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.


Sunday, February 28, 2010


Our Ways of Thinking


All of us have watched, in our lifetimes, as the world has gotten smaller and smaller.  We are closer together than human beings ever have been.  Distances can be crossed quicker, and our voices and images can be sent across the globe in real time, with little or no delay. 

In the same way, our customs and traditions have been shared, and often have undergone significant change.  In some cases they have disappeared altogether.  The ways we think have become so colored by the demands of modern life that we sometimes assume that we think alike.  But after living most of my life in both Japan and America, I would say that in some important ways we do not.

 “Americans think with the their heads, but we Japanese think with our hearts” is a phrase I have heard often in Japan.  The first time I heard it I was a bit offended.  But then I came to see the truth in it after looking closer at our two histories, and especially our major religions.  I related to what Saint Exupery, the author of the LITTLE PRINCE, felt when he admonished his (mostly Western) readers to see things with their hearts rather than their minds.

I think the French author of that wonderful book (which has been translated into virtually all the languages of the world) was trying to gently persuade his Western readers to let go of their analytical minds and look at the world with the so-called “Oriental” mind he himself favored.

Americans, like all Westerners, have inherited a thick Christian lens through which they filter their attitudes about life.  And despite the fact that love was a very important part of that filter, the early Christians were repulsed by the sexual excesses of Greek and Roman cultures.  Probably for that reason the early church played down love in favor of repentance and obedience. 
It is with this in mind that I will examine Western and Eastern ways of thinking.  In doing so I will make use of the Japanese term “kokoro” () to bring some focus to my thoughts in both directions. 


It seems appropriate that in most Japanese translations of the Little Prince story the French and English words for heart are translated as kokoro.  The concept of kokoro is a challenging concept to capture in English.  I made an attempt at capturing it in papers and lectures I presented to Japanese and American audiences some time ago.  My subject was “The One Heart-Mind” (心はひとつ).  In it I basically made a case for all of us being more similar to each other than we think, and that we all have the same kokoro, or heart-mind. 

Although I didn’t put it this way at the time, I clearly was suggesting that kokoro is our conscience -- that “still, small voice” inside all of us that tells us what we should do. But I discovered that many people in my Japanese audiences were surprised by what I said about the beliefs of people outside of Japan.  I also have come to realize that American audiences also have a hard time taking in just how different the typical Japanese view of life is from theirs.

We do have many things in common, of course.  But some of our most basic assumptions about life are different, and they have a way of coloring our understanding of very important issues.  We need to be clear about where the “still, small voices” in our heads and hearts are coming from.  I believe two separate messages are being delivered and they are based on very different sets of values.

God’s Laws, Reason, and Modern Law.

American thinking is based solidly on the theological and philosophical principles of the whole range of Western philosophy from the ancient Greeks to what is known as the Age of Enlightenment.  Reason rules supreme in those principles.  And the separation of reason from emotion is clear.  The mind is pure only when it is based on reason. When it accepts the emotional pull of superstition or mysticism it becomes evil. 

Jewish, Christian and Muslim religions have at their core the laws of the Creator of the universe, laws that believers must follow.  Westerners have believed in those laws, and have made them the basis for what is “reasonable,” even when the laws contradict reason by today’s standards.
For most of the past 2000 years God’s laws and reason have been linked in the Western mind.  The separation of church and state is only 200 years old, a creation of modern democratic societies.  Religious fundamentalists are not happy with this modern law.  They would prefer to make God’s laws binding on all citizens.
In the modern world, however, freedom and fairness are at the heart of law, and the “unreasonable” teachings of religion have been essentially eliminated. Discrimination on the basis of race, gender and sexual orientation is against the law, and rulings on such issues are concerned with what is compassionate and fair.

Western thinking on what is reasonable has thus changed in recent times. It is getting a little easier for Americans to use the “heart” that the Little Prince recommended.  But to do so they are going to have to reframe “reason” in ways that will take fundamentalist religion out of the picture. 

Western Thinking on Kokoro.

Things were made easier when the Japanese concept of kokoro was introduced to Westerners after World War II.  Japanese Zen Buddhist priests (and, importantly, the writings of Dr. D. T. Suzuki) brought the matter up, so that by the 1950’s every Zen group in America was talking about kokoro as though it were the central teaching of Buddhism.  In a way I guess it was, and is.  But what could the term possibly mean to Americans and other English-speaking people? 
A Japanese dictionary translation offers the English words “spirit, heart, and mind” as possible meanings for kokoro.  But those words don’t mean the same thing in English, so explanations are in order even at that level.  At some point we have to look at the Chinese and Sanskrit models for the word kokoro.  But for now I want to explore the various English words that have been proposed by well-meaning translators.

