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West Meets East
Hiroshi Satow remains placid in the face of change.
In this world all things are transient. They inhabit only a brief space of time. Some may lament this, but others may not; they think they can enjoy things all the better for their mutability.
A Japanese poet and writer in the Kamakura period, Kamo no Chōmei (1155-1216 CE), wrote that the flow of a river is not what it was a minute ago and the bubbles on the surface are constantly coming and going, never remaining even for a second [see also Heraclitus, Ed]. A famous war story set in the same period, The Tale of the Heike, begins with a description of transience: “The sound of the Gion Shoja bells echoes the impermanence of all things; the color of the sala flowers reveals the truth that the prosperous decline. The proud do not endure, they are like a dream on a spring night; the mighty fall at last, they are as dust before the wind.”
Those who grieve over impermanence are not only in the East. Men and women of letters in the West are also saddened by it. In his poem ‘The Flower That Smiles Today’, the nineteenth century English poet Percy Shelley wrote:
“The flower that smiles today
All that we wish to stay
Tempts and then flies;
What is this world’s delight?”
But why focus on the impermanence of things if it makes us depressed? Well, an appreciation of mutability can actually lessen our suffering.
Fish in Pool by Paul Gregory
Buddhism tells us a relevant story. A mother had a baby who died. She became half-crazed wanting her baby back. She couldn’t believe the baby was gone forever. The Buddha told her he could bring back her loved one if she got some poppy seeds – but only from a house where death has never entered. She rushed to every neighboring house, asking if anyone in their family had died before, only to fail in her quest. She realized: there’s no home without death. All things are transient. Nothing remains forever. And she was calmed by this understanding. This is why one of the main themes of literature is mutability. Understanding the transience of things in the world makes us sad because all will be gone before long; but it also gives us some composure as well.
Strangely, the recognition of the evanescence of things may afford us not only calmness, but also contentment, even happiness. Another poet and writer of the Kamakura period, Yoshida Kenk ō , said this world is all the better for its changeability; and in The Peal of Bells (1925), Robert Lynd, an English essayist born in Ireland, wrote:
“With most men the knowledge that they must ultimately die does not weaken the pleasure in being at present alive. To the poet the world appears still more beautiful as he gazes at the flowers that are doomed to wither, at springs that come to too speedy an end. The loveliness of May stirs him the more deeply because he knows that it is fading even as he looks at it. It is not that the thought of universal mortality gives him pleasure, but that he hugs the pleasure all the more closely because he knows it cannot be his for long.”
Some might say that impermanence, and the related concepts of wabi-sabi, and yugen are mostly just of concern to Eastern and Japanese aesthetics. That’s not always so. Americans, Chileans, Israelis, people from all cultures, can understand what it means. However, they may not be so conscious of this understanding, being aware of impermanence only dimly and vaguely. Some may say, East is East and West is West, what’s the use of thinking the two will meet? I would say, to some degree, East is West and West East; or rather, if a Westerner considers her culture in all its aspects, she’ll likely find a touch of things Eastern in it, and vice versa. After all, we all live on one and the same planet, and share one and the same atmosphere; how can we be totally alien to each other? So a mathematician at Oxford University may discuss the concept of zero, whose notation originated in ancient India; Mahatma Gandhi practiced nonviolence, which was one of the most important teachings of Jesus in the New Testament. Just as love and harmony combine, and around our souls intertwine, so East and West combine, and deep in our souls interweave.
Indeed, we live in an age of globalization. It’s a process of integration of the values of different nations, peoples, and cultures – which we’ll accomplish not merely by learning the exterior things; we’ll integrate by the attainment of knowledge out of the depths of our souls. This might be termed ‘individuation’, in the Jungian sense of the term. Individuation is when we become self-actualized by integrating our conscious and unconscious. The unconscious is something we don’t think we have, but in fact we do. We discover it in two places; deep in our soul, and far away from our mother country. That’s why we think of it as foreign to us. And I think that the search for the unconscious is very similar to the learning of foreign cultures. The more we are self-actualized, the more we are globalized, and vice versa.
So much for digressions. Impermanence is one of the facts of life all of us, in the East or in the West, should face, have faced, and will face. We can’t flee from it. Since we can’t, we should confront it. And the more we are face to face with it, the more consoled we will be.
© Hiroshi Satow 2019
Hiroshi Satow lives in Japan and teaches English and Philosophy to pre-college students. He is also a poet and amateur philosopher.