Author Archives: Benjamin deButts

Petals tickled by wind

Part with the tree

- A last farewell


ben tre


Well we’ve reached the end. I don’t really know what to say. I can say I loved the class– sitting quietly absorbing and reflecting on the awesome discussions being had. I can say something about how the class changed me– how going into it, I had close to no idea what to expect. A freshmen engineering student, the abstract artsy world of this new Japanese culture class really intimidated me. And how by the end, I found myself walking quietly on Saturday mornings, taking in the sights and sounds of a near-deserted campus. I honestly don’t know quite how I would have dealt with the stress and workload of finals period without the lessons learned of quiet thinking and reflection–almost meditation. Looking back now, I can’t ever remember the point or goal of a week ever being this new ability to meditate, but it is absolutely a great consequence of taking the course.

I think in the end though, I am just thankful I chose to take the class! I knew there were some connections between my personal ideologies and personality and the general Japanese vibe– I felt it in Japan when I visited, when reading any number of Japanese authors, and even watching Miyazaki films! This class largely just put these undefinable connections into words; I’d almost say into categories. I guess it still isn’t really something I can describe at length! Anyways, I loved taking the class and am thrilled to have met everyone.


Ben deButts

Posted in Week 14: Back to Monstrosity and Conclusions | Leave a comment

Here and Now

I was reading in the library on that dreary, rainy Wednesday when my gaze was pulled to the only bright object, a pool of water on the road.

A restless pool,

Lit from afar—

Never one shape.

The “here-and-now” describes a sort of very very close relationship between one and nature. Basho, though ambiguous about many things, was clear in this fact: to really write that perfect poem, one must be “emotionally moved by the essence that emerges from an object” (Doho within Inouye, 76). People who climb that mountain and see the greater truth, only to turn around again and return thus complete the Bodhisattva cycle and achieve makoto, or a “sincere” heart (Lecture 2/25). Upon returning, these close moments of nature, these intimate connections that struck Japan in prose, purpose, and art, happened naturally and without intent nor personal desire (Lecture 2/25). Thus the boundary between person and object became blurred lending many landscapes a human emotion. Basho let a magnificent scene “pervade his whole being”, he facilitated the fusion of butsuga ichinyo, or a heightened awareness of separation and commonality (Basho 122) (Inouye 78). I really am into this concept, particularly when Basho compares the differing “cheerful laughing beauty” of Matsushima to Kisagata’s “beauty of its weeping countenance”. I think there is some real value in being able to tap into nature’s unlimited reserves of beauty and complexity to change one’s outlook. Bit of a reach reference-wise, but in a recent song I was listening to (“Sunshine by Atmosphere):

Ain’t nothing like the sound of the leaves
When the breeze penetrates these southside trees
Leanin’ up against one, watchin the vibe
Forgettin’ all about the stress, thanking god I’m alive

Lose yourself in the scene—emotions and moods can be the most fleeting and turbulent whirlwinds so falling back on something as reliable and consistent as nature can be a great thing.

Posted in Week 6: The Order of Here and Now | 1 Comment


Alas, no moment this week.

The concept of constant change and evanescence is in a way, relatively depressing. We are all essentially powerless and like leaves in the wind, subject completely to the whims of something we have no say in. Continuing these thoughts only ever really ends in the acceptance that life in of itself, is sad. Norinaga, in his conquest to define the Japanese identity, ended with a similar conclusion: mono no aware, or “the sentiment of sadness which has formed the core of the identity of the Japanese (Takahito, 2). During the Tokugawa period, this sense of a changing world consistent only in its sadness, or ukiyo took a surprising turn—the lower classes in a way, found a way around this problem by simply indulging in pleasures (Inouye, Lecture 2/20/13). They found a “tasteful admission of one’s powerlessness” (Inouye, 86).

Personally, I can totally understand and visualize ukiyo and like the lower classes, I don’t particularly enjoy entertaining the thoughts. So, why think about them? Why not just live for pleasure and enjoy things before “my soon forgotten life will vanish with the dew”? (Saikaku, 172). I can never really answer that definitively. There is totally a valid point in acting as the lower classes did during the Tokugawa period. It certainly isn’t a sustainable way of living, but I think that is kind of the point—it isn’t meant to be. What it is meant to be is thoughtless pleasure, disappearing into the desires of biology and forgetting about the troubles of psychology and thinking. Hedonism is absolutely a short-term win, while on the other hand it completely forgoes long-term repercussions. A particularly poignant example can be found in The Woman Who Spent Her Life in Love, which as the title suggests describes one such women. In the end she succumbs to delirium at living such a life, and like many other writers in history she embraces religiosity giving herself up “wholly to prayer to meditation” (Saikaku, 217). Perhaps this is actually the way to avoid the turbulences and sadness of life; it just takes getting jumbled on the way there to make people realize it.


