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.


Thursday, April 7, 2011

A Love That Will Not Let Me Go


Sometimes people who know me, and who are puzzled by my appreciation of religion (or my rejection of it, depending on how they themselves regard religion), ask me how I can claim to be a Christian and a Buddhist at the same time.  The simple answer is that Christianity offers (in the words of an old hymn) “a love that will not let me go.”  As for Buddhism, I owe any insights I have into the reality of things to the deep meditation that Zen Buddhist sitting practice (J. zazen) has afforded me.  Love and insight keep me appreciative of religion.

I should explain that the love I find in Christianity has very little to do with Christ’s love for me.  It has to do with the love, his love, the love I have read about all my life, the love that resides in me. This love is undemanding, available to all people and things, surrounding them and me, despite what we do or say, embracing us, spilling out of us, filling the world.

That stated, I have seen so many people hurt by religious fanatics that I am almost ready to bring down the curtain on any religion that excludes others.  Historically, too, those who have killed or been killed in the name of religion since the beginning of time look like fanatics and victims in equal number.  As I’ve said elsewhere many times, I recommend the ride we call religion, but not if those on the ride deliberately roll right over other people or throw them off.   Soldiers of Christ, to state the obvious, seldom turn the other cheek.

Of course love and insight are synonyms for compassion and wisdom, the two goals of Buddhist enlightenment.  I think they may be at the heart of the Jewish-Christian-Muslim matrix as well, but let’s just say these two qualities are the ones I have found the most useful in my life.  I prefer them to arrogance and ignorance, or hatred and resentment, for example.  I am not a combative person, but I have deep wells of anger, which can boil up whenever my mind defends itself.  I am, in addition, a snob.  I look down, instinctively, on people who are not as smart as I am.  What are their credentials, after all?  None?  Paltry?  Then away with them!

I try to live with the insight that connects all sentient beings together over time and space, and that makes me realize that I am everything that I can see, hear, smell, taste, understand, imagine or dream.  I am so tied to rational explanations and logic that I have to work especially hard to see in myself things that I cannot understand or explain.  I am quick to size you up as a “stupid idiot” if you don’t make sense.   But it is one thing to be temporarily a raving maniac, spewing out words I feel sorry for later.  It is something else entirely to be a full-time Hitler.  Or so I often think.  Then my heart assures me that I am the worst and best that humans have always been. 

The recent news of Japan’s horrible earthquake and tsunami tragedy has left me weak with sadness.  I cannot imagine how I would deal with such a thing.  All the characteristics of my Japanese friends have been displayed for all the world to see:  calm in the face of fear, restrained in grief, orderly, respectful, considerate, resigned to nature’s ways, ready to do what needs doing, determined to be useful, etc.  No shouting, no shoving, no snatching or breaking into stores to take what they need. 

I imagine a similar but even more horrible scene played out over the entire country in 1945.  People then and now picked themselves up and began to check on family members and friends, to see if they needed help, or if they had survived.  The resilience of the Japanese is not the same as a tough weed that continues to grow.  It comes from a carefully cultivated faith in their place in the world, as creatures who become human only when they think of those around them before they think of themselves.  This trait is called “omoi-yari” in Japanese.

Yesterday, when Americans woke up to TV reports of the nightmare that Japan was going through, I watched for hours with my mouth open and tears streaming down my face.  I made calls and sent e-mails to our friends in Japan.  Most of them live in Tokyo and southwestward, in Kyoto and Osaka.  So they were alright.  They had felt the earthquake, but were OK. The tsunami that followed was to the north and off to the east, moving at incredible speed over the Pacific .  Thanks to geological circumstances and the technical marvels of modern architectural engineering our friends in the Kanto and Kansai were fine. 

Yesterday I decided I needed to take a break from thinking about their suffering, so I went down to the closest clubhouse in our development in Palm Desert to work out in the gym and have a swim.  Afterwards I was resting in a lounge chair in the warm sun when I overheard two men discussing the disaster in Japan.  Everyone here has to be 55 and older, but these guys were too young to have served in the Korean War, much less WWII.  They could have been in Vietnam. 

But now, like me, they were enjoying their retirement in a beautiful place and were expressing in a loud voice what they thought about everything, from sports to restaurants, and who might be the next in their neighborhood to get cancer and/or die.  Suddenly one of the men brought up the TV coverage of the miles of devastation in the wake of the tsunami along eastern Japan‘s coastline, including floating debris on fire from broken gas lines.

Instead of saying things I would expect, like how horrible this whole event was, these fellows seemed to be unfazed by what they had seen on TV, and then one guy said, “You’d think those Japs wouldn’t build everything out of wood after we fire bombed the shit out of their cities.  Hell we had to nuke them in order to get their attention and end WWII!” 

The other guy said he thought God was finally punishing the Japanese for starting WWII in the first place and for taking over the American auto and technology industries with their “sneaky business practices.”  They went on to blame Japan for not building their own military defense system and “relying on America to protect their butts from North Korea and China.”

I had heard such assessments of Japan before, sometimes from my own relatives, who never could understand why I chose to devote my life and career to studying my country’s enemy.  On this afternoon, however, at this point I was ready to go over and … Yeah, well.

The first thing I actually did was what I usually do when faced with Americans who know nothing about Japan, which is to think about how I might teach assholes something about Japan.  Um-hum.  How about a crash course, beginning with the two sides of the WWII story (yes, there are two sides to every story), and continuing with some history and cultural differences and the reasons behind them?  This familiar scenario ran through my head in seconds.  Then I went to the restroom and threw up.

After getting in my car I tried to cool down, reminding myself that these bird dogs are in fact me.  Are they stupid?  Yes.  Without a doubt.  So why do I need to “correct” them?  Is that even possible?  Driving into my driveway I had another little moment:  I promised to be less critical of others during Lent.  We’re in the second week of Lent.  Neither Carol nor I grew up observing Lent.  But we both made promises of repentance, and she got ashes on her forehead at church on Wednesday.   I decided my Argentine tango lesson took precedence.  So I missed Ash Wednesday.  But I did promise to be more tolerant of others.  So what should I do?

These guys who nearly caused me to kill them are pool lizards.  I, of course, am not.  I go to the pool maybe twice a week.  They are there every day.  That alone makes me superior.  I go to the gym and pool to exercise my body, and to soak up a little Vitamin D.  But they go only to gossip.  Clearly they are inferior beings, like slugs.  Now that I have had a chance to reflect on them, however, I have decided to allow them some slack.  And if I believed in the grace of God I would have to say God probably gave these jerks his grace, as well.

The love that will not let me go is relentless.  It is determined that I am not going to divide the world up into them and me.  “Myself” and “not myself”, which philosophers speak of rather succinctly as self and other, have begun to lose their meaning for me, literally.  Which is which?   All the differences I have learned to live my life by have no chance against the love I’m talking about.  Or the insight that I’ve glimpsed when the volume of myself grew dim in meditation.

I find the words of a very popular contemporary Japanese poet, Aida Mitsuo, very insightful.  I sometimes try to put some of his short poems into English, but it’s hard to capture their flavor.  In this one he paraphrases a teaching by the 13th-century Zen priest Dogen Zenji: “There is no such thing as ‘myself’ – except as a conceit.  So is it necessary?  What a shame!“ (自信はなくて、うぬぼればかり。ああ、はずかしい、はずかしい。)  What a shame indeed, that we take ourselves so seriously.

Glenn T. Webb
-       at home in Palm Desert, CA
-       March 13, 2011

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