Why Asia?

We are Glenn and Carol Webb. We are retired academics, now living in Palm Desert, CA, in the place shown just above our picture. We have spent most of our lives studying Asia, with Kyoto, Japan as our port of call. This blog consists primarily of essays, written by me, Glenn Taylor Webb, with the input of my wife, Carol St. John Webb. I began writing most of these essays just before we retired. Some have been published, some not. Most were first presented as lectures.

Our lives were changed by what what we experienced living in two cultures. The different ways of thinking about almost everything in Japan (and Asia in general) made us examine some of our fundamental views of life. As a history professor I had to keep a certain distance between historical events and their effects. But at this stage in my life (I'm 75) I feel like sharing with friends the impact that Japan today has had on my family as well as myself. I'm still writing things down. So take a look and let me know what you think.

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Sunday, July 24, 2016

The Will of God and the Peace of Christ


From my vantage point at age 80 it seems I have spent every waking moment of my life trying to (in the words of the Oxford Dictionary) “analyze [the Laws of God] into workable parts and describe their syntactic roles.”  “Parse” is the word usually linked to that definition (rather than “God”) and it usually is limited to looking carefully at a sentence or a text (often but not always a religious text.) I know I am not the only person in history who has been so obsessed, and I also know that most people find such an obsession strange. 

Very early in my life I became so confused by the contradictions and anomalies of Biblical texts that I was ready to kill myself.  It is then that I started parsing, or if you will, finessing the Will of God.  I knew very well the warning that Paul gave the Colossians, namely, “See to it that no one takes you captive through philosophy … according to the elemental spirits of the universe … [rather than the teachings of] Christ”  (Col. II, 2:10-12.)  In other words, human reason, including the latest findings of scientific exploration, does not help anyone (or at least any Christian) know God. 

To the point, I wanted to know what happens after we die.  I learned that every monotheistic form of religion (i.e., Judaism, Christianity and Islam) said we would spend eternity in heaven or hell after death.  But to this day I do not know if that is true, or even if heaven and hell exist.  Nor do I know anyone who does.  And yet all wars and acts of terrorism, in the past and now, are fought over that unanswered question.  Who is right?  Who is to say if it matters? I adore religions for their narratives, which teach us about the human condition.  I also love the gigantic body of music and art that has come out of the Christian Church for over 2000 years.  

If I ever see him I will be the first person to tell the Apostle Paul that I have not heeded his warning. For sixty-three years I have been thoroughly captivated by Buddhist teachings regarding intensive meditation, leading to a perception of myself as not separated by anything on earth (or in heaven, for that matter.)  However, I cannot say that the Hindu/Buddhist notion of reincarnation is true, either.  I can say, as a Zen priest (and on a good day, when I’m not ranting at people for not going my way), that with my last breath I will extol the Peace of Christ. 

For this reason, I am sympathetic to the Democratic nominee for Vice President, Tim Kaine, who has also parsed his childhood Catholic faith.  He clearly is a man of very good will. He is a Roman Catholic educated by Jesuits.  Sen. Kaine can waffle on the Church’s teachings on adultery, abortion and homosexuality because he also favors following laws that promote human rights. At the same time he uses his faith to fight against killing and racism.  He seems to have been born with a heart that wants justice and liberty for all. He has fought and won cases against corruption wherever he sees it.  He will not fight Dear Bernie’s revolution, but that, I believe is a good thing.  Even the word “revolution” would put Mr. Trump in the Whitehouse for sure.

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Reflection on Rauch


CONSERVATIVE OR LIBERAL

OK.  I have to admit something.  If you consider yourself to be liberal, progressive, enlightened, etc., please listen to me.  If you are conservative, right-winged, anti-everything-Obamaesque, conspiracy-obsessed, this is for you, too. 

