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.


Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Thoughts on Fascism

Now with the DNC in its second day and the RNC behind us, I realize I have been struggling not to use the word “fascism” to describe the structure of the Trump Train.  Mainly, I think, because I thought Donald Trump was too shallow to deserve the title of Republican nominee.  But then I saw true Republicans bowing to him, largely, I think, because of his huge audience of worshippers, fire-brand nationalists who to me seem hell-bent on dropping out of the world after building defenses against it. 

This morning (July 26, 2016) I ran across the word “fascism” in an unlikely place:  a review in the LA Times by its formidable music critic, Mark Swed, who was clearly impressed by last Sunday’s performance at the Hollywood Bowl of Puccini’s Tosca directed by our man, Gustavo Dudamel.  The Master Chorale, Children’s Chorus, full-throated soloists, and of course the LA Phil received glowing praise.  Even the sound system was just right.  It must have been spectacular and I wish I had been there.

But then, Swed’s phrase “the attraction of fascism” jumped out at me like a bullet shot out of the middle of the article.  Just on the face of it the phrase makes sense.  Mob rule is attractive!  People who feel fear and hatred of anything they can’t understand, the easy thing to do is circle the wagons. They kill the Indians but cannot see the nuclear holocaust up ahead. Their battle cries become ecstatic in a swell of human emotion that gives them comfort and a sense of purpose.  Ironically, Swed’s use of the phrase elevates to the highest level both Puccini’s opera and Dudamel’s masterful musicians, becoming in Swed’s mind somehow “a telling indictment of the attraction of fascism.”

Does that mean we use the crowd’s clamor against them?  I don’t know. Maybe our situation calls to mind Napoleon and his troops, Scarpia and the other villains, Mussolini, Hitler, ad infinitum.  (Please add your favorite.)  They are the ones who cause all the trouble until true love finally has the last word, even if it means stabbing evil and jumping off a wall.  Sorry for the melodrama, folks.  But life is an opera.  And Shakespeare had it right:   “Man is a giddy thing & much ado about nothing.”     

Sunday, July 24, 2016

The Will of God and the Peace of Christ

From my vantage point at age 80 it seems I have spent every waking moment of my life trying to (in the words of the Oxford Dictionary) “analyze [the Laws of God] into workable parts and describe their syntactic roles.”  “Parse” is the word usually linked to that definition (rather than “God”) and it usually is limited to looking carefully at a sentence or a text (often but not always a religious text.) I know I am not the only person in history who has been so obsessed, and I also know that most people find such an obsession strange. 

Very early in my life I became so confused by the contradictions and anomalies of Biblical texts that I was ready to kill myself.  It is then that I started parsing, or if you will, finessing the Will of God.  I knew very well the warning that Paul gave the Colossians, namely, “See to it that no one takes you captive through philosophy … according to the elemental spirits of the universe … [rather than the teachings of] Christ”  (Col. II, 2:10-12.)  In other words, human reason, including the latest findings of scientific exploration, does not help anyone (or at least any Christian) know God. 

To the point, I wanted to know what happens after we die.  I learned that every monotheistic form of religion (i.e., Judaism, Christianity and Islam) said we would spend eternity in heaven or hell after death.  But to this day I do not know if that is true, or even if heaven and hell exist.  Nor do I know anyone who does.  And yet all wars and acts of terrorism, in the past and now, are fought over that unanswered question.  Who is right?  Who is to say if it matters? I adore religions for their narratives, which teach us about the human condition.  I also love the gigantic body of music and art that has come out of the Christian Church for over 2000 years.  

If I ever see him I will be the first person to tell the Apostle Paul that I have not heeded his warning. For sixty-three years I have been thoroughly captivated by Buddhist teachings regarding intensive meditation, leading to a perception of myself as not separated by anything on earth (or in heaven, for that matter.)  However, I cannot say that the Hindu/Buddhist notion of reincarnation is true, either.  I can say, as a Zen priest (and on a good day, when I’m not ranting at people for not going my way), that with my last breath I will extol the Peace of Christ. 

