Monday, August 30, 2010

Guest post: The Secret of Caring for Life by Jacob Ritari

I'm pleased to welcome Jacob Ritari to the blog today. Jacob's debut novel, Taroko Gorge, was published by Unbridled Books in July. It's a multi-layered story of three Japanese schoolgirls who go missing on a school trip to Taroko Gorge in Taiwan, that is part character study, part philosophical discussion, part mystery. It's also about cultural identity, human nature, how a chance encounter can change your life forever, and much more. It was an enjoyable and surprisingly page-turning read. (My review of Taroko Gorge).

I'm also excited to announce that starting this Wednesday and then each Wednesday for the rest of September, right here on In Spring it is the Dawn, you will have a chance to read one of Jacob's unpublished short stories, set in Tokyo. I've just read the first one, and found it quite realistic of Tokyo life. I'm looking forward to reading the others and I hope you will enjoy reading these stories each week as well.

Jacob Ritari has studied with the Fo Guang shan buddhist organization in Taiwan and studied Japanese language and literature at Japan’s Sophia University. He lives near new York City, but is soon moving to Japan for further studies. For more, visit Jacob Ritari's website or follow him on Twitter. Today he has been kind enough to share with us some of his musings on Zen.
The Secret of Caring For Life
Jacob Ritari

I’m one of those people who isn’t spiritual so much as religious. I accept that some people want inner peace, and to overcome the split between subject and object; I’m all about subservience to strict, irrational dogma, sitting in judgment on others, and holding a shotgun to keep the devil and his angels off my lawn. Accordingly as a person interested in Japan, the issue presents itself: what is “Zen?” If indeed, Zen is anything other than conservative monastic practices imported from China in the thirteenth century.

I’ve mellowed on the issue in recent years. I was introduced to Zen in my sarcastic youth in books with titles like Haikus For Jews, by D.T. Suzuki, and by Zen and The Art of Archery. The lattermost illustrates starkly the problem with Zen. It’s a monstrous book by a monstrous individual, founded on linguistic errors; the suicide of German thought in the well of mysticism. Its author, Eugen Herrigel, became a card-carrying Nazi. As for D.T. Suzuki, the “D” stands for his religious name—Daisetsu—which means “great bungler;” presumably meant to instill humility, but that I find apt in any case. This man is on record as saying that “no Westerner can truly understand Zen.”

But I’ve come to accept that Zen means something. It is, to me, that stubborn particle of the soul’s resistance; the reminder that the Dao that can be spoken of is never quite the true Dao; the retreat of the invisible from the tyranny of the visible.

I’ve never attended, or had much interest in attending, a tea ceremony. It doesn’t matter because the tea ceremony has no content. As with the Catholic host, the visible ceremony is uninteresting; the meaningful event is invisible. A well-known figure in Japan is the tea master Sen no Rikyuu, and I saw one of his famous wabi-sabi tea bowls at the National Museum in Ueno. The aesthetic behind such utensils finds beauty in the crude and rustic. It looked like something a second grader would knock out in pottery class. Now it’s an officially designated National Treasure. I imagine if Rikyuu were alive today, he’d smash it. His very attempt to rescue the tea ceremony from fetishism—the process by which man’s idols always end of devouring him—became a fetish that lasts to the present day.

But Rikyuu is most famous for his struggle with Japan’s second shogun, Toyotomi Hideyoshi. In an attempt to impress him, Hideyoshi constructed a tea room in which every object, every wall panel, was lathered with gold. Rikyuu was not impressed. Finally on vague charges of treason (though in fact, one imagines, in a fit of pique) Hideyoshi had him executed. He died a martyr for the resistance of the spirit to the power of the state.

It’s claimed that Buddhism is a peaceful religion which produces no zealots. This may be true to a point; but I would claim, on the balance, it produces few revolutionaries. The heroic monks of Burma—and to a lesser, through more striking extent, of Vietnam—are exceptional. The fascist clique that plunged Japan into World War II enforced their own religion, State Shinto, and encountered little resistance from the Zen establishment. To be fair, many also claim that Lutheranism paved the road for the Nazis because Luther, along with his vile anti-Semitism, took so seriously St. Paul’s injunction to obey authority. But if Zen failed to oppose the evil pieties of State Shinto, I believe it played a curational role, preserving what is of real importance: life. “In times of chaos,” writes the Daoist philosopher Zhuangzi, “the sage seeks only to preserve his own life.” The death-worshipping cult of the Emperor rose to prominence within a matter of years, and collapsed just as suddenly; not a single civilian in the end defended the beachheads with a bamboo spear. Of artists to whom the term “Zen” is applied, one thinks of the filmmaker Ozu, whose masterpieces, some made within years of the defeat, show the stubborn continuance of life.

After the war a certain movement, unable to accept that Japan was not “great,” declared that its greatness was not military but cultural. There had to be something setting Japan foremost among all nations. But are these people any different from Hideyoshi with his frightfully gauche golden tearoom? If a modern artisan were to construct a tea bowl in the style of Rikyuu, would it mean anything? The flesh is more than raiment; and beauty lies not in craftwork but in the people who produce it. If nothing more, Zen serves as the repository of that wisdom.


From the publisher:
A disillusioned and raggedy American reporter and his drunken photojournalist partner are the last to see three Japanese schoolgirls who disappear into Taroko Gorge, Taiwan’s largest national park. The journalists—who are themselves suspects—investigate the disappearance along with the girls’ homeroom teacher, their bickering classmates, and a seasoned and wary Taiwanese detective. The conflicts between them—complicated by the outrageousness of the photographer and the raging hormones of the young—raise questions of personal responsibility, truthfulness, and guarded self-interest.
The world and its dangers—both natural and interpersonal—are real, changing, and violently pressing. And the emotions that churn in dark rooms overnight as the players gather in the park visitors’ center are as intense as in any closet drama. There’s enough action and furor here to keep readers turning the pages, and the cultural revelations of the story suggest that the human need for mystery outweighs the desire for answers.
Read more about his book, Taroko Gorge, including an excerpt, at the Unbridled Books website.

Buy Taroko Gorge at: | BookDepository | via IndieBound

The small print: Links in this post to Amazon (including book cover) or The Book Depository contain my Associates or Affiliates ID respectively. Purchases made via these links earn me a very small commission. For more information please visit my About Page.

1 comment:

  1. Interesting post! I learned about Zen a while ago but it's better learning from people rather than at school.

    I'm pretty much in love with Taiwan so this book is going straight on my list!


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