BOOK REVIEW: Three Japanese Buddhist Monks by Saigyō, Chōmei, and Kenkō

Three Japanese Buddhist MonksThree Japanese Buddhist Monks by Saigyō
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This book collects three essays composed between the twelfth and fourteenth centuries. They are in chronological order, but also in order of increasing length, i.e. Saigyō’s piece is a short excerpt, while Kenkō’s essay makes up the bulk of the book.


An excerpt from Saigyō’s Senjūshō tells the story of the monk’s meeting with a wise reclusive meditator on Mt. Utsu. Saigyō tries to talk his way into living / meditating with the hermit, but the sage convinces him that that wouldn’t be good for either of them. The monk goes away, planning on visiting the hermit on his return, but he wistfully tells us that he took another route.


“The Ten-Foot Hut” is about the benefits of a simple, minimalist existence. It discusses Impermanence, and takes the view that having more just means one has more to lose. A quote that offers insight into the monk’s thoughts is, “If you live in a cramped city area, you cannot escape disaster when a fire springs up nearby. If you live in some remote place, commuting to and fro is filled with problems, and you are in constant danger from thieves.” The author’s solution? Build a tiny cabin in the woods and – in the unlikely event it burns or gets robbed while one is away – what has one really lost?


The Kenkō essay makes up about eighty percent of the book. Its rambling discussion of life’s impermanence delves into morality, aesthetics, and Buddhist psychology. There are many profound bits of wisdom in this piece. Though it’s also a bit of a mixed bag in that some of the advice feels relevant and insightful, while some of it hasn’t aged / traveled well.


I enjoyed this book and found it thought-provoking. Some may be disappointed by finding how little of Saigyō’s writing is included (he being the author of greatest renown,) but I found each author had something valuable to offer.


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Confluence [Free Verse]

with each breath
and each step
you feel yourself
merge with the world

pulling the outside in
pressing into the planet

each breath brings oxygen
used by Buddha or Socrates

grit granules that were 
part of mighty mountains
press into your flesh
or become your bones

the world flows through you
as you flow through the world

The Immovable [Free Verse]

The Immovable,
said to lasso evil
& 
vanquish it with
his flaming sword.

And I have so many
questions...

-can one vanquish evil?

-what material must a
sword blade be made of 
to fatally wound something 
so conceptual?

-why don't we see more
vanquishing these days?
[It seems to be an activity 
that's fallen out of favor.]

where can one obtain 
a conceptual blade 
to vanquish
a conceptual fault?

i conclude that it's
all made of mind.

The Traveler’s Worldview in 14 [More] Quotations

SEE PART I HERE
Though we travel the world over to find the beautiful, we must carry it with us, or we find it not.
- Ralph Waldo Emerson


Love all, trust a few, do wrong to none.
-William Shakespeare, All's Well That Ends Well


Life is like riding a bicycle. To keep your balance, you must keep moving. 
-Albert Einstein 


Some beautiful paths can't be discovered without getting lost.
-Erol Ozan


Live as if you were to die tomorrow. Learn as if you were to live for ever.
-Mahatma Gandhi


There are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle.
-Albert Einstein


The journey itself is my home.
-Matsuo Bashō


No matter where you are, you're always a bit on your own, always an outsider. 
-Banana Yoshimoto


There are no foreign lands. It is the traveler only who is foreign.
-Robert Louis Stevenson


One's destination is never a place, but a new way of seeing things.
-Henry Miller


I don't want to die without any scars.
-Chuck Palahniuk, Fight Club


Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?
-Mary Oliver


Do not chase after what is true, only cease to cherish opinions.
-unnamed Zen master


If any man be unhappy let him know that it is by reason of himself alone.
-Epictetus



BONUS QUOTATION:

Respect the Gods and Buddha, but don't expect their help.
-Miyamoto Musashi

Balance & the Value of Learning to Fall

I saw something sad in the park this morning. A boy was trying to learn to ride a bicycle, but I could see that he never would — not with his present approach. Why? He had one training wheel, and the bike was leaning about 15-degrees off vertical as he struggled to use the bicycle as a tricycle. I could see that the metal arm that supported the training wheel was starting to bend from the strain — thus making the lean ever more pronounced. [Incidentally, with two training wheels, I think he might rapidly learn to ride because he’d experience tipping from one side to the other, through the balance point.]

