and old.

Obligations are passed on to succeeding generations. A child can only recognize and fulfill his or her responsibilities by caring for, bringing honour to and by reverently observing regular memorial services for his or her parents.

In exchange, it is believed that ancestral spirits will protect and guide their living descendents through times of adversity and rejoice in their successes. There is still a strong belief that the ancestral spirits can and will intervene in times of crisis.

However, I believe that the protection that the ancestral spirits offer are the life-lessons that they have imparted.

RD: While in your ancestral homeland, you took part in a memorial service for your mother’s sister . . .

RN: October 16, the last night of our visit coincided with the 33rd year memorial anniversary of my aunt Ugusuku Kiku and the first year memorial anniversary of my cousin, Ugusuku Hatsu. The day we set aside for the service also fell on the day I lost my brother, Chris Yukimi, 64 years ago.

The 33rd year memorial service is especially significant. In traditional Ryūkyū and some parts of Japan, the 33rd year service is the last service dedicated to the memory of an individual. At the end of this service, the memorial plaque that bears the name of the deceased is placed in the ancestral shrine among other such ancestral plaques. Having completed her transformation from a corporeal being into a fully spiritual being, my aunt is now an honoured ancestor.

With the one year memorial service, my cousin is on her way to maturing into an ancestor. These memorial services are occasions for remembering and affirming family solidarity among the living as well as the deceased. All of us, even the youngest, will become an ancestor.

Except for my elder aunts, I am the only one left who has direct memory of my brother. My other siblings were born after he passed away. Without my memories, he would have really passed from this world.

RD: The article shows a picture of the family assembled in front of the ancestral shrine. Are shrines common in the home?

Relatives and descendents of the Ugusuka (Jpn. Oshiro) family assembled in front of ancestral shrine, Oct. 16, 2011. Courtesy of the Nakasone Family.

RN: In traditional Okinawan homes, the ancestral shrine is in the main room of the house. This is the room where the family eats, sleeps, entertains and relaxes. Ancestors are a ubiquitous presence. These shrines are reminders that we are heirs to a long line of previous generations and that we, too, are part of that linage.

In addition to memorials and other special rituals, sacrifices are observed on the first and 15th of every month. Even modern homes have an ancestral altar in a prominent place in the home.

RD: You say longevity offers older adults unparalleled opportunities to mentor. How so?

RN: Generations of east Asians have looked to the accumulated wisdom of their elders – parents, grandparents, and even more distant and mythical ancestors – to pattern their lives and to relate to one another.

Elders and teachers embody cultural values and virtues.

A teacher’s dedication to his or her craft models the meaning of growing in wisdom. Certainly, a teacher who tries to become "fully accomplished" transmits such virtues as effort, diligence and patience that are honed through long experience in mastering a craft and living in the world.

I have recalled elsewhere one of my first lessons in growing into elderhood, but it is worth mentioning again. While living in Kyoto, Japan, I studied the art of sho (calligraphy) with Morita Shiryū (1912-1998). I remember quite clearly one of my conversations:

"I look forward to growing old," Morita said. "But, why?" I asked incredulously. "I want to see how my art will mature and change," he replied.

I was 26 at the time; Morita was twice my age. In retrospect, my sensei (teacher) who had established an international reputation was intensely exploring his craft as a vehicle to deepen and give form to his kyōgai or "spiritual dwelling place."

Ordinarily kyōgai refers to one’s socioeconomic status, but in Japanese Buddhist culture the expression denotes a spiritual and aesthetic quality that can only come from long years in the world.

For the next 30 years, I observed my teacher exploring and deepening his kyōgai through the aesthetic space that issued forth from his brush work.

Most of us are not artists, but we can cultivate our spiritual lives and pass on the joy of these experiences to the next generation of elders.

RD: What do you see as the benefits of an aging society?

RN: We have never before had so many elders. Our philosophers, theologians and policy makers have no historical precedent from which they can reflect on and respond to the increasing number of older persons.

One thing is certain: this demographic shift will require a reorientation from wars and conflicts to more humane projects that include allocating resources, human and material, to the caring professions.

Educators in all disciplines will need to devise curricula to prepare for this massive shift.

Since the past has little experience to offer in mapping the way forward, perhaps we should turn to the future for guidance.

We have remodeled our home to be elder friendly. This includes more lights, wider doors, handles rather than knobs and lower counters.

My daughter knows that her generation will inherit massive environmental problems, including diminished natural resources. She keeps stressing the need to recycle and not to waste water.

While children and grandchildren have much to learn from their elders, elders in turn must look to the aspirations of their children and grandchildren and the world they are posed to inherit.

The third verse of Tinsagu nu hana (Balsam flower) reminds us:

A ship sailing in the night
Gets its bearings from the North Star,
My parents who gave me life
Find their bearings from me.