First, you conservatives. You believe that the world is filled with corruption.  Even the person next to you cannot be trusted.  You believe that God created the world, with you in it, and that there is evil here but that goodness will prevail.  Star Wars.    Your beliefs and actions you try to keep under control, find out what is true and what is not, seek the good and avoid the bad. You believe that God is protecting you. Bad is really bad.  It can be found everywhere.  Your enemies are bad.  Especially those Muslims.  They do not believe in God the way you do.  They are part of the evil that lurks around every corner. Hilary wants to abort all babies regardless of their age in the womb.  And same-sex couples make you want to puke.  You believe people should be free, but only if they want to do what you think is right, like buy AK47s without a full criminal check. You want to rise to the top of the human heap.  “Work hard and reap the harvest.”  That is your motto. You are willing to give to the poor, but they must keep their distance.  All these street people could be as wealthy as you if they just worked hard.  But they don’t.  So no public fund of money should be wasted on them. Certainly taxing good people to support bad people is not good.  Christian teachings seem to accept the status quo, but only if you are wiling to treat others the way you want to be treated.  You are willing to say one thing (wage war) but do another (go to church).  That’s confusing to me.  I do not like conservatives. I am not one.      

Now, you liberals.  You are living in a fairly comfortable, exalted world.  You have met people, probably, who believe (and will tell you) that you are going to hell.  Not “to hell with you!” but you are going to hell.  But you do not believe in hell and you doubt that Jesus (or one of the prophets of Judaism or Islam) is the true voice of God. In fact you reject monotheism, but you love the narratives in its religions. You consider people who believe in traditional explanations of life and death to be misguided.  You yourself have gone beyond religion and seek the answers to life’s mysteries in history, literature, art, music and studies of the mind.  Science is your religion.  “Prove everything and keep looking,” that is your motto.  You have met others who are brighter than you, who know infinitely more than you do, and who will take humanity into realms that you cannot dream of. But you know you are intelligent.  You are well-educated, and look down on people who betray their lack of education by the way they speak and behave.  You trust people but are pretty sure only bright people should make the rules. You may support religion but seek the answers to life’s mysteries in history, literature and studies of the mind. If this fits your perception of the world you are a liberal. 

I am a liberal.  I have perceived a self that I call me who is more than himself.  I am the world.  I am all that I can see, hear, feel, know or imagine. I have discovered that through my study and practice of Buddhism.  Specifically, that is the existential proof I have discovered in zazen, the particular form of meditation that Japanese Zen priests engage in, as I have for 60 years. I now know that everything I love and everything I hate is me.  Anger and jealousy are as much a part of me as the most forgiving and altruistic feelings I may have.  At 81 my sense of myself as a tiny, lonely, frightened, defensive, potentially vicious little boy has been swallowed up by the me of all being.  That makes me kind, loving, helpful, thoughtful, forgiving, and socially responsible.  My job is to be still enough to see myself in the body and heart of every person, animal or plant that I encounter. That is very hard to do.  It does not come easily, especially for an only child. 

Which brings me to Donald Trump.  God help me.  I am Donald Trump!  Every childish thing he does, his desire for winning, making lots of money, seeing himself as the greatest person on earth, lashing out at his critics, drawing distinctions between himself and others, demonizing them, dismissing things he doesn’t understand, etc.  All of these characteristics belong to both of us.  The only thing that worries me about this is the harm we can do to the world if we have our way.  As someone I admire very much has said, governments are necessary to prevent people like us “from pursuing naked self-interest all the time.” In his brilliant piece this month in The Atlantic (“What’s Ailing American Politics” July/August 2016), Jonathan Rauch warns that all of us – “politicians, activists, and voters” -- have  “become more individualistic and unaccountable … [because] Americans have been busy demonizing and disempowering political professionals and parties, which is like spending decades abusing and attacking your own immune system.  Eventually, you will get sick.” Our naked self-interest has brought us where we are today.  “Chaos becomes the new normal – both in campaigns and in the government itself.”  “Neurotic hatred of the political class is the country’s last universally acceptable form of bigotry… [whereas the] core idea of the Constitution was to restrain ambition and excess by forcing competing powers and factions to bargain and compromise.”  Rampant individualism may actually bring down our republic. 

I am still savoring Rauch’s article. It will require several readings for me to fully digest it.  I think every teacher in every school in the country should make it required reading for bright students.  Certainly it should be a must-read for all our representatives in Washington.  It is succinct and clear, but it flies in the face of much that I had believed was going on, with me and my country. 

