Author Archives: Carlos E. Hespanha Madeira

Enjoying the sake and sushi under the cherry blossom trees, outside Bendetson.

Clear sky-

Wind blows

Blossoms scatter


This class may be titled “Introduction to Japanese Culture”, but it really teaches about life, and how to live. The Hanami party really did embody the evanescence that we discussed in class throughout the semester: the sky was clear and the sun was shining, and under the protection of the cherry blossoms it was possible to witness a petal or two fluttering down from the tree. A tree that, throughout most of the year, seems lifeless. Its branches are normally bare, yet in a space of weeks it blossomed into a beautiful being. Sitting under that tree and watching the blossoms fall made me aware that the moment of beauty the tree enjoys is fleeting, yet it makes the most of it. Death gave way to life, which in turn gave turn to death, with the fluttering down of the petals into our sake cups.

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Into the World

Walking on the academic quad after the snowstorm.

Snow covered field-

Through a gap in the snow,

Green grass.

This week’s lectures focused primarily on Japan’s relations with the world, and how that changed with the arrival of foreigners (for a second time), in the mid 19th century. Japan was forced to “become a part of the world space rather than the definition of space itself” (Inouye, 106). This was seen in class by the comparison of the grand view in Versailles to the one of the Sumiyoshi pine, which purposely blocks the view of the garden. The difference I feel is that, from the Versailles view, you see all, but at the same time you see nothing; although the general picture is seen, the little details in the plants, their arrangements and the life that surrounds them cannot all be seen from one stance. By being forced to go through the garden to see it, a moment is created with everything you interact with, rather than just looking at it from a cool distance. Furthermore, I found it sad for Japan to transition from the lyrical moments of utsusemi and Bashō’s ‘sound of water’, fleeting moments in existence, to the nationalistic “Tenno Heika, Banzai” (Inouye, 111). By being forcibly integrated into the world at large, it seems as if it was necessary for Japan to swallow this bitter nationalistic pill and become a colonizing power itself, lest it be taken over by the Europeans or Americans. It seems as if the Japanese needed to make an identity for themselves to relate to the “other”, the non Japanese that was now affecting the land in a way that had never happened before. Izano Nitobe’s work, “Bushido: The Soul of Japan”, claims that “unformulated, Bushido was and still is the animating spirit, the motor force of our country” (Inazo Nitobe, 139). I do not particularly agree with him on this point, however. The Samurai only came to prominence during the Kamakura Shogunate, established in 1185. Before that period, the cultural makeup that resonated in the country did not stem from Bushido or the Samurai, but from the established Buddhist monasteries and the nobility in Kyoto, as well as from native Shinto. To summarize “Japan” as simply “Bushido” is, in my view, a neglect of all that came before it, ignoring the fundamental base of the conflict between evanescence and form. Moreover, I found the references to rice being “sacred… [as] Amaterasu obtained the best rice seeds…” (Inouye, 108) particularly interesting. It is as if rice moves from being this very concrete source of sustenance, to an abstract embodiment of the new Japan. Although it was probably regarded as a sacred food in times past, it status was ‘asserted’ as such by people Aizawa Seishisai. The move from non symbolic to symbolic added and altered some of the basic concepts that we studied in the previous weeks; the “land” of Japan, and not the unique space, was seen as holy/sacred. Imperial ambitions derived partially from the fact that Japan was perceived by the some to be “The head of the world.” (Inouye, 107).

Posted in Week 7: Bushido and the Transcendental Order | Leave a comment

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.

Posted in Week 6: The Order of Here and Now | Leave a comment

Hedonism, mono no aware

Chilling with a friend on Capen street at night, when it was snowing.

Snow falling-

Smoke rising-


The main focus this week was Hedonism, which I found very interesting. Personally, I find the ideas make total sense. I’d like to clarify that I don’t mean give yourself up to a crazy, 24/7 haze of pleasure, but that without any pleasure, life can be can be a life not lived.  A very important point for me was “If work is not fulfilling, why take it so seriously?” (Inouye, 69). I passionately agree that work should be enjoyable, and not the root of stress. If you are going to dedicate your life to something, then do something you enjoy, something you can get pleasure out of. Wasting away in a profession that is not enjoyable for the sake of money/future comfort is something I cannot process. Life, as Saikaku put it, “will vanish in the morning dew” (Saikaku, 172). If life is fleeting, and unpredictable, why not enjoy the flow of it, rather than strive for some sort of permanence? I don’t agree in doing things without ever thinking about some of the consequences, but to hold back completely, to withhold from any sort of pleasure, makes no sense to me. The question, however, of “who does not feel sad about dying” (Inouye, 83), left me to ponder for a while. Personally, I don’t feel sad at all about dying, because it doesn’t really mean anything. The only tangible meaning to it is that I will not be living in this current body anymore. Death is just a part of me as is life, for I can’t be a complete being if I’m not going to die. So I really don’t understand what there is to be afraid or sad about; Alan Watts said “To have faith is to trust yourself to the water. When you swim you don’t grab hold of the water, because if you do you will sink and drown. Instead you relax, and float.” I don’t know what my consciousness will be like after I leave this body, but why should I fear that, why try and ground myself in ‘this’ life, when that effort will eventually be fruitless? To quote Walt Whitman, “The smallest sprout shows there really is no death, and if ever there was it led forward to life, and does not wait at the end to arrest it…all goes onward and outward, nothing collapses…and to die is different from what anyone supposed, and luckier”. The very fact that I know I’m going to die, but can’t do anything to prevent it, is liberating. I don’t know, however, when I’m going to die, and that’s exactly what is exciting about life: everyday is another breath of life, another day to experience living. That’s why I think a certain amount of Hedonism in everyone’s life would do no-one harm, and everyone good. “This place is a dream, only a sleeper considers it real. Then death comes like dawn, and you wake up laughing at what you thought was your grief” (Rumi). This sentiment is echoed in the writings of Chuang Tzu, “Not until we wake do we know that we were dreaming. Only at the ultimate awakening shall we know that this [world;life] is the ultimate dream. Yet fools think they are awake, so confident they know what they are…How do I know that we who death are not exiles since childhood who have forgotten the way home?” Time and time again, at different points in human history, sages/philosophers/holy men have come to this conclusion about death. Knowing it to be true, what is there to fear or be sad about?

