On Saturday, I took a long detour home because it was beautiful out and saw a hawk perched on top of Carmichael. I looked down for a second to get the camera on my phone ready, but it had disappeared.
Sun silhouetted spire–
Bird and building
No longer aligned
This week’s classes felt appropriately like a preparation for a big transition, as we discussed not only the “opening” of Japan to the Western world but a shift in the Japanese concepts of identity and place within this new context. The modernization of Japan seems to have had a polarizing effect between Japanese and non-Japanese which ultimately gave rise to more violent expressions of evanescence and form: “if someone was right, someone else had to be wrong. This was the aggressive, even deadly logic of modernity” (Inouye 113). However, as usual, we found contrasts to this: Japan stayed firmly Japanese, and though colonial ideals were not imposed upon them quite as dramatically as in most cases, they did accept some elements of western culture. I found the Ryounkaku tower to be especially helpful in understanding the new perspective which formed during this period: not only did it showcase items from around the world, but stood as a monument to a new, singular viewpoint and an expression of greatness and prestige (Lecture 3/27). This symbolic tower was a huge departure from the sacred trees and stones of animism and represented the new push for progress, but it also seems to be a marker of the Japanese effort to retain tradition while proving to occupy a high place within the world order. I thought the tower was a pretty tangible example of how Japan carefully adopted certain aspects of western culture that they saw as beneficial, but still saw the Japanese way as the best way. This was also expressed in Bushido: “if there is anything to do, there is a best way to do it, and the best way is both the most economical and the most graceful.” (Nitobe 53). I interpreted Bushido as a modernized synthesis of preexisting kata with both an appreciation for tenets of the past and a lot of consideration for the new context of Japan in the world (although it did strike me as odd that the book seemed so overwhelmingly geared towards Westerners…maybe this was an effort to make sure as little as possible was lost in translation, or just a product of Nitobe’s own cultural identity). I think it is really amazing that even during a period of major change, Japan’s efforts to limit colonial influence kept a lot of cultural institutions and traditions intact. I’m guessing that a lot of the questions that have been raised in class and posts about paradoxes between evanescence, form, and facets of current Japanese culture will become relevant in studying this transition from a non-symbolic to symbolic society as cherry blossoms “become a boundless symbol of a newly expanding Japanese empire” (Inouye 118).
Nothing that stood out this week.
It seems odd that during the one week we really focused on lyrical poetry I did not experience any particular moments that struck me, at least enough to inspire poetic reflection later. It makes me wonder about Basho’s journey, and I sense that there is some sort of tension between the lyrical, in-the-moment sentiments that his poetry invokes and the fact that he didn’t actually write in the moment. A poetic journey is an interesting concept, and though Basho did not travel purely to find lyrical inspiration, seeking out lyricism seems very counterintuitive. What separates an overall appreciation of the world from a lyrical moment? Does it count if you go out looking for it? Maybe the most important part of experiencing the here-and-now is being receptive, and Basho’s journey wasn’t so much of a search rather than an extended period of receptiveness and sensitivity to the various spaces through which he moved. This tension of a “self that is trying not to be a self, poised at the dawn of modernity” gives his simple poetry a heightened sense of importance, encapsulating the relationship between evanescence and form that has permeated every topic we’ve talked about so far (Inouye 78). One of my favorite poems was the longer one about a sacred mountain, which I thought was a very effective example of conveying the importance of the experience the poet had without actually detailing that experience:
I cannot speak of
Yudono, but see how wet
My sleeve is with my tears. (Basho 115)
I found this poem really beautiful (extra beautiful because “tears” elude to sorrow) because it points to the poignancy of something that Basho saw without even really describing it. This captures the essence of having a relationship with the here-and-now and “new poetic associations with space”(Inouye 76). Even though he did write it after the fact, there is a strong sense of being present in the moment rather than observing the world from a distanced point of view.
Sitting by a window in the library after a less than wonderful weekend, I got totally lost looking at the snow as it changed from light rain to full-on blizzard.