I started studying Chinese and Japanese in 1957, and for fifty years I have been translating Japanese into English and working alongside many colleagues who do the same thing.  We are generally agreed, I think, that direct English translations of modern Chinese can be effective, but that translating Japanese word-for-word into English is almost always bound to fail, even in the case of colloquial, spoken Japanese. 

An English translation for kokoro using any of the words found in dictionaries is a mistake, partly because the meanings of those words are elusive; but also because the concept of kokoro (like countless other Japanese words) is unique to Japan.  It is the way of thinking that is different, based on a special way of understanding reality. 
Part of the difference has to do with Buddhism and its  profound influence on all of Asia. I will take up that aspect of the matter shortly.  But first, let’s look at the English words in question and their meanings. 

“Spirit” can refer specifically to the Christian Holy Spirit sent by God, the creator of the universe.  As such, it can be heard, seen, or felt, according to the reference in the New Testament one consults.  For Christians, that Spirit was God’s voice at the time Jesus was baptized in the River Jordan.  Later, it was an explosive fire-like force that caused followers on the day of Pentecost to “speak in tongues” with transcendent understanding. Born-again Christians today will likely say the Holy Spirit comforts and instructs them on a daily basis. 

“Spirit” written in small-case can refer to a ghost (or spirit) of a dead person. Or it can be used to describe a person who is very much alive, filled with vitality.  In the old days, a woman with spirit was a bit daring or even naughty.  In a similar vein, a spirited horse could be counted on to win races.  A spiritual person today may be a New Age seeker of truth or just someone who is more tolerant of and in touch with the unusual.

“Heart” can be the organ of the body that pumps blood, or it can be the thing I thank people with (as in “from the bottom of my heart”) or that gives me courage to do or say something (with heart.)  The “heart of the matter” is the unvarnished truth, the kernel of wisdom hidden in a complicated and sometimes unnecessary cloud of words. Something said or done that is “heart-felt” is honest and true, rather than the reverse.  Similarly, a “hearty” laugh is quite spontaneous and undisguised.  A broken heart refers to the pain that comes when a love relationship ends in death or separation. 
“Mind” is the word that offers the most direct evidence that all of us in the world don’t all share one kokoro.  For Americans (and perhaps all non-Asian) people, the idea behind “mind” is probably more potent here than the concepts of “spirit” and “heart” because of the attention Western thinkers have given it. There is no question about the mind’s exalted position in the Western world. 

For well over a thousand years before the 18th century ushered in the Enlightenment and the Age of Reason, going back at least to Plato, Westerners have elevated the human mind for its ability to make sense of the world.  If Paine’s “Age of Reason” (1771) helped make reason our natural religion, superior to divine revelation, the public discourse that Enlightenment thinkers championed is now the undisputed foundation of the democratic republics of the modern world (including Japan!) 

Reason Over Emotion.

Very often in Western history the split between reason and emotion has been quite real, and the form that split sometimes took has had some disastrous consequences.  Emotion frequently has been considered manifestly inferior to reason.  Feelings and instincts were grouped with emotion as the enemy of reason, with the mind held aloft as superior, even akin to the mind of God. 

Emotion was dangerous for religion, because emotion might cause people to go against God’s rules.  Emotion was that unreasonable, unpredictable source for wild, sinful behavior that produced witches and heretics.  Ultimately it could result in sending people to hell rather than heaven.  Evil and emotion came close to being synonymous.

Like other Westerners, as far as I could see, I was living in a divided world, and while I didn’t talk about it a lot, I assumed that after death I would wake up on one side or the other of a division that would last forever.  My motivation was my welfare, at any cost. Even if there turned out to be no heaven or hell, even if I just turned to dust when I died and that was that, my faith in reason and justice required a divided world.  The strings of religious training are strong:  I often joined my fellow Westerners in seeking the help of a Mind beyond my own in moments of crisis.

Because of the assumption in the West that we all are given one life to live and “then the judgment,” the little voice in my head tells me something that sounds final.  I think the voices in my Japanese friends’ heads say something about another beginning.
Personal Reflection on Western Thinking.

I read an explanation of death characterized by unity and interconnectedness when I was quite small, but it sounded like a fairytale.    My study of Buddhist concepts began with D.T. Suzuki’s “Zen and Japanese Culture” and went on from there.  I was ten.  It was 1945.  The war had just ended.  I had been taught that Japanese were evil monsters and that the war was necessary to destroy Tojo and Hitler.

