Category Archives: Week 1: Shell of the Cicada

All of these posts are from week one of the course.


Walking home late at night emotionally tattered by an emergence of a past relationship and stood up by a friend who offered comfort.

frozen flesh
the long walk home

Very numb this week. I think the relevancy outweighs the melodrama: “‘A beautiful woman is an axe that chops off life.’ The blossoms of the heart are scattered; by evening the tree itself has been turned to firewood.” (Hibbett 54) I know it is from this coming week’s readings, but it is eerily appropriate. Perhaps as a form of meditation I spent the better part of the weekend cleaning my room, which felt like the zen garden’s battle against entropy. By cleaning I was not just concretely making my room clean, but to visitors it is a symbol of myself, just like the hybridity of the zen garden. That being said, “the process is supposedly more important than the product.” (Inouye 69) I wonder, though, if I am cleaning my room in search of enlightenment with this “changing shapelessness that must be constantly formed.” (Inouye 64) This emptiness I’m feeling can’t be the emptiness we’ve been discussing. How can something so uncomfortable be desirable. Maybe it’s not the right kind of emptiness. After reading Zen and the Birds of Appetite, the idea that “in order to master the mind, Buddhist meditation seeks first of all to master the body.” (Merton 95) I think they would really enjoy joining me on my quiet morning rock climbs.  These brief interludes of warmish weather make me understand the cherished status of Spring and Autumn. I certainly “…bid the flowers of Spring.” (Atsumori 70)

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Week 3- Dogs/Sticks/Houses

This weekend of the snow blizzard, I was studying in the lounge of West Hall, in front of a window looking to the Academic Quad and listening an old playlist when the chorus of a new song started playing..

flying flakes vibrate
a pattern
like a wave
but not on the sea.

After third week’s class I actually decided to add the class and catch up with the readings… Certainly one of the most noteworthy things happened in the class was the “The House is on Fire” rap/chorus fusion. Still the melody of the the idea of leaving the house, or shukke (出家) in general is not a one that can be internalized that easily. How can we abandon the life that we have spent so much time on building/ forming/ perfecting.   It is true that “We suffer because we hang on to the things that we want to last” (Lecture 02/06) but how can we persuade ourselves that those things won’t last. “To seek security and permanence by attaching ourselves to that which is unpleasant and floating is to be deluded” (Inouye 40). I tend to enjoy being deluded at times because the other option seems too frightening and conflicting to my constant need for a one constant  anchoring truth. In this context the concept of anataman is really new and seems to solve a lot of problems, a self-concentrated life might have. Though I completely acknowledge the idea of evanescence, I believe in working hard in order to reach a target yet I am aware that a fleeting experience of happiness is a moving target. We have talked in the class about the Japanese saying “If a dog walks, he finds a stick”, although we know that due to the cyclic nature of happiness and sadness, the dog will lose that stick, -eventually. Still It is better than not finding it at all, Its the experience that counts yet its the memory that haunts.

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Success and Failure

By Nina Watts

On Saturday after the storm, I looked out my window and saw wind blowing snow flurries around.

Flurries of snow
swirl past my window
and glitter in the setting sun

This week we discussed how success and failure relate to an understanding of evanescence and form. The truth of life is that failure will inevitably follow success and further, success doesn’t last. In other words: “We may be doing well today, but misfortune will strike tomorrow” (Inouye 50). However, an understanding of evanescence lessens the blow of this sad truth. If we understand that everyone is vulnerable to failure, the prospect of failing at something becomes less daunting. Everybody fails at some point. Even so, I feel that a lot of people share my personal fear of failure. I’ve never been in a situation where I felt good about my failures. For this reason, I really appreciate the Buddhist concept of detachment. As Chomei put it: “Buddha taught me we must not be attached” (Chomei 76). We cannot define ourselves merely on our successes and failures. Our dependence on such impermanent things will only cause suffering and in order to relieve our suffering, we must understand evanescence. “Nothing gives the mind stability like an awareness of the world’s radical instability” (Inouye 50). I really like that this concept has been deeply integrated into Japanese society. I’m glad that children are taught not to fear failure. Even so, it’s much easier to understand this concept than to live by it.

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Tangible spirituality

I was sitting in the library, peering out the window, when I watched in amusement a squirrel jumping from one tree to another.

