Wednesday, April 24, 2002

Grandmother's Writing Tablets

I've come to the Seicho-No-Ie Main Temple in Nagasaki to attend the 14th Year Memorial Service for my grandmother. The four of us--my parents, wife and I--stayed at the Seicho-No-Ie official residence where she spent her later years. The room next to the Japanese style room on the first floor is the one my grandmother used to write her manuscripts or letters. There is still a small writing table there--about 1.2 meters wide and 60 centimeters deep--and, although its owner has long gone, it looks as though it is resting rather quietly and peacefully. There's a built-in household Shinto shrine in the same room. Whenever we stay here, we make it a practice to recite the Amatsu Norito, a Shinto prayer, and read the Holy Sutra before breakfast. After doing so today, I happened to walk over and sit at the writing table and opened the drawer on the right side. Because it's been over ten years since my grandmother died, I thought that it would be empty, but, not so--all the things that she'd used when she was alive had been left as is.

In the top drawer, there were several tablets mixed in with her writing materials. They were the tear-off kind of pads, a little smaller than the ones you can get at a bank as a gift, and it had the name of the local bank on it. I opened one and saw that it was full of some sort of writings, written in blue-black ink in very small letters. It was my grandmother's writing, and it brought back such memories. There were no blank pages at all--each page was completely filled. Counting, I found that there were 20 pages in total. The other tablets were also filled with my grandmother's writing. Each letter was about 2-5 millimeters in size, so, since my eyesight is slowly deteriorating, it was difficult for me to read the sentences. My wife and mother, too, looking at the writing said, "Oh, my, how small!" and tried to decipher what was written.

At first, I thought they were drafts of the articles that my grandmother used to write for monthly magazines. The reason for this was that the part that I read dealt with conversations she'd had during a trip abroad. Grandmother would, of course, take her writing paper whenever she traveled, but the first time she went abroad was in 1963 when she was gone for seven months, so there was a possibility that she had run out of her writing paper. It made sense that she'd use the memo pads in the hotels, but judging from the fact that the one I was looking at was from a local bank, the basis for this theory was shaky. Furthermore, there was a 2-year calendar printed on the back cover, and it was for 1978 and 1979. Grandmother had not gone abroad during that time.

My wife guessed that the writings were notes for the lectures grandmother had given in Nagasaki. The proof seemed to be in on the front cover where she had written "(1)Completed" or "Finished" in pen. My wife thought that it meant, "These contents have already been used in a lecture." Yes, that made sense. However, when I prepare for a lecture, I may, at times, jot things down on a small piece of paper, but those are only "bullet points" or an "outline" of what I'm going to be talking about. Grandmother's tablets, though, were just like manuscript copy for a magazine, with full, complete sentences. The content was about her first lecture trip abroad in 1963. Why would she write about it 15 years later, in a small memo tablet from a local bank? The answer to that could only be that it was something she'd written for a lecture. 1978 was the year in which Ryugu Sumiyoshi Hongu was dedicated at the Seicho-No-Ie Main Temple.

I'd listened to my grandmother speak on a number of occasions , and at the time she impressed me as "being able to speak freely and flowingly." This impression was probably due in part to the fact that she used to tell "folk stories" to all the grandchildren. Anyway, I'd always thought of grandmother as having no problem talking to others, so this "preparing for a lecture by writing copious detailed notes in a note pad" was refreshingly surprising to me. And, on top of that, my mother told us that, before a lecture, grandmother preferred to stay quietly in a room alone, and disliked having people around her. I found this aspect of grandmother quite surprising.

At the same time, though, I also felt a special closeness to her. That part of her was similar to my own situation as well. My own feelings and nervousness before a lecture, and grandmother's writing detailed notes before hers, overlapped into one. I, myself, don't take notes, but rehearse my lecture using my computer. The tools may differ, but the feelings going through us both are not so very different. With this new affinity in my heart, I was happy we were able to visit grandmother's grave.

Today, I tried to draw the dendrobium that was in the room in which we stayed.

Sunday, April 21, 2002

Shakyamuni and the Pilgrim

On a blustery day in April, someone, looking quite pale and dressed as a pilgrim, approached Shakyamuni who was meditating in a cave halfway up the Himalayas.

