Author Archives: Kenneth Y. Jeng

Transcending the Nation



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

The Moment of the Here and Now

Driving down the highway in New Jersey in the evening, with flakes of snow furiously blown into the windshield.

Illuminated by headlights

Streaks of snow



[No image posted this week]


One of the things that struck me the most about Japan when I first visited was the overwhelming emphasis on appearance – the intricate hand-wrapped packaging, the flawlessly round melons that cost 5000 yen, carefully applied makeup that almost every woman seemed to be wearing, and ubiquitous uniforms. Why is it that in Japan, so much emphasis is placed on imposing formality on evanescence? Or in the phrasing of our discussion this week, why is there such an emphasis placed on ordering the “here-and-now,” which by definition will be gone the next instant? To help answer this question, we turn to the haikai poetry of Matsuo Basho. Haikai poetry, while bound by strict rules and conventions (the 5-7-5 syllable count), represents a “lyrical blending of the poet’s emotions with all elements of [the] context” (Inouye 74). Basho calls this fueki ryuko (不易流行), with the first half of the term referring to the unchanging form of the poetry and the latter half referring to the sincere emotion experienced by the poet when faced with the lyrical moment. As human beings, we have an intense desire to identify with our surroundings and achieve what Basho theorizes as butsuga ichinyo (物我一如) – becoming one with our surroundings (Inouye 76). A few weeks ago we discussed michi in the form of various “michi” or “dō” – jūdō, kendō, kōdō. Perhaps these disciplines are the functionally the same as Basho’s road (michi) in pursuing the state of butsuga ichinyo. So why is it that all of these, from Basho’s poetry to traditional martial arts, emphasize form? This question reminds me of a movie I watched many years ago named The Legend of 1900, about a pianist born on a cruise ship and never leaves. In one of the pivotal scenes of the movie, he eloquently describes the concepts that we have been discussing: “Take a piano. The keys begin, the keys end. You know there are 88 of them and no-one can tell you differently. They are not infinite, you are infinite. And on those 88 keys the music that you can make is infinite…But if that keyboard is infinite there’s no music you can play.”

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


Walking back from Dewick after dinner on Calbot Avenue, looking up and spotting the chimney attached to Pearson.

White smoke

rises up and away,

blown by the night wind.







The point made at the end of Thursday’s class by Professor Inouye was an interesting one – regardless of whether or not you are interested in partaking in a hedonistic lifestyle, desire is a good thing because it makes us interested in each other (Inouye Lecture 2/21). I raised a similar point in my response two weeks ago in questioning the Buddhist perspective in pursuing an existence devoid of any desire – would we have any motivations to do anything at all? Yet, as illustrated in Ihara Saikaku’s The Woman Who Loved Love, a complete abandon to the capricious winds of temporal desires is likely to lead to ruin – “I let myself be swept away to ruin. There was no way for me to stem the current” (Ihara 159). I suppose though, in the absence of any transcendent power that would allow one to escape from samsara or the ukiyo (憂き世), it would be so easy to embrace the ukiyo (浮き世) in its entirety and lose oneself in physical pleasures. It seems however, that even those who have lost themselves in it may not necessarily find happiness therein, as again illustrated by Saikaku’s heroine. There seems to be a sort of irony in the way that an individual pursuing hedonism (a total embrace of the fundamental motivating force of human beings) – appears to be more passive than one actively seeking to kill desire (and therefore the motivating force) in the pursuit of Buddhism. Lastly, I found it interesting how even the pleasure districts – the locus of hedonistic abandon and symbol of evanescent pleasure – were bound strictly by form in the codes that courtesans were compelled to obey.

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

( ´ゝ`) Nothingness?

Looking out my window after the evening showers had passed Tuesday evening.

The melting snow glistens
illuminated by a
single streetlight.


“Mu” or “nothingness” in the context of Zen Buddhism appears at first glance to be self-contradictory – it is the emptiness that embraces the fullness of things (Merton 137). As mentioned as an example in class, sitting with your friends every day in the cafeteria – having something that you’re attached to – closes off opportunities to interact with and get to know other people (Inouye Lecture 2/11). “When one is in the possession of something, that something will keep all other somethings from coming in” (Merton 109). How then, do we empty ourselves of everything? Merton indicates that the key lies in the act of “being” (Merton 110). The act of being can be encapsulated in meditation. How then, does one meditate? Meditation can be achieved through virtually anything, whether it be calligraphy or judo or flower arrangement (Inouye 2/13). In Kendo (a form of Japanese fencing with bamboo swords and armor), there is the ideal of entering a state of mushin (無心), or “no-mindness,” during matches. In this state, it is said that you do not actively seek to strike the opponent. Instead, once an opening appears, your body will move to strike it with no conscious thought in a natural reaction – your mind and body are open to everything that your opponent does. Negative space, or maai (間合い), exists not only in the spatial distance between you and your opponent, but also in your internal mental state. Over the course of this past week, I realized that despite not being Buddhist by any stretch of the imagination, I was raised with an appreciation for Buddhist principles even if I didn’t recognize them as such at the time. My mother once told me that washing the dishes was a form of meditation – I thought she was just trying to get me to do some chores. And it was, once I approached it with the right mindset and lost myself in the act itself. The more this course goes on the wiser she sounds.


