Monthly Archives: March 2013

How Still!

Leaving my house this morning, I was blinded by the bright snow and felt the surprisingly warm air hug my body—I was experiencing the mythical Medford-spring.

The sound of a glistening stream

Rolling down

Besides melting snow.

I love the meaning of fueiki, which embodies “a lasting sentiment or aesthetic quality that can be discerned throughout time, no matter the era” (Inouye 76).  The fact that there even is a word to describe that whole notion is amazing to me.  I think the lexicon of a particular culture is very telling; it is indicative of the values, and ideologies of the culture, and the general discourse—I am not aware of a word in the English language that expresses the same idea.  To reiterate Earl Miner’s “power of a place”, and that places “impart a spiritual power to the visitor… there is a spiritual presence to every location” (Inouye 78).  Throughout Basho’s journey, he encounters places described by poets possessing mystical essences.  Basho was able to tap into it, simply by having a sincere open heart, and being at that location.  This open sincere heart, makato, is important—one has to let go of one’s intention or personal desire to truly learn.  If the feeling doesn’t come naturally, you will not be one with it, and only be able to imitate. (Inouye 76) But when one does enter the essence of a particular location or object, he/she is able to realize that “that they are neither no more or no less created than anything else, and that their beauty is what teaches us that we, too, are like them” (Inouye 79) I think it is also so humbling to know that we are of same value, same essence of the world around us—and again can become borderless and one.  For after empires crumble, and dictators fall “there remain only mountains and rivers, and on a ruined caste in spring only grasses thrive.” (Basho 118)  Our accomplishments will one day be forgotten, for we aren’t that special, not any more than the moon, and sun and all that surrounds us at least.

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Here & Now

Nothing that stood out this week.

It seems odd that during the one week we really focused on lyrical poetry I did not experience any particular moments that struck me, at least enough to inspire poetic reflection later.  It makes me wonder about Basho’s journey, and I sense that there is some sort of tension between the lyrical, in-the-moment sentiments that his poetry invokes and the fact that he didn’t actually write in the moment.  A poetic journey is an interesting concept, and though Basho did not travel purely to find lyrical inspiration, seeking out lyricism seems very counterintuitive.  What separates an overall appreciation of the world from a lyrical moment?  Does it count if you go out looking for it?  Maybe the most important part of experiencing the here-and-now is being receptive, and Basho’s journey wasn’t so much of a search rather than an extended period of receptiveness and sensitivity to the various spaces through which he moved.  This tension of a “self that is trying not to be a self, poised at the dawn of modernity” gives his simple poetry a heightened sense of importance, encapsulating the relationship between evanescence and form that has permeated every topic we’ve talked about so far (Inouye 78).  One of my favorite poems was the longer one about a sacred mountain, which I thought was a very effective example of conveying the importance of the experience the poet had without actually detailing that experience:

I cannot speak of

Yudono, but see how wet

My sleeve is with my tears. (Basho 115)

I found this poem really beautiful (extra beautiful because “tears” elude to sorrow) because it points to the poignancy of something that Basho saw without even really describing it. This captures the essence of having a relationship with the here-and-now and “new poetic associations with space”(Inouye 76).  Even though he did write it after the fact, there is a strong sense of being present in the moment rather than observing the world from a distanced point of view.

 

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Evanescence and Form via Basho

Unfortunately I didn’t have a lyrical moment again this week.

This week, we dove deeper into the concepts of evanescence and form using Basho’s The Narrow Road to Oku. Not only does Basho’s poetry reflect the relationship between evanescence and form, but his style itself exemplifies the concepts. Basho’s style is a blend of evanescence and form in that it respects the old rules of poetry while still being innovative (Inouye 75). However, I must say that I don’t agree with Ueda’s idea that Basho’s poetry is “impersonal.” Basho’s goal was to “‘explore the relationship’ between the world of the road and his inner world of imaginings and memories” (Inouye 78). I understand that Basho was trying to be selfless, but I don’t think it’s possible to look at the world without imposing your own feelings upon it. In the poem on page 77 of Evanescence and Form about loneliness, Ueda claims that the loneliness Basho refers to is not his own, but “an impersonal atmosphere, a mood created by a natural landscape.” Again, I don’t agree with Ueda and I found that loneliness was a recurring theme throughout The Narrow Road to Oku. In the early stages of his journey, Basho visited a priest living underneath a “huge chestnut tree” (Basho 107). Although the tree clearly had a companion (so to speak) Basho wrote a poem of loneliness: “The chestnut by the eaves/In magnificent bloom/Passes unnoticed/By men of this world.” To me it seems that Basho was projecting his own loneliness onto what he saw. In my opinion, the best parts of The Narrow Road to Oku  were the ones where Basho was extremely moved by the relationship between evanescence and form. At one of the shrines he visited, Basho found a rock engraved with a memorial to an old castle. Moss had grown over the engraved letters, but the message was still legible and this moved Basho to tears. I related to Basho in this moment. The fact that this small message had withstood “the battering of a thousand years” and “this ever-changing world” is quite beautiful (Basho 113). That small piece of human history had withstood evanescence. Later on his journey, Basho wept again, but for the opposite reason: evanescence had prevailed over the form imposed by humans on nature. Basho came upon the ruins of an old castle and wrote: “A thicket of summer grass/Is all that remains/Of the dreams and ambitions/Of ancient warriors” (Basho 118).  Here I can also relate to the intense emotions Basho felt. We are helpless to evanescence, nothing we can do will stop things from ever changing. Overall, I quite enjoyed Basho’s tale. Although I did find it strange that he kept using the singular “I” when he had a companion for almost his entire journey.