Posted in Week 5: Hedonism, Mono no Aware, Monstrosity | 1 Comment


Saturday morning I went for a walk and ended up on the Tisch roof garden (as per usual) and in watching the light snowfall was struck by an overwhelming belief in the loneliness of life.

A world of white flakes

Driven into loops by the wind,

Melting on the ground.

I think of all the concepts we have had to grasp, this week’s was most difficult for me—nothingness. Essentially, this idea comes from the Buddhist idea of nagarjuna, or that “everything is contingent on everything else”, all is relative (Inouye, Lecture 2/11/2013). Upon first reading Merton’s Zen and the Birds of Appetite, I was by almost every definition, completely and utterly lost. Phrases and ideas that at first threw me off, “zero = infinity, and infinity = zero” for example, gradually began to make more sense with the more reading I did (Merton 107). It is all about understanding the shared qualities of fullness and emptiness. We can’t peg either as a tangible thing so how can they differ, how can we know? I think one of the major turning points was the analogy he drew between having a broken leg and man’s innate desires. To avoid aggravating that broken leg, and be among the few who “cast the World aside” (Seami, 64) you have to remain motionless, for even the desire to lack desire is a motion (Merton, 83-84). Maybe it was the physical grounding of all the theoretical, but this was the first crack in the wall. From here it was easier to recognize and appreciate the form of both the Noh theater and the Japanese strict formalities. Practicing something like nenbutsu to the point where it is a mechanical habit perhaps devoid of personal meaning is undoubtedly a way of hitting on that emptiness. “Ceaselessly” Rensei/Kumagai performs “the ritual of the Holy Name” all aimed at ridding himself of his guilt at killing Atsumori (Seami, 69). He reaches a whole new form of religiosity grounded not in meaning, by some definitions, but in habit—he “creates emptiness in a way that is radically receptive” (Inouye, 68). Noh theater represents all these things with absolute form to the point of predictability, the blurring of lines between life and death (or even person and persons), and possessing some manifestation of that emptiness that we all have in common (Inouye, Lecture 2/13/2013).

Posted in Week 4: Nothingness | 1 Comment

The Samu-rise and Escaping that Burning House

by Ben deButts

Friday night with snow falling all around me, I lied with my back against the huge tree on the prez lawn and looked up to observe the web of branches, struck by their natural complexity.


Branches against a gray sky

weaved into a wooden web,

nature’s own puzzle.


This week we covered the transition from the Heian period into the rise of the samurai.  Of aristocratic roots, the samurai as a class were interesting because they existed to serve (saburau directly meaning “to serve”) and protect with fighting, while on the other hand displaying their roots with strict rules of conflict even utilizing poetry (Inouye, Lecture 2/4). To me, the fact that such a system could exist without a few abusers of these rules (attacking when your opponent is writing their battle poem for example) really testifies to the strength of these traditions. Within The Tale of Heike, a novel that covers this period of time, Kiyomori undoubtedly represents one of the central themes: nothing lasts and the higher you rise, the farther you fall. Achieving among the highest of positions, essentially ruler of Japan, it was only fate he would die a painful fiery death, “his flesh [rising] into the skies over the capital as a transitory plume of smoke” (Heike, 212). Equal to everyone else following death, Kiyomori was no more then any other piece of matter on earth– in this case a “plume of smoke”. While I agree with the transitory plume of smoke, I don’t agree with the idea of karma as the case may be. Those who rise higher (those that hit +12 go to -12) fall lower isn’t foolproof. I think the lines are pretty blurry between what constitutes a zero and a positive number. It seems in Hojoki, Visions of a Torn World, Kamo-no-Chomei’s small hut of only life’s necessities constitutes a “zero” by many standards. Yet, he had all the resources needed to live on and spend his time leisurely writing a lengthy novel—to me that sounds like a pretty positive existence. Perhaps the lack of pain is positive and pain itself is negative? Maybe I’m taking the number line too seriously, but I like it as a way of grasping a pretty abstract idea. The Buddhist’s would have me believe that so long as you are in the burning house of samsara you are negative, or certainly prepped to plummet to it (Inouye, Lecture 2/4). Could Kiyomori have been saved had he been told of the house?