Dr. Suzuki’s book was a puzzle, because it spoke of sensitivity, empathy for all beings, strength in weakness, and the beauty of the ordinary.  His thoughts flew in the face not only of what I had been taught about Japan, but what I believed about truth.  His ideas left me spell-bound.  My parents, too, were intrigued after reading the book.*
In earlier essays on kokoro I have tried to find parallels between Judeo-Christian teachings about love and the Buddhist notion of compassion.  In this paper, too, I am exploring how Westerners might interpret the kokoro concept through words such as spirit, heart and mind.  In the end, the Western conscience appears deeply connected to religious teachings about obeying God, and shows a bias in favor of a mind of reason over one of emotion.

This bias comes out in interesting ways all the time.  Take for example the squabble over whether or not Supreme Court Nominee Sotomayor will stick to the law (reason, truth, God’s voice) or allow emotion (her Latina, female, poor-family voice) to color her decisions on the court.  People on both sides are anxious to make sure she obeys the letter rather than the spirit of the law.  (Even people like me, with sympathy for the emotional, let’s-make-up-for-past-wrongs side, think she should honor the legacy.)

The Westerner trying to make sense of kokoro clearly has a heart-mind that belongs to God or a Supreme Mind whose rules must be followed.  We think, “Now is the time for me to make the right decision, because eternity is coming.”  So if the Westerner’s heart belongs to God, to whom or what does the heart-mind of my Japanese friend belong? To whom does the still, small voice in Japanese ears belong?  We run into difficulties of a semantic and religious nature almost immediately if we say the answer is “other people.”  But that’s where I think we must begin. 


A Comparison of Religions.

Buddhism is the child of Hinduism just as Christianity (and Islam) sprang from Judaism. They share the same two very different world views:  one says all beings recreate themselves over and over again as separate selves until they wake up to their actual interdependence; the other claims all creatures were created by and will be judged by God at their time of death. 

The difference has to do with our views of death, and of what happens to us after death.  The Judeo-Christian-Islamic view is that we are God’s sheep and are easily led astray. Wayward sheep die lost but good sheep are taken care of forever. The shepherd is the object of worship in the flock. The Hindu-Buddhist view is that we are obsessed with ourselves but need not be. Obsessed creatures choose to be born again and again, but when they no longer see themselves as separate from others, all births (and deaths) stop. Self-as-other is the goal that brings full awakening.

As far as voices are concerned, Westerners hear God’s voice (or the secular laws that are based on His rules.)  They know that paying attention to what they hear benefits them directly, and they do not have to concern themselves too much about other people (except to the extent that the Law requires them to treat others kindly or suffer the consequences.)  They can literally leave others to Heaven, and say “there but for the grace of God ...” 

Buddhist Origins.

Hindus and Buddhists both understand that all creatures are interconnected despite the phantom of individual selves their minds project.  They don’t live in fear of eternal judgment for not following rules, but Hindus believe they are born into castes and must follow the rules (dharmas) of their particular caste if their next life is to be as high as it can be. Buddhists ignore caste rules and hold everyone up to the same high standard of behavior.

Buddhists understand that they are each other, whether they can manage to live that reality out or not.  Not doing so only means their selfish actions in each life will have consequences in the next, and so on until they reach the ideal. They are obliged to listen carefully to every voice they hear, for those voices belong to them.  They are convinced that our collective ignorance (seen in selfish actions) produces successive lives in a cycle of rebirths (reincarnation) until we wake up in the truth of our interconnectedness.

The way we behave when death comes tells a lot about what we believe.  Westerners tend to bury their dead in the ground or a crypt, after the body is embalmed and sealed in a metal casket.  Before the burial there may be a funeral ceremony in a church, temple or mosque, followed by a graveside service. Something may be said about the deceased now being in heaven with God.  Often someone, the officiant or a family member, may share memories of the deceased, and suggest that all of the living will join the dead someday.  In those fairly rare instances when the body is cremated, the ashes may be scattered somewhere (the ocean, the mountains) that the deceased loved.

The funeral practices of Hindus depends entirely on the caste of the deceased.  But for Buddhists the process is the same for everyone, with reincarnation taking center stage.  Customs vary from country to country, but in general the body is washed and prepared for cremation.  Family members participate in a farewell ceremony in which the body is viewed and a posthumous name is given to the deceased by a priest who also intones appropriate Buddhist scriptures concerning life and the passage at death into further life. 

The body is presented in a wooden crate, very simple or elaborately carved, and then slid into the crematorium.  After cremation the remains are viewed by the family members, who assist each other in picking up ashes and bone fragments and placing them in an urn.  In East Asia the ashes are kept in a special room in the temple the families involved have supported for centuries. 