Scurrying off the high branch

The squirrel in air

Landing just barely

I find it so interesting that Japanese religion and spirituality is so “present and local” (Lecture 1/23).  Most monotheistic religions emphasize the idea of God and heaven being separate from the realm of reality of mortals.  They emphasize God as an entity beyond reach, but may be available through certain means, but those means themselves are not God, but represent this distant Being. It’s somewhat comforting to think of spiritual objects in the Japanese way, “not as representations of kami but as kami.” (Kitagawa 45).   The tangibility of Japanese spirituality is nice and calming.  I also appreciate the “sense of mutual participation” in divinity. (Kitagawa 48)  It humbles man, and urges him to seek beyond himself for the definition of self.  This definition of sacredness idea seemed foreign at first.  However, reflecting back on my youth, I realized my Bengali culture instilled a bit of this notion in me.  Children are often told to touch the feet of elders as a sign of respect, this is known as salaam. To give salaam meant to acknowledge someone’s sacredness.  Elderly were not the only persons/things that were sacred, but so were books, kitchen counters, musical instruments. If I ever stepped on a book, it felt disrespectful and it felt necessary to salaam it.  Books contained knowledge, they themselves are knowledge, and stepping on it was like stepping on sacred knowledge.   This visceral need to pay respect to small objects around me has dissipated a bit since, but it’ll be nice to revisit this concept and explore it further in class.

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Love, Dreams, and Buddhism

By Nina Watts

Sitting at my desk in my room, I looked out the window.

Outside my window
Countless snowflakes slowly fall
And vanish from my sight

The topic that most grabbed my attention this week was the relationship between evanescence, love, and dreams in Japanese culture. During the time of the Heian court, love was viewed as “nothing more than a dream” (Inouye 28). This concept played right into the question I had last week. We live in an evanescent world, and yet the “heart wants otherwise” (Inouye 28). I found the poetry comparing love to dreams quite beautiful and sad. Feelings of love can be fleeting and seem just as real as a dream does while we’re sleeping. My favorite expression of the idea is that “In the end, it becomes difficult to choose (or even distinguish) between a dreamlike reality and a dream” (Inouye 29). Unfortunately, this implies that there can’t be true, lasting love. I’m not sure if I agree with this. I agree with the statement: “By pursuing dreams, we create reality” (Inouye 30). I know this sounds cheesy, but without pursuing dreams or love, there wouldn’t be much going on in this world. This week we also discussed how Buddhism influenced Japanese culture and learned that “pondering anitya heals duhka” (Inouye 31). Duhka is suffering and anitya is “the idea that both the phenomenal world and our perceptions of it are constantly changing” (Inouye 31). I bring up this idea because while I still have many questions about feelings and reality, I still find comfort in the idea that acceptance of change relieves the frustration of our desire for control.

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The Charles by Kaveh Veyssi

I was riding the train to my internship on Friday morning when I crossed over the Charles River and saw the Boston skyline.


Winter’s water

Buildings alongside the river

Through the train’s windows

I am interested to find out how the two main concepts of this course, evanescence and form, (Lecture, 1/16) apply to every aspect of Japanese culture.  For example, I enjoyed the connection between Japanese poetry and baseball (Inouye, 15).  Form dominates both.  Making connections like this will be an integral part of learning about Japanese culture as well as I can.  There are things I agree with.  For example, I agree that sadness is a beautiful thing (Lecture, 1/23).  My favorite films all have incredibly sad endings, but there is something that is so beautiful about it and I am keen to learn more about how Japanese culture frames this idea.  While learning about kami (Kitagawa, 44), my favorite aspect of religion in Japan is that “the past, present, and future [are] not mutually exclusive” (Kitagawa, 54).  This is a difficult idea to grasp.  My interpretation is that our lives are an amalgamation of the cycle that our ancestors have lived through and we endure every day.  I suggest that this is because of the nature of evanescence and form and how the paradox of these two ideas blends together our past, present, and future.


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Cicadas as the Meaning of Life?

The other night I was walking by the football field late at night and saw the snowfall blowing in front of the field lights.


Flurries cascading

Against stadium lights

Welcome the night’s silence


We began our discussion of Japanese culture with two key terms—evanescence and form. These concepts seem to contradict one another at first glance. Evanescence, known as hakanasa or mujō in Japanese, pertains to the ever-changing, impermanent world, where all things come and go, sometimes for only a fleeting second. On the other hand, actions and behaviors, particularly in Japan, have a special form associated with them. When you enter a house or a school, you take off your shoes; when you write a haiku or tanka, you make sure to write only the correct number of syllables in each line. Combining evanescence and form yields a world that constantly changes in the exact same way. We learned that classical Japanese poets often used the epithet of the cicada shell (utsusemi) in their poetry to embody this dichotomy (Inouye lecture 1/23). Similarly, our class talked about how most Japanese people believe in fundamentally animistic principles. When a person feels that a particular tree produces an emotional response in them, they might wrap a shimenawa rope around its trunk to declare that tree as sacred. We made the important distinction that “in early Japan…symbols were not understood symbolically” (Kitagawa, 45). That is to say that the sanctified tree does not point to the heavens or glorify an idea in another realm, rather the tree presents itself as sacred. I found it particularly interesting to think about the influence of Buddhism and Confucianism in Japan as another example of matching the fleeting world with repetitive forms (Inouye text, 18). Coming into this course, I assumed we would be talking about Japanese pop culture, food preferences, and other seemingly cultural characteristics, but I think I can buy into how evanescence and form will impact those aspects of Japanese culture. Instead I leave class tired from a mental workout. Who knows how this semester will go? It was only the first week.

