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

BOOK REVIEW: Gorgias by Plato

GorgiasGorgias by Plato
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Project Gutenberg

This Socratic dialogue explores what rhetoric is, and whether rhetorician is a real job, like plumber or secretary, or whether it’s more like “bottled water sommelier” or “social media influencer” – i.e. an undertaking by which one can make loads of money without contributing society one iota. It starts out (as usual) with Socrates questioning someone, in this case the rhetorician Gorgias. This exchange can be summed up by the ideas that: 1.) rhetoric is persuasion; 2.) the ignorant are more persuasive to the ignorant than are those with knowledge. [Gorgias boasts that he has been able to convince patients to take actions that their physicians couldn’t. Because Gorgias had to admit he didn’t know as much about facilitating health as a physician, he was forced to agree to the sad absurdity that people will often comply with slick talkers who know nothing (a plight which may prove to be the downfall of our species.)] There’s a fine epistemological discussion of the difference between belief and knowledge that is used by Socrates to show that rhetoricians aren’t concerned with knowledge so much as beliefs.

Then Polus and Callicles (young rhetoricians) take up the questioning role, turning the tables and asking Socrates what is the art of rhetoric. [And we know they’re not going to like the answer.] Socrates denies rhetoric is an art, and calls it the counterfeit part of politics. Socrates compares rhetoric to cookery, where cooks pretend to be experts in what food should be eaten but, while people often love the cook’s meals, it’s the physician who actually knows what food is best. Socrates doesn’t consider rhetoric an art because it isn’t rooted in knowledge or virtue, but rather in momentary preferences. Much of the argument hinges on the fact that the young men believe it is worse to suffer injustice than to do injustice and that being able to exert control (be it for good or ill) equates to power and happiness. Socrates accepts neither premise, and systematically refutes both. Callicles’ tack is along lines of natural justice — the strongest do as they please and pursuit of pleasure is noble. [The truth is that while Socrates may have the more sound and supportable position, the rhetoricians describe the way the world operates more accurately.]

This is a sharp and insightful dialogue, and given its surprising relevance to the present day, I’d highly recommend reading it.

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BOOK REVIEW: Alcibiades I & II by Plato

Alcibiades I and IIAlcibiades I and II by Plato
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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While these two dialogues feature Socrates questioning Alcibiades (a youth – apropos of nothing – for whom the philosopher has the hots,) they’re different. While it’s not certain that either was written by Plato, it’s much more widely accepted that the first dialogue was so authored. I found the first part to be the more engaging read.

In Part I, Socrates urges Alcibiades to put off going into politics (as the young man is about to do) until he’s more enlightened on the subject at hand – i.e. justice, expediency, and virtue as it pertains to matters of war and peace. In the second part, Socrates convinces Alcibiades that the subject of prayers should not be taken lightly, leading the young man to delay his sacrifice and prayer to a time he can be wiser about it.

The first part is more piquant. In it, Alcibiades on occasion seems to be holding his own (rather than being a talking head.) A great example of this can be seen after Socrates makes clear that Alcibiades’ education in language, the lyre, and wrestling hardly qualify him to advise Athens on matters of war and peace. Alcibiades turns the tables and asks whether it isn’t possible that he could attain the requisite knowledge of justice other than through formal education. Socrates admits that he could by discovery, but just when Alcibiades thinks he has the point, Socrates argues that the only way Alcibiades could make a discovery was if there was a time that the youth didn’t think he already knew. Socrates goes on to show that – even as a child – Alcibiades labored under the impression that he knew what was just.

The most interesting topic of the second dialogue is the question of whether lack of wisdom and madness are the same thing. In Phaedrus, Socrates explores several varieties of divine madness, and I wondered how closely this dialogue might echo that one. (It doesn’t because it’s more about madness that’s not so divine, but Socrates does refute Alcibiades’ equation of the two concepts.)

Definitely read First Alcibiades, and if you have time, the second one makes some intriguing points as well.