For this reason, I am sympathetic to the Democratic nominee for Vice President, Tim Kaine, who has also parsed his childhood Catholic faith.  He clearly is a man of very good will. He is a Roman Catholic educated by Jesuits.  Sen. Kaine can waffle on the Church’s teachings on adultery, abortion and homosexuality because he also favors following laws that promote human rights. At the same time he uses his faith to fight against killing and racism.  He seems to have been born with a heart that wants justice and liberty for all. He has fought and won cases against corruption wherever he sees it.  He will not fight Dear Bernie’s revolution, but that, I believe is a good thing.  Even the word “revolution” would put Mr. Trump in the Whitehouse for sure.

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Reflection on Rauch


OK.  I have to admit something.  If you consider yourself to be liberal, progressive, enlightened, etc., please listen to me.  If you are conservative, right-winged, anti-everything-Obamaesque, conspiracy-obsessed, this is for you, too. 

First, you conservatives. You believe that the world is filled with corruption.  Even the person next to you cannot be trusted.  You believe that God created the world, with you in it, and that there is evil here but that goodness will prevail.  Star Wars.    Your beliefs and actions you try to keep under control, find out what is true and what is not, seek the good and avoid the bad. You believe that God is protecting you. Bad is really bad.  It can be found everywhere.  Your enemies are bad.  Especially those Muslims.  They do not believe in God the way you do.  They are part of the evil that lurks around every corner. Hilary wants to abort all babies regardless of their age in the womb.  And same-sex couples make you want to puke.  You believe people should be free, but only if they want to do what you think is right, like buy AK47s without a full criminal check. You want to rise to the top of the human heap.  “Work hard and reap the harvest.”  That is your motto. You are willing to give to the poor, but they must keep their distance.  All these street people could be as wealthy as you if they just worked hard.  But they don’t.  So no public fund of money should be wasted on them. Certainly taxing good people to support bad people is not good.  Christian teachings seem to accept the status quo, but only if you are wiling to treat others the way you want to be treated.  You are willing to say one thing (wage war) but do another (go to church).  That’s confusing to me.  I do not like conservatives. I am not one.      

Now, you liberals.  You are living in a fairly comfortable, exalted world.  You have met people, probably, who believe (and will tell you) that you are going to hell.  Not “to hell with you!” but you are going to hell.  But you do not believe in hell and you doubt that Jesus (or one of the prophets of Judaism or Islam) is the true voice of God. In fact you reject monotheism, but you love the narratives in its religions. You consider people who believe in traditional explanations of life and death to be misguided.  You yourself have gone beyond religion and seek the answers to life’s mysteries in history, literature, art, music and studies of the mind.  Science is your religion.  “Prove everything and keep looking,” that is your motto.  You have met others who are brighter than you, who know infinitely more than you do, and who will take humanity into realms that you cannot dream of. But you know you are intelligent.  You are well-educated, and look down on people who betray their lack of education by the way they speak and behave.  You trust people but are pretty sure only bright people should make the rules. You may support religion but seek the answers to life’s mysteries in history, literature and studies of the mind. If this fits your perception of the world you are a liberal. 

I am a liberal.  I have perceived a self that I call me who is more than himself.  I am the world.  I am all that I can see, hear, feel, know or imagine. I have discovered that through my study and practice of Buddhism.  Specifically, that is the existential proof I have discovered in zazen, the particular form of meditation that Japanese Zen priests engage in, as I have for 60 years. I now know that everything I love and everything I hate is me.  Anger and jealousy are as much a part of me as the most forgiving and altruistic feelings I may have.  At 81 my sense of myself as a tiny, lonely, frightened, defensive, potentially vicious little boy has been swallowed up by the me of all being.  That makes me kind, loving, helpful, thoughtful, forgiving, and socially responsible.  My job is to be still enough to see myself in the body and heart of every person, animal or plant that I encounter. That is very hard to do.  It does not come easily, especially for an only child. 

Which brings me to Donald Trump.  God help me.  I am Donald Trump!  Every childish thing he does, his desire for winning, making lots of money, seeing himself as the greatest person on earth, lashing out at his critics, drawing distinctions between himself and others, demonizing them, dismissing things he doesn’t understand, etc.  All of these characteristics belong to both of us.  The only thing that worries me about this is the harm we can do to the world if we have our way.  As someone I admire very much has said, governments are necessary to prevent people like us “from pursuing naked self-interest all the time.” In his brilliant piece this month in The Atlantic (“What’s Ailing American Politics” July/August 2016), Jonathan Rauch warns that all of us – “politicians, activists, and voters” -- have  “become more individualistic and unaccountable … [because] Americans have been busy demonizing and disempowering political professionals and parties, which is like spending decades abusing and attacking your own immune system.  Eventually, you will get sick.” Our naked self-interest has brought us where we are today.  “Chaos becomes the new normal – both in campaigns and in the government itself.”  “Neurotic hatred of the political class is the country’s last universally acceptable form of bigotry… [whereas the] core idea of the Constitution was to restrain ambition and excess by forcing competing powers and factions to bargain and compromise.”  Rampant individualism may actually bring down our republic. 

