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.


St. Margaret's Forum

              St. Margaret’s Forum
              Friday, Jan. 17, 2014  - Dr. Glenn T. Webb

             The Art of Living in the World with Awareness, Respect and Trust –                   
                                          Responding to Buddhism

1.  Two months ago I gave a lecture at the International Buddhist Study Center in Little Tokyo.  My audience was made up of Japanese business and religious leaders, consulate officers, and Buddhist clergy.  My topic was American customs and religious beliefs that puzzle the Asian community.  Of particular concern to my listeners was how they should respond when someone asks them if they believe in God.  (Just for the record, I always tell them to say yes, just to avoid trouble.)

2.  Of course, Buddhism doesn’t speak of God, so that is the problem.  Today I am talking to you as an expert in Asian cultural values and Buddhism, telling you what I think the historical Buddha Shakyamuni might say about the so-called religion that bears his name.  I assume most of you are Christians and are here because you are curious about Buddhism and would like to know more about it.

3.  But why should I be the one to speak to you on the subject?  That in itself is a long story that I will share bits of as I go along.  I feel that my focus here must be on two points:  (1) the Hindu/Buddhist view of reality, and (2) the very different view that Jews, Christians and Muslims have of reality.  After I have finished we can discuss the differences.

4.  Let me start by asking you a question.  How many of you know what miso is?  Answer:  miso is a fermented paste made of soy beans, barley, rice, salt, and a yeast culture called kojikin.  Small portions of miso paste mixed with hot water makes a delicious broth that is served at mealtime throughout East Asia.

5.  What, you ask, does miso have to do with Buddhism or me or anything?  Well, I use it here merely to lead into my thoughts on how to live in the world with awareness, respect and trust.  When my family and I first arrived in Japan, in 1964, we contacted some missionaries from the Church of Christ, the Christian denomination associated with Pepperdine University and indeed with my family and my wife’s family. 

6.  You will hear more about the history of this denomination shortly.  But right now I want to tell you a funny story about a hymn that is popular in Churches of Christ.  It was published in 1907 by J. G. Dailey, an obscure composer of spirituals and gospel songs. The first line of the song asks the question: “Why Did My Savior Come To Earth …?” The song ends in a chorus with the answer:  “…Because He Loved Me So.”

In Japan the little bi-lingual children of the few missionaries living there were quite sure the answer in the song referred to God’s love of miso.  In their minds it made perfect sense that God would send his Only Begotten Son so that He, too, could enjoy the wonderful taste of miso!

7.  Quite a misunderstanding, right?  But misunderstandings can be more interesting than understandings sometimes.  Could it be that both of these – involving God’s love for me and the taste of miso -- touch the truth of things in their own way? 

8.  In any case, what we UNDERSTAND () is exactly what I want to talk about today.  We can understand simple things without probing the mystery of life at all.  But to understand the mystery of life and death, particularly the one about what happens to us after we die, we have to take a leap of faith. That leap is built on sacred stories rather than on reason. 

The stories in the Judeo-Christian-Muslim traditions, despite their differences, require us to believe that the ultimate understanding of reality belongs to God.  The Hindu-Buddhist stories, on the other hand, require us to discover ultimate truth within ourselves, sometimes with assistance from spiritual guides. 

(Re the Chinese character on the screen:  to study Buddhism seriously you almost have to know the rudiments of Sanskrit and Chinese.  There are many words in scriptures from both languages for “understand”, but I’ve chosen the Chinese character for my purposes here.)

9.  I grew up in the Churches of Christ.  The founders of that Protestant denomination were part of the 18th-century Scottish Enlightenment (going back to Locke, Hume and Kant.)   They were determined to “restore” the New Testament church on earth using logic and common sense. They insisted on a rigorous study of Greek, Latin, and Hebrew, to get at Biblical teachings linguistically. They insisted as well on a knowledge of the latest archaeological and historical findings of the time, in order to put the teachings in their context.  Once that was done, the devout Christian was free to do what the Bible taught or take the consequences.

11.  My father, R. O. Webb, was a devout Christian of this type.  He took a PhD in history in 1918 from the University of Oklahoma.  Before that, he did work at the University of Chicago.  In Henderson, Tennessee, he was a student of Arvy Glenn Freed (1863-1931), a Church of Christ minister and professor at Freed-Hardeman University.  My father and mother named me after Dr. Freed. They also made sure I knew the Bible well enough to recite many passages of scripture in three languages. (Both my parents were federal employees, as directors of the Indian School in Ft. Sill, Oklahoma, and were welfare agents covering Comanche County, as well.)

12.  Family friends tell me that my father took great pride in telling them how at the age of three or four I came to him one day and asked if it was true what Jesus said in John 14:6, viz., that “… nobody comes to the Father except by me.”   I guess I was upset because I said (or so the story goes), “Well, I think that is very unfair!  What about all those people who lived on earth thousands of years before Jesus was born?”

13.  This is exactly the kind of common sense answer that the Church of Christ approved, so I think my father was proud of me, in spite of my blasphemy.  But at that young age I also learned what it means to take a leap of faith, by trusting God to let those poor people into heaven, even though they lived long before Jesus was born!  Moreover, I had to remind myself that man’s ways are not God’s ways (Isaiah 55:8 ) and that we cannot find God by searching for Him (Job 11:7).

14.  Well, that’s all true according to the way the monotheistic religions of the ancient Near East see things.  Jews, Christians and Muslims view things vertically, with each of us bound to our Creator.  (Indeed, the Latin word for “religion” denotes the link between God and man.)  We cannot understand the mind of God, but we trust and obey Him in order to live eternally with Him in heaven after we die.  This, most assuredly, is the faith of our fathers. 