Pilgrim: It's been a while, Shakyamuni? How've you been?
Shakyamuni: (Looking up with his eyes half open) And, you are...??
Pilgrim: It's me. Remember? I came here before about ten years ago, although I may have had horns back then. Those fell off when you taught me that "There is no evil""
Shakyamuni: Ohhhh, right--It's you. The one who kept insisting that he was The Devil? You don't look well at all.
Pilgrim: I know. I've got a problem and it's really getting to me. That's why I came here to ask for your help.
Shakyamuni: What's wrong now?
Pilgrim: Thanks to what you told me before, I realize that there is no first and foremost reason for evil--there is no "Devil", so I'm free of the preconception that "I am the Devil." I can't begin to tell you how much I appreciate that. That's why I decided to become a monk and learn more about your teachings, but, no matter how much I study, I can't attain enlightenment.
Shakyamuni: What to you is "attaining enlightenment"?
Pilgrim: Well, that's being free of all worries and problems.
Shakyamuni: And your problem would be?..?
Pilgrim: That evil exists.
Shakyamuni: Can't evil exist?
Pilgrim: Of course not. The Buddhist monks have taught me that we must be compassionate to all living things. That's why it pains me when I see innocent people and other living creatures being randomly killed. It's depressing. And then I blame myself for not being able to do anything.
Shakyamuni: Why do you think there is a need to prevent evil?
Pilgrim: Because I feel the regret and chagrin of those people and things who have died or are suffering--their passion to "want to live some more", to "want to be put at ease", to "want to express myself more." I think they're all reasonable and legitimate feelings, but they are cruelly and tragically denied by death, illness or disasters. I can't stand to just sit idly by and look at all of this happening.
Shakyamuni: So, the "evil" to which you are referring is people or other living things not being able to realize their hopes?
Pilgrim: It's not just their hopes. They're being cruelly deprived of their "lawful rights."
Shakyamuni: How do you know that these rights are "lawful"?
Pilgrim: Newborns die, innocent young girls are raped, trains with newlyweds crash, an artist loses a hand, a mathematician becomes an invalid from a brain tumor--Aren't these evil things things that shouldn't happen?
Shakyamuni: Why shouldn't they happen?
Pilgrim: Because they're innocent victims, they shouldn't have to go through all that.
Shakyamuni: There are those who have accumulated this karma from a past life, and choose unhappiness on their own.
Pilgrim: But the person doesn't know anything about his or her past life.
Shakyamuni: In the majority of cases, it's best not to know?
Pilgrim: No, I disagree. If one knows that his suffering has to do with something that happened in a past life, he can better comprehend the situation.
Shakyamuni: Are you saying that there's value in living a life of resignation?
Pilgrim: Not a life of resignation, but one of acceptance.
Shakyamuni: But would understanding or comprehending enable the person to improve and overcome the situation?
Pilgrim: ?..
Shakyamuni: Would it really help for people to know that their unhappiness or the unhappiness of others comes from karma accumulated from a past life?
Pilgrim: I don't know. But, if nothing else, there would be no more anger and cursing to a Creator who is "unreasonable" and "irrational."
Shakyamuni: A social psychologist in the 20th century called the perceiving of things as being "unreasonable" or "irrational", "Cognitive Dissonance." He thought that the ability to perceive things as being such gave rise to individual change and social reform.
Pilgrim: What you're saying, then, is that evil exists for the sake of good?
Shakyamuni: I'm not saying that "evil exists""
Pilgrim: Well, are death, rape, injury and obstacles all "good" and not "evil"?
Shakyamuni: As long as there is a Law of Cause and Effect, good actions produce good results and negative actions produce negative results. If you're looking only at the bad or evil result, things do, indeed, appear bad, but the fact that negative actions produce negative results means that the Law of Cause and Effect is working, so, in a way that is "good." It's much worse for a Law not to work than it is to have these negative results. The reason for this is that it would follow, then, that there would be no guarantee that a person could get good results no matter how hard he tried. And, also, it would mean that bad actions could result in good, so people would stop their acts of goodness. Knowing for certain that negative actions produce only negative results, people will eventually elect good.
Pilgrim: But, if people have no recollection about their past life, how would they know that the bad in their lives now stems from something in the past?
Shakyamuni: People don't need to know the cause of everything in their lives now.
Pilgrim: Why not?
Shakyamuni: Because it would be too much for them. The fact that memories and recollections fade with time is a blessing. Would you be able to bear the tremendous strain and pressure of remembering every single thing that has happened to you since birth?
Pilgrim: ?..
Shakyamuni: Being born through your mother's birth canal, seeing for the first time, bruising yourself as you fall down time and time again, eating something that is actually inedible, being hurt, feeling hopelessly lost when you got separated from your mother in a crowd, all kinds of fears of the unknown--Man's mind is made so that it can overcome unbearable pain and fear by "forgetting."
Pilgrim: Then does that make negative results, oblivion and ignorance all good?
Shakyamuni: When you change your point of view, that negativity or evil disappears. That's originally what evil is.
Pilgrim: But, if the cause for all our suffering now goes back to a past life, this is something I'd like to know.
Shakyamuni: For what reason?
Pilgrim: If I knew, then I would be more proactive in doing good things.
Shakyamuni: Yes, but those would not be good deeds in the true sense of the word. Doing good deeds in order to get good results is, in a sense, a type of utilitarianism. You're trying to use these good deeds to get something for yourself. Doing good just for the sake of doing good, that's what a true good deed is. Sometimes strange theories and reasons get in the way of doing so.
Pilgrim: Shakyamuni, now I know what's wrong with me. I wanted to do something really big--something that I could show off to people, like getting rid of all the "evil" in the world. I realize now that it's really a form of egoism.
Shakyamuni: A Jewish saint once said, "Verily I say unto you, whatever you have done unto one of the least of these my brethren, you have done it unto me." Let your conscience be your guide.
Pilgrim: I understand now, Shakyamuni. Thank you very much.