- GTW at home in Palm Desert, July 6, 2016


Monday, July 4, 2016

Fear and Religion


Fear and Religion
July 4, 2016

Today, once again, Islamic Jihadists killed people in the name of their religion … out of fear.  Judaism, Christianity, and Islam – the three “Religions of the Book” --- teach us to fear death.  Each of them teaches the same basic truth:  that after we die we will either feel untold joy or we will endure untold pain -- forever. The simplest, most extreme motivation for deciding which of these outcomes we ourselves will experience is fear, our fear of others who will threaten us with their unbelief, or our fear of ourselves because we may not be able to live up to the demands of goodness.

There are, however, two ways to look at our future.  Give in to the joy that is promised by each of these religions, or fight the war against evil that all of them abhors.  Most Jews, Christians and Muslims live in between these two extremes.  We’re in between joy and fear.  Few of us actually follow the letter of the law. Only when our fear of each other makes us take up arms do we fight.  Social concerns rather than ideological ones determine what we will do every day.  This is true for young ISIS fighters, too, I think, just as it was for cavemen.

If you were raised in a household that is only nominally Jewish, Catholic, Protestant, Muslim, or if you were raised (or have become) not religious at all, then your social concerns of freedom, tolerance, justice and non-discrimination far outweigh any abstract notions of goodness and evil, right and wrong. If that is you, then you may be susceptible to religion. Your appetite for an answer to the unknown may be too strong.  If you already have the answer you want in religion, then you already are on the warpath.  Most Americans seem to be that way. 

Something in the human brain seems to demand simple answers to the mystery of life and death, and if you find them in the radical side of religious doctrine, you become (in my opinion) a danger to society.  The question becomes, “What does society do about protecting itself from you?” The same question pops up for dharma-caste-conscious Hindus, as well. They have been at war off and on with Muslims for centuries, but at least they produced a rebel some 2600 years ago, the historical Buddha, the world’s first pacifist, who slammed the door shut on retaliation against anyone for any reason. In theory, at least, Jesus of Nazareth was a pacifist, too.  (Sometimes I disagree with both of them on this issue, but that’s another story.) 

At issue this very moment is, “What do we do about people on the most radical side of Islam?” ISIS and other terrorist groups are angry that the Christian-dominated Western world defeated the vast military might of the Islamic world in 1922, after 1400 years of fighting, and helped Jews establish Israel after WWII.  More recently, we invaded Iraq and other parts of the Islamic world. The Kor’an says that if your enemy attacks, you can retaliate, even by killing. 

Well, according to radical Islam, we in the West (and any people who do not follow the letter of Sharia law the radicals follow) are the enemy.  We are the infidels, the unbelievers.  That’s the simple answer to the “Why?” that so many Americans are asking. The question remains, “What do we do?”  Do we bomb them, more than we have, and kill civilians in the process?  Shall we assassinate their leaders?  Can we convert the young men and women who believe in the radical Islamist cause to some other form of religion or more humane system of living?  If so, where do we begin?  Should we pull back our military entirely? Build a wall around our country?

Right now we seem to be doing almost all of those things, but with little success.  In addition, our leaders are telling us to pray for our dead and their loved ones. We are also blaming all Muslims for not speaking out and doing more to stop the carnage going on in the name of their religion. In November our nation will elect a new president.  Right now we have two candidates, a woman with perhaps more experience in democracy than almost anyone on earth, and another with no experience in anything except making money for himself and lashing out at his critics.  At the moment most Americans seem to hate her and prefer turning over the country to him, hoping he will make them wealthy, too.  I dread what comes next.  I’m not sure God is even looking at us.   



Wednesday, June 29, 2016

The War On Stupid People


The War on Stupid People

“We must stop glorifying intelligence and treating our society as a playground for the smart minority.  … Smart people should feel entitled to make the most of their gift.  But they should not be permitted to reshape society so as to instate giftedness as a universal yardstick of human worth.”