A flurry stretches into blankness
Each fluff spins down alone
The shift towards hedonism is definitely something I expected when we first touched on the idea of life being evanescent. In some ways it seems like a more natural reaction to just go for it if life is so fleeting, and I am actually a little surprised that this reaction didn’t manifest until the Genroku period (Lecture 2/20). I think the shift in meaning of ukiyo from “the illusory world to avoid” to “the illusive world of fleeting pleasures that one ought to pursue with abandon” (Inouye 70) really encapsulates this major shift/inversion while the continued relevance of cherry blossoms shows that the prevailing cultural attitudes of the time still shared a common foundation with preceding Zen and Buddhist ideology. At the core, hedonistic pursuits were rooted in the same notion of life being brief and the symbiotic relationship between beauty and sorrow. On one hand, hedonism seems like an amazing way to maximize the happiness of everyone in the world, but these temporary reaches towards fulfillment seem to lead to even further sorrow in most cases. I can imagine that acting on whims alone could lead to a severe sense of detachment. It also seems to be a guaranteed way to slip downwards, such as the woman who loved love: “I let myself be swept away to ruin. There was no way for me to stem the current” (Saikaku 159). Perhaps accepting oneself as a floating part of the floating world could make this a beneficial life philosophy, but I have a hard time seeing how this form of detachment and pursuit of temporary pleasures could lead to any sense of peace or fulfillment. That said, I think the hedonistic attitude of making the pursuit of pleasure in general a common goal has a lot of value. It seems that the fact that mono no aware was the heart of Japanese culture led to the “dual structure of an inner and outer dimension, not a moral character which makes a direct connection between consciousness and action” (Takahito 13). This is a distinct contrast to the preoccupation that many have with morality and the inability of most to consistently uphold values. Though sad in a sense, I think it’s somewhat of a relief not to hold ourselves to higher standards than we can meet and agree that “resigning oneself to the sadness of reality has its own rewards” ( Inouye 85).
Yesterday evening it was starting to get dark and looked like it was about to rain. I noticed that the sky was a little bit unevenly colored in one spot.
A white line on gray sky
Perhaps a plane’s trail
The idea of mu, nothingness, is both comforting and difficult to fully grasp. In the face of troubles, stress, unpleasant emotions, and other difficulties that people often encounter in life, it seems very good to focus on the nothingness that is everywhere and accept that “there is no distance between us and the actual world we live in” (Inouye 63). I do agree with Merton’s emphasis on “the tragedy of a life centered on ‘things’” and the ego as a root of “hopeless struggle with other perverse and hostile selves competing together for the possessions which will give them power and satisfaction”(Merton 82). I also see a lot of truth to his statement that “to be absolutely nothing is to be everything. When one is in possession of something, that something will keep all other somethings from coming in,” but I have a hard time imagining how you could exist without holding on to anything at all (Merton 109). True, you would be open to new experiences, but it seems to make enduring relationships of any kind impossible. Since by nature we are social creatures, it seems like there must be some sort of ideal middle ground or balance that allows for some meaningful connections to be kept while accepting nothing in other senses, but maybe it’s all or (completely) nothing. Noh theater seems to be a good expression of detachment from self given the fluidity between characters and the dead and the living, but I see a paradox in the lines “life is a lying dream, he only wakes/who casts the world aside” (Atsumori 64). It could also be said that once awoken you’d be in a dream, since I imagine a state of being free of attachment to the world and open to anything being rather dreamlike as well.
As I was out walking during the height of the blizzard a plow was coming towards me way down the street and I could see the silhouettes of people running in front of it.