- MT

Sunday, April 14, 2002

Planting a Flower Bed

I wrote in a previous entry about the "Yellow Garden" at our mountain villa. In the fall of last year, we started bringing in some topsoil to a certain area to make a flower bed in this "desert-like" sterile ground. I'm at our villa today, along with my wife and daughter, and the daffodils and trumpet daffodils that my wife planted at that time now have some lovely, delicate flowers. The entire plant, as well as the flowers, are smaller than the ones that grew a couple of months ago in our garden in Tokyo, but, since there are practically no other plants with flowers around, these really make us feel rich. Flowers do that. Besides the daffodils, there are also tulips in this as-yet-unfinished garden, but they still only have the green leaves and stems--the flowers are still buds.

My wife bought various flowers and plants in an array of colors at a nearby home and garden store. My job today was to make the flower bed a little larger so as to accommodate everything she'd purchased. As I wrote in my April 5th entry, I have some misgivings about bringing "foreign" plants into the garden of our mountain villa. The residents of this area agree, but it's really not necessary to bring in any plants. There are a lot of different types of plant life around here and, with the birds and the wind helping to carry different kinds of seeds, in 2-3 years the garden should look fine. The problem is that the people who build the villas "can't wait until then."

In this way, the plants that people like or prefer make their way into the mountains. It's not easy to predict how these plants will effect the ecosystem here. So, if one were to ask the residents of the villas, "Should we bring them" or "Shouldn't we bring them", they would probably have to answer the former. The reason for this being that the villas were built, not to preserve the mountain ecosystem, but because people have found something that suits their taste. In order to make this suitability complete, they make a garden. Even if they're concerned about the ecosystem, they shouldn't build a villa in the mountains in the first place if they are going to make it a priority. So, although they may feel some inconsistencies, they generally go ahead and pursue their own choices.

That may be true, but "continuing what you start to the very end", like some athletes believe, is something you should think about. It's like saying, "Once you start smoking, you should continue smoking until you die of lung cancer." It may be wrong to compare the addicting effects of nicotine to choices of flowers, but one should never overdo things. The reason that you build a villa in the first place is because you feel an attraction to a new environment, so it's meaningless if you fill that area with plants that you already know. It's probably best to make use of the plants of that particular area as much as you can. No, the problem probably stems from thinking that we should "use" them in the first place. We need to look for a happy medium--balancing the plant life of that area, where it demonstrates its own innate strength, and our own choices, "a point of co-existence" between man and nature.

