Book Review: “Why the Japanese Are Beautiful” (日本人はなぜ美しいのか) by Kaori Shoji

nihon

Amazon book link: http://amzn.to/1yxEKjj 

Here’s a question: why is it that everyone else in the world gets to wax eloquent about the virtues of their home country, but the minute a Japanese does the same thing, we get lambasted for (A) being an ultra nationalist rightist Imperialist and/or (B) having a Prime Minister who would dare visit the Yasukuni Shrine, whoever that Prime Minister happens to be at the moment.* (Editor’s note: It would help if the Prime Minister visited a different shrine, as former LDP bigwig Koga proposes and Japan stopped denying war atrocities and retracting apologies. Obviously, there is a lot Japan has to be proud of but definitely not the war. Just sayin’)

That’s okay. We’re Japanese: the most self-effacing, self-deprecating, self-loathing people on the planet. Needless to say the stress-factor involved with all this can be so damaging as to send the entire nation spinning into a black hole of depression. That depression is the driving force of the bad economy (no wonder it’s taking forever to recover) and now that the failure of Abenomics is official…oh, forget it.

Gentle cough.

Let’s turn our minds to this book: “Why the Japanese Are Beautiful,” by Shunmyou Masuno (枡野 俊明) published earlier this year by Gentousha Shinsho (幻冬舎新書). Professional Zen gardener and one of the most influential Zen masters of our time, Masuno heads the Kenkouji Temple in Yokohama. For the past 6 years, he has written extensively on Zen and how to deploy it in our daily lives, but this is the first time he has linked Zen to the Japanese national identity. “We are beautiful,” Masuno writes, “because Zen resides at the very core of the Japanese existence.”

“Why the Japanese Are Beautiful” opens with a revealing (if self-congratulatory) episode about being commissioned by Mark Shuttleworth – the Cape Town wunderkind who founded investment company HBD and later flew to the International Space Station via Soyuz. Shuttleworth was building a botanical garden on the Isle of Man and was keen to put in a Zen garden. Masuno writes about how Shuttleworth picked him up in his private jet and flew with him to the Isle to start work on the garden. “When you stop to think about it,” writes Masuno, “many iconic IT billionaires are deeply influenced by Zen.”

Among them, Masuno cites Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, and Oracle’s Larry Ellison, who bought a villa on the grounds of Nanzenji in Kyoto. “There must be something about Zen that speaks to super successful people,” writes Masuno, and it’s probably true. Even on this archipelago, Nikkei Business magazine has consistently promoted Zen as a way of optimising work quality and achieving serenity. Zazen sessions have become a secret boom among young OLs and salarimen. Even Shinzo Abe goes to a temple in Yanaka, Tokyo once a month for Zazen and meditation.

Zen has its roots in India. It then crossed over to Chinese Buddhism before winding up in Japan. “Ours is the only Asian country that adopted the teaching with such earnestness, merging the country’s lifestyle to Zen philosophy,” writes Masuno. That merging, according to Masuno, is what makes the Japanese so distinctive and “beautiful.”

800px-Zen_Garden,_Nanzen-ji_Temple_(7005735830)_(3)

Zen actually resides in every facet of the Japanese mind,” writes Masuno, and the foremost example of that is seen in the way we work. “The dedication to craftsmanship and the reverence for precision and discipline is unparalleled.” He also points out the endearing peculiarities of the Japanese aesthetic, and how it revels in the flawed and incomplete. Evidence to that is seen in the imperfect, spontaneous energy of a Zen garden. Or how the Japanese refuse to throw out cracked bowls and plates, but will find a way to mend them with gold dust. Masuno writes, “Ruptures, cracks, creases and wrinkles — the Japanese will find beauty in these flaws because Zen is a philosophy that accepts and ultimately forgives everything.”

The book goes on to explain:
“Western aestheticism is about adding things. Its objective is to express and celebrate the self. Japanese aestheticism is about subtraction. The objective is to erase the self, in order to be at one with nature.”

No doubt about it – even a cursory reading will make you feel better about being Japanese, which is more than we can say about Asahi Shimbun. (Their goal seems to lie in crushing the Japanese spirit under the ghostly heel of a WWII military boot.) And Heaven knows we need this sort of boost; after all, no one else was going to stroke our egos if we didn’t do it ourselves.

Having said that, the book falls short of addressing the real and immediate problems among the Japanese today. Zen may be effective in achieving inner peace, but it’s not doing much to bridge the ever-widening generation and income gaps, the super-aging of a society where children are treated like rare and precious specimens or ruthlessly exploited, the deep and abiding discrimination against women, and so on.