This is the conclusion drawn by David H. Freedman in his article in the latest Atlantic (July/August 2016, p. 13-14.)  I happened to see Mr. Freedman on a TV news show yesterday, where the discussion was about “experts” and “elites” who may have unwittingly brought on the recent onslaught by “stupid” people against progressive politics and politicians.  I have said openly that I am terrified of Trump and his followers, as though they were barbarians at the gates of my world, or playground, as Freedman has it.  Suddenly I see that I am one of the elites who consider Brexit and Trump supporters to be unbearably stupid. But wait.  I’m a Zen priest and Bible scholar (see the rest of this essay on sugoisekai.blogspot.com.)

I am convinced that we all are inextricably connected to each other (Buddhist wisdom) and must treat others the way we ourselves want to be treated (Christian wisdom). The pivotal word here is “we”:  who exactly are we?  Zazen and prayer are supposed to turn us into creatures of loving kindness (in very different ways, of course.) Whether someone (including myself) has reached a deep level of perception, or is sinful or sinless, is not my concern. 

But I have considered stupidity to be somehow separate from any of the other things that distinguish us. The last thing I (or any progressive) would do -- as Freedman points out -- is to discriminate against others on the basis of their race, ethnicity, gender, love-life, religion or physical disability.  But their IQ?  How often have I called people stupid?  Many times!  Now as never before, religion and politics have seemed to me to be overrun with stupid people.  Anti-abortion, anti-gay Christians and tea-party Republicans drive me crazy with their stupidity!

You don’t have a university degree?  Or you have one from a Podunk college?  Forget it.  I know what you think and will say (and VOTE on) before you do. As a Japanophile I enjoy telling Americans that in Japan married couples do not have babies unless they can afford them, raise them and send them to college.  Pregnancies that don’t meet that test are aborted.  My listeners (especially Catholics) never quite get over the shock of “are aborted,” so my general point (“look how smart the Japanese are”) is completely missed. That is sad to me.  I’m even left speechless by people who use double-negatives and don’t know the difference between “your” and “you’re” (something that linguistics departments are accepting nowadays, more’s the pity.) 

As my own son, Reg, has said to me (and that I repeat, but only in jest), “Dad, you are a snob!”  The fact of the matter is, I am.  I secretly maintain a deep prejudice against pop music and sports.  “Artists” on rock and country western stages and big-time stars on the basketball court, baseball, football and soccer fields are idolized beyond reason and paid outrageous amounts of money; whereas real (i.e., classical) musicians, singers and dancers (real artists) struggle to make enough money to live on, even before retirement. I am insulted beyond anything I can express in words.    

So what do I do now? I can stop insisting on proper English usage and ignore pop music and sports.  But there are weightier matters here.  A Zen student asked his teacher, “How should a Buddhist regard ISIS?”  (Hello, James Kenney.)  This is the question of our age.  My knee-jerk response (the same one that stupid people have) is, “Kill the bastards!”  That is not the response I as a Zen teacher would let slip.  (As a Christian soldier I might.)  But I do believe that when I feel deep anger I need to be angry.  I need to face anger head-on, just like I need to go into my feelings of hatred, fear, resentment, disappointment or even love when they appear in my heart.

Is the answer then, “Ignore ISIS” or “Let the Muslims sort it out”?  I don’t think so.  We all must do something.  I happened to be in Llasa’s Jokhang square in 1980 when a demonstration by Tibetan nuns was put down by Chinese authorities.  (A documentary of it was made sometime later by Western filmmakers who were there and who interviewed some of the nuns who escaped to Dharamsala, India.) I was proud of the nuns then and still am.  They sacrificed their lives.  Many were tortured and many died.  Tibetan Buddhist priests have generally taken the position that each person can react to such brutality in whatever way they choose.  Many have decided to follow His Holiness the Dalai Llama to India, others have immigrated to the U.S. and Europe.  There may have been no alternative.  I’m sure the Chinese were ready to annihilate the entire clergy if they had actually staged a revolution.  They have done a good job of wiping out Buddhism in Tibet as things stand today anyway.