By the way, I thought of all this after my wife had bought the flowers and we had planted everything. While she and my daughter were deciding on the types and colors of flowers, I was in a different part of the store trying to see if they had any cherry tree saplings. The basis for this, of course, is very human. The cherry trees in the lowlands of Ohizumi Village are in full bloom now, and I wanted to recreate that beauty next year, or in a few years, near our villa. Right now, we have a wild cherry tree in the middle of the deck on the south side of our villa. But, because it's had to "fight" with a larch tree for the sunlight in the forest, it's grown long and thin, and the branches with all the flowers are located way up high. What I wanted to see, without straining my neck, was not the white cherry blossoms (of the wild cherry trees) but pinkish blossoms of the cherry tree. Humans are, indeed, very selfish and self-centered.

The flowers that my wife bought the day before were pansies, blue daisies, escortia, Arenaria Montana, and lupines. Since you have to write all these names in "katakana" you can just about guess the "birthplace" of these flowers. I used my hoe and dug up the ground on the east side of the Yellow Garden. After sifting out the stones and rocks, leaving only fine soil, I took the ashes from our wooden stove and mixed it with the dirt. I then mixed the compost that we'd brought from Tokyo, and was finally able to extend the flower bed by about 6 square meters. The compost that we brought was made of some leaves from our garden there. So, there were different seeds, the eggs of different insects, larva, and even worms in it. In this way, parts of the "nature in Tokyo" and "nature from abroad" were transplanted to a part of the Ohizumi Mountains, and will search for a "point of co-existence" within nature here.

- MT

Friday, April 05, 2002

The Flight of Birds

"Desertification" as a result of cutting down the trees in a forest is an effect that we can clearly see. But, in building a house in the forest, there must be a great number of ways, not necessarily visible to the eye, in which it effects the surrounding ecosystem. We tend to think, "How could building one mountain villa...", but, in order to build that house, we need a road for the heavy machinery used in the foundation work, and we also need the construction work for the electricity and water lines. And, to do all this, trees at and outside the immediate construction site are cut down, the topsoil is dug up, and gravel is brought in. Additionally, any landscaping would bring more new insects and fungi along with the new topsoil. And, in raising these plants and trees, hitherto unknown plants and animals may be transported (sometimes even from abroad) into that area.

This sort of effect on the ecosystem can be repaired to a certain extent through nature's "resilience." Or possibly, after a period of disturbance to the ecosystem, it may stabalize and attain a new system or order. But, probably no one knows just how extensive that "certain extent" is. So, it's totally unclear as to how much my building a villa has effected the ecosystem in and around Ohizumi Village. I hope it's something from which it can bound back. But, when I think about it, probably everyone who builds a mountain cottage thinks the same thing and cuts down the trees, digs up the ground, and brings in plant and animal life not there before. It's like dealing successive punches to nature's resilience. It's not that my "punch" is any lighter than any other.

At the beginning of August 2001, my wife and wife spent a little over a week at our newly built home. It was during that time, one morning, as I stepped out onto the deck and breathed in the slightly foggy air? The morning in the Southern foot of the Yatsugatake was filled with the sound of birds. It wasn't the combined sound of a lot of different kind of birds, but what I heard was the sound of the coal tit coming from all over the sky and mountains. The sound was of a higher frequency than the highest note on a grand piano. It was in no way abrasive--instead it was perfectly clear. The sound came from all over the nearby woods, resounding as if they were calling each other, and then disappeared into the distant fog. Listening, enchanted with this sound, after a while I heard the rhythmical sound of the Kohmi Line train which eventually grew further and further away.

Although it had been 5 days since we arrived at our villa in Yatsugadake, this was the first morning I was able to spend a leisurely morning out on the deck. It had, up until the day before, either been raining in the morning, or, because of the thick fog, the tables and chairs there had been soaking wet. But, that morning, the chairs were dry for the first time in a while. I sat down, stretched my legs out in front of me, and looked up at the sky. The cries of the birds were like waves washing slowly ashore. The birds were not flying individually that morning, but it seems that they were flying around in the forest together in a group. Closing my eyes and listening carefully, the same cries seemed to come in waves of musical harmony in the round, and then, after a while, would fade into the distance, like the waves receding from the shore. In its place would be the cries of a different group of birds, and, as if in answer to those cries, similar cries could be heard coming from a forest in the distance.