A light through the storm
Two shadows run
This week we continued to focus on Buddhism with the newer subtopics of success, decline, and leaving the world. The main ideas behind the past two lectures were that life is suffering, or samsara, and that failure and success are cyclical (inevitably one leads to another). The concept of anatman, or no self, is particularly difficult for successful people to grasp, and we discussed how that is especially relevant at Tufts, where so many students are success-driven (Lecture 2/4). We also talked a lot about the samurai, and how Tale of the Heike is a fitting expression of the relationship between success and failure. The famous moment in which Kumagae na Naozane must behead a young soldier even though he is the spitting image of his young son shows the incredible dedication of the samurai to his duties and the conflict between giri and ninjo. The triumph of form over emotion shows just how important kata is in this circumstance, regardless of personal opinion (Lecture 2/6). We also found out that we are all trapped in a burning house, blind to the horrible state of our reality unless we get out and look back at the madness. This connected to the concept of the floating world, ukiyo, a manifestation of why it is foolish to become attached to objects and other things that are not constant. “To seek security and permanence by attaching ourselves to that which is unpleasant and floating is to be deluded” (Inouye 40) This is well exemplified in Hojoki. Numerous natural disasters that visited the capital during Chomei’s time “mocked its sophistication and finery” and “reinforce the notion that we are nothing but foam upon a stream” (Inouye 45). Chomei talks about how after these natural disasters people seem cognizant of what is really important for awhile, and then fade back to normal life (Chomei 54). I think this is a pretty good representation of how people always fall back to their patterns and tie themselves back into the floating world because it’s just easier than pursuing a path to an enlightened existence. Even though suffering could be avoided through acceptance of samsara, that would require rejecting the materialism which is so deeply ingrained in American society in particular. I do find comfort in Chomei’s assertion that “reality depends on your mind alone” (Chomei 75) and was especially interested in the concept of the shukke, the formalized process of leaving it all behind in Heian Japan (Inouye 40). It is attractive yet sad, but it seems that if it was pursued properly it would lead to contentment. With all of this it also seems to me futile to pursue any sort of success knowing that it will eventually lead to failure. I am still waiting to see how the Japanese are generally recognized as a very driven and successful society if this is the basis of their culture.
Late on Thursday night I was hurrying back from the SMFA shuttle after class and it was unbelievably cold and windy. On my street everything was blowing wildly and the light from the streetlamps was very foreboding in general.
Though not yet frozen
The night chills my bones
And shadows churn on Teele Avenue
This week’s continuation of evanescence and form brought in more elements of Buddhism and the absence of self. We read that certain aspects of Buddhism naturally stuck well with early Japanese people, such as the ideals laid forth in the Vimalakirti sutra (Nara Buddhism 99). Three important Buddhist notions stood out: anitya, the notion of impermanence; anatman, lack of self; and duhka, suffering (Inouye 31). The importance of nonsymbolic readings of symbols came up several times again, which I think I understand but have a feeling will be difficult to enforce because searching for symbolism is so ingrained in most other areas of study. I also thought it was interesting to talk about how religion or spirituality is manifested and recognized in Japan, with most people not necessarily identifying themselves as religious even though they follow many religion-based practices (Lecture 1/28). I’m still thinking about the overlap of religion and tradition and whether or not those are necessarily different things. We also talked about where dreaming fits in, with a lot of connections to Lady Sarashina, a constant dreamer and romantic (Lecture 1/30). I’m not sure how I feel about living life in a dream state and whether or not that can be seen as passivity. On one hand it sounds appealing in an enlightened (or escapist) sense but it also seems like a somewhat sad way to go through life.
I had just left my house on Friday night when I turned onto Packard Ave and couldn’t tell if it was snowing or not until I saw the glow of a street lamp.
Illuminated by the lamp
At night in winter
This week we focused on the guiding ideas for the rest of the course, evanescence and form. The importance and ubiquity of cherry blossoms and cicada shells were emphasized to introduce the concept of evanescence, and these two natural occurrences seem to encapsulate the notion of constant change. This is central to Japanese culture, especially from the perspective that we will take (which I understand is only one approach, and wonder how much that will shape the way I learn). It was interesting to read how evanescence is sort of related to eternity in a sense, with historians recording and reporting the historical record believing in the “the centrality and eternality of the present” (Kitagawa 58). I think form is natural counterbalance to this notion that seems to have developed in order to give some form of meaning to life, unpredictable and impermanent as it may be. We also talked a lot about animism and the non-symbolic nature of the sacred, which I think is a little bit tricky to grasp from a Western perspective. I am interested to see where the weekly poetry project goes, since I get the principles behind waka/tanka but don’t quite fully understand the appeal of that style of lyricism yet. It also seems like a trick of some sort, with the act of doing the assignment seeming more important than the content itself. I’m guessing that we will figure this out the further we go into things. I like the idea of the Japanese finding beauty in sorrow, and on a whole there seems to be a lean towards some (objectively) kind of depressing guiding concepts in this course. This start makes me really interested to see how these concepts will connect to more current cultural phenomena, like the somewhat bizarre facets of pop culture that Japan is known for today since they seem unconnected so far.