Monday, January 25, 2010

Ever hear of Henry Mittwer?

This is the kind of life, like the lives in of people in my wife's family, that leaves you in awe about how one person could take all the garbage he took and still keep going.


Henry Mittwer was born in Yokohama in 1918. His father was an American film distributor who first came to Japan in 1898 as a seaman en route to the Spanish-American War being waged in the Philippines...

An early but formative experience was the Great Kanto Earthquake in 1923, which killed more than 30,000 in Yokohama alone. Mittwer, then 5, remembers grasping his mother in terror as they ran from a house that was convulsing around them. The family had to camp out in their yard for several days before their house was again fit for habitation...

From 1942 Mittwer lived in five of the 10 internment camps the U.S. War Relocation Authority had thrown up in scarcely inhabited areas of the western U.S. for nearly 120,000 Japanese and Japanese-American detainees. Some of them had as little as one-eighth Japanese ancestry...

After the war, the Mittwers eventually returned to Los Angeles. However, beset by lung disease, job dissatisfaction and the news that his mother had died in 1955, before he was able to visit her in Japan, Mittwer became increasingly depressed.

About that time, he met Zen priest Nyogen Senzaki, one of the early proponents of Zen practice in the U.S. He became drawn to Zen teachings and started regular meditation sessions "to clear the cobwebs from my brain."

In 1961, Mittwer finally returned to Japan alone, becoming a disciple of the chief abbot of Kyoto's Myoshinji Temple, Daiko Furukawa. At Myoshinji, Mittwer assisted with visiting American priests and with the young acolytes who were in the temple's care. He said matter-of-factly, "One day I was asked, 'Why don't you become a priest?' So I was tonsured."

After the abbot's death, he met Hirata Seiko, the abbot of Tenryuji, who invited him to become his student. His family finally joined him in 1965 and they lived together on the temple grounds...

Mittwer professes no bitterness about his wartime experiences, saying merely, "You have to take it as an experience, one of many in one's life."

He said he tries to lead his life according to the deceptively simple words of the worldly (and often ribald) Buddhist priest and poet Ikkyu, who wrote, "Don't do bad things; do good things."

Ikkyu's words are deceptively simple indeed, especially since it is more than possible, once a bad thing has been done, to try and do more bad things. But that arises out of an attachement to the bad things, or rather to the repulsion of the bad thing.

3 comments:

Anonymous said...

He was a amazing man. He passed away June 1, 2012. He will be missed!

Benny Oyama said...

Hello anonymous, I'm sad to hear about his passing - he was my great uncle and I had the pleasure of meeting him two summers ago at tenryu-ji. It was an unexpected visit from a great nephew he didn't know he had, haha!

Benny Oyama said...

Hello anonymous, I'm sad to hear about his passing - he was my great uncle and I had the pleasure of meeting him two summers ago at tenryu-ji. It was an unexpected visit from a great nephew he didn't know he had, haha!