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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, May 27, 2001

Transcending death

 •  Profile of the Rev. Mitsuo Aoki

By Beverly Creamer
Advertiser Staff Writer

The "cosmic dancer," he calls himself, and University of Hawai'i students in religion classes over the years have been astonished as he leapt atop his desk and danced.

"I have no fear of death. It has this amazing quality of pushing you to new perceptions," says Mitsuo Aoki, a retired professor of religion at the University of Hawai'i. The photo on the wall is of his late wife Lynne, who died five years ago.

Jeff Widener • The Honolulu Advertiser

"Nietzche said, 'Until you have learned to dance, you have not understood God,' " says Mitsuo Aoki, "so dancing is a form of transcending limits."

His words are quietly intense. It's the same intensity with which he has lived life. The same intensity with which he speaks of God, death, the loss of his wife, Lynne, five years ago. When he awakens each morning, he reaches up to caress a picture of her face hung on the living room wall close to a cross. On Saturday mornings, they talk. In the images and thoughts that come to him, he says, "I feel her presence."

His eyes are passionate, and his hands gesture "like a tai chi master," said one of his students. His face is ageless.

For half a century, Mits Aoki's commitment to taking the terror out of death has touched the consciousness of an entire community. As a professor of religion for 40 years at the University of Hawai'i, as one of those who inspired the creation of Hospice Hawai'i, as a personal counselor to the dying, Aoki has made an indelible imprint.

"He has been like the anchor for us," says Hospice Hawai'i president Stephen Kula. "Our guiding post."

"He's real progressive," says yoga teacher Rick Bernstein, hired by Aoki in the religion department at the University of Hawai'i in the 1970s. "The students had a choice of taking yoga and meditation, aikido training or writing a term paper. Pretty cool."

In the early 1980s, Aoki helped build and train a force of two dozen volunteers to work with cancer patients on a spiritual level. In the wake of that he formed his own foundation, and has been available to help anyone who calls. For scores of families, his words and presence have provided the strength to forgive hurts that may go back a lifetime.

"If you call Mits, you've got Mits," said Bernstein. "He comes to you, at your home, in the hospital. He sits down with you and talks story with you and helps you work out a strategy for healing yourself either physically, emotionally or spiritually.

"He'll see people for as long as it takes. And if they're dying, he empowers their family. When someone is dying, it puts incredible stress on a family dynamic. All the old stuff comes up. He sits there and handles everybody's stuff. For free."

Aoki still takes calls from those seeking comfort. But now, with his energy diminished, he gently suggests other resources.

His doctor has told Aoki he has congestive heart failure. One of his major arteries is completely blocked, his oxygen supply greatly diminished. Surgery could perhaps help, but he shakes his head. Not at his age, he says. Besides, death holds no threat. Only promise.

"I have no fear of death," he says. "It has this amazing quality of pushing you to new perceptions. I learned long ago that when something happens to you, don't call it bad or good. Accept it. Embrace it as an experience. If I'm angry, I say I'm angry. Then I close my eyes and get an image of it. Then I expand on the image ... it's size, texture, color.

"Don't point fingers. Don't think who caused it. If you do that, you victimize yourself. Instead, you ask 'What is this trying to tell me?'"

Aoki rises from the couch and pads barefoot out to the patio behind his Pohai Nani cottage. The air is scented with peppermint and alive with the songs of finches, sparrows and rice birds lured by the birdfeeder he hung in the guava tree on the green slope.

In the quiet of this peaceful spot, a rocking chair sits next to a stained scrap of orange shag carpet. The rocker is a sanctuary, the place to which Aoki retreats to sit and breathe deeply when he feels his chest tightening. To strengthen his immune system, his daughter, Sophie Ann Aoki, has put a drop of lemon oil into the water he sips.

For much of his life, he has practiced yoga breathing and the discipline of tai chi. Now, at 86, with his heart failing, it's more important than ever. As he inhales slowly, the breath comes from the depths of his abdomen, rising through his chest, into his throat and to his brain.

"The mind is a wonderful thing," he once told an audience at Pohai Nani as part of the Talk Story series he launched to bring residents together to share their lives. "It starts working the minute you are born and only stops when you get up to give a speech."

Though Aoki was the first chairman of the UH religion department in 1956 and taught religion well into the 1990s (retirement has been only a vague concept to him), it took an astounding night on Kalaniana'ole Highway 41 years ago to ignite his wonder at the majesty of death.

His car hit a tree that night, and he saw himself rise and view the accident scene from above. Looking down on his body, he watched as firemen came running from nearby Wailupe Fire Station. He read their minds, he said, and heard them tell each other, "He's dead."

"No I'm not," Aoki replied. In that instant, he said, he returned to his body.

Profoundly affected by the experience, Aoki began to speak of it openly, and was soon teaching a course he called "Death and Dying" that encompassed a broader sense of the grieving process and the exultation that is possible at the end of life.

It was that experience that encouraged him to try to make death less terrifying for those at its threshhold.

The last days and hours of a human life can be extraordinary, says Aoki, and hold the ultimate opportunity for healing, love and the deepest expression of our humanity.

"Allow death to be death," he says. "We're so fearful, we diminish death. So live your dying. To allow death to be really death is to allow people to be really alive. There is no power like death to allow people to make real transformations. If people allow that, they can be truly authentic."

Aoki tells of a businessman, diagnosed with cancer, who came to him for help. With the realization he was terminally ill, said Aoki, the man who had always put his career first changed totally and gave his family priority. As his grown children came together, he turned to each to say "I love you."

"Death, in an amazing way, can liberate people to really live ... " said Aoki. "Death pushes us to the limitless potential of being."