15.  But that version of the way things are is not the only one.  It is not compatible with the notion of reality that came out of ancient India, where we are not vertically connected to God but horizontally, so to speak, to our past selves and each other. In the Hindu/Buddhist view we are in a constant struggle to return to a perfect realization of the interconnectedness of all being.  That goal is Enlightenment, which we alone can reach. Hindus say we will reach that together after eons of rebirths, and with a lot of help from Hindu gods. (We will look at what Buddhists say about that later.) 

16.  Both concepts of reality, the vertical and horizontal, seem to have emerged in two parts of Asia – in Palestine and India -- at about the same time, around 2000 B.C., with scribes putting the basic beliefs into writing at least by 1000 B.C.  Of course, Hindu, Buddhist, Jewish, Christian and Islamic scribes continued their elaborations well into the first 1000 years of the Christian era, bringing revolutionary changes to the original formulations. But in historical terms, they wrote the classic story of East and West.

17.  Let’s take a closer look at the Indian case.  Brahmanical hymns and scriptures are the basis for the Hindu world-view.  They imply that the universe began as a perfect entity, unsullied by differences of any kind.  This non-differentiated Perfection they call Brahman ().  The Chinese character refers to both the Sanskrit language itself and to the all-inclusive Self (with a capital “S”) that later became divided up into our normal distinctions of I, you, he, she, it, we, you and they. 

18.  Brahmanical texts do not seem to ask how Perfection came into being.  They simply begin with its dissolution, at some point in time, into all of the selves we are today.  And they call those many selves Atman (), the “collective memory” of Perfection, or better yet, its spark, that is in all sentient beings.     (In Buddhism that memory is known as the Buddha Nature.) This little spark of perfection gives us the ability to return to Perfection and thus reach Enlightenment.  But only (according to Hinduism) after we collectively evolve, so to speak, into the memory and reality of Brahman.

19.  In the meantime, each Atman-carrying self must endure countless rebirths, reincarnations, going through many levels of realization in the four human castes (四性):  Brahmin priests, Kshatriya protectors, Vaishya citizens, and Shudra servants.  Castes below the lowest are Outcastes:  humans who are as unaware of perfection as animals and demons.  (We who are not Hindu, I found out, are to be pitied for not knowing their caste, because we will have to make it to Enlightenment blindfolded, as it were!)

20.  Each Hindu caste has its own Dharma (), or set of rules to live by.  Each human being is born to parents of the same caste and dharma, and thus each family knows precisely its members’ places not only in society, but in their progress on the return trip to perfection.  They must go by the rules of their dharma, but they also can call upon the avatars, the gods, the spiritual guides, who appear in art and in human history to help them climb the ladder to spiritual realization. Shakyamuni Buddha and Jesus Christ are both reincarnations of Vishnu, for example, in Hinduism.

21.  Now let’s turn to Buddhism specifically.  Around 600 B.C. the historical Buddha began to challenge one very important aspect of Hindu teachings.  He was of the Kshatriya protector class.  He was a prince, who left his father’s palace to deepen his understanding of life and death.  He was a rebel.  And after undergoing every spiritual practice available, he ultimately concluded that what Hinduism taught about the subject might very well be true, but that he was not sure. 

22.  With that blasphemous doubt in his mind, the Buddha insisted the only path to Enlightenment was a personal one, a “middle path” of deep meditation in a life full of compassion towards all creatures.  Turning down the volume of self-concern and being aware of the needs of others was a key element in his teachings.  That was the sure method of reaching Enlightenment, the only Dharma.

23.  Like Jesus, the Buddha never wrote down a single word himself.  Disciples formulated doctrines, writing in their master’s voice. By the 3rd century B.C. the great king of India, Ashoka, had declared Buddhism to be the state religion.  But by 600 A.D. Hinduism had reemerged, swallowing up Buddhism in its wake.  Then, with the coming of the Moguls in the 16th century, India began its long struggle between Hindus and Muslims, which unfortunately has not ended, despite the creation of Islamic Pakistan and Hindu India in 1945.

24.  After Buddhism was made obsolete in India, the religion spread to others parts of Asia where today it claims more followers than any other religion on earth. Buddhist teachings are followed in tens of millions of Buddhist temples throughout Asia and the rest of the world.  But Buddhists differ from one another as much as Baptists and Catholics do.  In some ways Buddhist denominations seem as unlike each other as Judaism is to Christianity and as the two of them are to Islam. So I must be selective about what kind of Buddhism I discuss today.

25.  Most of my actual training in Buddhism has been in Japan. I have also spent time learning from teachers in India, Tibet, China and Korea. But I will end my talk today by describing some of the features of Japanese Buddhism as I experienced them. Let’s start with a little history.  The Buddhist priesthood in India, like the Christian priesthood in Palestine, did not exist at first.  Once established, however, it required priests to take care of the spiritual needs of lay people.  And, to be celibate!  That is still true in every Buddhist country except Japan.

26. In the 6th century, when Buddhism was adopted in Japan, the priesthood became hereditary.  It has remained so almost without exception to the present day. For over fourteen hundred years Buddhist priests in Japan have married and their eldest sons have inherited the temples and congregations that their families have served.  Over five million such temples are in operation in Japan today.

27.  It would never occur to ordinary Japanese, from other classes in society, to ask a temple to allow them to enter the priesthood.  So when American hippies began knocking on Zen temple doors in the 1950’s, abbots did not know what to think.  From 1964 through 1966, my professors at Kyoto University encouraged me to deepen my understanding of Japanese history and culture by practicing meditation at Zen temples. That was not part of my plan, but it changed my life.

