During our festival, I talked to my peers, some for the first time.
Sitting under the cherry blossom tree,
Joking with classmates
who once were strangers.
I took this class on the recommendation of a past student after hearing the homework consists of writing a poem and drawing a picture. I thought to myself, “this sounds like something I could do pretty easily.” Man was I wrong. Writing these little three line poems turned out to be as hard as writing any three page paper. Having to be so selective with our words made the process more difficult than I ever could have imagined. But it also made it more rewarding. This class opened my eyes to things that in my Western mindset I overlook. While it sounds cliche, getting a better understanding of Japanese culture also gave me a better understanding of myself (not that I’m Japanese). As we talked in class, I realized that many of our subjects, like lyrical moments or Do (the Way), I have experienced before. However, without a means to properly appreciate them, I dismissed them. This class has allowed me to appreciate these things in a light untouched by Western philosophy. I take particular comfort in the fact that while we are doomed to fail at some point, we will also succeed at other points. Every low has a comparable high. I really enjoyed this course and it has been one of the coolest I have taken at Tufts.
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.
I went to New Hampshire with a couple of my friends this weekend and enjoyed the snow illuminated by the lights of our cozy cabin.
through pools of light–
The fire crackles
Drifting away from the here-and-now and the lyrical moments of life, the rapidly modernizing Japan turns towards a more transcendental view, where our sense of self keeps us firmly anchored to the realism of the modern world. To observe this first hand we turn towards the art and architecture of the time. As western perspectivalism is introduced, the Japanese struggle to ameliorate their styles with these new influences, leading to art like Okumura Masanobu’s which tried to emulate perspective with mixed success (Lecture 2/21). Originally Japanese art depicted scenes where every person is the same size, where it was not from a particular view, but rather all completely separate views. You see the painting bit by bit. This is not true with the transcendent nature of perspective, which consolidates the infinite view of the world to a single perspective. Here we see this conflict between the here-and-now and the “big picture.” In class we also compared the gardens at Katsura Detached Palace and the garden of Versailles. In Versailles “the space we see seems to conform to us, to our point of view” (Inouye 96). The gardens of Katsura instead offers you the picture piece by piece, just like the painting prior to the introduction of perspective. From my westernized perspective, I don’t quite understand the necessity of showing only a little of something at a time. In “The Woman Who Loved Love” a lord describes his perfect woman through many small traits. “A face slightly rounded, the complexion of a cherry blossom…the nape of the neck should be slender” (Saikaku 166). Would I rather see the elbow, the eye, the ear of a beautiful woman or her entirety? If something is beautiful, I would prefer to see it at its most beautiful and complete than bit-by-bit. I find myself unsatisfied by, as Professor Inouye put it, “the smallness of the Japanese picture” (Lecture 2/21).
I did not have a lyrical moment this week
To reach enlightenment from a Buddhist perspective we must become one with both everything and nothing. How is this dichotomy work exactly in the Buddhist mindset? We can reach harmony or oneness with our surroundings through the following of michi or do (the way) (Lecture 2/11). Do is used to break from the cycles of day to day life (also known as samsara) by providing us with the clarity to shatter the illusion of our reality (Inouye 51). Practices like judo or kendo helps us to reach that breaking point where we see the world for what it is (Lecture 2/11). I myself encountered this almost trance-like state last summer when I was cleaning out a neighbor’s pool. By engaging in the repetitive act of dipping the net in the water to skim off leaves, I lost my sense of self and was absorbed in the task, despite its tediousness. By participating in my own form of “the way,” I can draw close the nothingness of enlightenment. What I have trouble understanding is the nature of this “nothingness.” Merton remarks that “zero=infinity, infinity=zero” (Merton 107). Perhaps nothingness in this sense refers to the innate contradiction of oneness with everything and the “zero point” we talked about in class. We try to fill the hole that makes us whole by, in my opinion at least, losing our sense of self and our tenuous grip on what we perceive to be reality. In the play Atsumori, the monk Kumagai says that “life is a fleeting dream, he only wakes who casts the world aside” (Seami 65). The reality we live in is an illusion created by our minds that we must break free of to reach enlightenment. If life is a dream, what do we wake up to? Nothingness is all that greets us. Buddhist may see this as an enlightening process but frankly, I am a little frightened of that very nothingness they try to attain if it comes at the price of losing one’s identity.
