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.


Friday, December 12, 2014


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.

Palm Desert, CA

Glenn Taylor Webb

Saturday, July 26, 2014



At the moment I sit down in despair at my computer, agonizing over the crisis situations I see on CNN, MSNBC, Aljazeera America and regular channels.  First, there’s the crash site in Ukraine still open to looting and tampering by pro-Russian thugs (look, I heard them, and that’s what they are!)  By all accounts (except Putin’s) they (or Russian troops) shot down a passenger plane with almost 300 innocent people aboard, 200 of them from the Netherlands.  And for over a week brutish soldiers have looted the personal effects and identities of the crash victims and refused to let experts examine the wreckage, scattered over an enormous area that includes farms and villages. 

Finally these self-proclaimed Russian freedom-fighters allowed bodies to be crudely stacked in poorly-refrigerated cattle cars and shipped to the Netherlands, where for the last two days we have watched crowds of an outraged but dignified people honor their dead as casket after casket in motorcades entered a military base for proper identification and return to loved ones.  At the same time, fragments of bodies and important airplane wreckage still have not been collected because pro-Russian troops have not allowed outside experts into the site for long enough to do their jobs.  They intend to defend the land they have occupied by force in eastern Ukraine.  The fighting is intensifying as I write this.  Carol and I are scheduled to spend most of August in Russia (mostly at the Hermitage Museum), so all of this is making us nervous.  We leave in a little over a week.

The second major crisis going on right now is between Palestinians and Israelis.  Nothing new, but the increasing number of casualties in Gaza as a result of Israel’s “target bombs” is sickening.  The 6-year Israeli land-sea-and-air embargo on Gaza is in effect imprisoning and nearly starving the population.  In response, the Hamas government built a network of tunnels that allows radical Muslim Gazans to enter Egypt and Israel to kill Jews.  It is easy to see why citizens would welcome Hamas military help.  But Israel is not going to budge on this.  And Hamas-led Palestine seems ready to fight even if every man, woman and child in Gaza is killed in the effort.  And despite the fact that few of the hundreds of rockets Hamas fires daily into Israel can penetrate the anti-missile “dome” over the country.  So the unequal casualty list to date – nearly a thousand Gazans to 35 Israelis – seems outrageous.  Two brief cease-fires have come and gone, and the shelling on both sides has resumed.  Pictures of the dead and wounded spill out of the TV screen.

From my posh ivory tower in the California desert (Del Webb Sun City Palm Desert), with almost nobody around me to talk to about anything (or not) -- other than Obama-care (devil-sent), golf, sports, houses owned and sold, hedge funds, the stock market, cruises, restaurants and ballroom dances in the area, and Obama (the Devil himself) -- I try my best to engage people in issues I am passionate about.  Those include meditation, Japanese language and customs, and then (working back in time from today) the deadly disputes in Gaza, Israel, Ukraine, Russia, Libya, Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran, and the Americas south of Texas and America itself.  All of those issues relate to the age-old questions about God and land:  what does “He” teach and who owns what?  No wonder I was attracted to the pacific (and godless) teachings of Buddhism from an early age!

For my Facebook friends, here are two news flashes from my tower regarding (1) a movie and (2) a magazine article.  The movie is BOYHOOD by Richard Linklater, whose WAKING LIFE first knocked the breath out of me when it came out in 2001.  Most of his other films have at least made me utter a prayer of thanks for him.  But after looking at BOYHOOD for about 3 hours, Carol and I looked at each other and said nothing.  What’s to say?  This is one fine film.  I want to translate it immediately into Japanese and add it to my arsenal of teaching materials for Japanese students learning about America. 

