Author Archives: Laura Sabia

I’ve mastered “Kōgō”… but what’s all this about “kizoku”? Seeking Bodhisattva status.

I was taking a walk late Sunday afternoon when, turning a corner, I was surprised as the new spring sun hit my face and I could feel its warmth on my cheeks.


I emerge

The sun strikes my face. Heat-

I feel it with closed eyes.


Matsuo Bashō, often lauded as the most famous poet the entire Japanese literary tradition writes: “How still!/Piercing into the boulders,/The cry of the cicada.” (Inouye, 74) Eleven words that in my opinion, spell out exactly what we were taught this week: the significance of balancing the equal and opposing forces of ephemerality and stasis or evanescence and form while at the same time, infusing this achieved balance with our own human emotions. We activate the words of our poetry by connecting with them, experiencing them on a personal plain. In the words of Inouye, “they express both change as truth and truth as change.” I was fascinated by the concept that this ultimate truth can only be tapped into when one considers the self as “a countering form of permanence” (Inouye, 76) or fueki to one’s ever changing, eternally renewed surroundings (ryūkō). (Lecture 2/25) Stated more concretely, the blending of the fixed nature of the self and the fleeting nature of one’s environment through the poetic expression of lyrical moments of connection is a very normal human “impulse to identify with [our] surroundings.” (Inouye, 76) I found the latter to be one of the most relatable concepts introduced to us this week since I can personally empathize with this part of human nature. Everyone wants to feel integrated into her environment, to connect to it, to feel as if one’s own essence is harmonious with that of the whole. Once I was able to wrap my head around these notions, I could re-read Bashō’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North (Oku no hosomichi) and indeed, understand the extent of his literary genius.  “Under the same roof/ We all slept together,/ Concubines and I-/ Bush-lovers and the moon.” (Bashō, 132) This poem really spoke to me of everything we were taught this week. It displays is a definite conception of the importance of the self relative to it’s surroundings as a more concrete, stable entity. But it also offers an attempt at comparison and eventual harmony with these same environs. In my opinion, its tone exemplifies kōgō kizoku (awakening to the high and returning to the low) as it is both deeply sad and simultaneously beautiful. According to the Bodhisattva cycle, enlightenment (as one hopes to achieve in the transcription of lyrical moments in nature to words) can only occur if one rises above the world of the here-and-now, awakens to ultimate truth and then feels sorrow at the subsequent realization that the world is more a less a total mess- one in which the achievement of enlightenment is nearly impossible. If one is a true Bodhisattva, this sorrow brings about compassion for everything in the world and a concerted effort to return to it, to accept that it is full of disagreement and pain. Everything is at odds with everything else. We are diverse in this sameness. Returning to Bashō’s poem about sleeping under the same roof as concubines. He presents an initial understanding of the similarity of all things and then continues to embrace the diversity within sameness. He turns difference into something that is useful (lecture 2/25) and in doing so compassionately, he experiences peace. I feel like I get stuck following Plan A all too often. I find it very difficult to look at differences positively. Perhaps, like many others, I have some innate desire to make everything reconcilable. But it’s becoming apparent that this is precisely the error of my thinking. Differences are to be celebrated and used to move forwards. In a paradoxical way, the only way I can get anywhere close to total reconciliation in the universe is by accepting and rejoicing in this diversity.

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

Letting go for a while… “Ukiyo-madness”?

By Laura Sabia

I was walking quickly down Newbury Street trying to escape the bite of the freezing rain when, out of the very corner of my eye, I noticed the first tiny green buds peaking through the soil of a small garden.

I pass quickly.

Ice falls to frozen earth-

Buds push through.