I’ve told yoga students before that there are three timelines for learning inversions (upside-down postures, which all require one’s body to learn to balance 180-degrees out of phase with the balance we all mastered as toddlers.) The first timeline is if you are willing to learn break-falls (i.e. how to safely land when — not if, it will happen — one loses balance.) If so, one can learn any inversion (that one is otherwise physically capable of performing) in an afternoon. Second, if one gets near (but not up against) a wall, and only uses the wall when one is falling towards over-rotation, then one can learn the inversion in a month — give or take. Finally, one can lean up against the wall for a million years and one will not spontaneously develop the capacity to independently do the posture. Why? Because one’s center of gravity is outside one’s body, which means one is in a perpetually unstable state, and one cannot stabilize into a balanced position from a state of falling (and leaning is just falling with a barrier in the way.)

Finding balance requires that the body be able to adjust toward any available direction to counteract the beginning of a fall in the opposite direction. I was fortunate to have studied a martial art that required learning break-falls from the outset, this made learning balances (not just inversions, but also arm balances, standing balances, etc.) much easier because there was no great concern about falling. I knew my body could fall without being injured.

Without falling there’s no learning balance, and if you only fall into the under-rotated position, you are still not learning to achieve stable balance. At some point, you will need to experience the dread fall towards over-rotation.

Time to ditch the training wheels.

Agents of Sanctification [Free Verse]

Some love attributing sacredness --
places beyond place,
times beyond time,
the infinite
&
the infinitesimal.

But anything elevated
to the sacred
becomes a thing 
for which
people will kill 
or 
die.

Often, people don't
make this reckoning 
until the dying 's done: 

-death for a sign
-death for a symbol
-death for a chunk of dead earth
-death for a vaguely evaluated idea

The agents of sanctification
will kill us all. 

That Last Lost Generation [Free Verse]

Only too eager to have the machine
installed in their brains,
they did what they could, 
and, instead, installed
their brains into the machine.

Data sparkled in the mind void,
bouncing about and careening 
into other bytes and clusters.

But the crash cascades always came,
a cannibalistic consumption 
of fact,
transmogrifying it into
a shabby soup of 
quasi-reality.

Brain-pans paining,
densely packed with
alternate realities
that could never 
be rectified.

By the time they realized
the virtue of going out 
to play,
they were no longer sure what
"outside" 
meant --
Outside of what?
Where's the exit?
Where is there something else?
-something simple?
How's one get off this speeding bus? 

It became the pain
that ruled that
last lost generation.

ESSAY: This I Believe [Including My Views on Unicorns]

Occasionally, I’m asked whether I BELIEVE some idea or BELIEVE in X [i.e. fill in the person, place, thing, or concept.]

If I were to answer these questions honestly, that answer would almost invariably be, “No.”

But, because that can seem overly contrarian — not to mention insane — I often try to guess the sense in which the questioner is using the words “BELIEVE” and “BELIEF,” and then answer accordingly.

Like many words, BELIEVE is one whose meaning meanders, and shadows fall across it in different ways, creating different hues [and impressions thereof,] depending upon one’s vantage point.

Often, people seem to use the phrase, “I BELIEVE X ” synonymously with “I understand X to be true.” “I BELIEVE it” can mean: I behave as though X is true, [but am not necessarily commenting on the degree to which X is supported by evidence or reason.] I, on the other hand, try to use BELIEVE in the sense of: “I accept the truth of X and behave accordingly, but I don’t really have any solid basis on which to rest this conclusion.” I like to draw as few such conclusions as possible, though sometimes it’s hard not to. For example, like most people, I live my life as if we are living in base reality — as opposed to being in some “Matrix”-like computer simulated world, but — if pressed — I’d have to admit that I can’t really support this belief convincingly.

If I were to be asked whether I BELIEVE there is a force that inexorably pulls me toward the Earth’s center, using my own interpretation of the word “BELIEVE,” I would reply in the negative. Before you ask how I can be so anti-gravity [pun not intended, but acknowledged,] let me say that I firmly understand there to be such a force as gravity. This is not to say that I fully understand the mechanism by which gravity works — which I certainly do not — but rather to say that I recognize the truth of such a force’s existence. I can experience gravity in my pathetic vertical leap, and even note it in the very impressive vertical leap of skilled athletes. I see it in the red leaf, twirling as it falls to the ground. I feel it upon takeoff as an airplane’s seat raises against my butt. Furthermore, I recognize that there are many scientists who’ve come to understand a great deal more about gravity than I, but also that none of what they’ve learned through their vast number of controlled observations contradicts my basic idea that I’m being pulled toward the planet (and it toward me.)