For me there is, in fact, no answer to what should be done today about the Chinese Communists -- who now feel religion can be practiced but only under tight surveillance -- or about ISIS, which considers its interpretation of Islam to be the only correct one and that other Muslims (and any unbelievers in any part of the world) deserve to be killed. I saw public executions in Beijing in 1970.  We all have seen beheadings and stonings by ISIS zealots on TV.  I draw the line at killing.  Any killing.  But for any reason?  I’m not sure. 

The latest ISIS bombing in Istanbul may be a frantic act of a group of people under attack by other people, including us. Should we have gotten involved in Kuwait and Iraq in the first place?  No.  But what is happening now, as a result of that incursion or not, is happening.  Careful, skillful, shrewd political maneuvering is necessary to prevent a mass killing on a scale to which not even Hiroshima and Nagasaki can compare.  It is a global issue.  We ARE the world, even if xenophobes in this country think we are not.  Or that global warming is not real.

My understanding of reality, my perception of it, can be liberating enough to me that nothing actually matters.  And nothing, no one thing, not even everything, does.  We all die eventually.  But there is something called “skillful means” that all of us can use.  Real skill comes out of deep meditation (samadhi). Let’s work together.  This is an existential crisis.  We don’t have to exist.  But we can, at least temporarily.  Shall we?    

Sunday, February 15, 2015

In late October 1970 my father died, age 83, in the Comanche County Hospital near Lawton, Oklahoma.  Carol and I were in Kyoto, Japan, where I was codirecting a six-month program for students from the University of Washington.  Our sons Burke (age 9) and Reg (age 3) were with us.  I had said goodbye to my father earlier in the year, before leaving the States.  When the news arrived of his death, Carol stayed in in Kyoto with Reg, and Burke and I flew to Lawton for the funeral.  Today I received the typed eulogy I gave standing next to the casket, from a friend of my parents.  I had lost track of what I said, so reading what I wrote brought tears to my eyes.  I loved him very much.

                                                   MY FATHER 
       (In Memory of Robert Oscar Webb, by Glenn Taylor Webb)

He talked a lot – too much, I thought, until I understood a basic fact that he had driven home for me:  words are magic costumes of seemingly endless colors and designs, for ideas.   Like real costumes they reflect the reality behind the disguise; but more so, since the reality of an idea is indiscernible apart from its disguise of words.

Ideas.  He loved them and collected them even after the age when most people close the mind-door and say, “No more ideas for me, these are enough!”  He knew that one human being could never get enough of the ideas human beings have had.   (“Son, I figured out that it would have taken me 969 years just to take all the courses offered in my field at the University of Oklahoma back in 1928!”)

Of course, he didn’t approve of every idea, in terms of its truth and usefulness, but I don’t think he ever discarded any idea as insignificant, either.  Even the most repulsive idea was important to him as an idea, the most immediate indicator of the human condition.  For a man who believed earnestly in the truth of the ideas attributed to Jesus of Nazareth and who belonged to a group of dear people (the Church of Christ) who also believe in that truth but tend to fear other ideas (or even the same ideas in unfamiliar word disguises), my father’s respect for ideas seems especially remarkable.  It made him appear strangely tolerant and understanding among his friends.

That’s not to say he looked around with a patronizing smile and didn’t criticize.  He had a sharp tongue, and it stung.  But anyone who felt that sting and still thinks of him as a tyrant has missed the point.  He was smiling, and his love for you was not in danger of being withheld just because he didn’t like what you did or said.  (To the words “tolerant” and “understanding” the word “compassionate” can be added to the disguise of this idea.)

I am pretty sure that nothing irritated him more than a display of ego.  He himself was virtually without one.  He was not particularly introspective and there is plenty of evidence to suggest that he thought of himself as little as possible.  Again, it was ideas that interested him.  I think he found it awkward to put bodies on ideas.  (“Thou shalt not kill,” as part of a beautiful idea, was one thing; it was quite another to apply it to the circumstances of living in a military town where the most devout Christians – and the few Jews, in whose heritage the idea originated – were finding justifications for killing.)  His solution was simple:  keep the ideas and circumstances separate – even the ideas of patriotism, anti-fascism, anti-communism, etc., that lay behind the circumstances that justified killing.  In a word, my father was polite.

