While procrastinating in my room Wednesday night I stared at the dying houseplant in my bedroom for an extended period of time.
death in the month of spring
This week we focused on a pivotal period in the history of Japanese culture, modernization. Prior to this shift, Japan could best be described as “xenophobic,” characterized by extreme isolation and ostracization of things considered foreign (Inouye, 90). This is a concept we explore briefly in previous weeks when we discussed Buddhism and how Christianity was avoided at all costs. However, all of this changed in the latter half of the nineteenth century as Japan experienced a powerful “influx of western culture” that would redefine the Japanese perspective (Inouye, 103). In the face of threatened colonization, Japan was forced to alter the notion of “Japan as the world” to “Japan in the world,” placing themselves in the context of a much larger world (Lecture 3/06). In the face of the looming threat to “colonize or be colonized” Japan demonstrated a remarkable ability to adapt, as they have shown before after the introduction of Buddhism, but impressively did not lose the essence of their nation (Lecture 3/06). Though the rapid introduction of Western culture did mark a strong change in many facets of Japanese culture, namely a “considerably more linear and goal oriented concept of change” and a shift from the here-and-now order to a more symbolic transcendental order, national identity still prevailed (Inouye, 105). Nitobe Inazo’s Bushido that we read this week proved to be a powerful example of this juxtaposition between the identity that is so uniquely Japan and the new modern. This work is inherently very modern, as it was written and published in English and acts as a symbol for the nation of Japan. There is tension, however. Despite these strikingly modern facts, the traditional nature of Bushido as a “code of moral principles” used by the samurai is apparent, as well as many other uniquely Japanese attributes (Nitobe, 35). Nitobe writes “chivalry is a flower no less indigenous to the soil of Japan than its emblem, the cherry blossom” (Nitobe, 33) and continues to mention the sakura as an important element in his written code. For me this was a telling sentence. While the ancient symbol of the cherry blossom is acknowledged and embraced as a national emblem, this work clearly recognizes Japan as a body within the much larger context of the world, drawing parallels to European chivalry and acting as a liaison between the East and West. I really enjoyed this week’s lesson and I am excited to see the direction Japanese culture takes after this radical change in perspective.
I tried to delay my posting as long as I could to have a last minute poetic moment, but it just didn’t happen this week.
To be honest, when this week’s lesson began I was a bit confused. The concept of the order of here and now is not new to us. It is one we have been referencing since our first lecture, usually with respect to animism and its role in the ongoing themes of evanescence and form in Japanese culture. I thought we had covered what needed to be covered, and thus I was surprised when these ideas came back to visit. This time, however, we dove deeper and intimately examined what permanence and change means using the work of Matsuo Basho as our frame. In Basho’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North he observes the ruins of what once was the mansion of a Lord of the mighty Fujiwara family and writes “A thicket of summer grass/Is all that remains/Of the dreams and ambitions/Of ancient warriors” (Basho, 118). This poem really drove home many of the discussions we’ve had. It truly is “a lyrical blending of the poet’s emotions” and expresses Basho’s central concept of “fueki ryuukou” or “’the unchanging and the ever-changing’” (Inouye, 74). I could feel and see the contrasts between the faded ruins of generations of a powerful family and the assertion of nature over all, centuries after Basho’s experience. It was a powerful moment, and continues to be. Interestingly, this poem also demonstrates Basho’s modern tendencies and his ability to be “modern without dismissive of tradition” (Inouye, 75). He certainly sticks to the roots of Japanese poetry with elegant lyricism and close ties to nature. However, Basho also demonstrates his “synthetic eclecticism” by exploring the decline of the Fujiwara, a concept reminiscent of the inevitability of failure and Buddhism discussions of week 3 (Inouye, 79). We see Basho’s modern poetry again when he writes “Under the same roof/We slept together/Concubines and I—/Bush-clovers and the moon.” (Basho, 132). This poem also visits some interesting features of Basho poetry that Inouye mentions including the evident “’impersonal nature” of his poems and the modern contradiction of a “self that is trying not to be a self” (Inouye, 77-78). Unfortunately, discussing this poem would run my reflection way too long, so I’ll have to save it for another day. Ultimately, this week’s lesson and Basho reading really solidified some important concepts for me, definitely one of my favorite weeks so far. Also, favorite quote of the week: “Horse urination is amazing!”
I was sitting on my upstairs porch with a cup of coffee Saturday morning and noticed a tree beginning to bud.
sprouts beneath snow
This week’s discussions on Hedonism were particularly interesting to me. Birthed from the rigid structure of Japanese Edo period social hierarchy and the emerging “mono no aware” identity of Japan reflecting a “sentiment of sadness,” Hedonists attempted to maximize the pleasures of life (Takahito, 1). In almost direct opposition to the Buddhist concept of “anatman” or there is no such thing as self, hedonism seems to embrace the concept of self to the fullest (Inouye, 31). Inouye rationalizes the concept of Hedonism by saying, “If the end could come at any time, why not have as much fun as possible.” However, I have a different way of rationalizing Hedonism (which is a concept I like to believe in). Pleasure can be thought of in terms of evolution. Pleasure is adaptive. We feel pleasure because it is linked to some behavior that gave our ancestors millions of years ago some sort of advantage over others, so why not embrace it? Sex is one of the most obvious examples of pleasure, and its immensely adaptive value is coupled with intense pleasure. There is some point, however, when exaggerated pleasure seeking can become maladaptive. Analogous to an alcoholic’s addiction, The Woman Who Loved Love let her yearning for pleasure get the better of her. She exclaims in a dramatic final scene at a temple reflecting on her lifetime, “How wretched and shameful of me to enjoy such a long life” (Saikaku, 216). Ultimately, moderation has to play some role. Living purely and extremely by one ideology is rarely the answer. That being said, I enjoy looking at life through a Hedonistic point of view occasionally and can see great merit in its practice.