At the Jaipur Jantar Mantar, I was once asked whether I BELIEVED in astronomy and astrology? The questioner clearly thought this was a closed-ended, yes or no, question — as if the two fields dealt in identical content. Of course, from my perspective, it was a question similar to: “Do you BELIEVE in Zebras and Magical Unicorns?” — which is to say, not at all a straightforward and closed-ended yes or no question. [Incidentally, the reason I used the modifier “magical” is because I do “believe” in unicorns. I just call them “Indian Rhinoceroses” [Latin name: Rhinoceros Unicornis.]]

A Unicorn — i.e. the Indian Rhinoceros, or Rhinoceros Unicornis

The long and short of the matter is this: I strive to BELIEVE as little as I can, and to hold even those BELIEFs only so tightly that they might fall away in the face of learning. Otherwise, what’s learning for [or is it even possible?]

BOOK REVIEW: Baudrillard: A Graphic Guide by Chris Horrocks

Introducing Baudrillard: A Graphic GuideIntroducing Baudrillard: A Graphic Guide by Chris Horrocks
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Amazon.in page

 

Jean Baudrillard was a French Postmodernist philosopher who passed away in 2007. To those who aren’t navel-gazers of the philosophical variety, he is best known – if he is known at all – for having influenced the conception of the game-changing sci-fi movie, “The Matrix.” While I haven’t yet read “Simulacra and Simulation” – the book said to have inspired the Wachowskis, it seems that the influence of Baudrillard on the film’s world is that he provided abstract ideas that the film takes in a more literal sense. If this book represents his ideas well, Baudrillard didn’t claim that we are in a computer simulation run by an AI [or by anyone / anything else, e.g. an alien overlord] (that would be more in line with ideas presented by Swedish Philosopher, Nick Bostrom.) Baudrillard’s claim is that we are increasingly building and gathering around us a world of things that are — at their most fundamental level – signs and symbols. However, it’s also true that there are some quotes and concepts that make there way into “The Matrix,” probably most famously, “the desert of the real.”

A film [and its source novel] that might be said to more directly reflect Baudrillard’s ideas is “Fight Club.” Which isn’t to say that Baudrillard deals with issues of lost masculinity [he is, to many in academia, infuriatingly contrarian on gender related issues — proposing seduction as the source of feminine power to balance the masculine.] Instead, the ideas that play into “Fight Club” are that human beings have become – first and foremost – consumers, and second that people are striving for hyperreality — an existence that is more real than real. These core ideas: 1.) human as consumer, more so than producer; 2.) the world as a simulation; and 3.) the pursuit of hyperreality are book’s bedrock.

Built on that bedrock is a flow of topics. There are considerations of what Baudrillard’s ideas mean for art and entertainment. What is art? Is high art and low art a meaningful distinction? Baudrillard’s ideas are contrasted with various schools of thought that were active at the same time such as Marxism, psychoanalysis, and feminism. Of course, as a postmodernist, Baudrillard takes aim at the arrogance and absurdities of modernity, e.g. criticizing the prevailing notions about “primitivism.”

As the subtitle suggests, this book uses graphics. In the case of this book, they are mostly cartoon drawings, along with a few diagrams. Some of the cartoons repeat key text and definitions [like a text-box, but including whimsical cartoon images] and other depict debates between Baudrillard and his contemporaries.

I found this book was an informative outline of Baudrillard’s thinking. Baudrillard’s ideas are complicated, and thus conveying them clearly is a challenge, still I think that there were points at which the author could have favored clarity over scholarly precision in his discussions. If this were a philosophy text, that wouldn’t be valid criticism, but as this book is meant to be a basic introduction, I think it’s fair to say.

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To What Degree Can Yoga Be Whatever One Needs It to Be?

Chennakesava Temple, Somanathapura

 

To what degree can yoga practice be whatever one needs it to be?

 

If one is expecting the definitive answer to this question, one won’t find it here. While I’ll share my views, I’d love to get some comments, because shared wisdom may help myself and others to hone in on a more coherent answer.