Didi Leong, a hospice volunteer who met Aoki so long ago she doesn't remember when it happened, says, "There's something about Mits. It's like the kupuna (elder) thing. They just disarm you."

But she was dismayed the first time she saw him work with a woman going through chemotherapy. "The first time he met with her she burst into tears," Leong remembers. "And I thought, 'Her husband's going to kill me' ... But the next day I was talking to her and she said, 'Before I met Mits, my life was in black and white and now it's turned to technicolor.'"

For the past nine years Leong has been working on a film about Aoki's work. One length of footage follows the last moments of a patient as Aoki works with a grieving brother, explaining: "It can make it easier for someone in the process of dying when they get permission to go from the people they love."

In tears, the man leaned over his dying brother, resting a hand lightly on a head made bald by chemotherapy. "You know, buddy, that I love you," he said, "and I'm here for you all the way, and I want you to know that if it's time for you to move on, I want you to go, and to know you'll always be in my heart.'"

From the bed, the dying man's breathing intensified, then relaxed into silence.

"The whole Mits Aoki lesson is 'Don't focus on the illness because that's the negative,'" said Leong. "'Focus on the gifts, the resources of your life, your friends and family. It's like life, you can choose to look for the negative things, or you can choose to look for the positive. That attitude is like a muscle. You can train it.

"For Mits, it's not about dying, it's about living. Living fully in the most positive, uplifting, loving, joyous fashion you can."

Big Island physician Ruth Matsuura remembers with immense gratitude his work with her husband, the late Sen. Richard Matsuura, four years ago.

"I think what his presence did was enable the family to communicate," said Matsuura. "He would say, 'Is there anything you want to share with your father?' It was kind of open-ended."

A wonderful moment came after they took communion together, said Matsuura. "Nobody wanted to break the silence. So Dick said, 'OK, it's time to collect the offering.' We laughed, and that broke the ice."

As he has done for so many others, Aoki took his wife through the process of dying, helping her "let go" of old hurts, and finally, of him.

"When his wife died, she reached up and hugged him, and while they were hugging, she passed away," said Bernstein. "That blew him away."

A conversation with Aoki is, in effect, a voyage into a deeper consciousness. "One of the saddest things of aging is the blurring of identity," he wrote recently. "One's identity is the deposit of experiences, relationships and roles. When these are taken away, you are not sure who you are anymore?"

In the 1960s, he helped guide a research project into the artistic and spiritual effects of the use of LSD, and served as an informal "guru" for years to the Young Presidents Association, flying with them to retreats all over the world.

In that same decade, when the Manoa campus was swept by the kind of unrest that also washed across Mainland colleges, Aoki was instrumental in offering refuge at the Church of the Crossroads to servicemen claiming conscientious objector status as they opposed the Vietnam War.

For days, there was a tense standoff. Military authorities kept their distance but set up cameras in a rented space on the sixth floor of the bank building next door, filming those coming and going.

"A group of us would always say 'hi' and wave," Aoki says, with sly delight.

Even when he stepped down as chairman of the religion department after 16 years, Aoki's powerful but guileless personality continued the atmosphere of trust and cooperation, right down to leading a rousing rendition of "Home on the Range" at every department party.

"It was one of those things that everybody had better sing because Mits is leading us," said professor George Tanabe, outgoing department chairman.

Aoki was raised in "Japanese camp" in the Big Island plantation town of Hawi in an era when racial stratification was the rule. As a teenager, he rebelled against the injustice of that system, ending up working at Pearl Harbor and finally attending UH before going to the Mainland for seminary training in preparation for teaching religion.

Though he embraced Christianity, part of his gift for helping people find their own truth came from his early Buddhist training with its focus on the experience. To demonstrate, he would hold up a book and ask "What do you see?"

His answer? "You really don't see a book. What you see is a handsome young man holding a book.

"But more than that, you see the background ... You always see the whole. And this whole appears as a complicated web of relations, relations between various parts of a unified whole ... all interconnected, interdependent.

"The great aim of life is to know and be oneself," he continues. "But we can only know and be ourselves insofar as we are open to others. And we can be ourselves only because we are loved by others. We develop into persons only by loving others."

• • •

The Rev. Mitsuo Aoki

Age: 86

Born: Hawi, Hawai'i, in what was known as "Japanese camp" on the plantation

Upbringing: Raised in the Buddhist faith, he converted to Christianity in his 20s, after studying with the Rev. Paul Waterhouse and being welcomed into their family as a son.

Mission: To take the fear out of dying and help people "live" their dying, leaving relationships complete

Education: University of Hawai'i, Drury College in Springfield, Mo., Chicago Theological Seminary and Union Theological Seminary in New York. At the last, he studied under renowned theologian Paul Tillich, who often reached into his bookcase and gave his own texts to Aoki.

Honor: On June 28, Aoki will be honored by Hospice Hawai'i with a lifetime achievement award at an annual meeting and recognition dinner. Tickets, at $65, are available from Lani Miyahara, 924-9255, ext. 245.

Quote: "What is important is not how profound a person is, how wealthy, how powerful one's resources. What is important is how a person relates to others, how a person in the wholeness of being, opens himself before others."

Of note: Before they were married, his second wife Lynne weathered a terrible depression during which she tried to commit suicide by drowning. But she was such a good swimmer, she couldn't do it. Later, Aoki suggested she find something to use as a metaphor for that turning point. She found two small rocks that came to stand for God, the foundation of her life. "Every time you hold them," he told her, "it is like a sacrament."

Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly described the Rev. Mitsuo Aoki's medical condition.