The movie was made over a 12-year period in the life of an actual boy, Ellar Coltrane (Mason in the film) from grade school to college.  His mother is played by a brilliant Patricia Arquette, and his older sister is played by Linklater’s actual daughter, Lorelei (Samantha in the film.)  My only problem with the film is why nobody in it speaks “Texan”, but I think I know why.  First, there is a scene in which the laid-back liberal father, played flawlessly by Ethan Hawke, mercilessly (and hilariously) bad-mouths outgoing President George W. Bush.  (He even steals a McCain sign from a Texas neighbor’s yard while putting up Obama signs with his son and daughter.)  I think that scene would be very confusing if the father sounded exactly like Bush.  Also, I think most Americans (and maybe all English speakers) would tire of hearing Texan spoken for the length of a film.  Besides, Texans in the flesh can be heard in another Linklater film, “Bernie” (2011), which should satisfy anybody wanting to subject themselves to native speech.

The magazine article is by Jonathan Rauch, a contributing editor to The Atlantic, and author of a fine introductory book on Japan that I used for years in some of my classes at Pepperdine in Malibu and International Christian University in Omika, Japan.  It is called “The Outnation” (1992).  The magazine article appeared in the July/August 2014 issue of The Atlantic, p. 20-21, and it deals with the recent troubling matter of certain Christians trying to cut themselves off from mainstream American society and laws in the name of religious freedom.  I like the article so much that I am quoting large portions of it here without comment.  Its point is very much the point of BOYHOOD, as well, in the sense that both the film and article are telling us that the youth of today may be on the right track to everything.

“I am someone who believes that religious liberty is the country’s founding freedom, the idea that made America possible.  I am also a homosexual atheist, so religious conservatives may not want my advice.  I’ll give it to them anyway.  Culturally conservative Christians are taking a pronounced turn toward social secession:  asserting both the right and the intent to sequester themselves from secular culture and norms, including the norm of nondiscrimination.  This is not a good idea.  When religion isolates itself from secular society, both sides lose, but religion loses more.
… Why the hunkering down?  When I asked around recently, a few answers came back.  One is the fear that traditional religious views, especially about marriage, will soon be condemned as no better than racism, and that religious dissenters will be driven from respectable society, denied government contracts, and passed over for jobs …
… I wonder whether religious advocates of these opt-outs have thought through the implications.  Associating Christianity with a desire – no, a determination to discriminate puts the faithful in open conflict with the value that young Americans hold most sacred.  They might as well write off the next two or three or 10 generations, among whom nondiscrimination is the 11th commandment. 
… This much I can guarantee:  the First Church of Discrimination will find few adherents in 21st-century America.  Polls find that, year by year, Americans are growing more secular.  The trend is particularly pronounced among the young, many of whom have come to equate religion with intolerance.  Social secession will only exacerbate that trend.”

Monday, June 9, 2014

In The Light Of What We Know

IN THE LIGHT OF WHAT WE KNOW, by Zia Haider Rahman

Reader alert:  This is a book rave.  I am in awe especially of pages 96-101: Pakistan, Bangladesh, Princeton, Oxford, Statue of Liberty, identity, patriotism, science, philosophy, Muslims, Jews, Christians, religion in general -- informative (and for me transformative) five pages in a novel that is chock full of very human feelings exquisitely expressed on every page.  Be prepared to find yourself in the minds of people you might never know otherwise.

Two Muslim men, one from Pakistan but born in Princeton, N.J. to a Pakistani diplomat, the other from Bangladesh (East Pakistan) but raised in Oxford, England, son of shop-keepers.  The two of them met in college and kept in touch.  When together their conversations were soul-searching, and fill the pages of Rahman’s book.  One of those conversation took place in New York in the 1990s. 

The first one says he has an American passport and is thrilled when, after returning to America from a trip abroad, he hears “Welcome home!” from a U.S. immigration officer at JFK.  The other (who has a British passport) says he would give his life if UK immigration officers at Heathrow would greet him that way after a trip.  On impulse, they take the ferry to Liberty Island, where they stand together in front of the famous plaque with the poem by Emma Lazarus, a New York Jew whose forebears immigrated to the U.S. from Portugal. 

To the two friends the words seem to come from God/Allah (or perhaps the Virgin Mary), welcoming other immigrants from Europe, the “huddled masses yearning to breathe free …” In the 1920s and ‘30s that would include some of the great Jewish minds of the day, many of whom ended up at Princeton.  One of the men imagines that one of those minds must have belonged to his hero, the logician, Kurt Godel (1906-1978). 

