Author Archives: Michael Chu

Transformation of Symbols

I was walking back at night to my dorm and slipped on ice because I thought the ice patch was water from the melted snow.

Melted snow reverts to ice

Before I took this class, I have always wondered why the Japanese like the samurai and the suicide plane bombers seem to brave the death. Why do they seem to de-value life? As Inazō puts it, “the whole teaching of Bushido was thoroughly imbued with the spirit of self-sacrifice” (Inazō 136). In the Meiji period, every citizen is loyal to the emperor who is “a point of commonality” (Inouye 111) and the symbol of Japan (Lecture 3/6).  The loyalty and patriotism was to the point that “no sacrifice [was considered to be] too onerous” (Inouye 117).  I was surprised how such patriotic spirit can be fostered so quickly because to be patriotic requires a symbolic understanding of homeland. It made more sense to me to think that patriotism and nationalism were derived from the existing lyricism and animism (Inouye 122). In lyricism, the notion of the cherry blossom conveys the feeling of evanescence. But with change redefined as being along a linear vector, the expression of cherry blossom is, instead, a sentimental emblem of Japan and is able to “call forth the whole nation” (Inazō 153). Interesting transformation from “non-symbolic reading of symbols.” I think the combination of animism/lyricism and symbolism had a synergizing effect. Symbol represents an abstract concept, but with lyricism and animism, strong emotional and visual aspects are added on. The strong emotional appeal of the cherry blossom symbol strengthened one’s ever-lasting loyalty to Japan. No wonder the kamikaze missions existed. The country and loyalty are ever lasting, but life is evanescent. Perhaps, for the kamikaze pilots, dying for an honorable mission and the unchanging symbol of Japan is both empowering and beautiful as it embraces the evanescence of life and progress for the greater good.

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

The Bodhisattva Cycle

By Michael Chu

On Sunday morning, I was lying on bed and didn’t want to wake up until I heard the bird chirp.

Bird’s call—
From rest


According to Basho, the only way to perceive the unchanging and the ever-changing is through the sincerity of a refined heart (Inouye 74). Having written several haikus now, I understand the importance of the sincere heart because without truly feeling the moment, it is hard to write good poetry. It is with sincerity that Basho “felt as if [he] were in the presence of the ancients themselves…rejoiced in the utter happiness of this joyful moment, not without tears in [his] eyes” (Basho 113).  In my opinion, Basho’s overflow of emotions in The Narrow Road to the Deep North, is the result of him achieving compassion in the Bodhisattva cycle. Yet, his concreteness displayed in his poems such as in the line “Bush-clovers and the moon” (Basho 132) showed that he returned to the low, or “commonplace,” in Chōmei’s term (Inouye 79). The line demonstrates the idea of “awakening to the high and returning to the low” with the moon and the bush clovers representing the high and low respectively (Inouye 80). The more you pursue the truth, the more sorrow you get (Lecture 2/25). Then why pursue truth when it is hard to give others their own knowledge in truth after you have returned to the low? Why go through the unnecessary trouble of getting more sorrow when we can just enjoy ourselves every day? In reference to the mountain climbing analogy mentioned in class, perhaps the accomplishment of reaching the high and overcoming sorrow is even more gratifying than everyday happiness. Time to motivate myself even more and go through all the sorrow of homework.

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

Ukiyo Redefined

By Michael Chu

I was releasing the first sky lantern on Friday night for my lantern festival event at the Tisch Rooftop.

Ignited lantern
Past the tip of my finger
Into the sky

Ukiyo has a different meaning to the Japanese now that we have moved to talking about the modern era. This new perception of ukiyo made more sense to me as it refers to “an awareness of limitation that leads to action and enjoyment” (Inouye 71). I should show my parents this chapter on Hedonism to justify why I at times prioritize fun over work. I am always on the look out for fun in order to escape the constant pressure and the failures that emerge. Everything in the world is sad, and in order to liberate ourselves, we need to embrace the concept of mono no aware (Lecture 2/20). I like the idea of mono no aware because if “we all suck,” then both failure and the pursuit of relief seem more acceptable. We need to constantly find temporary relief to make the most of this depressing floating world (Inouye 85). It is pessimistic to think that the world is full of sadness, but this is what also makes the fun and happy things so much more beautiful. In fact, mono no aware expresses a sentiment of “sadness that is constantly evolving towards gaiety” (Takahito 11). Life is inevitably filled with happiness and sadness. As the heroine in The Woman Who Spent Her Life in Love puts it, “Thus I lived, drifting down the muddy stream of the floating world” (Saikaku 205). This sentence stood out to me because the word “drifting” expresses the powerlessness in the floating world. To empower ourselves, we should think that we are all significant details of this big picture that is this realistic world (Lecture 2/21). We are all part of something bigger, but we suck. This paradox of optimism and pessimism perplexes me. Perhaps embracing such “muddy stream” full of pessimism and optimism would help us understand the realistic world and make the most out of it.

Posted in Week 1: Shell of the Cicada, Week 5: Hedonism, Mono no Aware, Monstrosity | Leave a comment


By Michael Chu

I was walking to the gym on Sunday night near Halligan when a strong gust of wind blew and carried me along the ice.