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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

BOOK REVIEW: Charmides by Plato

CharmidesCharmides by Plato
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Temperance is the subject of this Socratic dialogue, debated with Charmides and Critias. The opening may feel a bit icky as it’s essentially a few old men obsessing over beautiful youths (of which Charmides is one) in a way that may not explicitly be lecherous, but kind of feels that way. However, they soon get into systematic reflections of the nature of temperance. Charmides is said to have this quality in droves, but, of course, that begs the question of just what it is.

It’s worth noting, they aren’t using “temperance” in the way the English word is typically defined, i.e. the quality of knowing to what degree one should participate in varied activities, if at all. At least, they don’t get to that definition within the dialogue, but – in point of fact – they don’t arrive at any definition. However, they seem to equate “temperance” with “wisdom.” They do try out a series of alternate definitions, which Socrates systematically disassembles, including: temperance as quietness, as modesty, as “doing one’s own business,” as a science of itself and of the absence of science, and as the science of recognizing good and evil. The first couple of these are summarily dismissed, the latter ones take more effort and elaboration to tease out, but ultimately don’t produce a definition that’s both agreeable and useful.

In the process there is a discussion of epistemology as it pertains to what one can know, and whether one can have any clear understanding of one’s “known unknowns” and how they compare to the “unknown unknowns.” The relevance is rooted in a discussion of whether temperance is the ability to know what one knows and what one doesn’t.

This isn’t one of the best Socratic dialogues, but it does provide food for thought.

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BOOK REVIEW: Protagoras by Plato

Protagoras AnnotatedProtagoras Annotated by Aristocles Plato
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Hippocrates woke Socrates to announce that the famous sophist, Protagoras, is in town. Hippocrates hopes Socrates will make introductions and recommend him as a student to the sophist. The two head off to meet with Protagoras who is at the home of a wealthy Athenian, along with an assembly of wisdom-seekers. Along the way, Socrates questions Hippocrates as to whether the young man actually knows what a sophist is and what such a person teaches. (i.e. A painter would teach one to paint, but what does one get for one’s money paid to a Sophist?)

This is one of the more popular early Socratic dialogues of Plato, perhaps because it’s not so one-sided as many others — Protagoras holds his own more than most. In fact, when the discussion begins with the question of whether virtue is teachable, Socrates comes away convinced by Protagoras’ arguments that it is. (Though it’s also possible Socrates is just agreeable to fast-forward to the question that he’s interested in – i.e. the nature of virtue.) Protagoras offers a mythology-based explanation for the teachability of virtue and then preempts counterarguments such as good parents raising despicable children (and vice versa) via reasoning.

However, then Socrates takes the debate to his wheelhouse – the questions of what virtue is, is it one thing or many, and – if many – can one be both virtuous and non-virtuous through a mix of different traits? Protagoras says that there are distinct parts to virtue (e.g. courage, temperance, wisdom, etc.) Socrates then inquires about the nature of these parts. Are they parts like the various parts of the face (i.e. distinct of both form and function?) Or are they like a series of gold pieces (different in size and shape, but materially identical?) Protagoras claims they are more like the former (i.e. parts of the face / substantially different.) Socrates uses this to work Protagoras into a corner, seemingly advocating that each of the aspects of virtue is substantially distinct, but also that they can be so intermingled as to be indistinct.

For some reason, Protagoras doesn’t challenge the false dichotomization on which Socrates’ arguments are based. (Consider the distinction between the nose and the mouth. If the question is about getting food into the body, these are completely different. If the question is getting air in and out, they are veritable twins.) It’s possible that Protagoras doesn’t challenge these false dichotomies because he has an interest in maintaining them for his own purposes, but by that point it’s also possible that he is just seeing red. Protagoras gets miffed, and even more so when Socrates tries to insist that the sophist give up the mode of argument with which Protagoras is most persuasive (i.e. stories and extended / elaborate explanations.) Socrates wants to keep his sparring in the kind of fast-paced Q&A slug-fest at which Socrates excels. The dialogue ends with Protagoras questioning Socrates, an endeavor for which Socrates seems to score a point (though the abrupt cut leaves some ambiguity – like the spinning top at the end of “Inception”)

This is definitely a must-read among early Socratic dialogues.