The ills are still here, whether we’re beautiful or not. And on a bad day and standing in the Yamanote Line, I’m tempted to think the Japanese (including myself) are the saddest, least attractive people on the entire planet. Even if we were tapped into the beauty of a Zen garden, few of us have the time or inclination to sit on a rock to contemplate it.

Still, Masuno’s book is hugely inspiring, if only because it makes us realize the seeds of beauty are within. All we have to do is become aware of it, and from that moment something will have changed. It may be an inflection in the voice, or a change in the way one holds an umbrella, or yes – even the way one stands in the Yamanote line. Zen is the one method that beautifies the physique, as well as the way one perceives the world, free of charge.

So Mark Shuttleworth can keep his expensive Zen garden because the Japanese already have theirs – right in our own backyard. We only have to dig a little.

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 “There is a simple way to become buddha: When you refrain from unwholesome actions, are not attached to birth and death, and are compassionate toward all sentient beings, respectful to seniors and kind to juniors, not excluding or desiring anything, with no designing thoughts or worries, you will be called a buddha. Do not seek anything else.”

“A fool sees himself as another, but a wise man sees others as himself.”

“Treading along in this dreamlike, illusory realm,
Without looking for the traces I may have left;
A cuckoo’s song beckons me to return home;
Hearing this, I tilt my head to see
Who has told me to turn back;

But do not ask me where I am going,
As I travel in this limitless world,
Where every step I take is my home.”

― Dōgen, Zen master, founder of Soto Zen Buddhism

A Benediction For The Bereaved

January is a cold month. I have two friends, one of them close, who lost a parent last month. It made me think a little about the cycle of life and death.
Last February, a very unusual yakuza boss, known as the Buddha of the Underworld, who I sort of admired, passed away. On the 10th, it will be the one year anniversary of his death, and a time to cease mourning.
The process of grieving is a long one. Often we’re encouraged in modern society to “get over it.” Or take an anti-depressant.
So what is the proper way to deal with death?
I’ve found it’s to try and bring a little happiness to the living. It doesn’t mean we forget those who died; it just means we try and be a little kinder in their honor.
So here is an old benediction for those lost and for those who survived.
They’re not my words.
The Buddhist philosopher Shanti Devi said them many centuries ago.
Maybe, in times of tragedy, the best we can do is look after those who remain.
The benedictions below are also the vows of a Bosatsu 菩薩, a Buddha who postpones entering Nirvana to help the world. They are, at least in spirit, the vows of a Buddhist priest in Soto Zen.
I’m too much of an arrogant jerk to uphold them, but I keep them in mind now and then.
The sentiment may be maudlin, the wish is heartfelt.
May all beings everywhere
Plagued by sufferings of body and mind
Obtain an ocean of happiness and joy
By virtue of my merits.
May no living creature suffer,
Commit evil or ever fall ill.
May no one be afraid or belittled,
With a mind weighed down by depression.
May the blind see forms,
And the deaf hear sounds.
May those whose bodies are worn with toil
Be restored on finding repose.May the naked find clothing,
The hungry find food.
May the thirsty find water
And delicious drinks.May the poor find wealth,
Those weak with sorrow find joy.
May the forlorn find hope,
Constant happiness and prosperity.

May all who are ill or injured
Quickly be freed from their ailments.
Whatever diseases there are in the world,
May these never occur again.

May the frightened cease to be afraid
And those bound be freed.
May the powerless find power
And may people think of benefiting each other.

For as long as space endures
And as long as living beings remain,
Until then may I too abide
To dispel the misery of the world.

Buddha

 

Bamiyan, The Destroyed Buddha Images & Meditations on Art

This article was originally posted on 3quarksdaily and is reprinted with permission. 

Buddhism is a religion that teaches the truth of impermanence, yet should its greatest artwork be preserved or restored?
Buddhism is a religion that teaches the truth of impermanence, yet should its greatest artwork be preserved or restored?

by Leanne Ogasawara

There was recently mention in the media of a religious extremist in Egypt calling for the destruction of the pyramids. I first heard talk of this last summer– around the time that the shrines in Timbuktu were destroyed.

Holy hoax or not, I could not help but think of Bamiyan.

I can remember exactly where I was and what I was doing the moment I learned that the Taliban had blown up the Buddhist statues of Bamiyan.

Sitting in the backseat of a car in Los Angeles in 2001, we were stopped at a traffic light. The radio news mentioned it, but conversation in the car continued on– I don’t think anyone noticed or was really listening.

Despite the fact that they had been firing rockets at the statues for months, still it was a shock to hear that the statues had been completely destroyed– and that these 1400 year old statues no longer existed.

How could they actually have gone through with it? I thought.

Although their destruction came as a shock, in fact the two statues had been practically tortured to death after months of rocket fire, canon fire, machine gun volleys and weeks of dynamiting.

