Category Archives: Week 3: Failure, Success, and Leaving the World

Week 3 posts.

Is the house burning?

Waking up early Saturday morning to a snow-covered campus.

The morning stares
silently as the snow
falls onto the staircase.







The image of the material world as a burning house is a vivid one, but one that I’m not sure I totally agree with. As Kamo no Chōmei puts it: “So as we see our life is hard in this world. We and our houses fleeting, hollow. Many troubles flow from your status, social rank.” (Hojoki 54) I agree with the idea that material goods alone cannot bring people happiness and are hollow, but how about the other things that can bring us genuine joy – such our family and friends? Are those also manifestations of an “opulent building that will someday become nothing more than firewood”? (Inouye 45) Under the Buddhist view (as I understand it) even those things are not worth much because they too are impermanent. But does the impermanence of things really mean that they are worthless and not worth pursuing? I struggle with this idea. Can we really invalidate our past experiences of happiness from our human relations just because they are gone now? What would even be the purpose of a being that has no desire for anything? To do so seems to be a denial of what makes us human. On another note, I feel that there is a contradiction between the native Japanese appreciation for evanescence and the Buddhist perception of it – doesn’t impermanence contribute to the beauty of things rather than devaluing them?


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Maybe I should get out more.

by Mandy Xu

On Friday night, in the crescendo of the blizzard, I took a deep breath and trekked downhill to a party my team was throwing to celebrate a recent win.

Stark white bullet sleet plunging —
Struggling towards victory,
Feeling like defeat.

When asked in class on Wednesday, “How many of you feel like failures?”, I instinctively raised my hand. I was raised by parents who overcame incredible obstacles to be where they are. s a result, I’ve always felt like nothing I do is ever quite enough — I’m never really quite smart enough, or well-mannered enough, I’m never trying hard enough, there is always more I can do. Though my parents have never pressed unreachable goals upon me, I’ve always felt a certain invisible bar of expectations hovering somewhere above a height I can reach. I spend a lot of time trying to meet imagined expectations. In Chomei’s Hokoji, the author narrates the impermanence of everything and the struggle of people to maintain their position and their power (represented symbolically by their homes) from the natural flow of life (represented by the natural disasters that repeatedly strike). The resistance against the ebb and flow of success and failure is clearly futile. To cope with this, Chomei lets go of expectations — without a family or a wife to support (Chomei 60), he builds a small, simple house (Chomei 61). In this place, with “no one…to hinder [him], no one in whose eyes to feel ashamed” (Chomei 61), he becomes content. This demonstrated that the best way to live is in a way that makes oneself happy — working to fulfill other people’s needs or meet other people’s expectations is needlessly exhausting and ultimately achieves very little. In the Tale of the Heike, the story of the Taira’s fall from incredible power is outlined in excruciating detail, the story blanketed by the idea that their decline was inevitable because it is impossible to be successful, especially so successful, forever. In addition, the text reading concluded that if failure always follows success, then success must follow failure (Inouye 49). These concepts resonated deeply with me this week. If success follows failure and failure follows success, then we are trapped in an endless roller coaster of victory and defeat. I am terrified of failure and as a result, I am not courageous. I avoid doing things if I suspect I may not do them well. But if both success and failure are inevitable, then there is no reason not to push myself and try things that I cannot predict an outcome in. At the conclusion of this week, I feel like I may have stepped towards the door of my burning house.

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Houses and failure – Carlos Madeira

Was standing outside in the Carmichael parking lot with some friends on Sunday afternoon, admiring the piles of snow. Was temporarily blinded when the sun reflected its light off the snow.

Clear sky-

Snow reflecting

the sunlight


I really enjoyed the discussion of the burning house; a home is what the majority of people look for, in terms of stability and security. Yet the lectures of last week were all about how nothing is permanent, and how “the houses we work so hard to build…might be contributing to our unhappiness.” (Inouye, 43). This, I think, is a message that many people in our society need to hear. People who stop living now and bury themselves in ‘work’, to make money and live well later on. What they don’t realize is that later on might not arrive. Those who hold onto concepts such as “power”, “wealth”, will all have the same fate as Taira no Kiyomori, whose bones “survived only briefly before becoming one with the earth, indistinguishable from the sands on the beach” (Tale of the Heike, 212). Finally, we talked at length about success and failure, and how one always follows the other. It is easy to see failure as the end of the line, as the end of things; what is hard is to not to attribute a bad connotation to failure. Quoting Alan Watts, “Watch the flow of water when it crosses over an area of land, and you will see that it puts out fingers, and some of them stop, because they come into blind alleys. The water doesn’t pursue that course. It simply rises, and then it finds a way it can go, but it never uses any effort. It only uses weight, gravity. It takes the line of least resistance, and eventually finds a course.” We get too bogged down in our failures to realize that success means going down some other path, and not lamenting the path we took. I think that was one of the points of last week’s lectures that most resonated with me, because I feel it is important to realize that no one should be categorized by their successes of their failures; not to envy a person who is succeeding at something, and not judge one who is failing.