What follows is an elaborate memorial that actually lasts for 49 years.  The number 49 (7x7) is important because scriptures indicate that the karmic pattern created by the deceased will find, within 49 days from death, a suitable rebirth channel where that karma can play itself out in a new form. A memorial will be held daily for the first week, then each month, and finally each year until the fiftieth year. At that point the ashes may be scattered in the temple garden, and the tablet on the family altar (with the posthumous name of the dead written on it) may be retired.

The most important memorials during this period will be held at the temple.  The others will be conducted at home.  What Westerners will surely find amazing in this is the extraordinary length of time Buddhist families remember their loved ones.  And even though the latter are recalled by their posthumous names (which theoretically are their names as enlightened beings who do not reincarnate, i.e. as Buddhas), it is their lives as family members and their passage into other forms that the family celebrates.  No wonder Christian missionaries decided Buddhists must be practicing ancestor worship! 
If reincarnation itself is hard for Westerners to swallow, in Buddhism rebirth is not limited to being reborn a human being.  Borrowing from Hindu cosmology that is at least 3000 years old, there are six realms of being in which the recently dead might find themselves after 49 days:  besides the human realm there is the realm of the gods, the realm of the demi-gods, plus the realms of animals, hungry ghosts and hell beings.  One’s passport to each depends on how selfishly (and thus ignorantly) one behaved in the life just departed.  What went around is coming around again. 
The human realm is the one to aim for, because the character of being human is that we can feel what others feel and may have less trouble reaching the state of full identity with others.  We are less self-absorbed than gods, for example, who feel no pain.  And we are not as filled with resentment as demi-gods (who feel they do all the work while gods get all the benefit.)

Humans are not quite as focused on food as other beings. Hungry ghosts are pitiful because they are hungry all the time but are physically incapable of taking much nourishment. And the poor beings in the eight hells (four hot and four cold) are suffering more than any of us for their horrible deeds in life.  While it is very hard for humans to become compassionate enough to reach full enlightenment, it still is easier for them to achieve Buddhahood (either by their own effort like a Zen devotee or with the assistance of other enlightened beings like Tantric and Pure Land believers) than any creatures in the other five realms. Shockingly, all creatures die and move up, down or out after living out their respective life-spans.

It is doubtful that Buddhists in general take any of this terribly seriously, any more than Christians take angels and demons seriously today.  Case in point, in Japan almost everyone will tell you they are not religious.  This whole business at death is “just Japanese tradition” like any other custom with Buddhist pedigrees.  Nevertheless everyone believes in karma, and the dance continues.

Buddhist Words.

Moving backward in time to track down the first use and original meanings of specific words and terms in Buddhist scripture is almost impossible, just as it is with the holy texts of Judaism, Christianity and Islam.  What I would like to find out is when the concept of kokoro first appeared, what it meant, and how it was used.  That may not be possible. It appears in pre-Buddhist Brahmanic/Hindu texts in the two Sanskrit words hridaya and citta.
Hridaya refers to the heart or center of feeling and sensation, and by extension, the seat of mental operation (the mind) and what sometimes is mistakenly translated as soul. Citta is similar, but more specific:  here we have the gathering of all the various causes for rebirth, resulting in all forms of existence having thought, emotions, volition and what is called “luminosity” in the Upanishads.
However one translates these words, they are part of ancient Indian philosophy that describes the physical world, with terms such as rupa (C. ) color, materiality; and kaya (C. ) form, body.  Nevertheless, Hridaya and citta would seem not to have meaning at all unless we consider them part of the metaphysical construct of Hindu and Buddhist reincarnation. 

Both terms are translated in Chinese Buddhist texts (datable roughly to the 1st century A.D.) with the same character, xin (), which, going back to oracle bone inscriptions of the third millennium B.C., the Chinese used to refer to heart, feeling, mood and emotion.

Since the doctrine of reincarnation was not part of the Daoist and Confucian lexicon, one assumes that the Indian rebirth interpretation was grafted onto the character when Buddhism entered China from India early in the Christian era. The struggle within the Chinese empire over the question of this “foreign religion” – with some emperors adopting it and some not -- was to go on right up to communist times, when all religions were banned and then placed under strict government control.

When the Japanese adopted Chinese culture, including its language and religion, in the 6th century, the Japanese reading of the Chinese character chosen for hridaya and citta was, in Japanese pronunciation, kokoro.  In its pseudo-Chinese pronunciation (on-yomi) it is shin.  (Students of Japanese have to get used to the two pronunciations for every Chinese character, neither of which comes very close to the current Mandarin or in fact any Chinese dialect.)
There are actually two more Chinese characters, chosen to translate two other Sanskrit words that mean about the same thing as hridaya/citta/kokoro, and they are mano (Pali manos) and vijnana (Pali vinnana). The first term mano is written with the Sino-Japanese character for cognition or the ability to think (although not to reason: that requires another term.) The second word, vijnana, is written in Chinese as - meaning sense awareness. It is also defined in Sanskrit as the life force or karmic pattern that moves from one body form to the next in the process of reincarnation.