It amazes me that he could hold such strong beliefs (i.e., be deeply attracted to certain ideas over others) and not force those beliefs on others (which most people do by denying their love to a dissenter, saying, in effect, “You do not exist because you have strange ideas.”)  His path was argument-without-the-slightest-loss-of-honor-to-my-opponent.  Since for him ideas were longer-lived and thus above the men who happened to play with them, I doubt if he ever thought of himself as having honor, much less of losing any.

Equally amazing was my father’s ability to maintain a relationship with a friend who professed the same beliefs he did but behaved, as it were, contrarily.  The idea, for example, of “Seek ye not the things of this world …,” of being actively un-attracted to material wealth, was a real favorite of his and of most of his friends.  He honestly didn’t put “undue” store in things.  But friends who did can never say he criticized them for it; if anything, when they expressed feelings of guilt for their love of money he tried to give them encouragement, to find a way for them to be comfortable in both their belief and their desire.  His beloved repertory of ideas made him a magician of reconciliatory powers. 

Such powers no doubt enabled him to have confidence in people in spite of everything.  R. O. Webb seemed to be as sure of any person as he was of himself.  “Love thy neighbor as thyself.”  The Rock he built his life on was the Christ, to be sure.  It is therefore no wonder that the human condition – seen through ideas as words – was his passion.  But as an epitaph my father probably would prefer an un-dramatic “you can’t get along in this world without friends,” or better yet, “I meant no harm.”

_________________________________________

P.S.  I don’t believe in horoscopes, but in the LA Times today, Feb. 15, 2015, my sign (Sagittarius) reads as follows:  “Your father.  That’s where the day focuses.  The things your dad did to influence you will be apparent, for better and for worse.”  What are the odds of this prediction coming on the very day when I decided to share and post this remembrance on Facebook and my blog?  - GTW

Friday, December 12, 2014

Transformation

Am I thinking I may be the wooden puppet hanging here? Or is the wooden puppet hanging here thinking he may be me?

Thoughts on transformation inspired by the Italian satirist, Carlo Collodi, who lived about 165 years ago, and the Chinese philosopher, 荘子, who lived about 4,650 years ago:

Ever since my little Pinocchio puppet began to speak to me I have been drawn deeper and deeper into these thoughts.  He only began to speak last week, although I bought him from a lady in San Gimignano two years ago.  Her store had not opened, but she let me in.  For some reason she did not want to part with the puppet I saw in her window, even though he was an old model, covered with dust.  But she finally let me have him.  In Palm Desert I gave him a place next to my computer, suspended by his seven strings from a bookrest. 

His first words were, “I want to be just like you, BUT …” followed by all of the things I had done recently that he would have done differently. His main point seemed to be that I was too human.  I was willful, self-centered, vain, always buffering myself even when I was doing things that everyone around me thought of as kind and generous, even heroic.  He noted that we both were only children:  we had no brothers or sisters.  So he thought that made us both equally prone to have a fear of (and sense of superiority towards) others.  

I agreed only that I did indeed find people inscrutable.  But I denied fearing or hating them.  He went on to argue that a one-of-a-kind puppet could handle fear and loathing better than most people, including only children, me especially.  “As a puppet,” he challenged, “I do not have the freedom to do whatever I want.  In fact, I am literally in the hands of a human puppeteer,” he boasted.  “If I do anything unkind or unlawful, he is responsible.  And that gives me an advantage when it comes to moral behavior.” 

“Nevertheless,” he continued, “I would like to call the shots sometimes, try out, so to speak, my own sense of right and wrong.  I’m sure I could control my urges to act willfully better than my master does.  Did you know he makes me hit other puppets sometimes?”  (Well, I told him, I never in my life have hit anyone, even when I wanted to!)  “Yes, but you have wanted to, right?  With a head and heart of wood I have nothing selfish programed inside me.  If I had full control of my actions like you, I could do all sorts of good things.” 

