Author Archives: Ya Qing

Bushido and the new order

I was on my way home Friday night, and saw a puddle reflecting light from the house and trees.

Branches of the tree

Reflection of the house

Shimmering in the puddle

Meiji period Japan witnessed a dramatic shift from nonsymbolic reading of the world to an era full of symbols. (Lecture 3/6) As we discussed earlier, Japanese modern identity started to form long before Meiji period, but I think the 19th century is more about the presentation of this modern national identity to the world, or more specifically, to the western intruders. The presentation is an attempt to connect a domestic order of here-and-now to the new world order. (Inouye 106) How I read Meiji period is that it is when Japanese start to find the balance between adapting to the new world and resisting to become colonized. The book Bushido, written in English by Japanese, was an example of this attempt. I was greatly impressed by the accuracy and the persuasive power of Nitobe’s language. Also I have noticed that in the book he constantly draws parallels of western thoughts or historical events to Japanese ones. On the one hand, Nitobe tries to show the similarity of two cultures, suggesting that Japan and the western world do share some essential values. On the other hand, however, the book emphasizes the uniqueness of Bushido as the soul of Japan, which I read as a warning telling the west that Japan, as a nation embracing the spirit of “Fighting Knights”(Nitobe 9), will refuse and resist to be colonized. Then he explains the core values of Bushido with great details, namely, masculinity, the sense of shame and  honor, duty of loyalty, and absolute obedience to the command of higher voice (Nitobe 37). He also gave examples of Japanese spiritual culture that had been misunderstood by the west, among which is the tea ceremony, which we also discussed in the class. (Lecture 3/6) In his words, the Cha-no-yu is not merely a ceremony, but fine art, and poetry,  (Nitobe 27) which represents the Japanese belief that the best way to do things is always the most economical, and the most graceful. (Nitobe 25) We can see that tea ceremony, the rice (Inouye 109), things that were not read as symbols, turned to symbols pointing to the superiority of Japanese culture and other abstract ideological concepts in Meiji period. Another point interested me is the idea of passivity in Bushido, which I think was rooted from Japanese understanding of evanescence.

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

The ever-changing and the poems

Nothing this week

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I bought Keene’s translation of the book, and in the preface he gave several examples of the difficulty of translating haiku written in Japanese into English because of the simplicity and the reliance of Japanese language on suggestion. (Keene 11) But as we discussed, it is also the beauty and uniqueness of Japanese poems. (Lecture 2/28) As Keene mentioned, one of the chief reasons that Japanese had for travel was to see places that are mentioned in poetry, and Basho’s travelling journal illustrated this point well. There are several places that Basho visited along the journey because he had read poems portraying the scene or object written by others before. For example, when he finally saw the famous pine tree of Takekuma, he felt great joy because “the twin trunks shaped exactly as described by the ancient poets”(Basho111) It seems interesting to me that walking into the nature plays such an important role in writing poems. I think the tradition is related to the animistic understanding of nature and the idea of “butsu ga ichinyo”, the unity of thing and self (Inouye 77), which we discussed in class. I see poems as some kind of personal experience, so the action of visiting places mentioned in poems seems to be a sincere attempt to understand the poem by physically experiencing the scene that has been described. The nature is the most direct, visual interpretation of evanescence. In Basho’s term, evanescence and form are “the unchanging and the ever-changing”(Inouye 74.) When we travel, the seasons and landscapes are constantly changing, and so do people we interact with on the way. But the sincerity is eternal foundation of poems that remains the same. Among all the poems, my favorite ones are those in which the landscape is perfectly infused with the feelings of the person seeing it. I think the fact that after hundreds of years we can still feel the joy, loneliness, or whatever emotions from Basho’s poems demonstrates this timeless quality of poems. Also, other than the ones that we talked about in class, one of my favorite poems is the one he wrote back to Sora when his companion was leaving, which I found really touching. “From this day forth, alas/The dew-drops shall wash away/The letters on my hat/ Saying ‘a party of two’. (Basho 136)”

 

Posted in Week 6: The Order of Here and Now | 1 Comment

hedonism

I was on the bus from New York to Boston on Saturday night, and saw the trees and unmelted snow in the dim light.

