From the Master’s bookshelf: ‘The Soul of a Tree’


An essay by Nirbija and Bhagawati. While Nirbija read Osho speaking about a Zen carpenter asking a tree if it wants to become a table, he remembered his woodworking beginnings and a surprising book Osho put into his toolbox.

Resurrecting the “salt of the earth” – people

Osho not only shared his enlightenment with us, but also exposed us to the exemplary lives of a great legacy of realized souls and creative people from all over the world. He put a fresh seal of authenticity on those he called “the salt of the earth”, but were – alas – already forgotten.

Mentioning them in discourse, he nourishes us with spiritual food of the finest quality. E.g., while talking on the 10th century Indian mystic Tilopa, he explains:

“Scriptures cannot lead you. In fact, they are dead without you. When you achieve to truth, life suddenly comes to all the scriptures. Through you they become again alive, through you they are reborn.

That is what I am doing, giving rebirth to Tilopa. He has been dead for many hundred years. Nobody has talked about him, nobody has given him again a birth. I am giving him a rebirth. While I am here, he becomes again alive. You can meet him if you are capable. He is again near here. If you are receptive, you can feel his footsteps. He is again materialized.

Through me – I will give birth to all the scriptures. Through me, they can again come to this world, I can become an anchor. That’s what I am doing.

And that’s what I would like you to do in your own life, some day. When you realize, when you come to know, then bring all that is beautiful in the past back and give it rebirth, renew it, so that all those who have known can be again on the earth and travel here, and help people.” 1

The Soul of a TreeIn the early 1990s I spotted a rather unexpected book in Osho’s Lao Tzu library. It was the biography of the famous American woodworker, furniture maker, and architect George Katsutoshi Nakashima, entitled The Soul of a Tree. He was a world citizen and rebel travelling between east and west; samples of his furniture are displayed at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, the Metropolitan Museum in New York City, the National Museum of Modern Art in Tokyo, and the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.

Not surprisingly, Osho speaks about trees and Zen master craftsmen in many discourses and as early as in 1976. 2

George Nakashima, one of the master craftsmen

Born in 1905 in Spokane, Washington, USA, to Japanese parents, Nakashima first studied forestry and then switched to architecture at the University of Washington, graduating with a Bachelor of Architecture ca. 1929. Two years later, after earning a master’s degree in architecture from MIT, he sold his car and purchased a round-the-world tramp steamship ticket. He spent a year in France living the life of a bohemian, and then went on to North Africa and eventually to Japan. While there, Nakashima went to work for Antonin Raymond, an American architect who had collaborated with Frank Lloyd Wright on Tokyo’s Imperial Hotel.

While working for Raymond, Nakashima toured Japan extensively, studying the subtleties of Japanese architecture and design as well as working as the project architect for the Golconde Dormitory in Pondicherry, India (now known as Auroville), supervising construction from 1937-39. He became a disciple of Sri Aurobindo receiving the name ‘Sunderananda’ – one who loves beauty. He renounced his salary and became part of his spiritual commune. It was here that Nakashima built his first furniture.

In 1940, Nakashima returned to America, and began to make furniture and teach woodworking in Seattle. Like others of Japanese ancestry, he was interned during the Second World War and sent to Camp Minidoka in Hunt, Idaho, in March 1942, where he met Gentaro Hikogawa, a man trained in traditional Japanese carpentry. Under his tutelage, Nakashima learned to master traditional Japanese hand tools and joinery techniques. Perhaps more significant, he began to approach woodworking with discipline and patience, striving for perfection in every stage of construction.

George Nakashima
Nakashima family
Nakashima Knoll straight chair
Nakashima Widdicomb Credenza
Nakashima house in Hope
Nakashima's garden view
George Nakashima

In 1943, Antonin Raymond successfully sponsored Nakashima’s release from the camp and invited him and his family to his farm in Pennsylvania. In his studio and workshop at New Hope, Nakashima explored the organic expressiveness of wood, choosing boards with knots and burls and figured grain. He designed furniture lines for Knoll, including the Straight Back Chair (which is still in production), and for Widdicomb-Mueller as he continued his private commissions. The studio grew incrementally until Nelson Rockefeller commissioned 200 pieces for his house in New York, in 1973.

Drawing on Japanese designs and shop practices, as well as on American and International Modern styles, Nakashima created a body of work that made his name synonymous with the best of 20th century American Art furniture.