If I had to put into words what I think the concept of Buddhist kokoro is all about, knowing what I know about the languages and religions involved, I would say that it is a sense of one’s place in the universe as a tiny link in a measureless, unimaginable, selfless Self that knows no boundaries of any kind until Enlightenment is attained. To me that means the independent, self-assured me that has his life under control is an illusion.  And he cannot work through that illusion until he enters the Self as described above.  My American pride may be dimmed a bit by that realization, but I figure I will be made more useful to society as a result.
The Buddhist version of kokoro has colored my thinking to such a degree that I no longer think, when I get really angry at something, that I should control my anger because God is watching.  Instead of launching a carefully reasoned defense of my position with appropriately harsh words for my opponent, I meekly admit that the situation is mine, and my opponent is me.  At least that’s what I try to do.  It is so much easier to let the angel on my shoulder shame me into gentler behavior, and punch out the devil on my other shoulder.  It is so much harder to take full responsibility for everything. 

Many forward-looking Christian priests and ministers are suggesting lately that we should pray for our enemies, such as Osama Bin Laden and all those stone-age Taliban warriors (reminding us that Jesus said to love them.)  But in the backs of those ministers’ minds (and mine) is the idea that if those guys would just listen to reason they would see that they are wrong and we are right!  So our prayer is really that God step in and shape these people up or strike them down.  “Protect us from our enemies!”

Over and over again I watch in amazement as my Japanese friends confront reality with a nod, indicating that they accept the karmic pain and pleasure swirling around them.  It used to bother me when they on rare occasion expressed their feelings with words such as “Well, it can’t be helped!” (“Jaa, shoganai yo!”)  or “Well, this is your good destiny!” (“Shikashi, go-en desu yo!)  I guess I wanted them to at least do something about a situation that caused them personal annoyance or pain.  That’s the American spirit.  As for good destinies, my Western mind sort of dismissed that, too, as too mystical or at best falsely modest:  surely a mutually beneficial outcome is the result of hard work, not destiny. 

But over the years I have come to recognize such expressions as springing directly from my friends’ Buddhist kokoro, their heartfelt acceptance of a delicate connection of good and bad, produced over a very long time by many relationships and situations.  The voices they have heard are very soft, and require breathless attention.  Snap judgments would be completely out of character for my friends, as would pronouncements of guilt or innocence. They show a restraint that I respect and even envy. 
Buddhism speaks of the potential in all beings to wake up to their true nature.  That nature is referred to in various ways in Buddhist scriptures.  Buddhatva (仏性) is one.  Buddhahridaya (仏心) is another. Bodhi-citta (菩心) is yet another.  However we define it, I think understanding the Japanese concept of kokoro as citta (or as spirit, heart, and mind) is a matter of understanding the voice of the Buddha Nature in all beings. That nature is our collective nature.  By implication we all have it, we all share it. 
In other papers I have joined several Caucasian colleagues in discussing a quality that we feel defines Japaneseness almost better than anything else we know.  That quality is called omoiyari (思いやり).  The word literally means to “think and then do.” In Christian terms it is putting others before yourself.  Everyone in Japan seems to understand that this is what all people should do at all times:  to think about the needs and feelings of others before taking any action.  It is a way of showing consideration for others, to be sure.  I cannot help but feel the source for this behavior in Japan is Buddhism. 

Recently scientists who study the brain have opened up a new area of study called Emotional Intelligence (or EI.)  According to Salovey and Meyer (1990) EI is

“the ability to monitor one’s own and others’ feelings and emotions, to discriminate among them and to use this information to guide one’s thinking and actions.”

When I heard about this (from one of my former Japanese students who now has her own family counseling office in Tokyo), I immediately thought this Emotional Intelligence sounds remarkably close to what in Japan has always been a matter of practicing omoiyari and paying attention to the kokoro.  The thought gives me hope that Westerners might learn something from traditional Japanese behavior.  We could leave out the Buddhist side of things, I suppose, and simply present “pure” scientific findings to support the effort.  I welcome your thoughts and comments on this matter.  Can science “save” us from ourselves?


In my original discussion of the “one heart-mind” I made the bold claim that we all are basically the same.  The only thing that stands in our way from realizing that goal, admittedly, is our understanding of what is real and true.  How can we overcome our cultural and religious biases in order to make the future a place where we all want to live?

