Category Archives: Week 2: From Hakanasa to Mujo

These are all posts from week two.


I was walking up Winthrop Street during a particularly warm day last week when I noticed a single snowbank on the sidewalk.

Sun shines—

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


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U to H to M

I did not have a poetic experience this week.



Week two of Japanese Culture had us discussing the ideas presented during week one, but in a more focused way. For instance, we touched again on the basic principles of Japanese religion and animism, (Lecture 2) making sure to note “nonsymbolic reading of symbols” (Class, 1/30). I believe the Professor said something along the lines of “if you don’t get this, you won’t get the entire semester.” So it’s pretty important. After that, we moved along to the history of Japan, and how it was shaped from Utsusemi to Hakanasa to Mujo. (Inoye, 26-27) And this transformation (both cultural and religious) was described in later pages, with an emphasis on Heian writing. (Inoye, 34-35) Finally, after the overview of time, place, and general concepts, we read some of the writing on our own. The writing in As I Crossed A Bridge of Dreams focused upon a woman’s exploration of herself and her religion through dream and poem(Bridge, 34, 63, 82). Of particular note is the overall trend of her writing that goes from expanative to evanescent as she grows older.(Bridge, 102+). I was shocked at how short the thing was. (34 chapters,  80 small pages) An entire life, and she only made this many journal entries?!


Ross Beighley

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Letting go of Self

As I left my house last Tuesday, I couldn’t help but smile from ear to ear—the air was no longer bitter and the birds were out!

Snow drip off branches

Birds roar—

The sun rises

Something that I’ve been recently really trying to grapple with, and has been brought up in class, is the notion that Self is an illusion.  Recent strides in cognitive sciences and computer science points to this notion more and more, yet it’s crazy to me that the Japanese have concluded this hundreds of years before without peering into such technologies!  The Buddhist term, anatman, refers to this concept of no-self (Inouye 31).  It is much easier to grasp that everything in our world is changing; we are constantly observing it, constantly reminded of it.   However, when it comes to ourselves, we like to think that something about us remains the same, a certain essence that is “lasting and can stand on its own” (Inouye 32).  The logic follows from anitya, the notion of impermanence, that since everything is changing, including our understanding of change, we too are changing and “conditional” (Lecture 1/28, Inouye 31).  Buddhism’s Vimalakirti Sutra explains the physical body, and therefore also “self” as, “It has no individuality as the fire has none. It has no durability as the wind has none. It has no personality as the water has none “(Tsunoda, de Bary, Keene 103).  What troubles me about this is that when there is lack of Self, there is also lack of Other.  If everything is one and the same, how is it that I feel relatively distinct from this table, or my computer? Or a relative sense of permanence since it seems from day to day, others recognize me as Nikita.  It makes sense, though, why accepting the idea of anatman is beneficial—from it arises “an acceptance of the mutability of all things” (Inouye 32).  Not only are we affected by our environment, but also are the environment—everything is one and the same—“neither master nor Man dominates the other” (Inouye 34).  Then people would not go to war with one another, since it would harming an extension of self, which is other, which is everything.  People would be humbled, not only by other people, but by everything surrounding us—the trees, the wind, the sun. There is something peaceful about being boundless, but also leads to me having an existential crisis.  Alas, I guess it’s something “I” will have to work on throughout this semester to achieve.


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By Min Zhong
On a starless winter night, I was on my way to Sophia Golden Hall.

On a quiet winter night,
A half moon,
Lit up a starless sky

In this week’s class, I have a new understanding of evanesces and forms with respect to time and space. In the literature of “As I Crossed a Bridge of Dreams”, dream and life are interchangeable. While dream is “a metaphor for the illusory nature of human experience” (12), dream is a break from reality. This interchangeability reflects a passive living experience. As dream, life is uncontrollable. People leave and die and all happy moment can be gone at any moment. In page 106, Lady Sarashina describes her husband’s death as “he fades away like a dream”. Through the change in time, space and physical existences, feelings and memories are the only things that left behind. As everything is evanescent, sadness can be sensed from beauty and beauty can be enhanced through sorrow. As described in page 49, cherry blossoms cheers Lady Sarashina up, but the anticipation of their falling makes her grieved. Due to their nature of evanescence, beautiful things and wonderful moment become much more memorable.

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Winter and Dreaming

I was walking across the Res Quad on my way back from a late class when I noticed the serenity of the lawn as the night set in.

As the sun sets over Medford

the winter chill pierces my lungs—

A trash bag blows by.