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BOOK REVIEW: Musashi’s Dokkodo ed. Lawrence Kane & Kris Wilder

Musashi's Dokkodo (The Way of Walking Alone): Half Crazy, Half Genius-Finding Modern Meaning in the Sword Saint's Last WordsMusashi’s Dokkodo (The Way of Walking Alone): Half Crazy, Half Genius-Finding Modern Meaning in the Sword Saint’s Last Words by Miyamoto Musashi
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

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“The Dokkōdō” consists of 21 precepts written by Miyamoto Musashi in his last days. Musashi was solitary, a minimalist, and single-mindedly resolute as a swordsman – all to extremes few of us can fathom. [Imagine a cross between Diogenes and Muhammad Ali.] These twenty-one sentences barely fill a page, let alone a book. However, as with sutras of yoga and Buddhism, a book’s worth of material comes from elaboration and analysis. This approach is taken in this book by way of five commenters from different walks of life, though all with martial arts experience.

However, normally the explanations would be made by: a.) someone who understands the language (particularly the archaic form the author wrote in – i.e. Musashi’s lifespan overlapped with Shakespeare’s, so consider the changes in the English language that transpired,) or b.) someone with a depth of understanding of the worldview of the author (in this case, that would be someone immersed in a mélange of Buddhism, Confucianism, Taoism, the Chinese classics, and the influence of life in the wake of centuries of feudalism and militancy on a person’s psychology.) This isn’t the approach taken in this book. While the five commenters are clearly well-read and intelligent individuals, they are also firmly ensconced in a worldview that is Western, Abrahamic, and materialistic. [I suspect this was the editors’ intention – to relate to the lives of the likely readership, but it does have stark implications for how the book is perceived.]

If one is looking for a book that will explore what – if anything – from the legendary swordsman’s deathbed lesson aligns with a Western / Abrahamic / American-suburban strip mall dojo lifestyle, this is your book — 5-stars – buy it immediately. However, if one approaches the book from the assumption that Musashi was an exceptional person who must have had valuable insight into how to be exceptional, then one is likely to find this book presumptuous and dismissive of Eastern values and philosophies.

Much of the book is the commenters dismissing Musashi’s ideas as wrong-headed. In some cases, this is because Musashi was such an extremist that few could hope to live a life like his. [It’s not “the way of going alone” for no reason. Though that’s arguably why we are still interested in what Musashi has to say 400 years after his death.] However, in many cases, the commenters seem to be talking past Musashi’s ideas because their assumptions are inconsistent with the swordsman’s cultural milieu.

This is most often seen with respect to a fundamental difference between Eastern and Western psychology. In Buddhism, there are purely mental constructs that have no reality except within the mind, and which can cause suffering with no material upside. For example, in precept #6 when Musashi argues against regret, some of the resulting commentary was as if the precept was “Don’t learn from your mistakes. Never change.” For a Buddhist, not holding onto regrets does not at all mean that one doesn’t learn or make corrections – mid-course or otherwise. It just means that there is this cancerous mental construct that can’t help one because the past is the past, and so it is jettisoned. Another example involves not having preferences, which – again – doesn’t mean that one won’t make a choice (if the situation allows one a choice.) It means not holding onto a mental attachment. [e.g. If I like coffee more than tea, and a choice presents itself, I order coffee. What I don’t do is let my mind obsess about not being offered a choice.]

There are some beautiful insights peppered throughout this book, some that appear to be in line with Musashi’s thinking and others that I suspect the swordsman wouldn’t recognize as related to his own words. However, there is also a lot of commentary that sounds like college students railing against how bad Shakespeare is, in part because they are missing much of the Bard’s nuance and in part because his works seem unrelatable to their experience.

