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.


Monday, July 3, 2017



Many friends tell me to my face or in print that healthcare is not a right for Americans. I say it is a right for every human being. My friends don't agree.  Many of them are against any kind of government healthcare program.  They defend their position by claiming that people in this country of the brave and free have the responsibility to work hard and take care of the cost of their own healthcare.  That side of the argument says that many poor sick people in America are just lazy and take advantage of social programs already in place.  That seems to go against everything I know about human nature, history, economic conditions, medical science, and plain old luck.  

I'm not ready to let people die on the street, as they used to in many parts of the world, if they were weak and penniless.  I have to believe that the first humans living in caves instinctively believed that animals should be killed, usually with a rock, and eaten.  Pretty soon they treated strangers as enemies and decided they should also be hit in the head with a rock. The biggest rock killed the most people, winning the day.  Later they discovered how to make weapons out of rock, chiseling sharp blades and arrow heads. The best man wins must have been the lesson of thousands of years of human history. Many Americans still think so. Donald Trump is surely a case in point.

But he is by no means alone.  American parents, especially fathers, urge their sons to stand up for themselves.  Get in there and fight, they say.  Don't be a sissy.  My own case is so unlike that.  It was no secret that I was a fat little sissy, a spoiled (I say much-loved) only child who played the piano and hated violence of any kind, even in sports.  My parents protected me from any bullying I encountered by confronting the bullies (and sometimes their parents) with truly frightening consequences if they didn't leave me alone.  So in a way the urge to strike out at strangers was alive and well in my parents. Looking back on it, such primitive instincts were in me, too.  I think I never doubted my superiority to my tormentors, and secretly dreamed of killing all of them in the most gruesome ways the human mind has ever concocted.

Dreaming of how to kill others is nevertheless not the same thing as doing it.  Tripping lightly over history from caves to castles, I can see how advanced weapons and a monetary system soon took the place of rocks, in the hands of people who feared outsiders and used tribal loyalties and religions to maintain their own superiority over others.  The dance of the wealthy over the poor became the only dance in town, all over the world.  Music for the dance was heard in small groups and large groups alike.  Each municipality placed masters over servants, in a pattern that was repeated everywhere in counties, provinces, and nation states. Masters became masters through wealth and power that rendered servants helpless to resist.  Wars often rearranged the master/servant configurations, with kings suddenly reduced to slaves, and vice versa.

Not until modern times did people question the old law, that the strong should win.  The ancient Greeks had a great notion about justice and how it might be achieved in society, but even they had slaves. The idea was reborn in what we call the Renaissance and Enlightenment, but it took the toppling of lots of emperors and kings before the 18th-19th- century revolutions in the name of liberty were successful. Our own Thomas Jefferson put it best in his 1776 declaration that begins, "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal ..." The hope in that statement was clouded, even at that time, and we've been trying to remove those clouds ever since. 

We've pretty much done away with the rule of dictators, but not entirely.  The most outstanding are in Africa.  Some that remain are presidents of republics. The Russian Federation is listed as a "federal semi-presidential republic," according to Wikipedia, which I think means Putin is largely in charge of everything.  The Russians we met in Moscow and St. Petersburg seem to adore him and blame all the problems they encountered after the fall of communism on democracy.  Of course, such modern imperial governments as England, Sweden and Japan have beloved royal families that have very limited power and, in any case, generally follow the dictates of the voting public. Representative government is the enlightened approach to keeping people free in today's world.

Communism, the Great Notion of the 20th century, failed because it took away peoples' freedoms in order to make them equal. Marx and Lenin would frown at the few communist governments still operating today, because they are shot through with liberal features of democracy.  The flag of democracy is flying high today, with each nation putting customs, religious laws, natural resources, and old grievances together in its national identity.  Some people want free markets to govern us all, but that is too close to the dog-eat-dog paradigm of human history to satisfy me. 

The level playing field is a feature of democracy.  Everyone in any society starts with a chance to develop interests and talents that can contribute to the fullest development of society.  Good health and healthcare is part of that chance in modern society.  From natal care to death, each person deserves -- has the right -- to be in the best physical and mental health to participate in nation-building.  If I am born with a medical problem, or develop a chronic ailment like cancer, I deserve to have that problem treated by the best physicians in the country.  If I am in an accident, my recovery should be tracked by medical experts.  My psychological welfare, likewise, is to be looked at by professionals in the field. But if my country has no healthcare system in place, I may die if my medical costs are more than I can afford.

