Author Archives: Julia A. Russell


By Julia Russell

Waiting for the bus in Medford Square on a very cold Friday afternoon.


A forgotten receipt,

carried by wind

down the sidewalk.


The principles of increasingly formalized Buddhism lost daily prominence and self-indulgence reigned as Japan moved into the Tokugawa era. The meaning of ukiyo changed from the floating world to “the illusive world of fleeting pleasures that one ought to pursue with abandon” (Inouye, 70). Simultaneously, mono no aware permeates Japanese life. Even as people treat themselves to various pleasures, there is a realization of our own limitations. But that’s ok, because even while I’m limited in my own power, so are you, and so is everybody else. Pursuits of anything are pretty sad in an evanescent world, but sadness is beautiful, leading to the “sad-yet-vibrant hedonism” of the era (Inouye, 85). The ideal modern woman of the day is the prostitute, who through her multiple experiences with strangers develops a sense of self (Lecture 2/20). Saikaku’s protagonist prostitute notes the extent of power her sexuality gave her even at 13, when a samurai was beheaded because of their affair: “Some of them said, ‘Surely not at her age…’ That amused me” (Saikaku 159). Her career ends in disgrace, and as she visits a temple and recognizes men of the past in all of the statues, she weeps at the realization of her downfall and her lack of stability through a husband and family. She is brought back to peace by an old admirer who encourages her to “follow the Way of the Buddha” (Saikaku, 217), and this lifestyle comforts her in her lonely lifestyle. Perhaps Buddhism only worked full-time when the world was contained for a Japanese person. Branch out, and the self-discipline of selflessness falls to the wayside as we realize the lack of agency in our (and everyone else’s) lives and figure we might as well spoil ourselves while we can.


Posted in Week 1: Shell of the Cicada | 1 Comment


By Julia Russell

Nothing this week. A little sad to look back on almost ten days and wonder what I was so wrapped up in that I didn’t have a minute-long lyrical experience.


We focused on a major contradiction this week: “Nothing is everything. Everything is nothing” (Lecture 2/11). Well, great. I think I came to a basic understand of the concept, though, after discussing that nothing is something we all have in common. The idea of nothingness is a major facet of Zen Buddhism, in which one has to experience Emptiness. But you can’t just wish yourself into Emptiness, it’s “Emptiness as Being” (Merton, 110). Merton also stresses that Buddha’s “doctrine was not a doctrine but a way of being in the world” (Merton, 79). That phrase is a bit of an oversimplification, because a person still needs to follow the proper form in order to be in this world in the necessary way. The Japanese “confirm their status by affirming the visual field properly and appropriately” (Inouye, 57). So we have to open ourselves up to a space, be aware of the changing world around us, but still retain the proper etiquette while doing so. The highly formalized Noh theater is a good example of this: every action is deliberate, even in a very “fluid” space (Lecture 2/13). By repeating behavior exactly as we’re meant to, we can become a part of the space around us. One of my classmates said this week that while you’re performing your routines, you eventually “tap into” god. I really liked that sentiment; it means that you don’t have to be constantly engaged in religion to have a mystical experience.  If you live the proper way, according to the rules of this world, you and god (God?) will eventually come to a meeting point.

Posted in Week 4: Nothingness | Leave a comment

A House Might Crush You

By Julia Russell

I was sitting in my room on Friday evening when I realized how quiet everything was without cars no the roads.

Snow floats

into the street

in silence.

We continued our discussion of Buddhism this week, still emphasizing the importance of anitya, duhka, and anatman. It was noted that Buddhists try to convince you that your metaphorical house is on fire and help you escape the cycle of suffering (Lecture 2/4). I really enjoyed the simplistic Hōjōki, Kamo no Chōmei’s account of abandoning his political affairs and setting up countryside life. “Caught inside, a house might crush you,” he warns (Chōmei, 52), referring to his peers’ preoccupations with materialism and status. While I don’t think his book can be taken at face value anymore (in the sense of dropping everything and moving away to a hut in the sticks), I see it as a cautionary tale about living your life versus putting all your efforts into the representations of your life, only to have them crumble in an instant. Once again, the world is always changing, and it’s useless to hold onto those things that will not last. We also learned, through the Tale of the Heike, that what goes up must come down. Taira no Kiyomori’s ambitious abuse of his position gave him great power, but his death brought a “transitory plume of smoke” and the descent of his clan (Heike monogatari, 211-212). Success follows failure follows success, so the best way to avoid the ups and downs of life is to remain at zero. I fail to see the possibility of this stasis except to perform shukke, “leaving home” as Chōmei did (Inouye, 40). But personally, I’d rather experience the beautiful moments that stem from our successes and failures than run away and avoid them altogether; personally, I think the latter a bit of a cowardly choice.