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Here and Now

Standing on a dock in Cape Cod after midnight, illuminated only by the moon.

Moonlit trees
dance in the water
silence

I welcome the arrival of warmth with an unmatched enthusiasm this year. The beautiful northeast spring is almost here, which means the world around us becomes lush and begs to be explored. It also means that watermelons are nearly in season. I like the idea of uniformly cubical watermelons that can be sliced like a loaf. (Lecture 2/25) The importance of wrappers reminded me of one of my favorite films, Tokyo!, an anthology film containing three short films created by three non-Japanese directors. One by Bong Joon-ho entitled “Shaking Tokyo” was about a self declared hikikomori, or a reclusive young individual, who lived alone in a meticulously arranged home that embodies form. Every Friday he orders a pizza, and when he finishes eating it he adds the empty box to a perfect wall of boxes. The more I think about it the more this film embodies all of the concepts we have talked about in the class. I think I will write about it for one of our papers. I identify with Matsuo Basho’s journey of self-discovery or self-abandonment. (Lecture 2/25) One of his poems in particular reminds me of a spot in deeply rural Tennessee my friends and I would backpack and camp.

Silent a while in a cave
I watched a waterfall,
For the first of
The summer observances. (Basho 101)

His poems’ open interpretation are what make Basho so popular. This poem so perfectly describes my experience, and yet it must describe a million others with equivalent accuracy, lending itself to the concept of zen as “general self discovery in an abstract space. Home wherever you are.” (Lecture 2/25) His work has actually inspired me to write similar poems on my long cross-country motorcycle trip. The trip’s intention is to escape the protocol and form that I am currently responsible for, despite the Japanese understanding that becoming unanchored from protocol is to lose everything. (Inouye 88). Perhaps I am escaping one protocol only to respond to another. Escaping from this society does not change the fact that “in a world of incessant change, formality is vitally important.” (Inouye 88). My moment described above was the most aware of the here and now I have been in months.

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Busho and the order of here and now (Week 6)

I tried to delay my posting as long as I could to have a last minute poetic moment, but it just didn’t happen this week.

To be honest, when this week’s lesson began I was a bit confused. The concept of the order of here and now is not new to us. It is one we have been referencing since our first lecture, usually with respect to animism and its role in the ongoing themes of evanescence and form in Japanese culture. I thought we had covered what needed to be covered, and thus I was surprised when these ideas came back to visit. This time, however, we dove deeper and intimately examined what permanence and change means using the work of Matsuo Basho as our frame.  In Basho’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North he observes the ruins of what once was the mansion of a Lord of the mighty Fujiwara family and writes “A thicket of summer grass/Is all that remains/Of the dreams and ambitions/Of ancient warriors” (Basho, 118). This poem really drove home many of the discussions we’ve had. It truly is “a lyrical blending of the poet’s emotions” and expresses Basho’s central concept of “fueki ryuukou” or “’the unchanging and the ever-changing’” (Inouye, 74). I could feel and see the contrasts between the faded ruins of generations of a powerful family and the assertion of nature over all, centuries after Basho’s experience. It was a powerful moment, and continues to be.  Interestingly, this poem also demonstrates Basho’s modern tendencies and his ability to be “modern without dismissive of tradition” (Inouye, 75). He certainly sticks to the roots of Japanese poetry with elegant lyricism and close ties to nature. However, Basho also demonstrates his “synthetic eclecticism” by exploring the decline of the Fujiwara, a concept reminiscent of the inevitability of failure and Buddhism discussions of week 3 (Inouye, 79). We see Basho’s modern poetry again when he writes “Under the same roof/We slept together/Concubines and I—/Bush-clovers and the moon.” (Basho, 132). This poem also visits some interesting features of Basho poetry that Inouye mentions including the evident  “’impersonal nature” of his poems and the modern contradiction of a “self that is trying not to be a self” (Inouye, 77-78). Unfortunately, discussing this poem would run my reflection way too long, so I’ll have to save it for another day. Ultimately, this week’s lesson and Basho reading really solidified some important concepts for me, definitely one of my favorite weeks so far. Also, favorite quote of the week: “Horse urination is amazing!”

