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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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

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