Now another type of “no-mindedness” (Inouye, 69) walks onto our stage. The embrace of hedonism wrenches us away from a disciplined, ego-free consciousness and reverses our perspective. This week, we made one hell of a 180°: one that has us now devoted to the insatiable pursuit of pleasure and to operating almost solely within the realm “below the line.” This hedonism, we are told, is but another response to our “awareness of life’s fragile and brief nature,” but more specifically, to the “sense of urgency” that this awareness ignites in us. (Inouye, 70)  I was really taken aback with this total abandonment of the Buddhist vantage point. I was just beginning to let go of my fear of the truth that life is suffering by embracing the notion that we are able to transcend strife if we tap into what we all have in common- the ability to be free of judgment and material fixation. And now I am completely at a loss again. It’s really difficult to wrap my head around the here-and-now world becoming important again in the context of this new worldview. As other students have commented before me, the historical background surrounding this ideological and cultural shift in Japan helped me to at least go along with it (rather than totally rejecting it). The “peace vacuum” left behind at the beginning of the Tokugawa period after centuries of warfare lead the warrior class to occupy a more central political role in Japan. As such, they were considered to be of higher social status than the artisan and merchant classes. But, ironically, these classes that formed the bottom of the social had the money. So why not spend it on making themselves feel a little less like vermin? Enter brothels, bathhouses, the theatre, public space- the main site of ukiyo life. (Lecture 2/20) The prostitute became the “prototypical modern person” (Lecture 2/20) as she embodied the shift towards the commodification of life and to the “just do it!” attitude that society was beginning to embrace (Inouye, 71). In his The Woman Who Loved Love, Ihara Saikaku expertly depicts this emphasis on the here-and-now aesthetic and the tremendous effort put into the process of understanding life in terms of its material beauty and pleasures. He calls on the familiar image of the cherry blossom to frame the description of the ideal woman: “she should have… the complexion of a pale cherry-blossom.” (Saikaku, 166) In reminding us of this flower, and in his recounting of his protagonist’s fall from grace, Saikaku is simultaneously reaffirming our awareness of evanescence and offers us a concrete example of a very important new concept, that of mono no aware (everything is sad). (Lecture 2/20) Everything is sadness and sorrow is beautiful. Saikaku’s protagonist is a trapped self- the physical embodiment of mono no aware. I tried to test my own response to this sentiment. Left to my own devices, would I really abandon all self-discipline and give in to pleasure? I can’t help but feel that all of this sensual gratification is ultimately full of emptiness and grounded in fear. I’m afraid of it- of all of the chaos it implies. The self gets lost in all this escapism.


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

My Airborne Enlightenment

By Laura Sabia

At the end of a very grey morning in London, my return flight to Boston was exceedingly turbulent (I’m terrified of flying) until…


clouds recede. At last-


I was raised with an emphasis on “making my mark” on this world, marching to the (clichéd) ‘beat of my own drum.’ By virtue of this philosophy, I have always tried to see myself as a ‘something’ (or someone) with distinct boundaries and with qualities, opinions, and judgments that were distinctly mine. This week, I have learned that according to the Japanese, my way of life is condemning me to remain in a world of ignorance, suffering and “impenetrable moral darkness.” (Merton, 82) WOOPS! The linked concepts of Sunyata (emptiness) and mu (nothingness) were brought to my attention. As I understand them in the broadest of senses, they are the process of “[seeing] the world for what it is,” (Inouye, 51) and finally experiencing satori (breaking from samsara) that leads to our achievement of Nirvana or ultimate enlightenment. Professor Inouye explains this acceptance of emptiness and subsequent ascension to Nirvana as a sort of ‘breaking down of barriers between discrete things,’ and as a merging of the transcendental world and the world of the here-and-now. (Lecture 2/11) So far, all of this makes sense to me. Realizing emptiness is a kind of relinquishing of your rights to an ego. Merton hits the nail on the head when he writes that “the meaning of life is found in openness to being…” (Merton, 81) As we remain preoccupied with the “stuff” of the world- judgments, opinions, material things, goals, etc., we are limiting ourselves and ultimately forcing ourselves to remain ignorant and closed to life’s fundamental truths. Merton tried to explain the concept of nothingness by citing the double equation of “zero = infinity, and infinity = zero” (Merton, 107) He goes on to further define the “place of zero” as “Emptiness as Being” and the “work which is carried on in the zero=place or infinity” as “Emptiness as Becoming.” (Merton, 110) WHAT? For some reason, I find this way of understanding Sunyata altogether too abstract. I have to work in smaller steps. Perhaps by ‘emptiness as becoming,’ Merton is making a reference to the notion that the importance of grasping and accepting nothingness is in the process, and not so much in Sunyata as an end. This lead me to consider the emphasis the Japanese place on kata and on michi or dō (“ways”) as a way of implementing the strict following of a patterned set of behaviors “to confirm their identity by moving through…Japanese space in formalized ways.” (Inouye, 57) As I have mentioned before this is a way of ordering the chaos presented to us in the idea of constant change. It allows us to open ourselves to the unifying truth that the one thing we all share is emptiness- the pure absence of all judgment, opinion and discord. I’m having some trouble buying this assertion. I find it difficult to fully believe that our individuality is nothing but negative and part of an ignorant experience of the world… Our examination of the Noh Theatre really helped my wrap my head around a concrete example of michi and kata as well as the concept of the space created when the transcendental world and the world of the here-and-now merge. The space of the theatre itself presents us with a live manifestation of a zero place where we suspend our preoccupation with the ego. Inouye describes this eloquently when he writes of the theatre experience as an “aesthetic expression of Buddhist enlightenment [turning] divisiveness into unity and [making] the moment of singularity an eternally reverberating one.” (Inouye, 66)