No other advanced industrial country in the world allows its citizens to be as endangered as Americans are right now. Most of them have some form of single-payer insurance.  My wife and I are lucky.  We are retired, and receive Social Security that we paid into for sixty years.  We also can afford to have additional health insurance (AARP-United Health Care) for drugs and treatment that Social Security doesn't cover. But our son and many of our friends are not so lucky.  My mother taught school all her life, but was senile for the last seven years of her life, and died in a rest home.  Her Medicare ran out and Medicaid finally ran out, as well. 

Luck is fickle.  That's its nature.  We have some exceedingly wealthy acquaintances.  As it happens, some of them inherited the wealth that they live on today, or that they used to build the wealth they have today.  A few of them hitched their wagons to a star that took them into the outer space of our 1%.  Surprisingly, most admit they don't pay enough taxes to support the health needs of our country.  We also know some moderate-to-very-poor people.  Hard-working people.  Proud people.  To think that these two groups -- the very rich and very poor -- have an equal chance in America's future is ridiculous. Making all Americans responsible for their health care is blind to all the things that keep them from beginning life on a level playing field.  It puts the poor and unlucky in a hole they can't dig out of for several lifetimes. Republicans and Democrats have the responsibility to heal this problem now, by creating universal healthcare for all Americans. I'm no economist, but I know some form of universal, government controlled healthcare, comparable to plans in other highly developed countries, is  
not only possible, but morally imperative.

As a teacher, I also hope all Americans will someday have access to a good education.  Tests after tests show that our public and private schools do not provide it. There are many reasons for that.  But poverty, above all, breeds ignorance. Prejudice does, too.  I almost vomit when people say, about a group of people they have categorized by race, sex or culture, "Well, you know, that's just the way they are."  I realize that up until retirement, except for a few intervals, I was stimulated (and insulated) by very well-educated people all around me.  As the author of the play "Pugwash" said recently about Cyrus Eaton, the financier who brought Albert Einstein and Bertrand Russell together in Nova Scotia to discuss nuclear energy, "He believed that thinking was equally as important as making money."  So do I.  University life is not normal. It offers infinite opportunities to examine everything on earth.  Nobody punches anybody out over anything.  Conversations can be animated, but rarely threatening. 

I have also been taught to empathize with others as a moral duty.  My Christian childhood, lifelong study of religions, and years of practice in Japanese Zen temples have all worked together to convince me that I am my brother's (and sister's) keeper, and to love everyone, knowing that I am, in some profound way, everyone. We are all related, even identical. And yet I confess now that when I am out in public rather than behind the speaker's podium, I don't easily relate to most of the people around me. We often don't speak the same language, share the same views of the world, or even listen to the same music. (And, my deepest confession, I've never been able to share the world's infatuation with balls:  football, basketball, baseball, golf, etc.) Regardless of how hard I attempt today to put myself in other people's shoes, I often come away with a sense of failure, even when love remains.              

- At home in Palm Desert, CA, July 2, 2017.

Wednesday, June 28, 2017



For many years I recited the Hanya Shin Gyo, the so-called Heart Sutra, in Japanese, as I was expected to do in the Zen temples in Japan, where I was training, while doing doctoral research at Kyoto University.  I frequently complained to my Zen teachers that I wanted to be able to put this sacred text into my own language.  They always told me to go ahead and do it.  So I tried.  At the UChicago and the UWashington I sought the help of Sanskrit scholars.  We agreed that   every one of our explanations of the text's meaning seemed insufficient. It would remain the enigma it is today (even after I later came to my own feeble interpretation.)

Subsequently, I toyed unsuccessfully with the rhythm of the Sanskrit text, trying to put it into the same cadence that the scripture is chanted in throughout Asia. I assumed then as now that the Heart was chanted in Sanskrit and Pali in all Mahayana Buddhist temples at one time. But I never came up with an exact rhythmic match between the Sanskrit and other Asian languages. However, I found the exact same number of syllables in the Heart Sutra chant in Japan, Korea, China, and Tibet. I wondered how that came about.