This week in class we looked at the influence of Buddhism on the budding Japanese culture. The cicada shell that came to represent the evanescence and form of our reality has been replaced by the more formal Buddhist teachings. Anitya, “this Buddhist notion of impermanence” (Inouye 31), appeals to the Japanese sense of hakanasa. As hakanasa gradually transforms into the more formalized Buddhism-inspired notion of mujo, we look to the writing of the time as a guide. “As I Crossed the Bridge of Dreams,” written by a nameless woman in the Heian court, emphasizes romance and dreams in Japanese reality of mujo. Dreaming frees us, yet it also can trap us in the comfort it provides. Dreams are insubstantial and, like the Buddhist concept of anitya, are constantly changing (Lecture 3). The writer, living a sheltered aristocratic life, turns to dreams to entertain herself, living her life through the Tales she reads. As Inouye points out, “it becomes difficult to choose (or even distinguish) between a dreamlike reality and a dream” (29). Whether it is healthy to live in surreal dreams of love and romance instead of facing a reality of uneventful dullness in the courts of Heian remains to be seen. Personally, I don’t know if I agree with the idea of dreaming as a way of life. Living in a dream seems like setting yourself up for a rude awakening when reality hits home.


Griffin Quasebarth

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Is it Spring? by Ge Cui

I was walking back to Haskell Hall towards the back door last Wednesday when I saw green grass instead of the white snow I was used to.


Sunlight on the lawn,

from the bottom of my feet,

to my chilling heart.


In this week’s lecture, we first talked about the role of Buddhism in Japanese history. Buddhism passes the spirit on both “text” form and the visual form, each can use sutras and statuaries as examples. But in Japan, people understand Buddhism more from visual. Besides the true faith that people seek in it, a religion that can be prevail in a certain area must meet the demands of the people, physically and mentally. So did Buddhism. The first fundamental notion of Buddhist is “Anitya” – all things are changing, nothing is permanent(Lecture 2). This reminds of the early Japanese geographic conditions that mentioned in Professor Inouye’s book: earthquake and tsunami happened randomly, volcanoes could bury a whole city in few seconds. The nature, the habitats, and the world of Japanese people are always changing. The second notion is “Duhkha” – life is suffering(Lecture 2). I remember in “Journey to the West” (Saiyuki) the monk from Tang Dynasty had to suffer 81 times to obtain the real sutras from India. No one can live a life without single suffering. When we compare this to our real lives, we start to understand it and accept it and stop complaining about lives. The third notion of Buddhist is “Anatman” – there is no such a thing as the self(Lecture 2). This is the highest level in Buddhism is you can really achieve it. No self means no subjective feelings or personal emotions. Without human’s desire and lust, real Buddhist asks for nothing and doesn’t feel sad for anything: you know you are suffering, but you can avoid the pain. However, as I human being, I appreciate the different emotions we have. Both tears and laughs are proofs of me living a real life. Well, Buddhism did play an important role in ancient Japan, its still deeply inside Japanese people’s daily lives. However, Japan nowadays has a unique culture of its own, many special “forms”, not liking anywhere else at all. In the lecture, Professor Inouye said that the Japanese culture is somehow a religion but Japanese people never feel so because the religion is just too deep in people’s hearts that no one notice its existence. But in my opinion, I consider it more likely as tradition than as religion. They are precious habits protected and passed on by one and one generation of Japanese people. They only belong to Japanese people and only fit Japanese people. It’s no like Buddhism has stone figures and temples all over the world. Only Japanese people wear kimono and only Japanese people keep their secret with shimenawa. On Wednesday’s class, we also talked about the reading material: As I Crossed the Bridge of Dreams. Some classmates argued that Lady Sarashina was a lazy dreamer who live a passive life. I’d agree with it if Lady Sarashina lives in the same era with us. And the fact is that she’s from Heian Period, thousand years ago when feudalism was still a cage for everyone, especially females. She couldn’t do whatever she could. People says that dream shows people’s desire. She wanted some lives she could never have, so she dreamed about them. Connecting to the Buddhist notions we talked before, life is always changing and suffering. We all try to figure out what’s gonna happen to us, so we dream. When I was a little kids, every night before I fell sleep, I thought about what should I do if there was suddenly a fire, a robbery, or a stealing in my house: where should I hide or escape; what are the necessary things I need to bring with me; how should I notice my parents about the dangers; and how should I ask for help. It was all about “I don’t wanna die”. Now it looks hilarious to me, but I know I was serious. This is how I understand Lady Sarashina, we know that life’s always changing, and we know that we are both out of control of our life and death.

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My little naked tree… among other things.

By Laura Sabia

As I was walking home from Davis Square in the early afternoon, I looked up to notice the bare branches of a tree a few feet in front of me.


Beneath the sloping tree

Snow falls on my head.