I am still savoring Rauch’s article. It will require several readings for me to fully digest it.  I think every teacher in every school in the country should make it required reading for bright students.  Certainly it should be a must-read for all our representatives in Washington.  It is succinct and clear, but it flies in the face of much that I had believed was going on, with me and my country. 

- GTW at home in Palm Desert, July 6, 2016

Monday, July 4, 2016

Fear and Religion

Fear and Religion
July 4, 2016

Today, once again, Islamic Jihadists killed people in the name of their religion … out of fear.  Judaism, Christianity, and Islam – the three “Religions of the Book” --- teach us to fear death.  Each of them teaches the same basic truth:  that after we die we will either feel untold joy or we will endure untold pain -- forever. The simplest, most extreme motivation for deciding which of these outcomes we ourselves will experience is fear, our fear of others who will threaten us with their unbelief, or our fear of ourselves because we may not be able to live up to the demands of goodness.

There are, however, two ways to look at our future.  Give in to the joy that is promised by each of these religions, or fight the war against evil that all of them abhors.  Most Jews, Christians and Muslims live in between these two extremes.  We’re in between joy and fear.  Few of us actually follow the letter of the law. Only when our fear of each other makes us take up arms do we fight.  Social concerns rather than ideological ones determine what we will do every day.  This is true for young ISIS fighters, too, I think, just as it was for cavemen.

If you were raised in a household that is only nominally Jewish, Catholic, Protestant, Muslim, or if you were raised (or have become) not religious at all, then your social concerns of freedom, tolerance, justice and non-discrimination far outweigh any abstract notions of goodness and evil, right and wrong. If that is you, then you may be susceptible to religion. Your appetite for an answer to the unknown may be too strong.  If you already have the answer you want in religion, then you already are on the warpath.  Most Americans seem to be that way. 

Something in the human brain seems to demand simple answers to the mystery of life and death, and if you find them in the radical side of religious doctrine, you become (in my opinion) a danger to society.  The question becomes, “What does society do about protecting itself from you?” The same question pops up for dharma-caste-conscious Hindus, as well. They have been at war off and on with Muslims for centuries, but at least they produced a rebel some 2600 years ago, the historical Buddha, the world’s first pacifist, who slammed the door shut on retaliation against anyone for any reason. In theory, at least, Jesus of Nazareth was a pacifist, too.  (Sometimes I disagree with both of them on this issue, but that’s another story.) 

At issue this very moment is, “What do we do about people on the most radical side of Islam?” ISIS and other terrorist groups are angry that the Christian-dominated Western world defeated the vast military might of the Islamic world in 1922, after 1400 years of fighting, and helped Jews establish Israel after WWII.  More recently, we invaded Iraq and other parts of the Islamic world. The Kor’an says that if your enemy attacks, you can retaliate, even by killing. 

Well, according to radical Islam, we in the West (and any people who do not follow the letter of Sharia law the radicals follow) are the enemy.  We are the infidels, the unbelievers.  That’s the simple answer to the “Why?” that so many Americans are asking. The question remains, “What do we do?”  Do we bomb them, more than we have, and kill civilians in the process?  Shall we assassinate their leaders?  Can we convert the young men and women who believe in the radical Islamist cause to some other form of religion or more humane system of living?  If so, where do we begin?  Should we pull back our military entirely? Build a wall around our country?

Right now we seem to be doing almost all of those things, but with little success.  In addition, our leaders are telling us to pray for our dead and their loved ones. We are also blaming all Muslims for not speaking out and doing more to stop the carnage going on in the name of their religion. In November our nation will elect a new president.  Right now we have two candidates, a woman with perhaps more experience in democracy than almost anyone on earth, and another with no experience in anything except making money for himself and lashing out at his critics.  At the moment most Americans seem to hate her and prefer turning over the country to him, hoping he will make them wealthy, too.  I dread what comes next.  I’m not sure God is even looking at us.