In classic Japanese fashion, they seemed to shift the symbol of the house into the real with the expression shukke or leaving the house and starting anew (Inouye, Lecture 2/4). The aforementioned Kamo-no-Chomei particularly embodied this action when he left behind his life of relative affluence to live in a hut in the remote mountains near Kyoto (Hojoki, 14). As both a participant in and viewer of this transitory period in Japan, Chomei provides a very unique perspective. Witnessing tragedies ranging from earthquakes to plagues, Chomei develops what the book aptly names a “torn world”. Far off in seclusion, he ponders the uncontrollable chaos of this world, the “Sinful times!” as he cries out in exasperation at one point (Hojoki, 48). When all things must fail and life exists in a burning house, why bother pretending it isn’t? “We and our houses fleeting, hollow” (Hojoki, 54). Much like the foam on the river in the beginning of the novel, humans are just flashes of life in an incomprehensibly longer timeline (Hojoki, 31). I really like the comparison made here because of the play between the big and small picture–foam being the parts that make up the whole river just as humans (and their houses) are momentary slides of the whole earth’s slideshow.

Posted in Week 3: Failure, Success, and Leaving the World | 1 Comment

Dreaming Buddhas

Having woken up late and feeling groggy on Sunday I opened the shade to see the afternoon snow.


A once clouded head

Sees the floating snow–

Now cleared by clouds above


Anitya is the Buddhist concept that “the phenomenal world and our perceptions of it are constantly changing” (Inouye, 31). This single idea was the core of Japanese Buddhism, and as we learn in the Nara Buddhism excerpt, inspired multitude Japanese monarchs to adopt Buddhism as the religion/beliefs to live by (Tsunoda, 96). The two other important concepts to know from Buddhism are duhka and anatman which essentially mean the suffering inherent in life and “no-self” respectively (Inouye, 31, 32). We learn that these three ideas are connected in that by accepting anitya and the notion that you as a single entity don’t really exist you avoid the duhka in life—you “become more accepting and appreciative of simplicity” (Inouye, 32). I have trouble convincing myself that I don’t exist separately and, like all others things, possess a certain emptiness, or sunyata (Inouye, 37). Sure, I am not the same person I was yesterday, but on the other hand, I’m not just some random other person—there are undeniably a continuance of characteristics that solely I have. Life is brief and can end at any moment, yes, but I think until that inevitable end I am the sum of my experiences. Like our unnamed protagonist in As I Crossed the Bridge of Dreams, I can’t be certain of many things and have to accept the chaos that is life. She more or less dodges these notions and lives somewhat in a dream, continually subject to intense bouts of emotion that seem to wear on her. On the plus side though, it seems her vulnerability/spacey-ness permit her powerful feelings of koi or longing that really give her a beautiful appreciation of nature. These lyrical experiences of nature that I don’t struggle in having but in writing, she accomplishes swiftly and with ease. As one of the many women authors of the Heian period, poetry was the main form of communication and artistic expression. Hakanai is the main word to encompass the concept of continual change and thus unpredictability (Inouye, 26). To the women of the Heian period, this word was closely tied to romance, “where love is, generally speaking, hakanai—changing and fleeting” (Inouye, 27).

Ben deButts

Posted in Week 2: From Hakanasa to Mujo | 1 Comment


by Benjamin deButts

I was reading on a bench near the prez lawn when there was a strong breeze.


Winter silence-

A gust disturbs

Moments later, gone



This past week in Japanese culture the focus was mostly on what we are going to learn—obviously evanescence and form being the focus. Both play a fundamental role in the culture of Japan and I think so far have fit nicely into what I knew of Japan beforehand. In visiting Japan, the most striking difference to me was definitely the formality of everything, the great example being the Japanese Railway man politely asking the drunken businessman: “Honorable Passenger. Are you getting on? Or are you getting off? (Inouye, 3). We learn that this formality can be traced far back into the roots of Japan when Confucianism made it’s way to the island, stressing the importance of “order and hierarchy” (Inouye, 18). Buddhism, too, reached the island where the Chinese word, mujo, came to signify the impermanence of things (Inouye, 22). In a place that was already fascinated with the transience of life (as evidenced by the Man’yoshu’s use of utsusemi, or cicada shell), the Japanese were quick to adapt their previous experiences to this new culture (Inouye, 23). Thus ancient Japan coalesced all these influences into a pretty interesting outlook of a chaotic world. I particularly like the “localness” and “non-symbolic understanding of symbols” Kitagawa describes. I think what really attracts me to it is the appreciation and closeness to nature. Here in America, there are naturalists and fanciful nature writers sure, but nature isn’t quite as embedded in our language, history, (and soul?) as Japan. The simplicity of marking a part of nature with a rope to designate its sacredness is something I find really beautiful.


Posted in Week 1: Shell of the Cicada | Leave a comment