Honestly, I think we have to first admit that we do not have a handle on what is true.  We have to start with an open mind.  That doesn’t mean that we have to give up what makes sense to us.  Nor do we have to accept what doesn’t make sense to us.  We simply have to live in a somewhat agnostic place of humble ambiguity.  Bottom line:  we have to agree not to kill or even hurt each other over our beliefs.
I have never met a Buddhist who is thinking along the lines of condemning me for what I believe.  And my reading of history has not revealed a Buddhist terrorist anywhere at any time.  Indeed, I have not run across a Buddhist, living or dead, who has held Buddhism up as superior to other religions.

So I think all of us who want to stop the killing in the world, killing in the name of religion or politics, should examine why Buddhism should equip believers with so much tolerance.  That examination will undoubtedly reveal that anything we can think or believe is just a part of being human. That’s what human beings do. Being right or wrong is not the issue.  Accepting all sides of ourselves is the issue.  Realizing that my way and your way may differ substantially in philosophy is the first step.  The next step is to tolerate and even venerate that difference with all our hearts.  Life after death is not something we can know with certainty. The best we can do is to live our lives now with respect and compassion. 

Even though Buddhists in Japan and other parts of Asia may not know much about their religion (and they do not), they are role models where respect and compassion are concerned.  How did that happen?  How did Jews, Christians and Muslims become so intolerant?  I think their religions have a built-in us-and-them mechanism, that allows believers to attack and if necessary kill on sight any “them” they encounter in life.  Such a mechanism is missing in Buddhism. The Los Angeles riots of a few years ago gave birth to a question that we all should try desperately to answer before it is too late:  “Why can’t we all just get along?” 
Glenn T. Webb
Palm Desert, CA


* Dr. Suzuki attended one of my piano recitals in New York six years later.  And he was one of my advisors when I began doctoral research at Kyoto University in 1964.  Before I got there I had done my homework in Buddhist doctrines under Joseph Kitagawa and Mircea Eliade at the University of Chicago (and had attended the classes of visiting scholar Paul Tillich, which qualified me to assist my landlord in Kyoto, the Zen scholar Masao Abe, when he was writing his critique of Tillich’s “Christianity and Its Encounter with World Religions.”)
My experience would have been entirely academic if Dr. Suzuki, Shin’ichi Hisamatsu, and Dr. Abe had not strongly encouraged me to train with Zen priests, many of whom were abbots of temples where most of my research materials were stored.  (One of them, Nanrei Kobori, even refused to show me the documents until I committed to years of training.  That meant sitting in Zazen meditation many hours a day, and taking priest vows to continue for the rest of my life.)
While my formal training in Japan was in Zen Buddhism, I also had the good fortune to receive firsthand instruction there in esoteric Buddhism under the Shingon priest-scholar Ryuken Sawa.  Although Dr. Suzuki was from a Pure Land (Jodo Shin-shu) family of priests, he is best known (at least outside Japan) as a Zen scholar.  But he did push me to understand his Pure Land background.  He also made me promise never to lose respect for my own Christian heritage. 
At the University of Washington, where I taught Japanese art history and religion for 21 years, I spent half of each year in Kyoto in training and research.  In Seattle I had the rare opportunity to study Buddhism under Tibetan teachers (including on two occasions His Holiness the Dalai Lama.)  Finally, in Los Angeles, for the last ten years or so, I have learned about the Japanese Jodo-shu Pure Land faith under Dr. Joji Atone, who is the Abbot of the North American chapter of the denomination and President of the L.A. campus of Bukkyo University.
I sometimes say I am both a Christian and a Buddhist.  But I wonder if I am either.  I love the parables of Jesus as much as I love the puzzles of Zen.  I feel unworthy but happy taking Holy Communion and will forever practice Zen meditation.  But I have my doubts about the hereafter as related in both religions:  do we meet the Judgment of God or do we move into another birth until we get it right?  I am very interested in how we humans can be useful in the lives we live.  It is with that in mind that the Japanese concept of kokoro may be of value to the world.



We all have encountered conspiracy theories growing up.  They probably scared us, and in some cases traumatized us.  But if we were lucky we were able to confront our fears, examine the theories in the light of day, and reject the false ones as the lies they were from the very beginning. 

Unfortunately, conspiracy theories are directly connected to our prejudices and fears, and can actually inspire us to do and say dreadful things.  They can convince us it is our duty to speak evil of others and even kill them.  Our normal reaction to conspiracy theories is that we must attack what they tell us to fear.  We will take action in the name of goodness.  For the good of all.  To protect the world!

I recognize the fear in myself that sometimes makes me feel weak and threatened by “others” whose ethnicities, religions or ways of thinking are different from mine.  “They do this,” or “they are like that.”  Fortunately for them, I have come to believe that I need to practice restraint.  But I have my limits.  I will fight like a madman and gladly give my life to protect my loved ones, or even strangers whose lives are threatened. 