I was walking down Boston ave late Tuesday night in the rainy dark and was not properly dressed for the weather.
headlights race by
After completing this weeks drawing I continued to contemplate the image. For me, the Zen garden is the best representation of Japanese Buddhism by “mixing the transcendental and here-and-now forms” (Lecture 2/11). It’s inherently a very visual representation of faith, a hallmark of Japanese Buddhism. Japanese practice of Buddhism is dominated by visual, practical and ritual elements, rather than doctrinal, and this is very evident in Atsumori, a play (intended to be a visual experience) that revolves around the prayers of a guilty priest. In the case of the garden, the process is just as important, if not more important that the product we used as this weeks drawing image. It is “a way of spiritual experience,” and effectively “transforms art into a contemplative experience” (Merton 89, 90). By blurring the lines between the art, life, and spirituality, the abstract can be rendered concrete and both the here-and-now and the metaphysical can be experienced, or combined. These concepts attached to the garden help me understand Inouye’s statement “it is possible to establish an order that has only tenuous ties to a specific definable metaphysical reality yet still performs the important function of giving form,” an idea I had difficulty wrapping my mind around earlier (Inouye 60). The fact that sand (or potentially gravel in the case of this image) is “the most shapeless of materials,” gives the creation of form even more significance (Inouye, 64). Personally, the image of the Zen garden tied a lot of concepts we’ve discussed in class together.
I woke up Saturday morning after two feet of snow had just fallen and took a few minutes to lie silently in bed.
A clock ticks
I found the coupling of success and failure, or “what goes up, must come down” an interesting concept that we explored in this week’s lecture (Lecture 2/6). Inouye’s quote “We may be doing well today, but misfortune will strike tomorrow” speaks to the fleeting nature of not only successes, but failures as well (Inouye 50). It’s understandable that the Japanese would embrace such an idea, as it reflects the evanescence and uncontrollable unpredictability of life. This theme is especially prevalent in our assigned excerpts from the Tale of the Heike. The fall from the top is particularly noticeable in the opening paragraph that says, “the prosperous must decline,” and “the proud do not endure,” equating their temporary success to a “dream” (Heike 1). The message resonates strongly and this is likely why Japanese children memorize this poem from a young age. While I find it easy to discuss the concepts of success with failure, it gets distressing when I try to understand my own life in these terms. I consider myself very ambitious, and this trait comes hand-in-hand with an innate fear of failure, a feature I notice to some extent in many of my peer’s personalities. As a result, I often find myself avoiding failure, trying to evade what many Japanese people would consider a fact of life. Success with failure is a topic that has caught my eye and one I hope to continue to ponder and visit as this class goes on. I already have a lot to learn from the few concepts we have covered in this first three weeks of class.
I was walking up Winthrop Street during a particularly warm day last week when I noticed a single snowbank on the sidewalk.
One snowbank left
Peers melted away
During this week’s reading and lecture discussions I couldn’t help but think about how different the nature of religion in Japan is compared to our Western understanding of the term. Culture and tradition seem to have the strongest influences in the way the Japanese understand the things around them. They live under the “gentle tyranny of ‘tradition’” and have no desire to rebel against these long standing customs (Kitagawa 213). As a result they dominate the rules and acceptable approaches to interacting with one’s environment. I agree with Kitagawa’s description of Buddhism as often being a “supplement” to existing religions rather than a “contestant” (Kitagawa 204). This seems to be why Japan was so receptive to the introduction of Buddhism. In the end, Japan altered their understanding of the teachings and doctrines to agreeably fit their sacred customs. This is the striking fact I’ve noticed that contrasts the Western understanding of religions. The lines of Japanese religion (a word that may not even be fitting) are blurrier. Self-identifying American Christians seems to have a very strong self-concept that is usually outlined by doctrine and characterized by separation from those that are not part of this group. In Japan even strict rationalists respect the practices of tradition. It appears to have a ubiquitous presence in the country, and can even be coupled with more traditional concepts of religion. A self-identified “Japanese Buddhist” implies not only that the individual is a practitioner of Buddhism, but also that he/she is also Japanese (Kitagawa 219). To me, it’s the latter identifier that appears to be the most influential in how the person behaves and understands their environment.
- Nicholas Economos
I wasn’t able to write a poem about an experience this week.
I had a surprisingly difficult time finding subject material for my brief poem this week. This is surprising because I don’t find the concept of Japanese poems all that difficult to understand. I recognize the important of brevity in Japanese poetry, as “’wordiness is… taboo to animistic beauty’” (Konoshi in Inouye 26). In many of the poems we have read and seen in lecture the volumes few words can speak is powerful and apparent. The context and uses of “utsusemi” is a key example of this idea (Inouye 17). Yet in practice I’m having a difficult time evoking the emotion needed to produce poetry characteristic of Japanese tanka poets. Though I was admittedly busy this last week I put in an effort to become sensitive to my surrounding, with nothing to show for it unfortunately. I wouldn’t say I’m frustrated yet though. This week I’m determined to keep my eyes open to my surroundings. Japanese perception of nature is “’concrete and visual,’” and I will continue to attempt to draw inspiration from my environment (Susumu in Inouye 25).