It was then that I lost it.  “But how do you know what IS good or bad?  Do you mean a puppet can figure that out?”  “Yes!” he cried.  I know that fire, heat, dampness, mold, hammers, nails, knives and axes are bad. You, on the other hand, use those things (and much worse) on human beings just because they believe stuff you don’t believe in.  I don’t care what people think, I just have to be careful to stay out of their way.  You think you have the right to stop what people think with laws that punish them for what they believe; or worse still, with guns, torture, bombs, and any way you can.  But I have no desire to do anything but live my life as a human puppet who sets a good example by my good behavior.”

A thoughtless person was never my hero.  Nor were people so unable to feel pain or joy that they simply ignored whatever was going on around them, which is the kind of person Pinocchio seemed to want to be after his strings were cut.  Even so, there are times when I sit at my desk, looking at him, and wishing I could be like him.  As a child I understood God to be a puppeteer of sorts, controlling my life but giving me options that he would praise or condemn depending on my choices.

But that kind of God (who appears in all three Western religions) seemed just as full of himself as I am.  So I outgrew that notion of Him by about eight, when my sexual juices began to flow (pardon the pun.) By then music was clearly my god, shaping and testing me through hundreds if not thousands of piano preludes, fugues, etudes, sonatas, ballades, and concertos.  The pressure of performing landed me in the hospital at seventeen, having no reason to live.  Going to a Christian college in Texas saved my life by making me interact with boys and girls who basically knew only farm and ranch life.  I majored in art, and within a year was married to my beautiful, kind Carol.  We were twenty years old. (Today, December 10, 2014, is our 59th anniversary.) 

After graduation we moved to Chicago, where I studied first at the Art Institute for the MFA, and then for the MA and PhD in art history at the University of Chicago. My field was East Asia, which I had learned about (at ten) from Zen and Japanese Culture, by D. T. Suzuki.  National Defense Foreign Language fellowships supported us for seven years, and my doctoral research at Kyoto University was covered by a Fulbright for another two, with Dr. Suzuki being one of my advisors.  I’ve had a long career (54 years now) as a professor of East Asian art history and religion.  More than instructing me in history, teachers in Japan birthed me:  they led me to Zen meditation and into that profound silence where the universe can be seen and heard inside and out.

All of this I shared with Pinocchio, who listened to me with unabashed envy, even though my purpose in telling him these things was to dissuade him from pursing his dream of being human.  But he immediately jumped on the part of my life where Buddhism came in, and said he especially liked the idea of karma and reincarnation.  He liked the notion that he might have been a human in a previous life.  I told him, “That is not how the system works, Pinocchio!  You have to be alive to be part of that,” I said. 

I explained that the system was part of the society the historical Buddha grew up with, namely, HInduism, with its caste system, which says we are born over and over again until we all reach spiritual fulfillment together. “But,” I said,  “the Buddha believed (contrary to Hindu teachings) that people could reach enlightenment regardless of their caste.  He had even decided that since karma and reincarnation were theories he had not actually explored, he did not require followers to believe them.”  I told Pinocchio that I, too, did not have enough knowledge to believe in them, so I did not.  He asked me if I had not ever remembered anything from a past life, and I said I had not. 

When pressed, I told him the only thing that might make me believe that karma or something like it was real had to do with my dreams. All my life there have been moments in waking life when I realize I am experiencing the same moment I had in a dream.  Nothing special, really, just a few minutes in which I recognize the scene and can predict exactly what will happen, be done, or said.  It’s like watching a clip from a film.  But it is happening in real time. 

Pinocchio seemed intrigued.  “But that’s it,” he shouted.  “You are remembering a former life!”  I set him straight:  “No I’m not!  My experience with dreams suggests that we all have lives that are preordained somehow, and we are just playing them out.  But you shouldn’t confuse that with the Hindu system of karma and reincarnation.”  (Actually, I find the idea of predestination even more disturbing than living a life that has already been filmed!  Who is the projectionist, for God’s sake?) 