Posted in Week 4: Nothingness | Leave a comment

Floating around in a world of burning houses? LEAVE NOW!

By Laura Sabia

I played in the snow with my dog as we walked around my neighborhood in Montreal at midnight.

Wisps of snow settle

Around her happy, wet face-

I let loose my grip.

This week, we were presented yet again with the rather bleak assertion that life is suffering. I was both puzzled and humbled by the analogy of this Buddhist truth offered in The Lotus Sutra of our mutable world as a burning house and us, as “children playing in it, unaware of the danger.” (Inouye 39) In this view, the home is a representation of how we measure our success in life. But as we place so much significance on the physical structure that is our house, we remain ignorant of the temptations and distractions of samsara or ukiyo (the disagreeable world) in which we live. Our ultimate task? We must awaken to the reality of the flames around us and relinquish our ties to everything that is impermanent and without substance to achieve full happiness, fulfillment and enlightenment. (Inouye 40) In Heian Japan, the concept of abandoning the “floating world” was expressed in the term shukke (leaving home)- the process of leaving life to live as a recluse in total isolation. (Inouye 40) There is no better example of the process that is shukke than Kamo no Chōmei’s An Account of My Hut (Hojoki) which traces the shift in power from wealthy aristocrat- to samurai-dominated Japan. Having lived as a courtier himself, Chōmei’s eventual distaste for aristocratic life lead him to chose a life of shukke as  “a wayfarer/raising a rude shelter,/an old silk-worm/spinning one last cocoon.” (Chōmei 61)

My favorite part of this brief work is actually its first lines: “the flowing river/never stops/and yet the water/never stays/the same.” (Chōmei 31) They elicit the now all too familiar two-pronged reaction from me (of admiration and simultaneous confusion). I am continually in awe of the way the Japanese use their lyrical relationship to the natural world to articulate the ultimate truths of life.  The literary ‘holy grail’ of Japanese culture (lecture 2/4)- The Tale of The Heike (Heike monogatari) begins in a similar moment of commune with nature with the words: “…the color of the śāla flowers reveals the truth that the prosperous must decline.” I understand this statement to be an example of another manifestation of evanescence but I fail to see how the color of a flower can be so directly linked to the almost religious conviction that failure always follows success. However, I am encouraged by the fact that the converse of this claim is also true- success always follows decline. Inouye makes the crucial point that “…being able to see our outcomes as both success and failure…follows from an acute awareness of change.” (Inouye 50) Our entire mental state is clearer and more stable because we are cognizant of the world’s instability. Vulnerability is particularly uncomfortable for me to feel. I am always trying to avoid it. But the notion that this humbling experience may be inevitable for me and for everyone else in the world is something that I haven’t spent much time thinking about. I’m beginning to feel a bit of comfort as I become aware of the work of evanescence at play here. Perhaps I will try loosening my grip on life a little- see what happens…

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

My little naked tree… among other things.