28.  Buddhism at its core puts the responsibility on each of us to search the scriptures, all scriptures.  It also insists that we go deeply into our own consciousness for understanding. (Note that I did not say “conscience”!  Because my conscience, I believe is something that is tied to my cultural and religious prejudices.)  The historical Buddha plumbed the depths of his own consciousness, his own mind, and I think that is what he proposed for all of us.

29.  Sakyamuni Buddha did claim that Enlightenment can be reached by each one of us individually, in direct contradiction of Hindu belief.  But he did say it was not easy to get there!  Not surprisingly, the hard work of training for self-realization seemed to call for specialists, i.e., priests.  The priesthood did eventually emerge, some 400 years after the Buddha’s death, permitting ordinary followers to tend to everyday matters and trust the priests to lead them. 

30.  At the same time, progressive priests looked for a way that allowed ordinary people to be more involved, one that would be easier. This easier way is known as the “Great Vehicle” (or Mahayana) form of Buddhism that encompasses almost all denominations of Buddhist practice today.  Some priests began to rely on scriptures, dating to the first two centuries of the Christian era, that tell wonderful stories that chart the way.  I am particularly fond of the story of Queen Vaidehi, who lived at the time of the historical Buddha, 600 years before Christ. 

31.  According to scriptures of a major form of Pure Land Buddhism (S. Sukhavati, J. Jodo), the queen and her husband the king enraged their sons by renouncing Hinduism and adopting Buddhism.  For that the sons had their father killed and left their mother to starve to death in prison.  In response to her pleas the Buddha is said to have taught her how to visualize a beautiful place, a Pure Land in the afterlife, where personal ignorance (controlled by karma) could be short-circuited, so to speak, and the cycle of reincarnation stopped. 

32.  The queen learned that this beautiful place was created by Amitabha (J. Amida), the Buddha of Infinite Light and Life.  And that all people caught in pain and ignorance can be reborn there simply by developing their faith in Amitabha’s promise.  Once there they have no impediment to their own powers of insight, and they can improve, then return to earth and bring themselves and others to Enlightenment.  Other forms of Mahayana Buddhism, including Zen, offer similar stories of compassion towards ordinary folks (although I would not call the Zen path easy, for reasons I will explain momentarily.)

33.  Tantric (or “secret”) Buddhist practices began to spread in the 7th century (especially in Tibet.) They make it easier to rely on countless Buddhas, mostly ethereal, through mantras, mandalas, and secret teachings and initiations that summon the powers of such fully-realized beings in order to give priests and lay persons the strength to face and overcome self-ignorance.  Ironically, I am regarded by many scholars in my field as a Buddhist iconographer, i.e., a leading expert on the vast array of Buddhist images – my family would call them idols – that are used in Tantric Buddhism.  (Ah yes, life is full of ironies!)

34. To my mind, the followers of Tantric Buddhist sects come close to praying to the “deities” behind these images, if not the images themselves.  For me, some of the images are astounding works of art, and I fully appreciate the human need to have them.  Their stories are fascinating beyond belief.  But I do not consider them sacred, any more than I consider the masterpieces of Christian art that command similar devotion from some believers, to be sacred.

35.  I grew up in a family in love with another story, the story of the Creator God of the Universe who came to earth in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, as the Annointed One, the Christ.  The question I asked myself more than fifty years ago is, “Can I be aware of Buddhism, respect it and its followers, and trust its methods to enhance my heritage?  In short, can a Christian be a Buddhist?  My answer is an unqualified, “Yes!” 

36.  Original Buddhism places no restrictions that I can see on the Gospel narrative.  In fact, one of the abbots of a Japanese temple begged me to conduct a weekly Bible class for the young men in training with me.  He hoped I would focus on the Trinity and said he thought a Christian should use meditation as a time to pray. 

The Buddha’s core message does seem to be,  “Do whatever you have to do to be inwardly quiet, listen to the world you think of as outside of you, and open yourself to it.”  I could be wrong, but I think God must be pleased that I don’t get in His way anymore when offering up prayers.  The late abbot of the Cold Mountain Temple in Suzhou, the site of my lineage in Zen, wrote a calligraphic scroll for me when I visited him in 1993.  What he wrote thrills my heart.  In English it assures me that “Only in Silence Can the Truly Wonderful Be Known.”   

37.  As for the outer trappings of Japanese Zen practice – reading and reciting daily teachings in Japanese, wearing priest’s clothing, following the rules about eating and doing daily chores in certain ways, and in general being Japanese for all intents and purposes – my students know I do not recommend keeping those trappings.

38.  For me, however, it was necessary to break through many barriers of physical and mental pain brought on by the particular way Zen meditation (zazen) is done in Japan.  And those barriers must be broken.  Sitting Zen-style is not easy.  In Japan it still requires a full lotus position:  cushion under the buttocks, feet pulled up onto the inner thighs, and knees resting on the ground. 

39.  I thought I could not do that at first.  But teachers pulled my legs into position, pushed my back fully upright, and made sure my head was high, my chin down, and my eyes slightly open.  Hands are always held in the lap, clasped in positions that vary with the denomination of Zen being followed.  (Yes, there are denominations!) Each period of sitting is between 30 to 45 minutes, with only a 2-minute break between each period.  During a normal day in Japanese Zen temples there are three hours of sitting in the morning, three in the afternoon, and three more at night.