“Let’s face it,” I said, “We don’t know what happens after death.  Science can only tell us as much as we know right now.  And in light of what we know, Pinocchio, I do not think much of a God who sounds very human (and a lot like me) and is threatening to punish people after they die if they have not loved Him and done His will.  He assumes our greatest reward is to spend eternity with Him after we die!”

“Nor do I believe anyone has come back to life to report that they were reincarnated as a fetus in someone with a similar karmic past (and specific Hindu caste dharma), etc., so that the wheels of ultimate enlightenment can be achieved.  Hindu Brahmins, and Buddhists who hang onto the old Hindu teachings, speak authoritatively about all of that, of course, but that doesn’t impress me.”

Pinocchio then admitted that he, never having lived, knew nothing about death and had not really thought about it.  I suggested that he should relax and enjoy his not knowing, because the two of us, with our very different realities, actually are in the very same boat when it comes to knowing about life after death. We know nothing, and the imaginings of human beings help neither of us.  

“But that’s it, too,” the puppet shouted, “people don’t think puppets have imagination, but we do!  All man-made objects do.  (I’m not sure about rocks, but that’s irrelevant here.)  I may not wonder about the meaning of life and death, but I can imagine it.  When you think about it, I could last forever, which you humans think would be wonderful after death (or even now), but I don’t waste time thinking about that.  For all intents and purposes I am immortal:  under the right circumstances I could last for hundreds, even thousands of years.  I might outlive countless masters who pull my strings.  Someday I could end up in some museum’s archeological exhibits.”

“So what’s the problem?” I asked.  “Why then would you want to be human?  If you can imagine all the things that we’ve imagined about life after death, which you say is not worth thinking about, then what do you consider worthwhile?”  His reply surprised me.  “Ah, that’s easy.  You can interact with things like me.  Most of the time people ignore things around them.  They even ignore each other some of the time.  If I were human I would greet everyone with a smile.  More than that I would dance with them and feed them (I can’t eat, you know.)  Most of all I would love them.  Oh how I would love them!  Not the way I love you, hanging here immobile, but with all my heart and soul (two things I do not have but can imagine having.)”

I wondered how many people Pinocchio had talked to this way.  When I asked him he smiled and said, “Only really happy people.  They can hear me, even though my lips don’t move.  I can feel their admiration of my colors and the skill with which someone carved me.  They are filled with wonder at the beauty of things.  They can even see the tiny line between opposite ways of behaving.  Behavior itself, regardless of its goodness or badness, is such a miracle to people like you.  And so I speak to them.  And you speak back.  It’s wonderful!  But most people are not like you.”

This was such a compliment that I began to tell him how much I admired the color of his skin, and the black, green and red colors the person who made him had chosen for his shirt, pants, cap and shoes.  The white of his eyes made his black pupils pop, and the little u-shaped mouth made me laugh.  “Thanks,” he said.  “I knew you loved me.”  He went on to say that his primary reason for wanting to be human was to be able to express his love to the world.

 “I also would like to set the lesson straight about Signor Collodi’s story about me,” he said.  He made it all about how children are easily manipulated to do bad things and have to be scolded to be good.  If I were alive I would be free to feel love and express it all the time.  I’m sure I would not kill crickets who sing the truth, or stop learning, or squander money, or be tricked into anything.  I would actually enjoy seeing what foxes, crows, owls, crooks and assassins face in life and helping them any way I could. I want to know them, too, and love them.”

When I was very little I remember taking my mother’s old perfume bottles, placing a handkerchief over them, screwing the lids back on, and pretending they were people.  They were perfect for my productions, seen only by me, of stories staged under a chair or table.  Speaking to Pinocchio reminded me of those days.  At the climax of my little perfume bottle productions I had feelings similar to the ones I experienced later as a child piano prodigy, at times when the composition was brought to life through my fingers.  

Now, as an old man, with one foot in the grave, I have those feelings most of the time.  I’m so glad Pinocchio decided to speak to me, and I’m sure we will have many more conversations before the curtain comes down. I only wish everyone, especially people who are dealing with deep depression, could have a conversation with a puppet like him.  It just makes everything feel so good.

12/10/2014
Palm Desert, CA

Glenn Taylor Webb