The coal tit is approximately 10 centimeters long, and a little smaller than a sparrow or chickadee. The tail is shorter than a great tit, and the wings are a bluish gray, the head black, and there is a black stripe on the side of its face that runs from its eye to the beak. It's white from its cheek to its throat, and its stomach is white as well. It also has a black patch on its chest. This bird doesn't seem to mind humans, and sits on the branches of the wild cherry and dankobai trees(lindera obtsusiloba) that are by the deck and also sit atop the railing on the deck itself. That's when I noticed that it makes a low kind of groaning sound. I thought at first that this bird has a strangely low voice despite it being so small. But, after studying it more closely, I found that it was actually the sound of its short wings rapidly oscillating and shaking the air.

When they come to the trees near our house, these birds move so lightly and freely up and down, from branch to branch of the trees that stand so straight and vertical, and pick at the little bugs that they find there. After about two or three times of repeating this, they then move on to a separate tree, leaving a high pitched sound behind. The birds that fly down onto the deck search for the little bugs that are apparently in between the wooden floor boards.

Suddenly, what I thought was the shadow of a small rock flying by in front of me hit the sliding glass door of the house with a loud thud. Looking down, I saw a bird lying with its white stomach face up, writhing and struggling. It looked as though it had suffered a concussion and lost its balance. I watched it thinking that it would eventually recover, but it had gotten one of its feet caught between the wooden floor boards and wasn't able to get up. I bent down and scooped the bird up in my hands, with just its head peeking out. It tried to resist for a while, but eventually calmed down. Its eyes fluttered about as if it was trying to figure out what was going on. I don't know why, but, feeling the warmth of this small living thing in my hands, I felt very happy. It's not because, coincidentally, I had been able to get this bird without any effort on my part, but it was because this small creature wasn't thinking of me as an enemy, but was quietly leaving things to me. We stayed that way for about ten minutes with me warming the birds in my hands and stroking its head occasionally with my thumb, praying for its quick recovery. I then put the bird down on a table. The bird stood with its feet braced, and it seemed that it was still unable to put any weight on its left foot. I scooped the bird up in both hands again, and walked slowly around the deck of the cottage. The trees near me shook from the rapid wing motions of the companion birds, and, as if in reaction to this deep short resonating sound, the bird in my hands moved its eyes and head looking here and there at the sky.

After about 15 more minutes, I extended my forefinger to the bird in my hand. Although a little clumsily at first, I could feel the bird anchor its left foot onto my finger. I then opened up my hand, and the bird did not even fly away, but, instead, stood on my finger. When I tried to get up out of the chair, the bird, again letting out that whirring sound, flew away and landed on a branch of a nearby wild cherry tree. It was about a meter above me, and, the way the bird was perched looking down, it seemed as though it was looking directly at me. It stayed in that same position for about ten minutes, and then it started to give out that high-pitched cry every now and then. After about another five minutes, the bird changed its position, flew nimbly about 2 meters up the trunk of the tree, and looked up at the sky and began to sing. "Oh, it's all better now," I thought looking at the bird somewhat sadly. I wanted it to hurry lest it be left behind by its friends.

In one of his books, essayist Jimpei Arakawa wrote about a bird flying into a glass window. At first I thought these things happened because birds weren't able to see or recognize the clear colorless "glass", and, trying to fly into the house, flew into the glass instead. However, according to Mr. Arakawa, if the glass is between the bright sky and a dark room, the glass hides what's inside the house, and, instead, reflects the sky. So, the bird, seeing only sky, doesn't slow down and ends up crashing into the glass. In some cases the bird may end up, not with a concussion, but dead. Mr. Arakawa writes that he's found the carcasses of these poor birds on his veranda ever since he built his cabin. And he finally came to the conclusion that the reason for it was that his "cabin was blocking the flight course of the birds."

The same may apply to what happened before my very eyes. Fortunately, this was the first time I found an unconscious bird on the deck of our villa, and, though it's been seven months since then, it has not happened again. Coal tits apparently move through the mountains in flocks--it may be that the birds have stopped flying over our villa. I can't say for sure, but, whenever we leave our villa, we have, for safety sake, too, made it a habit of closing the curtain on the inside of the glass doors and windows.

- MT