My recommendation of this book would be contingent upon where you fall on dichotomy that I mention in paragraph three. You might love it, or you might loath it.

P.S. If you’d like to know what differences can result from translation, you can find a scholarly translation that is done by a Japanese linguist (Terou Machida) and published in the Bulletin of Nippon Sport Sci. Univ. right here. You’ll note that most of the precepts are (for-all-intents-and-purposes) the same, except the conversion from first to third person. However, you will notice that several precepts (10-12, 15, and 20) are substantially different, and one (#16) is arguably of the exact opposite meaning.

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BOOK REVIEW: Lysis by Plato

LysisLysis by Plato
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This early Socratic dialogue addresses friendship and love — philia to the Greeks. In it, Socrates questions Lysis and Menexenus (two young friends) on the basis of friendship, whether it can be unrequited, and whether like or different individuals are better matched. The interrogation of Lysis illuminates Socrates view of the basis of friendship, wisdom. He questions Lysis about those things the boy’s parents won’t allow him to do, and those things for which they’d seek him out, ultimately suggesting that one’s wisdom is what attracts others to one, as friend or otherwise.

Later, Socrates questions Menexenus about whether the good befriend the good or are better suited to befriend the neutral individual. [The presumption that the bad are friends to no one takes them out all equations.] Socrates, with Menexenus’ consent, briefly concludes that friendships develop best between good and neutral individuals, but the dialogue ends with Socrates being skeptical of his own conclusion – perhaps feeling the weight of problems that a listener might contemplate (e.g. the idea that there are good, bad, and neutral people – rather than all of us being a melting pot of good, bad, and ugly.)

It’s not dissatisfying that the dialogue ends without an answer. Its value lies in triggering readers to contemplate the question. For my part, I considered the poor analogy between how people view relationships between doctor and patient, versus between friend and friend. The doctor isn’t put off by a patient seeking a practical benefit from them (improved health,) but many a friendship has died from one side seeking personal gains. [And yet, I still draw no conclusion because clearly there is some benefit each half of a friendship perceives, if not one as coldly rational a Socrates describes.)

This dialogue is worth a read to trigger contemplation of friendship.

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BOOK REVIEW: Phaedrus by Plato

PhaedrusPhaedrus by Plato
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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“Phaedrus” is one of the middle Socratic dialogues of Plato (experts propose that the middle dialogues increasingly contain Plato’s own ideas [versus those of Socrates, himself.]) The subject of the dialogue is love and whether it is worth pursuing. Phaedrus has a speech by Lysias that he’s is quite excited about, one which claims that it’s better to have a “platonic” relationship than a loving one. As Phaedrus and Socrates walk, they debate about the speech. Phaedrus presses Socrates to deliver his own speech on the subject. Socrates delivers two; the first aligns with Lysias’ view and the second takes the opposing side.

Socrates concludes that, while love is a form of madness, it’s not the madness of human infirmity. Instead, it’s a form of divine madness, and – as such – should not be poo-poo’d too quickly. Socrates proposes that there are four varieties of divine madness (theia mania): prophetic, ritual, poetic, and erotic, and – of these – the latter is best and (again) shouldn’t be dismissed lightly.

After Socrates’ second speech and conversation that summarizes and clarifies it, the philosopher discusses how one can be led astray by elegantly formulated words, and how a philosopher should evaluate what is said to determine whether the speaker is wise or whether he (or she) just sounds sage by virtue of his (/her) poeticism.

While this dialogue can be a bit ethereal and mystic for my taste, it has some fascinating things to say. While I don’t necessarily believe in the “divine” part of divine madness, I do see that there are some people who are able to become unyoked from custom and convention, and to do so in a way that is not anxiety-riddled. I think this is a useful state to understand, and this dialogue is an excellent place to start.

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