By Laura Sabia

As I was walking home from Davis Square in the early afternoon, I looked up to notice the bare branches of a tree a few feet in front of me.


Beneath the sloping tree

Snow falls on my head.

This week we saw the ephemeral cicada-husk world transform in name and meaning from hakanasa or hakanai (a term that expresses a changing reality and the inability to make progress) (Inouye 26) to mujō (the Buddhist notion that “all things are impermanent.” (Inouye 31) We have learned that the evolution of the idea of evanescence and its doubling in importance as one of Japan’s cultural values (Inouye 31) is largely thanks to the introduction and influence of Buddhism. I was particularly fascinated with the interconnectedness of Buddhism’s three fundamental markers of existence (lecture 1/28): anitya (the idea that the “phenomenal world and our perceptions of it are constantly changing” (Inouye 31)), duhka (the concept that life is suffering insofar as we are in pursuit of mutable things), and anatman (there is no transcendent self as we are “part of this world” (Inouye 32) and therefore subject to its changeability. Although I find the proposition that “pondering anitya heals duhka” (Inouye 31) a bit idealistic and somewhat ‘unrealistic,’ I do agree with the opinion that many of us are in pursuit of material, changing things and that this strands us in a superficial and physical mind and body that is, according to Buddhism’s Vimalakirti Sutra, “transient and sure to die.” (Tsunoda, de Bary, Keene 103) Even the closest of human relationships (yo no naka)- romance are hakanai (changeable and fleeting). (Inouye 26) The concept of persistent longing (koi) for proximity to our loved ones as an evanescent presence in this kind of personal relationship (Inouye 27) is the idea that intrigues me the most this week. Our study of As I Crossed A Bridge of Dreams really helped to illustrate this idea for me, especially in the narrator’s correspondence with her father who writes to her saying, “I came to a large plain…there was also a thick forest. ‘What a pretty sight,’ I thought, and then immediately regretted that I could not show it to you.” (Sarashina 68) This desire for shared space prompts a kind of hopeful dreaming: a concept that is central to the Japanese response to evanescence as it helps us “question the realness of the real,” (Inouye 29) and thereby come to awareness of the illusory nature of empty, mutable things. 

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

My Introduction to Evanescence and Form: A Paradox Extraordinaire…

By Laura Sabia

Unable to sleep, I waited alone through the first hours of the morning in the guest bedroom of my friend’s house in New Jersey.


I lie awake-

New day’s first light

Breaks through my window

We begin the semester with a major contradiction, one that will remain with us throughout our study of Japanese culture. Professor Inouye tells us that the main object of our studies will be to understand this paradox: the interaction of form and flux (Inouye 2) or “evanescence and form” (Lecture 1/16). Evanescence (hakanasa and mujo) is the concept that “all things [change] all the time.” (Inouye 17) Form (kata) refers to a certain shape or pattern of all things in life (Lecture 1/16). The intersection of these two elements leaves us with a bit of an oxymoron- organized chaos? I can’t say this is idea is easily grasped, but nonetheless, I like it. The Japanese have basic conclusions about reality: that the world is both restrictive- filled with rules and obligations- and fleeting. (Inouye 22) I can’t help but feel a little frustrated about all this. On one hand, I’m anxious to run through life trying to take everything in, but on the other hand I’m held back by the molasses that is ‘form’. Maddening to be sure. So how to make manifest an intimate relationship with the world while remaining within the boundaries of form? Challenging. The Japanese attempt by writing waka: brief, lyrical poems about direct experience in the world. (Lecture 1/23) I’m thrilled with this idea, although equally as frustrated by the limitations of the art. My favorite line of the few poems we’ve looked at so far is Ōtomo Yakamochi’s “I know well/That in this cicada-husk world/there is no permanence…” (Inouye 13) This image of the cicada shell is central to the Japanese worldview and I believe it echoes of everything we’ve discussed this past week: form (in this case a physical shape) and change (an insect’s metamorphosis).  Both exist concurrently in this tiny vacant husk. How strange and wonderful!


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