Posted in Week 4: Nothingness | 1 Comment

Is the house burning?

Waking up early Saturday morning to a snow-covered campus.

The morning stares
silently as the snow
falls onto the staircase.







The image of the material world as a burning house is a vivid one, but one that I’m not sure I totally agree with. As Kamo no Chōmei puts it: “So as we see our life is hard in this world. We and our houses fleeting, hollow. Many troubles flow from your status, social rank.” (Hojoki 54) I agree with the idea that material goods alone cannot bring people happiness and are hollow, but how about the other things that can bring us genuine joy – such our family and friends? Are those also manifestations of an “opulent building that will someday become nothing more than firewood”? (Inouye 45) Under the Buddhist view (as I understand it) even those things are not worth much because they too are impermanent. But does the impermanence of things really mean that they are worthless and not worth pursuing? I struggle with this idea. Can we really invalidate our past experiences of happiness from our human relations just because they are gone now? What would even be the purpose of a being that has no desire for anything? To do so seems to be a denial of what makes us human. On another note, I feel that there is a contradiction between the native Japanese appreciation for evanescence and the Buddhist perception of it – doesn’t impermanence contribute to the beauty of things rather than devaluing them?


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

How Japanese is Japanese Budhism?

Walking down Professor’s Row on Wednesday night.

Streetlights dancing
with the drizzling rain
A warm winter night.









The framing of Buddhism into Japan as a belief system that is both complementary to and foreign to the indigenous culture brings up an interesting set of questions; while I have studied the pre-modern history of Japan before in the past and am familiar with the introduction of Buddhism into Japan through Korea in the 6th century, I hadn’t really considered Buddhism conceptually foreign to Japanese culture. (Tsunoda 91) In what ways does Buddhism mesh with and contradict native Shinto belief? Buddhist temples are everywhere in Japan – it seems so much a part of the landscape and culture of Japan now, with certain key festivals tied to Buddhist customs (Obon), that it’s difficult for me to see Buddhism as something that’s not intrinsic to Japan. Some of the most prominent historical landmarks are Buddhist temples that are several centuries old, if not more than a thousand years old. Which is why it was surprising for me to hear that much of Buddhist theology and doctrine never really stuck with most of the Japanese populace (Inouye Lecture 4/16). I’m still trying to understand how one can lack an understanding of Buddhist theology and belief yet “go through the motions” year after year. But again, we all do a lot of things that we don’t really understand. Never really thought about why I take my shoes off at the door. I maintain that outdoor shoes are actually dirty and that it’s difficult to relax at home with your shoes on, though.

Posted in Week 2: From Hakanasa to Mujo | 2 Comments

Evanescence and Form – Week 1

Crossing the Charles River Friday evening on the Red Line.

City lights –
Shadows reflecting
The frosty river.













How is it that evanescence and form – two seemingly opposite concepts – came to be two of the most central elements of Japanese culture? The tension that exists between the two seems to be inherent. (Inouye 1) Is it an attempt by society to impose order on the ever changing world that it observes around it to make sense of it? Or is it based on an acute awareness of the constant forms that exist in the world, even one constantly in flux? I have yet to decide. The imposition of form on seemingly everything in Japan is apparent upon arrival – the ubiquitous uniforms, the bowing (with the angle of the bow depending on the circumstance), and the clear divisions of space demarcated only by lines (sometimes invisible). Hierarchical form can even be observed in the Japanese language (which is fluid and alive) – the nuances of which take much time and work to grasp as a foreigner. (Lecture 2/16) The discussion of mujō – impermanence – in class reminded me of what my mother says every time I tell her about some human tragedy. She would simply sigh and say something to the effect of such is life –無常 (wúcháng – in Mandarin) . On another note, the statement by Kitagawa that the native Japanese religious tradition is based on a nation-centered perspective as opposed to a universal one is interesting. (Kitagawa 52). I wonder how it plays into the theories of nihonjinron that would arise later in history and the navel-gazing that Japan is often criticized for in the international press.

Posted in Week 1: Shell of the Cicada | 2 Comments