Fleeting trees

Illuminated by the snow

Stretching into night sky

 

Last week we talked about hedonism and mono no aware, the sad nature of things. The fact that the former concept puts so much weight on pursuit of short-term pleasures makes me feel like it’s a desperate attitude towards life at first glance, but I became more comfortable with the idea after knowing more about its historical background through the readings. According to Norinaga, mono no aware is the core of modern Japanese identity, a “priori” condition of Japanese people’s thought. (Norinaga 1) To me, both mono no aware and hedonism are rooted from the realization of evanescent nature of life. A Buddhist solution to this sadness is to forgo our desires and to do good deeds so that we can suffer less in our next life, whereas hedonism asks that if we are already so powerless, why bother inflicting more pains on ourselves? Why don’t we go out and have some fun? As we discussed in the class, with money but no political power in their hands, merchants and other citizens don’t have the legal rights to determine their own livelihood for themselves. (lecture 2/21) (Norinaga 10) Given that, I wouldn’t be surprised to see the bourgeoning of hedonism from this choking insecurity and powerlessness. Also from Saikaku’s reading, we see the life of a beautiful, fragile woman, who devoted her life to love but ended up becoming a wilted blossom (Saikaku). I also found the description of her relationship with men interesting. Whether she liked the man or not, she treats them as “fellow-passenger on a ferry boat before it reached the opposite bank. (Inouye 73)”

Posted in Week 5: Hedonism, Mono no Aware, Monstrosity | Leave a comment

Nothingness and form

Unfortunately, the moment didn’t come to me in the past week.

Nothingness is not nihilism. (Lecture 2/11) To me, the lost of “self” can lead us to higher level of capacity and possibilities. Personally, instead of being limited by external things, I found that most of time I’m circumscribed by my own misperception or delusions. The delusion generates fear, prejudice, and limitations of mind. As we discussed in the lecture, when people attach themselves to one particular group to build their sense of self, they actually block out opportunities to experience other things. (Lecture 2/11) We see this emptiness of Noh play from its sparse form, too. (Inouye 68) An interesting analogy I found from the book Zen and the Birds of Appetite is the comparison of Zen to a mirror. (Merton 6) Mirror is neutral, mindless, and non-discriminating, and so does Zen consciousness. Our problems come from the desire to superimpose, instead of simply experiencing and reflecting life as a mirror. Zen is not a religion but realization, (Merton 47) so unlike Christianity or Buddhism, it is an awareness incomparable with, and independent from other religious systems. Merton also stressed the danger of verbalization and rationalization, which usually falsify our real experience. (Merton 48) I think the Japanese visual adoption of Buddhism might be somehow related to this antilanguage nature of Zen. Form is another correlated subject. It’s interesting to me that on the one hand, Japan is deeply influenced by Zen, a de-formalizing consciousness, but on the other hand, has a highly formalized culture. The established forms are so perfectly weaved into almost aspect of social life that we tend to call them as customs, or habits. (Inouye 62). The Noh play we have learned in class is another example of highly formalized performance. My takeaway from the reading is that while embracing the idea of evanescence, we still need a well-established order in this physical world to guide and give meaning to our behaviors(Inouye 60), and thus, we have forms.

Posted in Week 4: Nothingness | 1 Comment

the burning house

Woke up earlier than usual on Sunday morning because it was bright outside, so I opened the window and smelled the snow.

Morning arrived earlier

Waiting behind the shutter

Sunlight, the smell of snow.