40.  The pain, even for young Japanese, is excruciating.  At first I would always hyperventilate and vomit after about 15 minutes.  Once I began to get used to the pain (after the first year) I was able to sit “on top of” my pain and experience the first stages of consciousness exploration.  My heart rate and breathing slowed down measurably, and “unhinged gratitude” often brought tears to my eyes.  My prayers became quite wordless. The trick (as one of my students later put it wisely) is to live in that state regardless of what you are doing.

41.  By now you must wish I would stop talking.  I’m sure I have gone over the 40 minutes I was allotted.  Let me conclude by saying that I don’t know what the Buddha would say about Buddhism today.  But he would be very happy, I’m sure, with the opening of the third form of the “people’s prayers” in the Episcopalian Book of Common Prayer.  We say it every Sunday this time of year.  It begins with the admonition,  “May we all become one.”  I think Prince Shakyamuni, the historical Buddha, would say “Amen!” to that.  But he probably would point out that we already ARE one!  The challenge, he would say, is to decide what to do about that.  How do we live together as one? In short, how do we practice the art of living?   

The Art of Living in the World: Awareness, Respect, and Trust


Glenn T. Webb
Professor Emeritus, Pepperdine University
Academic Advisor, Bukkyo University –Los Angeles Extension

The Japanese cultural historian Okakura Kakuzo was fond of saying that the Tao, the ancient Chinese teaching about truth, the Way, was in fact the “the art of living in the world.” I’ve borrowed that idea for my talk today about Japan-American relations. I think we can say that the Tao – this “art of living” -- consists of being aware of others, respecting them, and then trusting them in a spirit of peace. This applies to other people, cultures, things and ideas alike.

We all live in a world today that exposes everyone to everyone else.  Our awareness of things around us leads to respect for them; and respecting them leads to trusting them.  Or so I believe.  Without trust we’re not going to get anything done.  I am particularly interested in promoting trust between Americans and Japanese.  I was born in Oklahoma.  My parents were school-teachers.  A complicated series of events turned me into a student of Japan – for over 65 years of my life.  

I first learned about Japan on my own through books. I was ten when the Pacific War ended.  Later, at the University of Chicago, I took classes in Japanese language, history, religion, and art for eight years.  From 1964 to 1966 I was a student at Kyoto University on a Fulbright grant.  Since then, until my retirement in 2004, I have been a professor of Asian studies at three American universities, during which I spent a good part of each year in Kyoto.

In addition to strictly academic studies, I have been practicing some of Japan’s most revered spiritual disciplines.  My wife Carol and I both practice the Way of Tea (chado or chanoyu) and have taught that discipline in American universities.  Carol has earned credentials in the Way of Flowers (kado or ikebana), and I have practiced and taught calligraphy (shodo or the Way of the Brush.)  Closest to my heart is the Zen meditation (zazen) that I learned in Kyoto Zen temples.  That discipline has enriched my life over the years and the lives of many of my students, some of whom direct Zen centers here and in Europe.  

In 2011, to my great honor and surprise, I received the Order of the Rising Sun from the government of Japan, a prestigious decoration that very few non-Japanese receive.  In some small measure this talk today is a way of expressing gratitude for my decoration.

I am sure many of you have visited other countries and have been perplexed by some of the customs there.  I’ve heard Americans say, “I don’t understand the Japanese way of thinking!”  And I’ve heard Japanese friends say, “I just don’t understand American behavior.”  In both cases I have recommended examining the beliefs behind the strange ways of thinking or troubling behavior.  If we dismiss the unfamiliar as strange, and consider our own customs to be superior, we may try to force our way on others.  At that point, any hope of reaching an understanding based on awareness, respect and mutual trust is lost.  Our differences can be explained by looking at religious teachings as well at simple human values that we all have.  


Freedom and independence are the goals of modern people, who want to live in a society that allows them to make as much money as they want, do what they want (within the law), and let no one get in their way of realizing their dreams. In today’s world, communism clearly is no longer a workable political solution, and democratic societies are flourishing, so reaching these goals appear to be possible only when free-market capitalism is the order of the day.  

People in the United States (and maybe in most parts of the world) believe happiness is found in their independence and freedom, and many of them credit God for the material wealth they believe they deserve.  But is that what makes everybody happy?  Maybe not.  For people in Japan happiness seems to rest firmly in their relationships with others. This difference was pointed out recently by Prof. Mayumi Karazawa, who is a cultural psychologist at Tokyo Women’s University.  

A few years ago a serious survey was taken to find out how happiness is defined in different parts of the world.  Each definition was then graded on a scale of happy to sad, and the degree of happiness in each country was reported as a means of somehow changing behaviors in order to bring a greater measure of happiness to countries that seemed sad.  On that survey Japan turned out to be a nation of very sad people!  This was especially puzzling to the scholars who created the survey.  After all, the Japanese hold the record for living longer than most people in the world.  So why are so many Japanese unhappy?

Prof. Karazawa answered the question by noting that the survey was culturally biased because it presumed that people were most happy when they were free to do what they wanted.  It did not take into account that some people might regard such behavior to be selfish and socially unacceptable. The survey placed “personal freedom” to be happiness-producing whereas “caring for others” was not.  Japanese respondents always marked themselves happiest on the survey when asked if looking after the welfare of others in their families or groups made them happy.  Prof. Karazawa pointed out that there are good reasons why the Japanese define happiness differently.  To conclude that they are sad and in need of psychological help is to be unaware of some core values in Japanese society.

