Author Archives: Ezra Dunkle-Polier

The Way of the Nation as the Way of Warrior

I was walking through the snow last Friday and stepped in a giant puddle on the side of the road.

Wind whipping coats
Water soaks through shoes
Splash

An example of Japanese westernization.

Japan’s westernization under the Meiji brought more than a new style of dress to the people; it also fundamentally changed Japan’s perspective of its place in the world. While under the Tokugawa rule, Japan was the world—now Japan was in the world, and citizens were forced to think of themselves relative to people from other nations and cultures. (Lecture, 3/6/13). I found it profoundly interesting how a worldview like this could resonate in the art world, too. Though early attempts at representing perspective were less than polished, Japanese artists began to modify their style to reflect more of the singular power of Versailles and less of the joy of discovery in the Katsura. This paradigmatic shift was not entirely new, though. Inouye mentions how, “rather than focus on bubbles drifting haphazardly upon the river of change, the rhetoric of progress comes to fixate upon the current itself” (Inouye text, 105). Japanese people were well-versed in the power and frustration of evanescence, but now they could focus that attention to change in a specific direction of progress. Form was a difficult idea to give up, too, as Nitobe describes how the formulaic aspects of bushidō still remain in the hearts and minds of Japanese citizens today. I have to disagree with Nitobe on one point, though. He contrasts bushidō with Christianity, arguing  that, “having no set dogma or formula to defend, [Bushido] can afford to disappear as an entity; like the cherry blossom, it is willing to die at the first gust of the morning breeze” (Bushidō, 153). Is it simpler to disseminate the messages of a book rather than local oral traditions? Sure it is—hence why Christianity was popularized so rapidly. However, I do not think you need a seminal dogmatic work to have a pervasive social structure endure through the future. Like it or not, bushidō is not likely to leave the hearts and minds of the Japanese people anytime soon. In the end, though, you cannot pin bushidō, the cherry blossom, or any other symbol on Japan—because just when you think you have it right, something changes and you’re brought back to the floating world of evanescence.

~Ezra Dunkle-Polier

Posted in Week 7: Bushido and the Transcendental Order | 2 Comments

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

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

I suck. You suck. We all suck. This post sucks?

I went on a long run with a friend to the other night and saw the sunset over the ice-covered Mystic Lakes.

Sun setting

Frozen lake cracks

I catch my breath

A true monstrosity.

Why not pursue the pleasures in life before all else? How can the fact that everybody sucks be a relieving reality of our human existence? We focused on these ideas of hedonism and mono no aware this week. During Japan’s Tokugawa period, a strict social hierarchy developed whereby the emperor, shoguns, daimyo, and samurai carried the majority of political power while peasants, artisans, and merchants lived on the low end of the spectrum. However, samurai were often forced to borrow money from the merchants, giving society’s lowest class a great deal of wealth. Since virtually no social mobility existed at the time, merchants did not need to worry about saving money to move up the social ladder; rather they could spend it on immediate sources of enjoyment (Lecture, 2/20/13). As Inouye puts it, these hedonistic tendencies were just another way to respond to life’s evanescence with a “sense of urgency to the pursuit of pleasure” (Inouye, 70). To me, Saikaku’s use of a prostitute as a protagonist in The Woman Who Loved Love exemplifies this shift in Japanese society. While we have specifically written our poems with as little detail and description as possible, Saikaku goes over the top with images of ideal women and courtesans in the pleasure quarter (Saikaku, 166). Though the story also harks back to evanescence and the impermanence of success as the protagonists quickly falls from the high ranks. He gives the readers paradigms and symbols that they understand, like the cherry blossom, the floating world, and life’s impermanence, but adds a modern twist. I was also able to grasp the concept of mono no aware through Saikaku’s protagonist. Though I am still working to internalize this “sadness of things,” I can easily understand the relief that comes from knowing that we all suck. Just as Saikaku’s prostitute falls from grace, so too do we all fail at points, but that fact should be a beautiful component of life and should not bring us sorrow. I don’t think I can fully buy in to living life in a purely hedonistic way, but occasionally giving up consequences and living life to the fullest right here and right now can easily resonate with anyone, myself included. I look forward to exploring these ideas more in the coming weeks.

~Ezra Dunkle-Polier

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

Making Something out of Nothing

The other morning I was walking across the footbridge at Dowling Hall and noticed the beautiful sunrise after a snowy day.