Koreans and Japanese took their written languages from China, so naturally their version of the Heart Sutra is the same in cadence. Their transcription of the Heart Sutra is written character-for-character in Chinese.  Only their pronunciation of each character is different, while the number of syllables in their recitations of the Heart is the same.  But Tibet surprised me. Its language is totally different, but the monks seem to have used the 7th-century Chinese version of the Heart Sutra and adjusted each character's sound to Tibetan pronunciation, just as the Chinese and Japanese did.  

This was proved to me by personal experience.  On my first trip to Lhasa I followed the voice of a child monk who was chanting by himself in one of the rooms of the Johkang.  At first I just watched him secretly.  He had his eyes closed. Softly I joined my voice to his chant, using the Japanese sounds of "Hanya Shin Gyo" that I knew so well.  His sounds were Tibetan, mine were Japanese, but the number of syllables and the rhythm were the same.  Towards the end, at the "Gyate, gyate..." section, he opened his eyes and looked directly at me. We finished the chant together, at the same time, and smiled at each other. He was about twelve, I reckon, and I could communicate with him only by writing notes in Chinese, the language the government required all Tibetan children to learn, rather than their own. 

On page 11 of a 1985 edition of a sutra book I first compiled in 1970 for Zen students in the Seattle Zen Center (which later became the Temple of the Virtuous Rock, Tokugan-ji), the Heart Sutra appears in Romanized Japanese pronunciation. Students recited that version of the Heart every time they participated in any of the Center's activities. On the next page of the sutra book they could read my short explanation of the Heart Sutra's background and a tentative English translation of the text itself. This is what I wrote:

The Heart Sutra is a verbal description of the enlightened state of consciousness.  It was given by the Great Bodhisattva of Mercy, Avalokiteshvara [C. Guanyin, J. Kannon, etc.], who literally is the Regarder of the Cries of the Universe, whose mercy and compassion is inexhaustible.  His (or if you prefer, her) description of enlightenment comes at the end of the scripture on Perfect Transcendental Wisdom, the Prajna Paramita-sutra, while the historical Buddha Shakymuni, surrounded by his disciples, sat in deep meditation on Vulture Peak near Rajgir, in northern India. While watching the seated Buddha, the Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara experienced his most profound understanding of transcendental wisdom.  Shariputra, the most intelligent disciple, witnessing his two teachers reach such depths of wordless understanding, begins the Heart Sutra by asking the unanswerable question that the disciples asked constantly about the nature of full perception: "What is it like to achieve such transcendent wisdom?"  The verbal exchange between Avalokiteshvara and Shariputra, beginning with the latter's urgent question and followed by the Bodhisattva's answer, has been regarded, even by the Lord Shakyamuni himself, as the best possible example of a student and teacher exchange. It goes like this, in the body of the scripture itself:

Shariputra:  "Lord Avalokiteshvara, how can students achieve such enlightenment?"

Avalokiteshvara:  "Shariputra, all students must see the natural thusness or emptiness of all phenomena.  Form is emptiness, emptiness is form; emptiness is not apart from form, form is not apart from emptiness.  Feeling, perceiving, even consciousness itself, is empty.  All conditions of being [dharmas] are empty of self and have no characteristics.  The Buddha-Mind is unborn and undying; it is not impure or pure, it neither grows nor shrinks.  Thus there is no form, no feeling, no sight, no thought; no eye, no nose, no tongue, no body, no mind, no appearance, no sound, no smell, no taste, no sensation, no ideas; nor is there any such thing as hearing well or poorly, or of being wise or stupid; there is no suffering, no cause of suffering, no ending of suffering, or way to end suffering; there is no wisdom, attainment, or nonattainment.  Buddhas and Boddhisattvas awaken through transcendental wisdom.  Gone! Gone! Here, Fully Awake!  This, Oh Sariputra, is how we should live."