Think about it.  If your happiness is defined by your dependence on your relatives and friends, and their mutual dependence on you, then being independent and responsibility-FREE is not going to be a high priority for you. You may feel obliged to do well for them, so your success is their success. Your feeling of gratitude for what they have done for you may spur you on to efforts that you might never make for yourself alone.  Feeling deeply your obligation to others -- known as on () in Japanese -- is what gives meaning to Japanese life.

If happiness in Japan can be mistaken by Westerners as sadness, who knows what else can go wrong?  The makers and interpreters of the survey I referred to have clearly underestimated the Japanese reverence for ancestors.  That is because the experts were not even aware of the true nature of that reverence. 

There are many other aspects of Japanese life that non-Japanese (myself included) have misunderstood about Japan and its people.  I will talk about some of those things a little later, with personal examples.  But first, I want to talk about something that Japanese often get wrong about arrogant and irresponsible Americans.  They mistakenly blame our behavior simply on our love for independence.  But why are we that way?  Are we just greedy by nature?  I think that’s too simple.  Just as we underestimate the history of ancestor worship in Japan, my friends in Japan frequently underestimate the legacy of religions in the lives of Jews, Christians and Muslims.  People in Japan seem have a hard time wrapping their minds around the Western notion of God.

Do You Believe in God?  

This question puzzles my Japanese friends as much as anything regarding life outside Japan.  There is nothing in Japanese reality that corresponds to the Creator of the Universe, the Garden of Eden, and Adam and Eve.  A monotheistic God of the universe doesn’t exist, not in Shintoism, and not in Buddhism. 

Japanese almost without exception observe Shinto birth ceremonies and Buddhist funeral religiously, just as their ancestors have for hundreds of years.  And yet a random sampling of people on the street in Japan (and a poll taken recently of 26 Japanese college students) shows that none of them consider themselves to be religious at all! 

Despite that, their adherence to customs emanating from shrines and temples requires a quick look at Shinto and Buddhist history in Japan.  By taking that look it becomes easier to understand how Japanese might struggle when Westerners ask them if they believe in God.

As far as I am concerned Shinto is not a religion.  Non-Japanese (me included) cannot convert to it because we have no native ancestral records. Indeed, Shinto priests are and always have been primarily record keepers for descendants of the immigrant groups that made up the first prefectures of the Japanese islands. 

There are no doctrines that Shinto teaches.  There are prehistoric myths and ceremonial purifications and dances for ancestral spirits, but nothing that you must “believe” in.  Each child is taken to an ancestral shrine, preferably by the paternal grandmother, some two months after its birth, to be “introduced” to ancestors. And at age three, five and seven that child will return to receive ancestral blessings.  Shinto priests who perform wedding ceremonies announce to ancestral spirits the coming together of the two families in a marriage.

Buddhism was chosen as the state religion in Japan by the nation’s first prefectural “court” at Nara in the 6th century.  Buddhist priests were responsible for the education of children and the cremation of the dead. The teachings of Japan’s various Buddhist denominations were brought from China and faithfully replicated in Japan. Those teachings are not taught so much as they are preserved in memorials to the dead, prayers for the protection of the living, and a variety of practices for lay persons and priests.

People who ask if Japanese believe in God probably know little about Hinduism and Buddhism.  Hinduism originated in South Asia well before 10,000 B.C., and Buddhism emerged from Hinduism in a revolutionary form in the 6th century B.C., taught by a Hindu of the military caste, Prince Sakyamuni, the historical Buddha. 

Both religions accept the notion that all sentient beings are blinded by an ignorance centered in a perception of themselves as separate from each other.  That ignorance presumably is carried through countless lives (reincarnation) until reaching a full perception of self – called enlightenment or Buddhahood – a perception that is undifferentiated from (or “empty of”) the separate self.

Hindus believe Buddhaood will eventually take place collectively, as it were, at the end of time.  Buddhists, in contrast, believe that individuals can achieve it, and then assist others still caught in illusion, just as their founder the historical Buddha did in his lifetime. 

Buddhism teaches that we may bring a karmic residue from a past life into our present one, but that we all are intimately connected to each other and to all other things.  That, for believers, is where attention truly belongs. 

For that reason, happiness in Buddhism means waking up to the fact that you have no substantial independence and that we ARE in fact each other!  In this sense, the result of the international survey on happiness, mentioned earlier, proves that Japanese people are ideal Buddhists. It is natural that they regard people – especially parents and ancestors – as their source of life. 

Needless to say, God is the source of life in Western religions.  Today’s world is less than 1% Jewish, 32% Christian, and23% Muslim.  All of these people base their faiths in scriptures that came out of the Middle Eastern deserts between about 10,000 B.C. and 700 A.D. 

Those scriptures require the worship of a single Creator of the Universe, the God of the Bible, but they do not agree on how to do that.  Jesus was a Jew who taught a revolutionary type of Judaism in the 1st century.   Mohammed was God’s “last prophet” who lived in the 7th century. For the last 2,000 years, Jews, Christians and Muslims have fought and killed each other over whose method of worship of God is correct and whose is not. 

They believe that God made all of us, beginning with Adam and Eve, so we all are God’s children.  But they believe we will be rewarded or punished after we die, depending on how closely we followed God’s teachings, as defined in their particular faith, while we were on earth. Each religion demands obedience to God and “death to the infidels!”

So do Buddhists believe in God?  How should they answer?  My Japanese friends want to know.  If they say “No” they will be in trouble with half the people in the world.  But if they say “Yes” they will be asked to explain which religion (and which denomination of that religion) they follow.

Western societies regard their relationship to God as more important than anything.  They will emphasize each individual’s independence “under God”.  That is the American dream, after all.  Just to make sure everyone gets the point, we even put “in God we trust” on our money and into our pledge of national allegiance.  And everyone says “Oh my God!” (OMG in computer-speak) all the time. 

