Japan Primed for Buddhism and the Transformation of Ideas

The other morning I walked up the President’s Lawn and looked through the trees to see the sun shining through the trees.

Sunlight through the trees

Illuminates the world

Waiting for spring to arrive

This week we learned about how Japan received Buddhism and how Japan’s culture primed it for the change from the classic Japanese term for evanescence, hakanasa, to the more Buddhist term of mujō. In terms of poetics, Inouye points out how Japanese writers easily adopted the Buddhist notion of anitya, or impermanence, and expanded upon hakanasa. They took the concept that “a change of environment or situation results in a corresponding change of emotion,” and transformed it into one that says “we live because the world makes us respond continuously, spontaneously, and emotionally to change” (Inouye text, 35). Not only does the environment change, but that change changes us and allows humanity to live and breathe. These Heian classics, notably most written by women, include the Tale of Genji, The Pillow Book, and Lady Sarashina’s As I Crossed a Bridge of Dreams. In Sarashina’s case, her writing talked about life and love as a dream, since nothing is so fleeting and difficult to understand as complex emotions like love. (Inouye lecture, 1/30/13). My favorite aspect of her work, however, was how she seamlessly wove a step-by-step, factually-based narrative into numerous works of poetry. At one point, Sarashina notices a bright moon over Kuroto Beach, and “the scene inspired [them] to write poems” (As I Crossed a Bridge of Dreams, 34). I think this is what Professor Inouye wants us to experience as we write our weekly poems. In addition to learning about numerous Japanese historical periods like the Yayoi, Heian, and Muromachi, we also read a piece on Nara Buddhism. In it, we learned that while Buddhist missionaries brought their religious conviction and sacred idols to Japan in order to spread their message, “establish[ing] the new faith in Japan required the transplating of essential articles—images, vestments, books, ritual devices—as well as of ideas” (Sources of Japanese Tradition, 92). Overall, I was glad to learn about such an important time for the adoption and transformation of fundamental Japanese ideas and life principles and to have the opportunity to appreciate that transition through literature of the time. Hopefully we will take the same approach with modern Japanese history, too.

~Ezra Dunkle-Polier

Buddhism entered Japan and hoped to both adapt to and assimilate with the Way of the Gods.

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