I was on my way to class when I saw, intermingled with the mass of students leaving the library, a friend from freshmen pre-orientation who I have not talked to in a year and half.
An old friend walks by—
Not a word is spoken
As we pass in anonymity.
This week in class we continued our discussion of Buddhist philosophy, specifically talking about our ephemeral world and how we should react to it. In a world where everything is changing, the ones who are the most at risk are those who are confident in their sense of self (Inouye 2/4). If you are self-assured and complacent in your place in life, you fail to see the Buddhist notion that life is suffering. While I may believe that my life is great and nothing can go wrong, it is inevitable that I run into failure in the future. We will always fail. When first presented with this idea, I found this notion to be almost defeatist. Thinking you will fail in the future doesn’t make me want to try harder since said failure is inevitable. However, the good news is that while we are doomed to fail at some point, we also will succeed at another point (Inouye 2/4). What we must be wary of is becoming overly confident in our present and future endeavors, as this confidence does not help reach us spiritual enlightenment. “In this floating world of illusion and misguided attachments, our moments of victory and accomplishment are like a dream. We ourselves are like dust in the wind” (Inouye 46). If we stay attached, we become stuck in this floating world, or ukiyo, where we become complacent in our lives. What we need to realize is that this ukiyo, or, as we talked about in class, this burning house we build for ourselves is nothing but a trap. We need to look beyond the present and come to the realization that our lives are not permanent. At first, I was skeptical. After all, who wants to live their life having accepted they will fail and die? However, what I came to realize is that through the understanding of our own impermanence we can live better, more wholesome lives where we do not define ourselves by our successes or failures. As Inouye says, “nothing gives the mind stability like an awareness of the world’s radical instability” (50).
I was walking across the Res Quad on my way back from a late class when I noticed the serenity of the lawn as the night set in.
As the sun sets over Medford
the winter chill pierces my lungs—
A trash bag blows by.
This week in class we looked at the influence of Buddhism on the budding Japanese culture. The cicada shell that came to represent the evanescence and form of our reality has been replaced by the more formal Buddhist teachings. Anitya, “this Buddhist notion of impermanence” (Inouye 31), appeals to the Japanese sense of hakanasa. As hakanasa gradually transforms into the more formalized Buddhism-inspired notion of mujo, we look to the writing of the time as a guide. “As I Crossed the Bridge of Dreams,” written by a nameless woman in the Heian court, emphasizes romance and dreams in Japanese reality of mujo. Dreaming frees us, yet it also can trap us in the comfort it provides. Dreams are insubstantial and, like the Buddhist concept of anitya, are constantly changing (Lecture 3). The writer, living a sheltered aristocratic life, turns to dreams to entertain herself, living her life through the Tales she reads. As Inouye points out, “it becomes difficult to choose (or even distinguish) between a dreamlike reality and a dream” (29). Whether it is healthy to live in surreal dreams of love and romance instead of facing a reality of uneventful dullness in the courts of Heian remains to be seen. Personally, I don’t know if I agree with the idea of dreaming as a way of life. Living in a dream seems like setting yourself up for a rude awakening when reality hits home.
I was taking the T back from Boston College on Friday night when I noticed that while there were about a dozen people on the car, the only sound that could be heard was the clacking of the train tracks.
The subway lights flicker–
A man sleeps in the corner
In our first week of class, we began our discussion on evanescence and form by considering what a first glance seems to be a glaring contradiction. How can I be always changing (evanescence) while simultaneously staying the same (form)? “While Japanese embrace the notion that life is evanescent…they also demonstrate a predilection for formality” (Inouye 1). In our minds, we must realize that chaos and structure are not opposites in the minds of the Japanese, but two sides of the same coin. The changing of the seasons can help to combine both ideas in my mind, as the constant change of season conveys the ephemerality of nature while conforming to a set pattern of seasons (Inouye 2). In the words of the poet Dogen, “In spring the cherry blossoms, in summer the cuckoo” (Inouye 1). The seasons always change, yet there is a form to that change. With this constant change comes a sadness of nothing remaining the same. Our body, our friends, even our very identity is constantly changing without our control. To a neophyte of Japanese culture like me, this notion of uncontrollable transformation does not sit well. Not being able to control what happens to me is not a comforting notion. As Professor Inouye said, I could walk out the door and immediately get hit by the Joey (Lecture 1/21). I hope that through this class I can begin to understand how the Japanese are not constantly on edge, wondering if the next moment is going to be their last.