 

-Nicholas Economos

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Appreciation

I was walking down the hill from Tisch Library to the campus center late at night when I looked up and saw the glimmer of snowflakes falling in line of a bright light on the roof of the campus center.

Black night–

Snowflakes glimmer

the same under one light

I’ve said before that the concepts we’ve learned has a lot to do with balance, but now I’m starting to think it’s more than that. I feel like Japanese culture seems to pervade a fight to retain this balance. This weeks classes concentrated on Basho’s poetic journey and his experience with the, “unchanging and ever changing” (Inouye, 75). This statement alone exemplifies the core ideas we have been learning over the past two weeks, evanescence and form. Basho was one of the most famous poets in Japanese history. He traveled all over Japan observing nature and studying himself in order to attain enlightenment. Because Basho expressed himself through poetry, his moments of inspiration were purely lyrical. I think a lot of this has to do with the idea of living in the “here and now.”  In class we looked at a pile of sand that was molded into a very specific shape and kept that way. Professor Inouye asked us “if you were to rake this everyday, would you have chosen this shape?” (Lecture 2/25). This struck me, mainly because I felt that this very much illustrated what we were emphasizing before and what Basho was aiming to describe. You can mold the sand every day however much you like to whatever shapes you so desire, but it will eventually change. The wind might blow it away, the sand may fall out of place, or something may come and hit it, but you still can mold it back into place at the end of the day if you choose to do so. I feel like this may be what the Japanese may have been getting at in terms of evanescence and form, as you can’t help the changes that come with life, but for a moment you construct something (physical or spiritual), and appreciate its aesthetic beauty. Even Basho, who was portrayed as completely lyrical and fleeting, still had some aspects of formalism to his work. His work, Narrow Road to the Deep North took excerpts of his travel diary that he kept with him throughout his journey. Yet, the book published and the diary, or haibun, he kept (the “truest” record of his experiences) were two different things. As Inouye pointed out, “much artifice went into his work that seems to flow naturally as a series of lyrical encounters (Inouye, 74). Even here, Basho takes his fleeting expression, emotion, and “molds” them into something else. While it isn’t the “truest” expression of Japanese nature, it illustrates his attempt at attaining formalism in his experience with the ever-changing Japanese landscape. His experiences culminated in epic highs and lows, was eventually cyclic, as displayed in Basho’s poem, Under the same roof/ We all slept together,/ Concubines and I-/ Bush-lovers and the moon (Basho, 132). While he experienced temporary happiness, at the end of the day he was still at a most primitive state, a “Bush-lover.” Even at the end of his journey he aims to start a new one, “I left on the sixth of the ninth month to witness the renewal of the Great Shrine of Ise” (Basho 172).  Even as his journey ends, a new one begins displaying his experience with the Bodhisattva cycle, reaching enlightenment and coming back to the world as he was.  This concept alone, further displays the idea that while someone can change their surroundings in the moment, they cannot control life as a whole. You can let the fleeting change consume you, or you can retain some of your form and rebuild it, appreciating life as it were for that moment. Now I’m starting to think these ideas don’t describe a fight, but a simple appreciation and culmination of life at that given moment.

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Here and now

Smoking under a tree when it was raining, in the afternoon.

A tall tree-

Droplets of rain

In the wind

 

(No picture assigned for this week).

 