 

There is a continuum of views on this question.  On one hand, there are people who have very rigid notions of what a yoga practice can (or should) consist of. “Everyday, one should do precisely x repetitions of Surya Namaskara (Sun Salutations), y repetitions of nadi shodhana (alternate nostril breathing), z repetitions …, and every full moon one should do…, and every six months one should do… shatkarma, etc.” In some circles, this rigidity may extend to what deity one worships, the nature of one’s personal philosophy, what one should eat, how one should dress, and how vigorous one’s practice should or shouldn’t be.

 

Near the rigid end of the spectrum are those who rail against drawing secular and / or culturally-neutral elements from yoga, and / or engaging in a revision of yogic culture. [Cultural revision, in this case, referring to a shift from the traditional culture which is Indo-centric to a more Westernized approach (e.g. this may be seen in different modes of teaching and / or in interaction between students and teachers.) I’m afraid this may remain unclear to anyone who hasn’t spent time in both: a. a traditional yoga ashram / shala; and b. a Western-style yoga studio. To those who have, it’s likely apparent that these two places each have a culture that may share elements (especially superficial one’s like symbology, etc.), but which aren’t identical.] The recent controversy generated by a paper by a Michigan State University professor, Shreena Gandhi, who suggested that Americans practicing yoga were engaging in a kind of white supremacy is a case in point.

 

I find myself rejecting the aforementioned extreme for a number of reasons. First, if yoga practice should be one thing, how come there are so many different “one things” that it should be? If one set was objectively superior, one would expect it to come to dominate, but we don’t see that. Secondly, it fails to acknowledge the wide variety of varied needs. There can even be logical inconsistencies embedded in these rigidities. For example, if one says that a practitioner should do 15 rounds of Surya Namaskara per day, and, also, that they shouldn’t increase the rapidity of breathing by much, then one is limiting the base of students. Some students simply can’t do 15 rounds in a session, while for others it’s an inadequate warm-up because it doesn’t tax their system in the slightest. Thirdly, while I’m not a Sanskrit scholar, from what I’ve been taught, the early writings don’t suggest the kind of doctrinaire approaches to yoga one sees today. One can see in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras a sparse and vague set of dictums that aren’t consistent with the idea that one needs to accept and embrace any and all of the trappings that have come along in the past few thousand years.

 

Now it might seem that I’m at the footloose and fancy free end of the spectrum. But  I’m afraid that I cringe too hard every time I see a story about “ice cream yoga.” (Or fill in the quote marks with whatever the mashup-du-jour consisting of an activity that some individual finds nifty, and, therefore, assumes will pair excellently with yoga.) At the far end of the spectrum are people who think one can engage in any activity (or set of activities) and label it yoga, and it is yoga. I don’t think I can quite get on that bandwagon either. While I don’t offer my support to the people who have very fixed and limited views of what yoga is, I can empathize with them at times. These include: 1. the person who has the Om symbol emblazoned over 80% of their wardrobe [or — more astoundingly — has it tattooed on his body] but who thinks it translates to “namaste,” “yoga,” or to any other mistranslation. 2. the practitioner who believes the ultimate question of the universe is which print of Lululemon captures her spirit animal, or, 3. the individual who thinks the sports bra and yoga pants she wears for practice seems like reasonable attire in which to visit a Hindu (or virtually  any other) temple.

“Om,” not “namaste” etc,

 

This leaves me somewhere in the middle on the issue. The single question I would ask to determine whether something is a yoga practice or not, is:

Is one working towards quelling the turbulence in one’s mind by dispassionately observing one’s body, breath, and / or mind?

 

This probably seems like an insane criteria because if one is doing the Gerbil Yoga version of setu bandasana (back bridge while devoting one’s attention to petting a rodent) then one isn’t actually doing yoga. However, if one is sitting at a bus stop watching the air go in and out of one’s nose and adjusting the pace of said flow, then one is doing yoga. Crazy, right? A back bridge is much more yoga-esque than sitting at a bus stop apparently doing nothing. Don’t even get me started on how one could be in a yoga studio doing a perfectly traditional yogasana like ardha chandrasana while your mind is in an internal monologue — i.e.  rant — about how miserable one is in the and how one can’t wait to hit the bar after class, and you’re not really doing yoga. On the other hand, one could be being screamed at by one’s boss in the office while watching the emotional turmoil bubble up, and one would be doing yoga. Crazy as it may sound, it’s the best I’ve been able to figure.

 

Let me know where you fall on the question.