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The Samu-rise and Escaping that Burning House

by Ben deButts

Friday night with snow falling all around me, I lied with my back against the huge tree on the prez lawn and looked up to observe the web of branches, struck by their natural complexity.


Branches against a gray sky

weaved into a wooden web,

nature’s own puzzle.


This week we covered the transition from the Heian period into the rise of the samurai.  Of aristocratic roots, the samurai as a class were interesting because they existed to serve (saburau directly meaning “to serve”) and protect with fighting, while on the other hand displaying their roots with strict rules of conflict even utilizing poetry (Inouye, Lecture 2/4). To me, the fact that such a system could exist without a few abusers of these rules (attacking when your opponent is writing their battle poem for example) really testifies to the strength of these traditions. Within The Tale of Heike, a novel that covers this period of time, Kiyomori undoubtedly represents one of the central themes: nothing lasts and the higher you rise, the farther you fall. Achieving among the highest of positions, essentially ruler of Japan, it was only fate he would die a painful fiery death, “his flesh [rising] into the skies over the capital as a transitory plume of smoke” (Heike, 212). Equal to everyone else following death, Kiyomori was no more then any other piece of matter on earth– in this case a “plume of smoke”. While I agree with the transitory plume of smoke, I don’t agree with the idea of karma as the case may be. Those who rise higher (those that hit +12 go to -12) fall lower isn’t foolproof. I think the lines are pretty blurry between what constitutes a zero and a positive number. It seems in Hojoki, Visions of a Torn World, Kamo-no-Chomei’s small hut of only life’s necessities constitutes a “zero” by many standards. Yet, he had all the resources needed to live on and spend his time leisurely writing a lengthy novel—to me that sounds like a pretty positive existence. Perhaps the lack of pain is positive and pain itself is negative? Maybe I’m taking the number line too seriously, but I like it as a way of grasping a pretty abstract idea. The Buddhist’s would have me believe that so long as you are in the burning house of samsara you are negative, or certainly prepped to plummet to it (Inouye, Lecture 2/4). Could Kiyomori have been saved had he been told of the house?

In classic Japanese fashion, they seemed to shift the symbol of the house into the real with the expression shukke or leaving the house and starting anew (Inouye, Lecture 2/4). The aforementioned Kamo-no-Chomei particularly embodied this action when he left behind his life of relative affluence to live in a hut in the remote mountains near Kyoto (Hojoki, 14). As both a participant in and viewer of this transitory period in Japan, Chomei provides a very unique perspective. Witnessing tragedies ranging from earthquakes to plagues, Chomei develops what the book aptly names a “torn world”. Far off in seclusion, he ponders the uncontrollable chaos of this world, the “Sinful times!” as he cries out in exasperation at one point (Hojoki, 48). When all things must fail and life exists in a burning house, why bother pretending it isn’t? “We and our houses fleeting, hollow” (Hojoki, 54). Much like the foam on the river in the beginning of the novel, humans are just flashes of life in an incomprehensibly longer timeline (Hojoki, 31). I really like the comparison made here because of the play between the big and small picture–foam being the parts that make up the whole river just as humans (and their houses) are momentary slides of the whole earth’s slideshow.

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Alma Rominger


Having a long and hard day at work, on top of a week full of frustrations, emotions piled up and exploded as I left to walk home on Friday evening as the blizzard started; while I was feeling miserable, it felt so relieving to let it all out.


A winter’s storm.

Wind howling, snow whipping.

Tears’ warmth.

I feel that the main topic of this week’s readings and lectures has been detachment. The Buddhist believes that suffering is caused by our attachment and dependence to things that will inevitably disintegrate, leaving us unfulfilled (Inyoue 1/28). And so, to find peace, one must consciously renounce his attachments. The poet, Chomei, realizes this truth and implores his readers to not cling to the world of things, of houses, and social roles and obligations. He recounts all of the catastrophes that leave these things not only destroyed and useless, but as sources of unhappiness. Since “reality depends upon your mind alone”, material and social “possessions” are superfluous in attaining true happiness (Chomei p.75). Once again the theme of detachment is paramount in that the Japanese have long valued the truth that success does not last. This is emphasized in the Taira’s rise to and fall out of power as “the prosperous must decline[,] and the proud do not endure…” [Tale of Heike p.1]. Equally as true is that failure, too, does not last [Inyoue 2/4]. Thus, it is silly to immerse ourselves in our successes and failures. Instead, we must take a detached perspective; to enjoy our successes and mourn our failures but not define ourselves by them.