Not so, says his friend, who points out that the champion of the “true but unprovable” theorem was not Jewish but a Lutheran-born theist who believed in a personal God.  As such he was out of step with Albert Einstein, Godel’s colleague, a secular Jewish Deist who believed in God, but in the abstract, following the famous 17th-century Dutch Jewish philosopher, Spinoza (and hero of my youth, after D.T. Suzuki and Joseph Campbell.)  And now? Pope Francis says even atheists, along with believers, will go to Heaven as long as all of us do good on earth!  (I wonder if he read this book.)

Saturday, March 15, 2014

True Self - 主人公

True Self – 主人公

Some days just fall into place like a trot into a gallop.  (Point of reference:  I grew up in Oklahoma riding horses bareback.)  Today -- Tuesday, March 11, 2014 -- was like that.  This morning I was looking at a calligraphic scroll with this enigmatic three-character Sino/Japanese phrase, written by one of my Japanese Zen teachers.  Its meaning is always a shock. 

The three characters, taken individually, literally mean “Master, Person, Lord”.   In any Japanese-English dictionary the phrase is defined as “the leading person in a literary or dramatic work.”  The phrase in Buddhist texts conveys a different meaning, one that I have known by heart for at least fifty years.   Consistently, the old scribes knew it as a euphemism for the fully awakened being.  On a scroll like the one I was looking at this morning it says to me, “You, you idiot, are IT!”  It reminds me that nobody was born for me and nobody dies for me.  I am the protagonist in my own life, in a true life in which I am everything and everyone.

When I see or hear the phrase I immediately stop, look and listen.  The phrase strikes me dumb.  I don’t really hold my breath, but it’s as though a thief has crept into my house and I am trying to keep quiet so I can take the proper action – attack or escape.  In my Zen lineage all priests have the word “cold” for the first character of their temple names.  That’s because cold in this case is a euphemism for enlightenment, which perhaps feels much as I have described it.  And for a horse it is as natural as moving from a trot into a gallop.

For me, being struck dumb is invariably sexy.  I am an impotent old man, have been for many years, but the magic of sex and the miracle of love that goes along with it just wipe me out.  Maybe because I was an only child, but the coming together of two people in love makes me dance and sing and cry and laugh out loud.  I don’t have to do it to feel it.  The very idea of being fully awake to the joy and pain of every other creature is my True Self at work.  What a guy!

So that’s the episode that started my day today.  After hanging the scroll on the wall and watching as Carol placed an orchid arrangement in front of it, I sat down to read a bit before joining Carol later at dance class.  First I played a little Kachaturian and Bach on the piano at home to guard against memory loss in my fingers, and then rehearsed West Coast Swing and Nightclub Two-Step for three hours with a hardy bunch of retirees in the dance studio nearby.  That was quite a workout, but after returning home I couldn’t get an article I had read earlier in the current New York Review of Books out of my mind:   “India: You’re Criminal If Gay.”

The article was written by Leila Seth, mother of the brilliant novelist Vikram Seth, who just happens to be gay.  Mrs. Seth is 83, her son Vikram was born in 1952.  She is a lawyer and distinguished High Court judge.  She is outraged at the anti-homosexual stance the Indian government has taken lately.   My wife and I are 78, and our gay son Burke was born in 1962.   Carol and I are retired professors, who lost our son in 2005 to a brain aneurism.  Vikram Seth and his mother have bravely allowed her article and his poem to be published with the invitation to publish them free of charge.  Please take a look at p. 22 of the Mar. 20 issue of NYRB.  But please read Vikram’s poem now, and add your Amen.  - GTW


Through love’s great power to be made whole
In mind and body, heart and soul –
Through freedom to find joy, or be
By dint of joy itself set free
In love and in companionhood:
This is the true and natural good.

To undo justice, and to seek
To quash the rights that guard the weak –
To sneer at love, and wrench apart
The bonds of body, mind and heart
With specious reason and no rhyme:
This is the true unnatural crime.