Posted in Week 5: Hedonism, Mono no Aware, Monstrosity | Leave a comment


Looked up at the night sky when I left Wren to go to dinner.


Dark sky-

Clouds hide

The moonlight

There is a great deal of material to talk about this week. Merton talking about mystical experiences, particularly in saying that “The meaning of life is found in openness to ‘being present’ in full awareness” (Merton, 81), resonated with me. There really is no other way to live other than being aware of what is around you, and being open to it. By being open to things around you, you realize you are not a being in isolation in a hostile environment, but part of a greater universe. Moreover, I also believe that “Others [can] not do this for you…no religious authority present to endow this blessing” (Inouye, 59). One can read about this for a lifetime, but if he/she does not truly accept it, there will be no awareness of the world or experience of living, only knowledge of it. I also really enjoyed learning how “Zen Buddhism de-emphasized scholasticism and metaphysical speculation” (Inouye, 65), because I feel these are some of the greatest barriers that stand in the way of experiencing the world. What is the study of scripture but the revival of an experience? Why not attain your own experience instead of spending lifetime pouring over other peoples? Metaphysical speculation allows us to forgo this world, turning a blind eye to it and imaging some form of paradise. I feel like much of the suffering of the world stems from our rejection of it for some greater, utopian form of paradise after death. I think Saikaku understood this when he wrote: “ Soon my unmourned life, will vanish with the dew” (Saikaku, 172). Life is brief, and unless experience is obtained, there will have been no true living. If life is indeed so fragile so as to vanish with the dew, what is the use of such intense scholasticism and metaphysical speculation, which still abound in the world today? Teachings of those long gone, stories of great men, who were great precisely because they lived, they experienced the world for what it is.

Posted in Week 4: Nothingness | Leave a comment

Houses and failure – Carlos Madeira

Was standing outside in the Carmichael parking lot with some friends on Sunday afternoon, admiring the piles of snow. Was temporarily blinded when the sun reflected its light off the snow.

Clear sky-

Snow reflecting

the sunlight


I really enjoyed the discussion of the burning house; a home is what the majority of people look for, in terms of stability and security. Yet the lectures of last week were all about how nothing is permanent, and how “the houses we work so hard to build…might be contributing to our unhappiness.” (Inouye, 43). This, I think, is a message that many people in our society need to hear. People who stop living now and bury themselves in ‘work’, to make money and live well later on. What they don’t realize is that later on might not arrive. Those who hold onto concepts such as “power”, “wealth”, will all have the same fate as Taira no Kiyomori, whose bones “survived only briefly before becoming one with the earth, indistinguishable from the sands on the beach” (Tale of the Heike, 212). Finally, we talked at length about success and failure, and how one always follows the other. It is easy to see failure as the end of the line, as the end of things; what is hard is to not to attribute a bad connotation to failure. Quoting Alan Watts, “Watch the flow of water when it crosses over an area of land, and you will see that it puts out fingers, and some of them stop, because they come into blind alleys. The water doesn’t pursue that course. It simply rises, and then it finds a way it can go, but it never uses any effort. It only uses weight, gravity. It takes the line of least resistance, and eventually finds a course.” We get too bogged down in our failures to realize that success means going down some other path, and not lamenting the path we took. I think that was one of the points of last week’s lectures that most resonated with me, because I feel it is important to realize that no one should be categorized by their successes of their failures; not to envy a person who is succeeding at something, and not judge one who is failing.


Posted in Week 3: Failure, Success, and Leaving the World | Leave a comment

World of Dreams

Walking along the Capen St. parking lot when it was snowing; saw footsteps etched in the snow that went in almost every direction.

Snow falling –

On the blanketed path,

Footsteps of unnamed travelers.

This week’s lectures talked a great deal about some Buddhist notions, like the lack of a ‘self’, as well as the world of dreams, two topics which really interest me. I feel as if the character in “As I crossed a Bridge of Dreams” is having experiences that show the reader she is not limited to her “self”, or “body”. By dreaming that she at a shrine, she experiences the pilgrimage she longs to make; her mother decries this idea as being “ terrifying…very dangerous” (As I crossed a bridge of Dreams, 69). I particularly enjoy the “difficult[y] to choose between a dreamlike reality and a dream” (Inouye, 29). This idea that reality may be a dream, or that a dream is another reality, is very provocative, and evokes a sense of adventure. Its as if there are parallel/other realities to explore apart from the one we take for granted. Further, the idea of “we want that which does not exist” (Inouye, 32) as being the source of suffering, is extremely relevant to those who perceive “success” as obtaining financial assets, as having a fake sense of permanence. Taking for granted what we do have “reject what we do know” (Inouye, 32) to run after what we think we need “purse what we do not (and cannot) [have]” (Inouye, 32) is a chief cause of modern ills, like the damage we are inflicting on our surroundings. Regardless of Buddhist messages, it seems Buddhism’s most profound impact on Japan was tying it to the culturally to the continent, with monks serving as “carriers of superior Chinese culture” (Tsunoda, Theodore de Bary, Keene, 92).


Carlos Eduardo Hespanha Madeira

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