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.


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.


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