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Sarah Marakos

I was walking home from the gym Monday night while it was lightly snowing, and the snow on the street was glistening under the street lamps.

The street lamp

Makes every flake sparkle —

A glimpse of bliss in the bitter air.

This week in class we discussed the inevitability of failure in one’s life. Wherever there is success, it will be followed by failure. This sounded like a very negative outlook at first, but then if failure always follows success, then success must always follow failure (Inouye 49). This unavoidable cycle provides me with some hope; knowing that things will always get better when life seems to be at its worst. In Tale of the Heike, there is a large series of failures of the Heike because they simply cannot hold onto their success forever. This idea follows along with what we’ve been learning all semester— nothing lasts, everything is always changing.  In reading Kamo-no-Chomei’s story, he talks about how we are temporary and even our houses, which we think will be around forever, are temporary. It never occurred to me that I might go home one day and my house will no longer be there until hurricane Sandy destroyed many of my friends’ houses and they returned from college to flooding and wreckage. Kamo-no-Chomei is absolutely right in his description of impermanency of everything. He compares a person’s life with the lifetime duration of a bead of dew, “A house and its master are like the dew that gathers on the morning glory. Which will be the first to pass?” (Chomei 33). Because everything in life is fleeting, Kamo-no-Chomei suggests that people should stop spending their time doing things they don’t want to do just because they think it will get them what they want in the future- but what if there is no future for them past tomorrow?

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A House Might Crush You

By Julia Russell

I was sitting in my room on Friday evening when I realized how quiet everything was without cars no the roads.

Snow floats

into the street

in silence.

We continued our discussion of Buddhism this week, still emphasizing the importance of anitya, duhka, and anatman. It was noted that Buddhists try to convince you that your metaphorical house is on fire and help you escape the cycle of suffering (Lecture 2/4). I really enjoyed the simplistic Hōjōki, Kamo no Chōmei’s account of abandoning his political affairs and setting up countryside life. “Caught inside, a house might crush you,” he warns (Chōmei, 52), referring to his peers’ preoccupations with materialism and status. While I don’t think his book can be taken at face value anymore (in the sense of dropping everything and moving away to a hut in the sticks), I see it as a cautionary tale about living your life versus putting all your efforts into the representations of your life, only to have them crumble in an instant. Once again, the world is always changing, and it’s useless to hold onto those things that will not last. We also learned, through the Tale of the Heike, that what goes up must come down. Taira no Kiyomori’s ambitious abuse of his position gave him great power, but his death brought a “transitory plume of smoke” and the descent of his clan (Heike monogatari, 211-212). Success follows failure follows success, so the best way to avoid the ups and downs of life is to remain at zero. I fail to see the possibility of this stasis except to perform shukke, “leaving home” as Chōmei did (Inouye, 40). But personally, I’d rather experience the beautiful moments that stem from our successes and failures than run away and avoid them altogether; personally, I think the latter a bit of a cowardly choice.

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The Burning House

by Shawn Power

I was watching the snow fall on Friday evening when I realized how deserted the world looked.

Falling snow

Swirling wind

Seemingly an apocalypse

The component of this week’s discussion that I found the most interesting was the rise of the samurai.  Prior to speaking about it in class I had never really thought about where they had arisen from; I just thought of them as having been there.  The fact that they were essentially the unwanted sons of nobles came as a complete surprise (lecture 2/4).  The amount of time that they dominated from was also amazing.  When you think of a 700 year time period, it’s pretty absurd.  The idea of shukke was also very interesting to me.  I have often thought that if everything went wrong I could simply pack up, move to some island, and serve drinks at some bar.  This idea of shukke, or walking away, seems to coincide with that.  Shukke, however,  had more uses in Japanese culture than simply getting away.  It could be used to as a way to resign from office, or a way to continue working without as much pressure or influence (Inouye 40).  Shukke was not looked down upon in Japanese culture which insinuates that the Japanese were not against retreating or stepping down.  This is very different from other cultures I have studied, such as the Ancient Greeks, who viewed surrender as the ultimate shame.

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