This week we saw the ephemeral cicada-husk world transform in name and meaning from hakanasa or hakanai (a term that expresses a changing reality and the inability to make progress) (Inouye 26) to mujō (the Buddhist notion that “all things are impermanent.” (Inouye 31) We have learned that the evolution of the idea of evanescence and its doubling in importance as one of Japan’s cultural values (Inouye 31) is largely thanks to the introduction and influence of Buddhism. I was particularly fascinated with the interconnectedness of Buddhism’s three fundamental markers of existence (lecture 1/28): anitya (the idea that the “phenomenal world and our perceptions of it are constantly changing” (Inouye 31)), duhka (the concept that life is suffering insofar as we are in pursuit of mutable things), and anatman (there is no transcendent self as we are “part of this world” (Inouye 32) and therefore subject to its changeability. Although I find the proposition that “pondering anitya heals duhka” (Inouye 31) a bit idealistic and somewhat ‘unrealistic,’ I do agree with the opinion that many of us are in pursuit of material, changing things and that this strands us in a superficial and physical mind and body that is, according to Buddhism’s Vimalakirti Sutra, “transient and sure to die.” (Tsunoda, de Bary, Keene 103) Even the closest of human relationships (yo no naka)- romance are hakanai (changeable and fleeting). (Inouye 26) The concept of persistent longing (koi) for proximity to our loved ones as an evanescent presence in this kind of personal relationship (Inouye 27) is the idea that intrigues me the most this week. Our study of As I Crossed A Bridge of Dreams really helped to illustrate this idea for me, especially in the narrator’s correspondence with her father who writes to her saying, “I came to a large plain…there was also a thick forest. ‘What a pretty sight,’ I thought, and then immediately regretted that I could not show it to you.” (Sarashina 68) This desire for shared space prompts a kind of hopeful dreaming: a concept that is central to the Japanese response to evanescence as it helps us “question the realness of the real,” (Inouye 29) and thereby come to awareness of the illusory nature of empty, mutable things. 

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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.

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Living Music

Alma Rominger 

I was walking through a neighborhood close to Teele Square during the mid-morning on Friday when I walked by a house with a large wind-chime and I paused to listen and appreciate.


The leaves dance

to the wind’s song.

The sun upon my face.


This week we focused on the three main tenets of Buddhism, Anitya, Duhka, and Anatman; Of all three I found the concept of Anatman the most difficult to understand, but also the most alluring. Anitya is a Buddhist term for Evanescence, but with emphasis not only on the impermanence of the external world but also of our own perceptions (Inouye p.31). I feel like I understood this concept within the first class. Duhka is the suffering that we experience due to Anitya and to our tendency to rely on and attach ourselves to that which is impermanent, be it our lovers, our egos, or our bodies (Inouye 1/28). This is a Buddhist concept that I am much familiar with and prescribe to (and I must say, practicing healthy detachment has freed me in many ways). Finally Anatman expresses the Buddhist truth of “no-self”. Bear with me on this one… I am so interconnected with all that is, that my solitary Self couldn’t exist without the existence of another (a multitude of things, events, people, etc.). This interconnectedness binds the self with the other, disintegrating my singularity or separateness. In other words, if self is defined by other, that is, self is other, then the self (which is traditionally defined as the not-other) does not exist. What a trip!! One of Aldous Huxley’s characters in his book The Island seemed to recognize this truth as he would only refer to himself in quotations. It shakes me to hear that self does not exist, in fact its seems contrary to my very perception of reality. Even now my language is infused with reference to a self. But at the same time, I understand no-self as I have experienced moments where my particularity vanishes and I merge with another. Oneness. So how can these two experiences, of self and of no-self, exist together? Well neither could exist without the other. That is the nature of dichotomy and the nature of language. I think there is a higher question. Can I live in my self and in the oneness simultaneously?

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Week 2

Waiting in the aftermath of my first and last Winter Bash and losing faith in humanity.

Huddled bodies
hoping to get home
embracing but not in love
like tightly packed snow

Evanescence is still the focus of class, and it looks like that will not be changing soon, ironically. The progression from utsusemi, hakanasa, to mujo is correlated to relatability, for me. Perhaps I am a Buddhist at heart – “the complications of human affairs are illuminated by a Buddhist moon”! (Inouye, 30) The Buddhist notion of shogyo mujo, that all things are impermanent, has already affected the way in which I approach opportunities. I’ve found myself accepting opportunities that I would have otherwise passed up. My appreciation for the religion is reinforced by its minimal institutionalization. As I mentioned in class, the more formal, rigid, and symbolic a religion, the less appealing religion is to me. The attraction of japanese spirituality is its inherent fluidity with life. Reading As I Crossed the Bridge of Dreams was a fantastic experience. The spiritual fluidity goes hand in hand with the fluid transitions between the scene-setting prose and the poetry. I have even started talking to my friends about “the sadness of the world and other such matters.” (As I Cross A Bridge of Dreams, 83) I can not tell if they enjoy my questions. As a follow-up to my post last week, I have yet to “firmly plant the threat of death in [my] mind” but I am making progress! (Inouye 37) I am sick of this snow. I long for “The hazy springtime moon – That is the one I love.” (As I Cross A Bridge of Dreams, 8


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