Now that our religious heritages have been given their proper due, it is time now for a little show and tell from personal experience.  Again, you will find the following topics covered in more detail in the printed transcript of my talk.  They all have to do with correcting misunderstandings between Japanese and Americans.  My topics are (1) taking off shoes, (2) saying goodbye, (3) changing jobs, (4) speaking age-appropriately, (5) saying please and thank you, (6) putting others first with omoiyari, (7) being authentic with kokoro, and finally, (8) how I learned these things.  

1.  Taking Off Shoes. 

Many non-Japanese assume that the custom of taking off shoes in Japan came about because floors symbolize sacred ground, like the floors of Hindu temples and Muslim mosques.  Nothing could be further from the truth!  It’s about keeping floors clean.  The Japanese are very practical. 

One of the first things my family noticed about life in Japan was how people did not wear shoes inside homes, temples, and traditional restaurants.  The shoes stayed on, however, in Western hotels, theaters, banks, universities and businesses. But in our son’s kindergarten and elementary schools shoes were taken off and carefully placed in lockers at the entrance.

We finally learned how to take off our shoes in Japan.  I learned how that is done in a Buddhist temple where I was training.  Many of my colleagues at Kyoto University had apartments with a tiny space for shoes just inside the door. During parties that space would be filled with a jumble of shoes.  But in temples there is a slightly raised wooden platform in front of a wall of shelves for shoes.

At first I thought the platform was there for me to stand on before taking off my shoes.  I was corrected.  Then I thought I was supposed to take my shoes off and stand on the stone floor with my bare feet, and then step up onto the platform to put my shoes away.  Boy was that wrong! 

The abbot himself demonstrated the correct way by making me walk around barefoot on the stone floor.  Then he gave me a clean white cloth to wipe the bottom of my feet.  The dirt from my feet turned the cloth black.  Then the abbot brought a tray of food and placed the food on the floor.  I got the message:  the floors of the temple rooms are where meals are served, so they must be kept spotlessly clean. This also goes for tatami floors in all traditional buildings. From then on my family learned to step out of our shoes and step directly up onto the platform, turn around and pick up our shoes, and arrange them neatly on the floor or in spaces provided. 

The Buddhist message involved here is provided by a design on a 15th-century stone water basin behind the main hall of Ryoan-ji in Kyoto.  The message says, in four Chinese characters reading clockwise from the top (but with my English in proper order):  “I Alone Know Feet” (吾唯足知: Be content with what you have).  I’m sure the original Chinese phrase had nothing to do with the Japanese custom of taking off shoes inside, because that custom never existed in China.  But the word “feet” had deep meaning for Chinese Buddhist priests.  It was a euphemism for the myriad sentient beings whose importance each priest was to realize in himself.

2.  Saying Goodbye

All goodbyes are probably connected to death.  I guess I learned that in Japan, because Americans don’t like goodbyes and they try to avoid death altogether.  The Japanese face them head-on.  Every goodbye is handled with the mental attitude of “this could be the last time.”  They must consider each goodbye a preparation for the big one, because meeting friends at the airport or seeing them off at the airport or train station is very important indeed.  

Funerals in Japan basically last fifty years, from the time the body is prepared, in front of relatives, to the service in which the dead receives a posthumous Buddhist name, followed by a formal family tea ritual meal, to the crematorium where relatives place white flowers over the body, witness the cremation itself, and then take turn placing bone fragments and ashes in an urn, which is kept at the temple where memorial services are performed for forty-nine years.  After that the family can relax. 

Americans, on the other hand, can hardly wait for the funeral to be over, for the body to be put in the ground (or the ashes in a vault), and there are no special days or ceremonies to help relatives remember the dead, who (according to Western religion) is in Heaven with God.  (Nobody talks publicly about relatives going to Hell!)

All of this comes down to the number-one complaint about American goodbyes that my wife and I hear all the time from Japanese friends visiting the United States:  “Why do Americans close their door in our faces as we leave their home after a party?”

First of all, in Japan it is not the custom to visit friends in their homes.  People host each other in posh hotels and restaurants rather than expose them to a home life that is quite private and “unworthy” of guests.  But after leaving a fancy restaurant the hosts will walk their guests to a taxi or bus or train, where the actual goodbyes take place.  Hosts should wave and bow until their guests are out of sight.  The Japanese expression “one occasion one meeting” (ichigo-ichie一期一会) expresses the proper feeling here:  “This could be our last time together.” 

In this situation on American soil, which commonly takes place in the hosts’ home, the guests are shown to the door, and the door is shut after a “see you later.”  Japanese custom would only allow this if the hosts were trying to sever future ties with their guests.  It is much worse than rude.  No wonder Japanese are curious if their American hosts are trying to say they don’t want to see them anymore!

3.  Changing Jobs

Another American behavior that causes Japanese concern is the habit of American college grads taking jobs with Japanese companies, in Japan or abroad, and then leaving those jobs (usually for more pay) for jobs somewhere else.  That in fact is a feature of the American business world.  You find it also in the American academic community.  I sent out my resume to other universities almost every year to see if they would offer me a salary that was better than the one I had.  The case is quite different in Japan, both in business and in academia.

Young Japanese college students are commonly recruited by Japanese companies for jobs.  Interviews take place before graduation, and afterwards students choose and/or are selected by Japanese companies, rather like pledges joining fraternities and sororities in the U.S.  However, the similarity stops there.  Because the majority of company hires made in Japan this way traditionally last forever, with student employees becoming like adopted family members and companies like adoptive families. 