History is full of the dark side of conspiracy theories.  If we learn anything from studying them, it is that some of the worst atrocities in the world have been committed in the name of religions that have spread (or been the victims of) conspiracy theories themselves.  Enemies have been identified and then “demonized” all too quickly.

Catholics have been demons.  Protestants have been demons.  Jews and Muslims have been demons.  American Indians and immigrants in America of all nationalities – Irish, Italian, Polish, Chinese, Mexican, you-name-it – have all been identified in conspiracy theories as demons.  In more recent American history blacks, communists, socialists, fascists, gays, pro-choicers, pro-lifers, and liberals and conservatives of every stripe have been demons.  The fingers of false conspiracy theories have gone in all directions, always with deadly consepqneces.  Those that turn out to be justified (and thus not false) do indeed save the world from evil.  But it’s the false ones I’m concerned with here. 

We’ve recently witnessed the publication of two wildly popular novels about conspiracy theories that may or may not be true.  I’m talking ab out Dan Brown’s books about the possible conspiracies by the Catholic Church (Da Vinci Code) and the Masonic Order (Lost Symbol).  Both organizations, historically, have done enormous good in the world, and at times have been horribly persecuted in the name of conspiracy theories. 

I would argue that the Christian Church has also done irreparable damage to the world during the Crusades and the Inquisition, which makes the scary parts of Da Vinci Code even scarier.   (One could argue that the mess we face right this moment in Islamic countries is the logical consequence of those medieval religious wars.) But I grew up a Protestant boy (Church of Christ) in the Midwest, where anti-Catholic feelings were acted out daily by kids my age on the few Catholics in our schools. 

In addition, I was a member of DeMolay, the Masonic order for young men.  So my youthful perception of the two organizations featured in Brown’s books was skewed towards Catholics being bad and Masons being good.  My more restrained and balanced view of things came about much later, when I actually studied history and gained some maturity.  By then I had spotted the demonizing conspiracy theories creeping out of the cracks in both organizations, and indeed in all organizations that accept some people and exclude others. 

Needless to say, at this point in my life I have to struggle daily not to demonize anyone who does not share my enlightened view, to wit:  we all possess in ourselves good and evil, there are two dies to every issue, things are not always what they seem, Justice can be achieved without resorting to violence, we must try to understand why our enemies hate us before attacking them, and the gap between rich and poor must be closed but not at the expense of democratic principles.  I would enjoy demonizing anyone who does not agree with me on these views.  But I try not to.

Regarding Dan Brown’s books and conspiracy theories in general, Adam Gopnik says (in the Sept. 28, 2009 issue of the NEW YORKER, p. 22):

“… the conspiracy theories out there today – the ones about the socialist fascists who are coming to get you at the behest of the alien President [Obama] – are not cute.  The old ones [about Jews, blacks, gays and Muslims, along with Catholics and Masons, et al] weren’t either.”

“Fear and hatred underlie conspiracy theories.  They always have.  You can draw them away from reality, but you cannot really drain them of rage.l”

Exactly.  And it's the rage in conspiracy theories that most intrigues me.  I feel it in myself.  It comes out in my dreams.  The raw force of rage thrills me and repels me at the same time.  I suppose good psychotherapists could get to the root of it.  The best I can do is to recognize its source in any anger I may have retained from times when I felt helpless and vulnerable. 

Intellectually I assure myself that it is based on ignorance, just as I think the present anti-Obama theories are.  But I wonder if not knowing something for what it is provides a refuge for my not knowing about it.  In that space of unknowingness I can imagine all sorts of idiotic nonsense that I can rally around. 

It does not surprise me at all that former President Carter points to racism to explain the rage in the recent “town hall meetings” (and their “tea party” rhetoric) that showed people jumping up to scream out their feelings in ways that show they are out of touch with reality.  Having grown up in Jim Crow country, I fought for civil rights almost as soon as I could walk, and I continue that fight today.  But I sometimes catch people (and even myself) saying things that show how deeply my prejudice is against African Americans.  (“Why do so many of them misuse the English language,” I ask, “or become so wealthy and famous as athletes and international pop stars?”  Deep prejudice?  You bet.)

Am I anti-Semitic, too?  As a child piano prodigy whose teachers in New York and California were, for the most part, Jewish refugees, and now, having lived for many years in the very heart of the entertainment capital of the world, Malibu and Hollywood, I sometimes complain of drowning in Jewishness and blame Jews (half-jokingly?) for being too bright, too talented, and too wealthy.

As Gopnik says, you can try to educate and maybe draw people away from reality (as we have from the old theories about evil Rome and Masonic secrecy), but by then the rage that fueled the conspiracies in the first place has done its damage.  What frightens me about the present situation is the ease with which fear mongers and their witless followers can spread their bile.   