A snowy night—
Wind blew
Slid on ice

Nothingness is everything, and everything is nothing (Lecture 2/11). I was at first clueless about Buddhists valuing nothingness because nothingness had a negative connotation to me. Nothingness meant void to me. However, it made more sense to me as nothingness is explained as “the nonlimitation and nondefinition of the infinite” (Merton 85).  I can see why this idea became popular because embracing such boundlessness and ambiguity eliminates separation between objects and allows everything to be connected.  This connection is also seen in the play Atsumori when the priest and the ghost of Atsumori alternate saying, “We heard the singing…””Songs and ballads…””Many voices” “Singing to one measure” (Zeami 65). The border between the two breaks down and expresses nothingness. If only everyone valued the concept of nothingness, it would be easier to connect with strangers because people would not initially put up a border when meeting someone new. Nothingness also lets everything into your mind because “a possession of something will keep all other somethings from coming in” (Merton 109). I realize that because I always hang out with certain friends, I have made it harder for me to connect with others. Perhaps getting out of the comfort zone and embracing the boundlessness of friendship will help me connect with more people. I am starting to appreciate the profoundness of nothingness. If I do ever get to go to Japan one day, I shall test my appreciation of nothingness by going to a Noh theater and see if I would be captivated by an accomplished actor when he is motionless (Inouye 68).

Posted in Week 4: Nothingness | 1 Comment

Evanescence of Success

By Michael Chu

I was walking to Davis square on a Saturday night and experienced the aftermath of the blizzard.

Waist- deep snow
Narrow pathway
Footprints entrenched

This week we focused on talking about the concept of ukiyo, the floating world. The Buddhists suggested that we should get out of our house to end suffering (Lecture 2/4). As a house is a symbol of a part of us that wants to last forever, we can’t truly invest in a permanent thing as the house can be on fire any time. This bothered me because if we can’t hold onto anything at all, then what’s the point of possessing anything? Maybe I should just rent houses in the future. The fact that we can’t possess anything permanent also relates to how success and failure must keep following each other in a cycle (Inouye 50). Just like in The Tale of the Heike, Kiyomori’s success is fated. Though he had been a formidable figure, he eventually suffered from a disease that left him burning hot and could only speak in “a painful whisper” near the end of his death (Tale of the Heike 211). The evanescence of success is a scary thought because you know failure will ensue anytime.  However, success and failure are both social constructs based on societal standards. As Chōmei puts it, “if you conform to the world, it will bind you hand and foot” (Chōmei 58). Shukke then seems to be an appealing idea because when leaving the world behind you, you also leave the societal standards behind. Hence, success and failure will be based on personal standards, which is more beneficial because accomplishing or failing your own set goal is much rewarding than failing the society’s expectation. I find this, however, hard to do nowadays especially with the constant comparisons and competitions.

Posted in Week 3: Failure, Success, and Leaving the World | 1 Comment

Emptiness and Ambiguity

By Michael Chu

As I got off the bus stop and walked back to my dorm on Friday night, I realized how empty the campus was.

Cold night,

The bus leaves,


This week we moved from the concept of utsusemi to the concept of hakasana and mujō. Although the Buddhist concept of anitya is similar to the concept of utsusemi in the “notion of impermanence,” Buddhism brought two other ideas of duhka and anatman to Japan (Inouye 31). Duhka is an interesting idea— suffering comes from attaching to things that we can’t rely on (Lecture 1/28), and the only way to heal it is through “pondering anitya” (Inouye 31). By embracing the change around us, we will learn to appreciate the truth of anatman that we are changeable and conditional (Inouye 32). I am still having trouble in accepting the idea that my identity changes every day.  Who am I then? Good thing that the “relative permanence of our bodies help us formulate a sense of who we are” (Inouye 36). As the Japanese are willing to embrace the ambiguity of things, their lyrical responses to surroundings are powerful and spiritual. As seen in the book As I Crossed a Bridge of Dreams, people based their conversations on poems. Such impulse to share space through poems is a spiritual idea as space and nature are sacred and approachable (Lecture 1/30). I actually like this mode of communication being based on poems because they convey more emotions and meanings beyond the simple words.

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

The Cicada World

By Michael Chu

I was walking to mail service on Friday afternoon and saw the outskirts of Medford when I was near Olin.

Beyond the hilltop,
Houses behind winter trees,
Ah, left unexplored.

Professor Inouye kept mentioning evanescence and form in the first two classes. Having been to Japan a couple of times, I understand that form is a big part of the culture but evanescence? I had no idea. It is not until that I saw Dōgen’s and Yakamochi’s poems that it made more sense. “In this cicada-husk world there is no permanence” (Lecture 1/23). Our identity is not constant but is constantly shedding and changing. The “epithet” of the cicada, or rather, utsusemi, further conveys the brevity of mortal life (Inouye 19). This line also reminds me of the depressing scenes in the media where Japanese samurais or soldiers are willing to accept the evanescence of life and sacrifice themselves. Although evanescence does seem depressing, it is the acceptance of the fluid change and fragility that makes “sadness beautiful” (Lecture 1/23). I actually never thought that evanescence and form would go together. This paradoxical nature has gotten me to think a lot this past week. What a thought-provoking class.



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