The Japanese corporation IS a family.  There are responsibilities on both sides.  Employees trust their bosses to protect them, guide them, and almost guarantee their success.  In turn, corporate bosses expect loyalty and an all-out effort to succeed from their employees.  Any doubt that employer or employee is not “in it for the long haul” is unthinkable.  The relationship is long lasting, maybe through the marriage of the employee, the birth of his or her child, and even after the death of the employer. 

The Japanese way in business and education will not change, I suspect, any more than the American way will.  But both sides should understand the expectations.  Only if expectations can be adjusted to fit the realities will there be smooth sailing ahead. 

4.  Speaking Age-Appropriately

I often hear Americans say something like this about showing respect to others:  “Before I show someone respect they have to show me they deserve it.  They have to earn my respect.”  With that attitude, a language that automatically requires a form of polite and respectful speech when speaking to elders or authority figures will be considered “un-American” – or worst of all, “hypocritical”.

It used to be that American children were expected to speak when spoken to by their elders with “sir” and “m’am”.  But even that custom exists today only in the American south, where it also seems to be dying. 
The Japanese case of age-based language may be unique in the world.  Instead of polite phrases added to show respect, spoken Japanese is a complicated system of significant language changes that show your own position vis-a-vis the person you are speaking to -- in terms of dependence and responsibility. We all grow older, of course, and in Japan responsibility comes with age, and your language should reflect your own awareness of that. The younger speaker also must speak in a way that shows dependence and trust.

I came to Japan with a textbook-form of Japanese that I used with everyone.  Little kids thought I was crazy because I sounded like I was dependent on them.  And I’m sure my elders thought I was not dependent enough on them.  Of course everyone excused my ignorance of the language because I was a foreigner.  But with time I caught on and my speech pattern became a bit more appropriate to my age. 

The Japanese term for this system of speech is joge, meaning “high/low”, which unfortunately sounds like some sort of master/servant system of classic feudalism.  Japan’s society requires a language of mutual dependence and responsibility.  I hope it never dies.  English cannot change structurally the way Japanese does.  But if it could, the fabric of American society would become stronger because Americans would be more respectful. 

5. Saying “Please” and “Thank You”

Americans could become more respectful towards each other if they would say “please” and “thank you” more often.  Nowadays, when Americans ask someone to do something for them, they often say things like, “I need this done by tomorrow.”  That’s a demand not a request.  The “please” in English (and in other Western languages) actually means “if you please,” i.e., “if it is convenient for you,” or “if possible …”  In Japanese, too, it literally is a request:  “I beg of you…” – “onegai shimasu…” (お願いします...)

Americans say “thank you” rather often, but probably without understanding its original meaning.  “Thank you” implies that someone has done something for you that you will remember (or “think of”) forever.  It shows your indebtedness when you say it.  In Japanese the sense of obligation is even stronger.  Arigato gozaimasu(有り難う御座います)refers to the difficulty that you have created for the person you are speaking to.  In other words, when you thank someone in Japanese you are in effect apologizing!  As a matter of fact, I wonder if that expression and the other words that amount to saying you are sorry in Japanese (sumimasen, gomen, etc.) are not practically synonyms in conversation.

6. Putting Others First With Japanese Omoiyari

Putting others first in everything you say or do is omoiyari (思いやり).  It is a matter of truly respecting others.  From a very early age, Japanese children are taught to be aware of what other people seem to need and to satisfy that need for them very quietly and without being asked.  People in Japan have done this for my family for years and years. 

Let me give you a couple of examples of what I am talking about.  We first stepped on Japanese soil back in the days when visitors made the trip by cargo ship.  My wife and I, with our 3-year-old son, took an 11-day voyage from San Francisco to Kobe in 1964, year of the Tokyo Olympics. We had five huge suitcases and a trunk, which were still with us on the train ride to Kyoto.  As soon as the train stopped at Kyoto Station, on a hot and muggy July day, our son Burke began to cry.

 Very soon, out of nowhere appeared a maiko-san, a beautiful young apprentice geisha, and asked in English if she could be of assistance. As soon as I explained in halting Japanese how we couldn’t find our luggage, she disappeared for a few minutes, only to reappear with a couple of little goldfish in a vinyl bag of water!  Almost immediately our son stopped crying.  The maiko-san then took us to the taxi stand outside, showed us a taxi that was already packed with our luggage, put us in another taxi, and then bowed and waved as our taxis rolled away towards our hotel.

Some eight years ago our first-born son Burke died, when he was only 45 years old.  When he died many of our Christian friends tried to console us by saying thing such as “God had better plans for him,” or “he is in a better place now.”  These friends meant well, but their words didn’t console us.  To suggest that God is always in control, that He has plans for us including the death of our son, and that Burke is better off away from us – these ideas left us heart-broken.  It was equally hurtful to be told, “You just have to get over this.  Move on with your life.” 

What really helped us was what our Japanese friends did:  they placed a small picture of our son on their home altars where he receives their respectful offerings of incense, candle-light, and food every day.  Now he is a member of their families, too, and that is very comforting to us. Our Christian clergy-friends never mention Burke’s name anymore when they visit us.  But Japanese Buddhist priests go directly to the little altar we have set up for him and offer words of prayerful greeting. Nothing cheers us up more than that. 