The Japanese had been working furiously behind the scenes when the Taliban first made their intentions known to the world. Working with UNESCO and several Islamic governments, even their concentrated efforts could not stop what was to be. Years later, my Japanese friends still bring it up.

 

Even a thousand years ago, the statues were famous in China and Japan. So important were they in ancient times that rather than taking the direct route straight to India, the venerable Chinese Buddhist monk Xuanzang walked an extra thousand miles or so just to see them during his famous 7th century journey to India.

Sally Hovey Wriggins in her book, The Silk Road with Xuanzang, describes the monk’s first sight of the famed statues:

Xuanzang’s caravan prevailed against blizzards, mountain gods, and robbers and finally approached Bamiyan, an oasis town in the center of a long valley separating the chain of the Hindu Kush from that of the Koh-i-baba range…The first sight of the Great Buddha must have made the weary travelers gasp.– Immense cliffs of a soft pastel color and behind them indigo peaks dusted with snow, rising to a height of 22,000 feet. They saw reddish cliffs in the cold, clear air; as they came closer, they could make out two gigantic statues of the Buddha standing in niches carved in the mountain. Closer still, they saw the two colossal figures were colored and glistening with ornaments; the smaller wore blue, the larger one red, and their faces and hands were gilded.

Once painted in ultramarine and carmine, the statues were as famous for their extravagant colors as they were for their size. It must have been a spectacular sight!

The ultramarine pigment used at Bamiyan was the same blue so adored by the Renaissance painters. The pigment is painstakingly derived from the lapis lazuli rocks mined from one place in northeast Afghanistan. The mines are located not far from Bamiyan; and from there, donkeys transported the expensive pigment in rough sacks over mountain ranges East into Central Asia and West to Venice and beyond.

DuccoIn Europe, the precious pigment was so valuable that it was worth more than its weight in gold, and the legendary painters of the Renaissance were often forced to wait till their patrons provided them the pigment before they could apply the heavenly blue to Mary’s robes –for ultramarine had become the color associated with the Virgin Mary by that time (For more, see my post: Sacre Bleu 瑠璃色).

Bamiyan was long famous for being a conduit between East and West. Located on the trade route between India and Persia, the art of the region has had a tremendous influence on the artistic traditions of both the East and the West. So when, for example, Ikuo Hirayama–Japan’s celebrated painter and Hiroshima survivor– visited Bamiyan in 1968, he said he was going there in order “to seek the origins of Japanese culture and follow the way Buddhism diffused.” For Bamiyan was at the very heart of things.

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But the Statues are gone. So, now what?

Part of Mary Beard’s Wonders of the World Series, I highly recommend The Buddhas of Bamiyan, by Llowelyn Morgan. In addition to the historical context, Morgan goes into some detail on the destructions of the statues and what he believes to be the Al-Qa’ida connection. It is very interesting–for according to Morgan, Afghani religious scholars, as well as a delegation of religious leaders from many Muslim states, were very clear in telling the Taliban leader, Mullah Omar, that the destruction of the statues could never be sanctioned or explained by Islam. The statues were no longer objects of worship–they were relics.The leader of the Taliban himself had made it clear he had no intention to do harm to the statues not months before. So this “change of heart,” says Morgan, can be traced back to Al-Qa’ida influence.

But what can be done now–at this point in time, now that the statues are gone?

In general, I favor the Japanese National Treasures system of protecting cultural properties within the context of the nation-state. By designating National Treasures and Important Cultural Properties, certain works of art become protected by law (and thus cannot ever be sold as their preservation is safeguarded by the various nation-states who lay claim to them).

Bamiyan, however, is unique in that the art works had such a profound influence both East and West to the extent that their significance utterly transcendends the current nation-state of Afghanistan. Like ancient Egyptian art, the art works are situated in a pre-Islamic culture that has little to do with the nation-state of that place today.

We are reminded by the experts not to forget that along with these Buddhas, 2000 sculptures in what was left of the Kabul Museum were also smashed. So much has been lost.

A German team was pushing for rebuilding the statues. Some think that if at least one of the statues can be pieced-back together again, they should be. It would cost something like $30 million to piece together the smaller one. UNESCO rejected this plan.

Paris-based Afghani archaeologist, Dr. Zemaryalai Tarzi has another plan. Instead of re-building what is lost, Dr. Tarzi would like to unearth a third statue (said to be 1,000 feet long), which if it exists at all, has not been recorded as having been seen by anyone other than Xuanzang over a thousand years ago! If it does exist, it would be the biggest Reclining Buddha statue on earth. The only problem is that no one has seen it in over a 1000 years. Dr. Tarzi, however, remains undaunted. “Let’s raise this new masterpiece from the earth and waive it in the face of the terrorists who destroyed our statues!” he says.