World peace and peace with nature

The Nakashima Foundation for Peace, currently housed in the Minguren Museum in New Hope, had its beginnings in 1984. In that year, George Nakashima had the opportunity to purchase the largest and finest walnut log he had ever seen and sought to use the immense planks to their fullest potential.

He envisioned that if Altars for Peace were made for each continent of the world, as centres for meditation, prayer, and activities for peace, the world would be a better place and come closer to peace. He was convinced that people could resolve their differences communicating at an altar.

The first altar top he made consisted of large slabs of finely grained and polished walnut planks connected by butterfly joints with edges in the original shape they had been cut from the tree.

Nakashima with first piece for altar in New York
Altar in New York
Altar in Auroville
Altar in Moscow
Nakashima quote handwriting

It was one of his last projects, before he died in 1990. Today, there are three peace altars in existence: in New York City’s St. John the Divine Church, the National Academy of Art in Moscow, and in Auroville, India.

The Nakashima business with its crew is now run by his daughter Mira and his son, Kevin. She studied under her father and is an architect who graduated from Harvard. Mira designs wooden furniture with her own touch and continues to create more peace altars, to complete Nakashima’s legacy. For this purpose, the company managed to procure yet another extremely valuable walnut log that almost matches the size and magnificence of the original.

Mira Nakashima states: “In India they believe that beauty is considered man’s connection with the divine. Dad’s whole operation here has been… he called it his karma yoga, his way of being, which is a form of meditation. Some people get it, some people don’t, but I hope that that tradition can continue somehow because it is very meaningful, it is very important in our world today.”

Nakashima had immense respect for nature, trees and wood, the importance of which has become quite forgotten in today’s world. Mira says, “Dad really believes that there are spirits in the wood that enhances people’s lives and, you know, not everyone can live in the woods, but you can live with wood and stay connected to nature and to the divine in that way.”

In a video interview Nakashima said, “There is a spirit in trees that is very deep and in order to produce a fine piece of furniture the spirit of the tree lives on and I can give it a second life.“

Unfortunately, today man does not even protect the first life of trees. Deforestation, industrial use and wildfires destroy them on a gigantic scale. Nakashima’s message that trees have a soul and complement our lives on earth needs to be urgently remembered.

From sannyas to woodworking

I would not have known about Nakashima’s book if life had not nudged me into this craft. A couple of years after I took sannyas, I fell out of my ambition-driven filmmaker career – which was not a tragedy. Germany in the 1980s was still thriving with the ‘Wirtschaftswunder’ (economic miracle). Odd jobs like renovations were well paid and widely available. One day, after having painted a kitchen in Munich, my client asked me if I could build a wooden shelf for him. Soon I felt such joy cutting and joining the boards. My enthusiasm needed a bit of training though, which I managed mainly by reading woodworking magazines. How generous life was with me to shift me to this new and healthy direction! I could manage my living and enjoy making useful things.

In the Pune Resort of the 1990s our small woodworking tribe exchanged job opportunities and experiences. And it was then that someone walking through the book-lined corridors towards the Samadhi in Lao Tzu House shared that he had discovered The Soul of a Tree up on a shelf there. The back of it was sticking out because of its large coffee table format! A few days later I felt intensely inspired just by looking at the book myself. Many years later, Sarvogeet, a Freiburg woodworker, gave me his copy to look through. And he showed me his exquisitely built little side table inspired by Nakashima; it had a finely grained table top and natural edges sitting on an artistic stand.

Osho’s love for books and his superb use of their stories and anecdotes for his discourses is outstanding. He weaves them like golden threads into the carpet of his talks, plus jokes – to wake us up! Although he stopped reading in 1981, the year The Soul of a Tree was published, many sannyasins continued to donate books to his library. Usually Osho had a look at these gift books and signed them. Someone must have noticed the resonance between this Zen woodworker and the Master’s deep respect for trees and creativity and probably donated it.

1) Osho, Tantra: The Supreme Understanding, Ch 5 (excerpt)
2) Osho, A Sudden Clash of Thunder, Ch 4

NirbijaBhagawatiMore articles by Nirbija on Osho News

More articles by Bhagawati on Osho News


Sources :
George Nakashima: The Soul of a Tree: A Master Woodworkers Reflections , Paperback 2012 (1981 edition out of print) –
Nakashima, Mira: Nature, Form and Spirit: The Life and Legacy of George Nakashima. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 2003 – The legacy of George Nakashima
Mira Nakashima interview on YouTube

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