Posted in Week 3: Failure, Success, and Leaving the World | 2 Comments

Principles of Buddhism

By Julia Russell

I woke up Sunday morning to a thin layer of snow outside, but with new flakes melting quickly on the street.

Snow floats past the window;

A gust drives it faster

toward the ground.

        This week in class we focused on the Japanese reception of Buddhism and its principles. Due to traditional nonsymbolism in Animism, when Buddhism arrived, “expressions of religious fervor generally assumed a tangible form” (Tsunoda, de Bary, Keene p. 94). The concept of hakanasa allowed the Japanese to accept mujō, the Buddhist term for evanescence. Three basic tenets of Buddhism are anitya, duhka, and anatman. Duhka, meaning suffering, stems from our attachment to unreliable things. Anitya is another term for impermanence. Supposedly, “pondering anitya heals duhka” (Inouye, 31). I can accept that the things I’m actively pursuing—a Tufts degree, a job, a family, possibly some money—are all transient and I have no control. But does that mean that I should just give up on them? I think I can still pursue my goals as long as I’m generally aware of how little they actually mean. This seems to be the norm; clearly, not every Buddhist has renounced the world and retreated to nature. The last belief, anatman, is accepting oneself as a “part of this world” (Inouye 32) and realizing that we are different every day, if a ‘self’ really even exists at all. We saw these notions played out in Lady Sarashina’s book As I Crossed a Bridge of Dreams. Through carefully extracted excerpts of nature and religion, Lady Sarashina shows us how she considers change (Lecture 1/28). She writes of nature and her sadness when the world changes, focusing little on materialism or people. Also included in her writing was the concept of koi, of longing, an “evanescent presence that is absence” (Inouye, 27). We can see this in the short exchange with her father, “Forest of Child-Yearning/How sad it is to see you here” (Sarashina, p. 68). Koi is seen as beautiful because of how much you want to share an experience with another person. While I can objectively think of sadness as beauty (since I’ve now been told that it is), it’s much harder to step back when you’re in some moment of sadness and think about how lovely it is. I think this is related to anatman. You realize that you’re only part of a great big universe, and that the universe is always changing, and it will never stop changing, and you have to be all right with that. Only then can you gain some sort of inner tranquility.

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

Evanescence, Form, and the Form of Evanescence

By Julia Russell

In the late afternoon I opened the shade in my room in Lewis Hall, which faces off campus toward Davis Square, just in time to catch the last few moments of the sunset over Somerville.

The sun’s descent—
Silhouettes of rooftops and trees,
Birds fly in the distance.

I can easily see evanescence and form as two separate ideas: evanescence, hakanasa, is the concept of constant change, while form, kata, is the practice of routine, giving regularity to our unstable world (Lecture 1). I understand how this manifests itself in nature; “In spring, the dawn is most beautiful…In winter, I like early mornings” (Shōnagon 11:63, as cited in Inouye 7). Emphasizing elements of each season demonstrates the consistency of the way things change. I’m impressed by how there can be such a “cultural consensus” (Inouye 15) on a single image’s interpretation. Where I was/am a bit confused is how this concept of “the form of evanescence” (Inouye 14) transfers over to the human world and day-to-day life. I can see some connection with the “non-symbolic” quality of animism (Lecture 1). A lack of metaphor makes the spiritual world more tangible, suggesting that we are a part of it, rather than outsiders looking in on the divine, as in Christianity, for example. There is an understanding of “participation” in the natural world, as well as the natural world’s role in our lives (Kitagawa, 48). There is no “distance” between humans and the natural world in ancient poetry (Inouye, 25), and I guess this idea has evolved as part of the modern mindset. So the evanescence and form, and the specific “form of evanescence” (Inouye 14) easily observable in our environment holds a highly personal relevance because we are not really observing it, we are a part of it. This makes tentative logical sense to me, for now.

Posted in Week 1: Shell of the Cicada | 3 Comments