What I did not say at the time, when dealing with students' complaints that they didn't find the words "empty" and "emptiness" or even "selflessness" very satisfying, is what I really believe.  And that is, that part of me really misses form and self when I think they are gone.  To feel better, I find myself reassuring myself that any self or form by itself, even mine, will feel better if it agrees to accept all selves and forms as my own. I'll try to continue this Blessed Assurance as long as I live. I like to think of it as the thusness of things, or as the modern Japanese phrase "sono-mama" puts it so sweetly, Just As I Am.

Monday, June 5, 2017

Pentecost, Nembutsu & Zen

There's an old hymn, "The Holy Spirit," that some Christian Protestants sing on Pentecost Sunday. That day this year, in 2017, was just a little earlier this month, on June 3rd.  My wife and I were in the audience that morning at St. Margaret's Episcopal Church in Palm Desert, CA. The hymn is not great music, but it has some powerful lyrics.  For example: "[The Holy Spirit will remain with us] ... till earthly passions turn to dust and ashes ... and far surpasses the power of human telling." Old-fashioned English.  But it's message is about true transcendence of death, and way beyond that.    

The word "Pentecost" is derived from the Greek word for "fifty".  As a kid growing up in a Christian family, I understood that the first Pentecost Sunday marked the very moment, some two thousand years ago in Jerusalem, fifty days after Easter (i.e., after the resurrection and ascension of Jesus), that Christianity as a religion was born.  Pentecost is all about the Holy Spirit showing itself as "flames of fire" and "roaring wind" to Jesus' mother and brothers, his twelve apostles, and to a motley crew of about a hundred Jews and non-Jews. The New Testament says this frightening form of the Holy Spirit actually sat on the heads of this group of first Christians around 9 o'clock that morning, and made them seem like they were crazy drunk.  (It apparently created more chaos than Trump's first fifty days.)

In any case, the old "Holy Spirit" hymn is about the Holy Spirit that is still alive today. Christians who sing it believe that despite how illogical any description of the Holy Spirit may be, its power will benefit them even after death. They feel sure they will be transformed after they die into something better than they were when they were alive. Now, I don't know about you, but this sounds similar to the recitation of Amida's name in Pure Land Buddhism.  Jodo Shu Nembutsu seems to work in ways similar to the Christian Holy Spirit. I believe they both promise a true transcendence of death. 

At St. Margaret's on Pentecost, earlier this month, the hymn was sung at the close of the service.  Before that, scriptures were read and other hymns were sung, the celebration of Christ's body and blood was shared, and the Rector offered a short sermon about how the Holy Spirit works.  He said something to the effect that "the Holy Spirit can only blow into us if we open the window of our hearts."  That sounded good.  Everyone agreed.  But then he said, "However, another window has to be open in order for the roaring wind to blow out of us."  You could almost hear the audience muttering, "What the hell is he talking about?" He went on to explain that people at Pentecost became caretakers of the miraculous power that Jesus gave to human beings.  We have been in charge of how we live our lives ever since. We have the power to do good things with that power. The spirit of Christ will enter us if we let it.  But we have to let it go to others if we expect it to be of any use at all.  Letting it out helps us truly respect our families and others as the precious beings they are. We then see clearly that we are them.

I was born in 1935, one year before Rev. Reikai Nozaki started the Jodo Shu  ministry in America. My life took a direction that most Americans did not take.  It wasn't planned, but I turned out to be a specialist in East Asian cultural history.  Japan, especially, has been a great teacher for the Webb family.  The Christian narrative of our childhoods, with its long history of great music and art, is still very much part of who we are. But my study in college of the art and religions of the world, and especially my study of Japanese history and art, brought Buddhism very close and made it personal.  

My three major professors at Kyoto University insisted that I train in Zen temples while continuing my studies.  (Ironically, those great teachers all came from Pure Land backgrounds.)  The practice of zazen for fifty years has opened my window to a slightly different window.  But it, too, has an adjoining window to the world. Rev. Atone and Rev. Tanaka have helped me keep that window open. There's still plenty of wind blowing through my windows before that final transcendent death. Let's make sure all of us have our windows open, and show our children the value of keeping theirs open, too.

(Transcript of lecture prepared for the 80th Anniversary Celebration of the Jodo Shu Ministry in North America, Los Angeles, CA, in June 2017.) 

Saturday, March 25, 2017

The Will of God and the Peace of Christ

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.