Last week we talked about the paradox of success and failures in this floating world, which led to the discussion of leaving the world as an alternative option for us to deal with sufferings brought by the evanescent nature of life. In The Lotus Sutra, there is a famous analogy. It says our mortal life is like a burning house, and we’re children playing in it, unaware of the danger. (Inouye 39) We are attracted to it and insist not to leave because we think that we are “having fun”, which we’re likely to lose by leaving the house. So most of us will not choose to leave the house until we realize that we’re actually in great danger and there is a safer place that we can go to. In Buddhism, the burning house is our life in which we are enslaved by our unwise desires and pursuits of ever-changing things like a house, fame, and someone that love us forever. Desires on these external things trap and torment us, blocking our eyes from seeing the truth. So one option that Buddhism gives us is to leave the world, or shukke. By physically isolating ourselves from the “floating world”, we can get rid of some distractions and thus focus more on obtaining inner peace.  In the first half of Hojoki, Chomei describes scenes from several natural disasters and how vulnerable people’s lives were when facing those disasters. And he brings up the question that if our houses are so vulnerable and fragile, why should we dedicate our life to build and maintain a seemingly secure dwelling? The second part of the book, Chomei documented his life as a recluse. He abandons the world in which he cannot fit in, and builds a shabby hut in a mountain as his home. But at the end of the book, he says that although away from the floating world, his attachment to the hut and the quiet life itself is a likewise burden. (Chomei 76) My understanding of the “house on fire” is that it is our desires and attachment that are troubling us. The objects that we attach to do not distinguish ourselves from others, as long as we all attach to something. So the key to our salvation is to forgo the unwise desire, which does not necessarily require us to physically leave the world, but to learn to forgo desires and delusions inside us.

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

the evanescent beautiful

On Sunday morning, Evan was sitting on his bed, spacing out and trying to decide what to eat, and I saw the snow through his window.

Snow

Swirling in the air

Window frame, your silhouette

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Last week we talked about influence of Buddhism on Japanese interpretations of life experience. The three fundamental elements of existence, anitya, duhka, and anatman, which represent impermanence, suffering and no-self respectively, are compatible with the idea of evanescence in Japanese culture. When Buddhism first came to Japan, these fundamental ideas were transformed and combined with Japanese understanding of the ever-changing nature of the world, which is polytheistic, animistic, and shanmanistic (Inouye 32.) The non-symbolic understanding of symbols is an example of how Buddhist ideas fit into Japanese context, where gods are tangible and available, and our relationship with nature is close but ever-flowing. The close tie between our surroundings and us also explains the importance of natural imagery in Japanese poems (Inouye 34.) In As I Crossed a Bridge of Dreams, her poems are always based on her observations and feelings aroused by nature. She saw rustling bamboo leaves, the autumn moon, and fragrant blossoms, and the scenes echo her sorrow from being apart with the loved ones and moving from place to place. As we discussed in the lecture, the ever-flowing nature of life, and our attempt to maintain or pursue a permanent relationship that we are experiencing now is futile, sad, but beautiful.

Posted in Week 2: From Hakanasa to Mujo | 1 Comment

From Utsusemi to mujo. -Qing

First, About the lyrical moment:

I was walking to Lane Hall on Thursday afternoon and saw an ice cream cone lying on the street elegantly.

 

An ice cream cone

Lying on the street, unmelted

Like a pale new born baby

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We talked about utsusemi and animism last week, and the reading for this week focused more on the ideas of hakanasa and a Buddhist world view of impermanence (mujo). Personally, the past experience of being in love as a whole can be summarized as hakanasa. As for the feelings of love, both beginning and ending are uncontrollable, changeable and fleeting. (Inouye27) It disappears so fast and thoroughly that I started to doubt the thing called love actually never existed, and the whole experience of being in love is nothing but a sweet illusion. Shift from hakanasa, Mujo is a broader concept of impermanence that permeates every aspect of life, from dreamlike affection to unreliable human relations (Inouye 31). This Buddhist interpretation of reality explains and provides a solution to our frustrations and sufferings in life. A rather simple takeaway from the readings is that since everything is impermanent, the desire and effort to pursue them will give us frustration sooner or later, and the only way to free ourselves is to stop relying on those external things to reach reality and start to accept whatever life has to offer.

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