We focused mainly on Bashō and his poetry this week. I found the idea of “the eternal unchanging and the momentary ever-changing” (Inouye, 75) being the “source of one and the same” (Inouye, 75), very powerful, because it resonates with something I have already heard and experienced; Alan Watts said “the fundamental, ultimate mystery…is this: that for every outside, there is an inside, and for every inside there is an outside, and although they are different, they go together.” This completely ties in with the idea of the eternal and fleetingness of things, with the polarity of evanescence and form. Both are a fundamental part of ‘being’, and complement each other.  Even though Bashō “desire[d] to establish his identity by aligning himself with what he held to be a lasting reality about truth,” (Inouye, 77) I feel that he knew of the need to connect with the ‘other’, or that which is not the ‘self’. This is seen not only through his poems, but through his teachings, where he remarked: “ As for the pine, learn from the pine; as for the bamboo, learn from the bamboo.” (Inouye, 76). By saying this, he meant, “to cast aside personal desire or intention (shii). Those who interpret this “learning” in their own way never learn anything.” (Inouye, 76). The need is therefore to clear to the mind, to attempt to be at harmony, to be one with your surroundings. Admittedly, this is not the easiest thing to do when one comes from one of the biggest cities in Latin America, an endless sprawl of buildings. However, intent on my goal, I manage to blur out the sound of cars, the smell of fumes, and harmonize myself with the nature that surrounds me. Here too, there is a desire by myself  to get rid of the self and attempt to align with all around me; the true master would not need to go through this process, for he would be in a constant state of it. This is reinforced by the idea of the “power of the place” (Inouye, 78), where there is a “Shinto, animist belief in a spiritual presence to every location” (Inouye, 78). Personally, I think we are the only species that is out of sync with everything. Animals just live in their environment, and that’s it. We delude ourselves with destroying a perfectly beautiful patch of nature to make another dirty settlement. One of the most damaging and mistaken ideas I have ever heard of is Descartes’ “Conquest of nature”, implying that we are completely interrelated. Again, borrowing from Alan Watts, “you cannot describe a person walking unless you start describing the floor… I move in relation to the room…Your skin does not separate you from the world; it’s a bridge through which the external world flows into you, and you flow into it.” We are of nature, therefore we also make up nature. To attempt to destroy or conquer it will bring no joy. I fear the more modern and “advanced” we get, the less connection we will be able to have with what is around us, the less presence we will feel. I feel we are alienating ourselves, losing that link to reality. Every place is indeed mystical and although I don’t believe in a physical, god presence in every place, I do feel a holy presence towards natural things, things that grow and give life, much more than I do inside any holy building. Although Bashō lived in a time that was radically different than mine, I feel like he had this same feeling towards the ignorance of man towards what is around us; “The chestnut by the eaves, In magnificent bloom, Passes unnoticed, By men of this world” (Bashō, 108). There is extreme beauty in this poem, yet for me it is the sadness in it that makes it stand out; that we can blind ourselves to the extent that we fail so see life.

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Lyrical moments are hard to come by

I did not have a lyrical moment this week.

Our discussions last week made me think about the nature of Basho’s poetic journey and his idea of fueki ryuko, “the unchanging and the ever-changing” (Inouye 74). We find ourselves once again returning to the philosophy that has been propelling us through Japanese history, this notion of evanescence and form. This time however we look at through the lens of poetry. Here we have one of the greatest Japanese poets of all time, Matsuo Basho, who traveled around the country looking for inspiration and enlightenment (Lecture 2/25). Through his minimalist poems he conveys not one specific scene, but rather lets you fill in the details.  “How still!/Piercing into the boulders,/ The cry of the cicada” (Inouye 74). His words, while simplistic and few in number, take you on a journey to create your own depiction of the scene. As we saw in class, we all feel the power of the poem and yet we imagine it in different ways. While the form of the poem conveys certain feelings, we all have unique ideas about what the scene looks like. He doesn’t so much as describe the scene to you as he does to show it. In this sense, the poem plays into the notion of fueki ryuko on two levels.  Basho’s haikai, the formalization of poetry, contrasts with the expansive scene that he depicts.  “What could be more constricting than the various rules and conventions of haikai? Yet what could be more generalizing and vast than the imagery of these tiny poems?” (Inouye, 79). We have both the concrete (form) and the changing (evanescence). In this poem fueki ryuko is also expressed through “the ephemerality of the cicada’s song contrasted with the solidity of rocks” (Inouye 74). I really wish that we had read Basho earlier in the semester, so we would have a better feel of how to write our poems. On the other hand, it took Basho years of traveling, experiencing these moments first-hand, before he wrote his masterpieces. Perhaps it was necessary for us to embark on a journey of ourselves, honing our poems through trial and error until we reach the perfection Professor Inouye demands.

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Nature in a box.

I’m from Arizona, I don’t understand this weird half-rain half-snow thing New England seems to like to do.

Drops of ice

Shapeless in the light

Still wet.

(No image was demarcated in the slides this week.)