Another provocative idea was J. Otto Seibold’s 2002 New Yorker proposal. I can’t find an online reproduction of the image (here is a photo of a reproduction from Morgan’s book). Seibold had suggested that two huge Buddhas be erected in Manhattan and two miniature twin towers be created in the empty niches at Bamiyan–this perhaps illuminating the notion of “spectacle” that connected the destruction of both the twin statues and the towers? (“Dynamite and Celebrity” says Morgan about Al Qa’ida). The miniature Twin Towers would be used to house refugees, thereby silencing the complaints that everyone cares more about the statues than the human beings who are hungry and were living in their shadows.

And, finally there was one more idea concerning how to replace what was lost.

A Japanese artist, Hiro Yamagata, a few years ago set in motion a plan to “re-store” the statues through laser technology –beaming images of the statues onto a cliff using $9 million solar and wind enerated technology. The plan never received UNESCO approval.

I loved the idea myself since –in the end– the inherently ephemeral nature of a beam of light would bring home the idea that something precious and irreplaceable has been lost. And that there are some things that once gone can never be brought back again. Transience also being something appreciated by Buddism, I think it is both appropriate and poignant.

In fact, I can’t think of a better idea, can you?

 

The Town of Living Buddha Statues (仏像のまち) High School, Buddhist Iconography, Magic &Teen Love

仏像のまち(The Town Of Butsuzo) which began publishing this July is one of the more unusual comic (manga) to debut in the last year. It’s the story of Sorato, a high school student who’s deceased father was a sculptor of Buddhist images (仏師/busshi) and seems to have passed his unusual talent on to poor Sorato-kun. Sorato has the ability to communicate with the Buddhist deities and Bodhisattvas residing inside the statues. One evening as he is staying up late studying for a high school exam, he calls on the spirits for help–and faster than you can say “Holy Buddha”–Shakyamuni (the original buddha) himself shows up at his window to offer a helping hand. Unfortunately  for Sorat0, the Buddha turns out to be an awful tutor and a terrible distraction. One by one the local Buddhas began showing up at his house, intervening in his love life, his studies, and taking away his valuable examination cram time.

The Town of Butsuzo is primarily a four panel gag comic series but carefully and with lots of furigana (the reading of the kanji) teaches the reader about Buddhist iconography, metaphysics, the pantheon of Gods, ethics, and the discomforts of Japanese teenage life. The humor is relatively high-brow and  surreal.  Some of the best vignettes are ones like Sorato taking the Buddhist gods bowling or on  a disastrous trip to Don Quixote, everyone’s favorite sprawling discount store chain. The author manages to keep the story firmly grounded in the real world. The Buddha that gets the harshest treatment is Monju Bosatsu (文殊菩薩)–who is the embodiment of wisdom and thus the patron saint of all students going through examination hell. In the world of Sorato-kun, Monju is an arrogant straight A student (優等生/yutosei) who lords his infinite knowledge over everyone else. He steadfastly refuses to teach the hero anything.

文殊菩薩 (Monju Bosatsu) is the Buddhist embodiment of wisdom and the patron saint of Japanese teenagers hoping for divine aid in passing their exams. In the comic book, he turns out to be a very unfriendly private tutor.

In one scene Sorato is holding a math textbook in his hand and moans, “I just can’t figure out the problem!”. Monju pipes up, “Let me take a look at that.” He flips through the text nodding, and says, “Well, obviously X=2. I know how to solve this problem.” When grateful Sorato-kun cheerfully says, “Great–show me how to solve it!”–Monju tells him: “I’m simply telling you the simple fact that I know how to solve the problem. I never said I’d tell you how to do it. Now get the hell out of my way.”  He eventually does warm-up a little to Sorato, but not much. The fiery tempered 明王様 (Myo-ou) with his eight arms and penchant for smashing things offers good advice and great comic relief–especially where his multi-armed talents create havoc at a revolving sushi restaurant. To say that the comic was a masterpiece of magical realism or a great introduction to Japanese buddhism would be saying too much but the comic manages to find a nice place between being informational and entertaining.

The furigana (phonetic readings) attached to all the words in kanji and Buddhist terminology is great for learning obscure vocabulary words to trot out the next time you visit a temple or take visiting friends to see one. The author Aoki Masahiko, clearly has a good understanding of Buddhist mythology and manages to make some of the well-known spiritual figures into good comic foils for the main character. I think Myo-ou’s advice that “the burning power of love and lust should be harnessed for ultimate enlightenment” is worth meditating on–if you are a high school student that can talk to Buddhist statues.

 

仏像のまち (The Town Of Buddhist Statues) is a strange surreal comic book in which the son of a Buddhist statue sculptor is helped and haunted by the spirits and statues of Buddhist deities.