Tsunekazu Nishioka
Japanese Carpenter - miya-daiku (master temple carpenter)
Master Tsunekazu Nishioka was a Japanese carpenter. Not just any carpenter. He was a miya-daiku, one of the few master temple carpenters in Japan. He was a living tradition holder. His wisdom and knowledge were passed down to him through oral traditions and written texts in a family tradition. His know-how developed through discipline and practice. He learned from his ancestors how to construct and build tools, how to choose and prepare materials that were supremely fit for purpose and relearned these processes through his whole being to make their knowledge and wisdom come to life in him.

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His know-how and understanding were 'gut-based' – tried and tested over time, constantly being refreshed, his work was informed by a deep appreciation and connection with his craft. That kind of approach comes as the result of a lifetime's practice, integrating mind, body and spirit in every part of his work, and his approach to it.

Like many living tradition holders, his training started by learning to observe. 'In order to know … it is first necessary to observe,' he's recorded as saying. It's something many living tradition holders have in common. They learn to observe, and through observing, connect to the essence of that which they are observing, seeing through it, almost, to its core, and beyond. What's more, he learned obedience. Submitting to doing menial tasks was understood as an outward preparation for an inner obedience to a higher law – the law of cosmic harmony.

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As a living tradition holder, Nishioka – like other living tradition holders – learned to observe – and obey – the sacred law of sustainability, of respect for life. Nishioka, when a tree was selected for felling, would address the tree. As part of this address, he would vow: 'I will commit no act that will extinguish the life of this tree.' Working with wood was working with life and his work was to bring life to life through the wood.

In his book about Master Nishioka, Azby Brown writes, 'Japanese carpenters, or daiku, are considered members of a class of worker known as shokunin. Usually translated as "craftsman" or "artisan," the word shokunin has a strong ethical and spiritual nuance in Japanese. The use of the term, like that of daiku, has evolved over the centuries, but the essential values the term implies persist. The shokunin, in addition to paying a debt to nature incurred by his exploitation of the earth's resources, must fulfill his obligation to society, primarily by doing what is required quickly, skilfully, and without waste. … Temple carpenters, such as the late Nishioka, because of the scale of their work and its sacred nature, perform the most demanding type of carpentry and are regarded with a reverence bordering on awe. Their work includes the design and layout of Buddhist temples and Shintō shrines … Temple carpenters must be well versed in Buddhist theology and ritual, and are treated as members of the clergy on certain ceremonial occasions.'

As an apprentice, as many apprentices before him have done, Nishioka created a scale model of a building to demonstrate his craft. In France, apprentices working in the tradition of the compagnons de la devoir continue to do this today, as shown in the picture below.

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Nishioka's model was of the Hōryūji five-storey pagoda. It is preserved in the Tokyo National Museum. His training resulted in a growing ability to see beauty, harmony, proportion ever more clearly with his mind's eye, treating measurements which embodied these qualities as secondary, rather than primary.

When he had attained the rank of master carpenter, Nishioka worked on a major reconstruction project at Hōryūji, which takes place every 200 years.

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Brown records Nishioka saying, '"Coming from a family of craftsmen, I had learned [traditional carpenter's wisdom] already, but it was only when I took the buildings to pieces that I discovered that all of Hōryūji was constructed this way. I was extremely moved. The oral tradition had been applied without exception." But the ancient standards were not always maintained, he said, and the results could be seen in repair work carried out some six centuries ago. "They simply matched good-looking trees with good-looking trees. When I rebuilt, I resorted to the old ways, perceiving the nature of individual trees, [making sure that trees which grew on the southern face of the mountain are used in the southern side of the building, and so on.]"'

In addition to his apprenticeship training, Nishioka studied at an agricultural school. Brown notes that 'Although Nishioka valued the contribution his formal education made to his development, he regarded it as something which, while helpful, was not essential, especially when it came to training one's perception. "Academics," he said, "can be very foolish. They take simple things and make them difficult … Japanese society today measures people by their educational credentials, with the lamentable result that other equally valid ways of learning are being forgotten, even though they're backed by 1,300 years of experimental observation in Japan alone. And this has happened so quickly: in a mere 100 years, thirteen centuries of accumulated knowledge has been allowed to leak out of our culture, not just in architecture, but everywhere."'

This general attitude has resulted in there being far fewer trees available suitable for use in temple restoration, but in the dearth of materials for tools.

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According to Brown, Nishioka believed that, '"Modern steel is no good. Swordmakers have always tried to find antique steel to use. A famous swordmaker … once told me that good tools could probably be made out of nails from Hōryūji … I had a plane blade made from some, and used it on the reconstruction of the Hōryūji Golden Hall." According to Nishioka, the ancient steels were produced from rich ore smelted at relatively low temperatures, resulting in a resilient metal that cannot be reproduced from the depleted ore available today.'

"So?" I hear the modernist object, "This guy knows about wood and he knows about steel. So what?

What good is this to me?

I don't need to build a Japanese temple. I don't need to know about wood."

So what do you need to know about?

What's important to you?

How to raise a child?

How to live well and prosper?

How to be a flourishing member of a flourishing society at both local and global levels?

Is this any different from planting trees, growing them for a spiritual purpose, and knowing how to use them so they fulfil their purpose and help others fulfil theirs?

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Nishioka did his best to combat the depletion of resources by passing on his knowledge. He trained apprentices and 'was a strict teacher, seeking to form carpenters from the heart outward, as it were.' His sense of time was rooted in the constant ever-present moment, located between wide sweeps of time spanning past and future millennia.

However, perhaps the most important precepts that Nishioka learned from his ancestors were the precepts that dealt with the mental and emotional aspects of a carpenter's work: Leadership. Compassion. Spiritual preparation. He taught that "Only a compassionate master can mold his carpenters into a unified team,"

Whatever your vocation, what are the highest ideals you strive for?

What is your inner vision?

Who's in your team? And what's the larger team your team's a part of?

When Azby Brown wrote of the vision the people responsible for the temple restoration project had, he remarked, 'Vision like this rarely survives its possessor'. This kind of vision is the kind of vision that enables others to achieve their highest ideals. With the death of these visionaries, their vision died. It is up to us to keep our vision alive so we can maintain the impetus of other visionaries. That way, we can sustain our vision and, in turn, be sustained by theirs.

Your vision will be totally different to these visionaries'. But does the essential quality of your vision really differ from theirs?

For more information on Master carpenter, Tsunekazu Nishioka, and his work, seek out Azby Brown's book, The Genius of Japanese Carpentry: Secrets of an Ancient Craft, North Clarendon, Tokyo and Singapore: Turtle Publishing, 2013.

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