When I think of the “order of the here-and-now”, I think of the first slide in our PowerPoint this week: watermelons in boxes. The idea that the Japanese try to formalize even nature itself resonates deeply with the concept of evanescence and form. Nature, in this case, is the evanescent – it is wild, it does whatever it wants. But to give nature form, which is done not only in forcing fruit into clean-cut shapes, but also in the re-creation of natural Japanese landscapes in manicured Japanese gardens, is a very “Japanese” trait. On one of the next slides in the PowerPoint is a picture of a pile of sand, carefully shaped into a semi-conical structure.  We were asked, “If you had to rake this thing every day, would you have chosen this shape?” (Inouye 2/25). The answer was, certainly not. Sand is not a medium that likes to stay put. It’ll be moved by almost any minuscule force. To maintain its aesthetic shape, with angular, sloping sides and a perfectly flat top, would be an incredible amount of work. However, that work is one of the things that “orders” the “here and now”. The work one would put into structuring such a fickle element as nature is an expression of how the Japanese see the interaction between evanescence and form, or, as Basho termed them, fueki ryuko (Inouye 74). Basho observed that even though nature was never changing, it was also always changing. Even though the mountains may not move, the wind is always shifting the leaves on the trees and the cycle of nature is always ongoing. This juxtaposition could only be perceived and accepted by the true heart, makoto. With this, Basho created a work that was “well-grounded in the sensible, concrete, and humble context of…the here-and-now” (Inouye 80), but is also transcendental in how it evokes a “lasting sentiment or aesthetic quality that can be discerned throughout time, no matter the era” (Inouye 76). Basho’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North is the specific work in question. The prose is supposed to be taken as Basho’s travel diary, as he made an epic journey across Japan in the 17th century. As read, it seems to naturally flow between his observations of his surroundings, and lyric poems inspired by those observations. However, it is noted that “much artifice went into the writing of this work that seems to flow as naturally as a series of lyrical encounters” (Inouye 74). Therefore, even as Basho and his true heart took in the scenes and experiences around him, the travel diary he kept and the version of The Narrow Road to the Deep North he published were still two different things. While the diary he kept during his travels was probably the truest expression of the nature he perceived, the form of the Japanese travel diary, or haibun, had to be imposed on the work. In this, we continue to note, as in weeks before, the importance of Japanese formalism. It is incredibly dominant in all aspects of Japanese culture, whether it be an immaculately kept garden reminiscent of the wilderness of nature, or a work of Japanese literature reminiscent of a live account of a journey. The goal of Japanese formalism keep things in place. It is a way to allow evanescence and form to coexist in Japanese culture.

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Becoming One with the Moment

The other day I was going for a run and could not tell if snow or rain was falling from the sky.

Snow or rain?

Both become water

On foreheads

 There was no drawing posted for this week.

We are talking about variations on evanescence and form for fourteen weeks, and this week was no different. With Bashō’s haikai poetry, we discover the form we try to emulate with our weekly poems. One of my favorites from the Keene translation says, “the burning sun/ it has washed into the sea/ Mogami river” (Bashō, 116). After reading this, I wish he had not named the river. Since now I am forced to go see the Mogami River to try to feel what Bashō felt when he wrote that poem, but had he not named it, I could go look at the Mystic River tonight and save the trip. Inouye explains these short poems well when he asks, “what could be more constricting than the various rules and conventions of haikai? Yet what could be more generalizing and vast than the imagery of these tiny poems?” (Inouye, 79). I can’t help but agree with this sentiment. We could talk about the intricacies of the poems for hours on end, and while we might expect the three-line form to constrict creativity, it instead allows for a polysemic reaction by the readers. The class discovered this when asking different students to imagine Bashō’s poem of a frog jumping into a pond. Some of us thought of a small pond and a single frog, and others thought of a large pond and many frogs. During this exercise, we discovered the importance of butsuga ichinyo (物我一如) or complete oneness with your surroundings. When we try to place intention and personal desire into explaining a lyrical moment, we ultimately fail. In this sense, you cannot attach a true explanation on a poem, and you don’t create a poem; you find one (Lecture, 2/25/13). Professor Inouye equated poetry with love when he posed the question of whether or not someone with an understanding of butsuga ichinyo would necessarily make a better lover. I would have to answer yes. If you have the capacity to love the spring wind and the autumn trees in a non-symbolic way, then you probably have a firm grasp of nothingness, and therefore the capacity for everything. If someone can fall in love with a fleeting moment, can they not fall in love with a person for a lifetime? Or is that a different kind of love altogether? While these concepts remain difficult, I think I found that my problem comes from thinking about the concepts too much, instead of just experiencing them. Even though I am still a bit confused about why we exactly we would want to come back to samsara after attaining enlightenment, for example, that confusion does not bring me sorrow as it has in the past. Like everything else, that failure to understand an idea will only stay around for a short time.

~Ezra Dunkle-Polier

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