The other day I learned a word I had never heard before, applied by an author to the God of the Old Testament – who would of course be the God of the New Testament and the Holy Koran, as well.  But the author was trying to express his disdain for the frightening, wrathful, resentful, jealous, and all-too-human God of the O. T. as opposed to the more loving and forging God of the N. T. 

The word in question is “acrabilious” and it means “to be filled with black bile.”  (If you’ve never heard the word before, my spell check hasn’t either, and automatically underlines it as misspelled!)  I think we all experience times when we are a bit acrabilious, especially when we become angry at a person, a group or a plan that is well-meaning or even harmless, but for some unknown and irrational reason we become so filled with rage by it that we cannot control ourselves from spitting out vitriol and stomping holes in the floor like Rumpelstiltsken.  If only we could slink off somewhere, as he did, and either disappear or show more respect, understanding and love towards the object of our rage! 

I guess I am a hopeless idealist when it comes to working through our problems, and especially if they are conspiracy theories that need to be proven true or nonsense.  False conspiracy theories were dangerous in days when Chicken Little and the Little Boy Who Cried Wolf were alive.  They are dangerous still today. 

Let’s keep our eyes on conspiracy theories that prove to be true, such as the ones involving terrorists in a nuclear age, rather than those that indict a bright articulate, unusually thoughtful, and wildly popular President of the United States. 

Glenn T. Webb
Palm Desert, CA
January 2010


An Open Letter to Great Depression Babies

Many people born between 1929-38 in the United States, especially in the so-called dust-belt, grew up in poor families that relied on government relief programs such as FDR’s New Deal to survive.  As a 1953 graduate of Lawton High School in southwest Oklahoma (and a 1957 grad of Abilene Christian in Texas), I heard from my parents and grand-parents how tough life was for them, and to some extent remember poverty first-hand right after the Great Depression.  I imagine many of my schoolmates (born in 1935 or so) might have similar recollections.

The reasons for the hard times back then are still not exactly clear.  Theories range from an unequal distribution of wealth (rich factory owners) and income (farmers and laborers), to an unsustainable credit-based economy.  The U.S. Federal Reserve is usually accused of allowing large national banks to fail rather than prop them up with subsidies.  (Maybe this is why economists were so reluctant to follow the recommendation that conservatives were recommending just recently!)

Many scholars have looked at we Great Depression Babies in terms of our politics today, and are puzzled by the fact that the great majority of us are quite conservative, even though our lives were saved by the liberal government public policies of the FDR administration.  The question, of course, is why?  Why have so many Democrats turned into Republicans?  Is it merely because we went from poor to rich (through hard work and a flourishing war-time economy) and are not about to support the public policies (and pay the taxes) that would support the poor of the nation today?  Or is it more complicated than that?

I suspect that there is a larger “liberal” agenda that includes paying more taxes for the poor and other things that we don’t like, such as abortion, homosexuality, and immigration.  We don’t like the immorality that seems to be surrounding us and our children every day.  We’re not prudes, but we think sex is a private matter with clear boundaries about what is natural and what is not.  Most of all, we are tired of the crime and violence and pornography that permeates our lives.  We believe firmly that this nation is a Christian nation and must be protected from terrorists like the 9/11 fanatics whose religion teaches them to destroy us.  

I have spent my life as a university professor and administrator with credentials as a cultural historian.   Now in retirement, I find myself with lots more time to write, and I would like to write down your responses to the question posed above, namely, “Why are you now a political conservative even though you came from a liberal background?”  The responses I get will be confidential unless my publisher is wild about what comes out and sees a bestseller in the making.  In that unlikely event, I will ask your permission to quote you. 

If you put your faith in the Republican Party to implement your conservative views, tell me why.  If the Democratic Party does not represent you, tell me why.  If you do not consider yourself to be conservative in your political and religious views, please tell me that, too, along with your reasons why.  (My impression, of course, is that liberal Great Depression Babies are in the minority.)  

Whatever you tell me will remain in strictest confidence.  I do plan to share on my Face Book page some of the results in terms of statistics and the more interesting comments.  But even those will not be made public until I get a green light from each person.  I will share my own views along with yours, but you can see from my Face Book information page that I consider myself to be “very liberal” in both politics and religion.  So my motives in conducting this survey clearly are suspect, maybe even subversive! 

But I hope you can appreciate why I am asking for your opinions this way.  Before I die I simply hope to fill in all the gaps and connect all the dots that might help me understand myself and my fellow peers a little better. 

Feb. 12, 2010

Glenn T. Webb
Palm Desert, CA