~Ezra Dunkle-Polier


The epithet of the cicada shell, or utsusemi, seamlessly combines evanescence and form.

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Japanese Waka

Name: Min Zhong

On my way home, snow fell on my palm and vanished.

Blue clear night,
White crystal snow,
Vanished without a trace

In the first week of class, professor Inouye showed us a haiku example written by a former student.

A towering tree –
Lover’s names
Now illegible

This Haiku only has three lines of five or seven syllables, but it secretly grasped my feelings. Through these simple words, I could experience the moment that the author tried to create. I felt slightly sad and this sadness was subtle, personal and indescribable. I wondered how these simple words create resonance with readers. Human being and nature are naturally connected. The feelings that images associated with are universally consistent. Cherry blossoms represent spring and snow is for winter. We “understand” the author “because we visualize the moment of the poem’s creation” (Evanescence and Form). Building a connection with the nature might be a first step to understand Japanese Waka and its culture.

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The Secret of Winter by Ge Cui

Name: Ge Cui

Class:[JPN061] Intro Japanese Culture

Professor: Charles Inouye

Week 1: The secret of Winter

I was walking to Cohen Auditorium at 9 in the January morning when my breath steamed in the air and soon vanished.




Words, laughs, and sighs.


Where did they go?


All in the cloud.


“In spring the cherry blossoms” (Lecture 1) was the first “fact” I got to learn about Japanese culture from the class. I still remember in my high school senior year when my family decided to travel in Japan, all we worried was when the cherry blossoms would be open. We checked Japan weather report and read online analysis everyday. It was all because the flower only opens a week long per year. And when we finally arrived and watched them falling gradually from the branches like a pink rain, my world just slowed down all in a sudden. I actually love it when Professor Inouye told us that the whole semester we would be talking about “evanescence and form”. It is really interesting how the whole content of a culture can be generalized within two basic phenomena. “Evanescent – brief, fleeting, ever-changing, unpredictable, and fragile”(Inouye 1) as the cherry blossoms, “dying at the hight of their beauty”(Inouye 2). There is no permanence and everything is changing. But they either change in a certain way or remain something unchanging while changing. It looks familiar to me by reminding me of human’s heredity and variation. If we realize how many different individuals are in this world, we understand how genes never stop changing. But all the genes are listing in a certain order in the DNAs, and forming proteins in a certain way. That’s why most of us have one dead, two eyes, one mouth, and four extremities. Chinese media have always been talking about how Japanese people build the “sense of crisis” into each generation. Now I understand it as the “earthquakes, volcanoes, seasons, utsusemi, and cherry blossoms” taught Japanese people that anything can happen to anyone at anytime-nothing lasts forever. We can’t control them, so we should cherish them. And the “form” works as the paths we walk on in the chaos so we won’t get lost. Evanescence and form sound like two opposite words, but without either both of them might just lose the meaning.

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Evanescence and Form – Week 1

Crossing the Charles River Friday evening on the Red Line.

City lights –
Shadows reflecting
The frosty river.













How is it that evanescence and form – two seemingly opposite concepts – came to be two of the most central elements of Japanese culture? The tension that exists between the two seems to be inherent. (Inouye 1) Is it an attempt by society to impose order on the ever changing world that it observes around it to make sense of it? Or is it based on an acute awareness of the constant forms that exist in the world, even one constantly in flux? I have yet to decide. The imposition of form on seemingly everything in Japan is apparent upon arrival – the ubiquitous uniforms, the bowing (with the angle of the bow depending on the circumstance), and the clear divisions of space demarcated only by lines (sometimes invisible). Hierarchical form can even be observed in the Japanese language (which is fluid and alive) – the nuances of which take much time and work to grasp as a foreigner. (Lecture 2/16) The discussion of mujō – impermanence – in class reminded me of what my mother says every time I tell her about some human tragedy. She would simply sigh and say something to the effect of such is life –無常 (wúcháng – in Mandarin) . On another note, the statement by Kitagawa that the native Japanese religious tradition is based on a nation-centered perspective as opposed to a universal one is interesting. (Kitagawa 52). I wonder how it plays into the theories of nihonjinron that would arise later in history and the navel-gazing that Japan is often criticized for in the international press.

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