7.  Being Authentic with Kokoro

Kokoro () is the source of wisdom and compassion in Japan.  It is the fuel of putting others first -- omoiyari. If you always try to be rational and not allow your emotions get in the way of doing what is right, you are living in the modern world.  The mind and reason have been valued over heart and feelings ever since ancient Greek philosophers told us to do so. Once reason became the foundation of Greek philosophy, religion, too, was viewed through the lens of the intellect. Since God was Truth and Truth was Reason, the view quickly grew that emotion was the actual source of ungodliness and sin.
Ancient sages in India and China have given different advice.  They told us to find a balance between reason and feeling, or as they put it, wisdom and compassion. That is the advice that Japanese and other Asians took to heart. The Japanese term kokoro was hridaya or citta in ancient India, terms that refer to feeling, sensation and mental operation.  At the beginning of the Christian era they were translated in Chinese Buddhist texts with the character that the Japanese call kokoro.

Once again, our religions are responsible for these mixed messages. Americans sometimes say, ‘In my heart of hearts I know this is true.”  A modern version, when we think something is unreasonable but true, is, “We need to think outside the box.”  Perhaps that box is reason, and thinking outside it is kokoro.  Several years ago I gave some lectures in Japan I entitled “Heart of Oneness” – using the Japanese phrase “Kokoro wa hitotsu” (心は一つ).  Those lectures proved to be popular with my audience.  I do think we have common needs and aspirations that cannot be defined by our differences in religion or anything else. We have the same kokoro.

8.  How I Learned All This

The things I’ve talked about today I’ve learned through experience, mostly.  But I would never have experienced them at all if my professors at Kyoto University had not shown me the way.  I mean that literally.  “The Way” may be “the art of living in the world,” as Okakura Tenshin put it.  But my professors insisted that I needed to live that art myself.  It was not enough that I should gather documents and do research about Japanese history and culture.  They expected me to put myself in it whole-heartedly.  How could I see the picture if I didn’t get in it? 

In closing I would like to tell you one final story that more than anything else may suggest how you, too, might be more aware, respectful and trusting in the world.  Before I left the University of Chicago to study at Kyoto University in 1964 I had pretty much written my doctoral dissertation and thought I could finish the research in one year.  My research was focused on the art and architecture (and artists and patrons) of late-16th-early-17th-century Japan – the Momoyama and Early Edo periods.) I knew I had to know quite a lot about Japanese Buddhism and how it worked.  I had read a lot and thought I knew enough to simply contact all of the temple abbots and set up times for my visits.  My professors, however, strongly suggested that since most of the temples of my research belong to the Rinzai Zen denomination of Buddhism I should actually train in a Zen temple as a practical matter, and to consult with priests of other denominations as well. 

My first temple visit was arranged, the Director of the Kyoto National Museum accompanied me, I brought all my photographic equipment, and the abbot received us in his room overlooking the garden.  We enjoyed tea, and spoke (in Japanese) for well over an hour.  At some point I asked politely when I might actually begin my work.  It was as though I had not asked.  Conversation continued.  Several times I brought up the subject, but each time my request was ignored. 

The last time I asked, the abbot looked me in the eye and said rather gruffly in Japanese, “I have no intention of showing you these materials Mr. Webb.”  Thinking I had misunderstood him, I suggested that I could come some other time.  The abbot (who it turns out spent two years at Yale) then said the same thing to me in English.  I was totally perplexed. We were ushered out to the entrance gate of the temple, put in a taxi, and the abbot waved goodbye until we were out of sight. 

I went back to the temple many times, hoping the abbot would change his mind.  But he did not.  Instead, he invited me to start sitting zazen at the temple with the novice priests.  To make a long story short, I trained there and in other temples for the rest of the time I was studying in Kyoto, and every year when I came back as a professor with my University of Washington students.  Since then I have practiced and taught what I learned for fifty years. My life has changed.

I often came back to that first temple where the abbot seemed so rude, to participate in and sometime lead intensive meditations.  One winter, after the grueling weeklong meditation at the first of each year, I entered the little toilet room, squatted down over the hole in the floor, admired the garden outside, enjoyed the freshly-cut camellia branch in the bamboo vase hanging on the wall, and proceeded to do my business. 

When I finished I reached behind me to the tissue box, and felt not tissues but one of the paintings I had asked to see so long ago.  The abbot must have silently opened the sliding door behind me, unrolled the scroll (a National Treasure) on the tissue box, and left. 

I smiled at the simplicity.  Here was the masterpiece in its natural state, and I didn’t have the slightest desire to take its picture. I think the abbot and I had reached a level of awareness, respect and trust for each other that I could not have reached otherwise.  Now I knew with my own heart-mind how precious everything is, all the time.  And I was supremely grateful.  Before leaving the temple that day I rolled the scroll up properly, handed the scroll back to the abbot, and bowed deeply.  I saw him frequently over the years, until he died. 

9.  My Advice

In light of what recent surveys (such as the one examined by Prof. Karazawa) might reveal about happy and unhappy people in the world, I have advice for Japanese and non-Japanese alike.  First, I would advise Westerners to revive their Jewish, Christian, and Muslim beliefs about putting others first.  Christians may have the strongest mandate, especially when it comes to loving everyone unconditionally.  But all Western religions describe paths of righteousness where taking care of the needs of others is a high priority.

I feel the Western world in modern times has put freedom and individuality (along with rampant ambition and greed) ahead of service to other for too long.  We instinctively know our happiness does not really depend on those things in life.  But we haven’t replaced them with the kind of consideration for others that the Japanese call “omoiyari”.  We should.

My advice to Japanese, who scored so badly on the aforementioned happiness survey that they appear to be “the world’s most unhappy people,” is to take pride in your score!  That is because you have something still alive in your culture that the rest of the world has lost.  My challenge to you is to show the world how all of us can put others first.  Thank you.