Sunrise

Breaks the ice

Birds chirping

 

 This week was encapsulated by nothing. Not the absence of any cohesive structure, but actually nothing. At first I was skeptical of how nothing (無) could be something to be desired. Professor Inouye talked about how noh actors, like those in Atsumori, try to gain hana, whereby they spellbind their audiences without moving (Lecture, 2/13/13). By doing nothing, they captivate the audience in an intimate, shared moment. I did not fully understand the power of this connection until reading Thomas Merton. He simplifies the concept of nothingness by saying that, “the zero [he] speak[s] of is not a mathematical symbol. It is the infinite—a storehouse or womb (Garbha) of all possible good or values” (Merton, 107). Thus, nothing is everything and everything is nothing. When people approach a new situation with nothing—no preconceived notions or expectations—they are able to take in everything around them. As Inouye put it, when you sit with the same people at lunch every day, you have something, but branching out with nothing might be more beneficial. When we all share nothing, it leaves us open to everything. (Lecture, 2/13/13). I initially had trouble grasping this concept, since I approached nothingness like a child would—with an image of eternal darkness following the end of the world. I do not think I can fully embrace true nothingness just yet, but I am getting closer. To me, nothingness involves emptying your mind to be filled by the world around you; it’s letting yourself be at your most vulnerable to outside influence and fully accepting other people and the natural world. If that is true, we can write our most vivid weekly poems when we are tuned in to nothing.

~Ezra Dunkle-Polier

Posted in Week 4: Nothingness | 2 Comments

Finding Success in Failure and Escaping the World

During one of the snow days, I was walking by the bookstore to the President’s Lawn when I turned to see a small opening of blue sky.

Blue sky

Penetrating the haze

Glazes a snow day

This week’s class discussion focused on the evanescence of success and failure, and why and how people might want to leave the world. As mentioned in earlier posts, the human world is filled with fleeting moments and change, and that concept extends to success and failure. While we love not always living with our failings, we only have momentary success as well. On a grander scale, the class talked about how our homes and living spaces are rarely permanent either, as only a small minority of the students still resides in the home where they were born. I have personally moved over twenty times, so I can easily relate to the impermanence of the home. The Hōjōki focuses on this point in particular when it says that “great houses fade away, to be replaced by lesser ones,” and “thus too those who live in them” (Chōmei, 32). Additionally, we discussed the divide between societal duty and personal emotions in the Tale of the Heike (平家物語). It is hard not to feel bad for Kumagai as his duty to the Minamoto family overrides his personal interest in not killing a boy who resembles his own son. Thus, Naozane took the head in tears (Tale of the Heike, 317). Last, we talked at length about shukke (出家), or leaving the world. People often desire to leave this chaotic, fleeting world, by simply escaping society altogether. As Inouye puts it, “shukke was actually a way to remain in control by removing oneself from the limelight to work behind the scenes” (Inouye text, 40). Overall, I was definitely not expecting the “House is on Fire” song and rap, which sought to open our eyes to a few key Buddhist tenets, and unfortunately had it stuck in my head for the rest of the day, but the message of the impermanence of life and our tenuous grasp on reality undoubtedly resonated with me.

~Ezra Dunkle-Polier

The house, the house, the house is on fire.

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

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.

Posted in Week 2: From Hakanasa to Mujo | Leave a comment

Cicadas as the Meaning of Life?

The other night I was walking by the football field late at night and saw the snowfall blowing in front of the field lights.

 

Flurries cascading

Against stadium lights

Welcome the night’s silence

 

We began our discussion of Japanese culture with two key terms—evanescence and form. These concepts seem to contradict one another at first glance. Evanescence, known as hakanasa or mujō in Japanese, pertains to the ever-changing, impermanent world, where all things come and go, sometimes for only a fleeting second. On the other hand, actions and behaviors, particularly in Japan, have a special form associated with them. When you enter a house or a school, you take off your shoes; when you write a haiku or tanka, you make sure to write only the correct number of syllables in each line. Combining evanescence and form yields a world that constantly changes in the exact same way. We learned that classical Japanese poets often used the epithet of the cicada shell (utsusemi) in their poetry to embody this dichotomy (Inouye lecture 1/23). Similarly, our class talked about how most Japanese people believe in fundamentally animistic principles. When a person feels that a particular tree produces an emotional response in them, they might wrap a shimenawa rope around its trunk to declare that tree as sacred. We made the important distinction that “in early Japan…symbols were not understood symbolically” (Kitagawa, 45). That is to say that the sanctified tree does not point to the heavens or glorify an idea in another realm, rather the tree presents itself as sacred. I found it particularly interesting to think about the influence of Buddhism and Confucianism in Japan as another example of matching the fleeting world with repetitive forms (Inouye text, 18). Coming into this course, I assumed we would be talking about Japanese pop culture, food preferences, and other seemingly cultural characteristics, but I think I can buy into how evanescence and form will impact those aspects of Japanese culture. Instead I leave class tired from a mental workout. Who knows how this semester will go? It was only the first week.

~Ezra Dunkle-Polier

 

The epithet of the cicada shell, or utsusemi, seamlessly combines evanescence and form.

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

Basics of this Blog

Hi everyone!

This blog will feature numerous posts by students in Professor Inouye’s Evanescence and Form: An Introduction to Japanese Culture. We hope you enjoy what you read here.

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