Tuesday, June 10, 2014

40 Days of Summer (in Japan) - Part Juusan

Wisdom. Today I am reminded of wisdom.

Some people in class wanted to screen a Miyazaki movie today, and the decision for Howl's Moving Castle was made. I came in a bit late because I went to get lunch at the nearby konbini before sitting down for the show. I am very excited to discover the hidden complexity in even the simplest things, like cup ramen packaging. I bought this huge square bowl of cup ramen which I thought was going to be bonito flakes but turned out to be chilli powder. It was alright; I can handle spicy food. But what I found really interesting was that the box had a tearaway flap, which revealed an air vent for steam to be let out after you close the top to seal the heat in. Ingenious.

And this is just lunch. Just wait till you see dinner.

Howl's Moving Castle is a very strange movie. It's apparently based on an English novel by Diana Wynne Jones, but because it's made by Studio Ghibli and Hayao Miyazaki, it's got a lot of strange inexplicable absurdities which really confused me, but I presume have great amounts of symbolic significance and stuff. I don't know. I'm probably going to have to watch it again to make any sense of it.

The castle is actually the least confusing thing about this movie.

Class today was interesting. It was about this guy called Edogawa Rampo, who is one of Japan's first few popular writers of detective fiction, and who has apparently become a household name, despite the prevalence of grotesque murder and black comedy. (Check out "The Martian Canals" for an example of an absolutely WTF-did-I-just-read work.)

Xi Min and I had arranged to meet Mr Ng, one of our old math teachers and one of the wisest people I know, at Shinjuku Station (again). To save money, we took a stroll to Takanadobaba Station, the next one along the line and the interchange to the Yamanote line to Shibuya. Along the way, Xi Min was popping into these secondhand bookstores along the road to look for a book in Japanese by some Zen Buddhist master. These shops are usually pretty musty; but like all Japanese bookstores are beautifully organized and have kind of rustic charm to them. They give off the smell of ancient knowledge.

*breathes deeply* Mmm, knowledge.

Shinjuku Station, as I've mentioned previously, is the busiest trains station in the world, and it's also just pretty damn huge. Today I took a picture of one of the gantries to illustrate this:

Where's Waldo?

Xi Min professes that he loves predictability; we did the exact same thing and made our way to Lumine Est, the (rather pretentious, I feel) name of one of the huge shopping malls in the area. We danc the exact same dance up to the seventh and eighth floors, and make a circle around each floor to let our guest scope out the foodstuffs available. The waitress who served us last week even recognised us as we walked past the restaurant she was working in. We eventually settled on a different place (just next door, actually), which specialised in "Japanese bowl" dishes. I ordered something fairly fusion: a baked-rice-esque dish which isn't baked at all but carbonara sauce with eggs and bacon and broccoli slathered onto Japanese sticky rice. It was really, really good.

Told you.

Over dinner, we talked to Mr Ng about life, the universe, and everything. Technically, it was about life, and some of the truths of the world. Mr Ng is very steeped in Buddhist philosophy, but unlike Xi Min, who has a very academic demeanor when it comes to these things, Mr Ng has a more personal, experiential affability, which perhaps comes from his many years as a teacher. I have three main takeaways from the multiple hours of conversation, and while I am sharing them with you, they're also for my future self to look back and remember in times of despair.

1. There will always be stupid people.

There are many kinds of stupid people, but I guess the type of stupid people we were talking about was the people who are lack a kind of criticality, the kind of people who don't stop to think. They may think a lot, but only about themselves. They are unaware of the greater context of humanity; they see only their own hearts.

There is no escaping stupid people. There will always be stupid people. And the thing about stupid people is that you can try to educate them, to introduce a sense of critical thinking in their lives. But they will refuse; because ultimately they are stupid. They are everywhere. It's tough when there are stupid people below you; but it's a lot tougher when there are stupid people above you. And they inevitably will be.

And there are many ways you can deal with this. You can get angry and frustrated, which will leave you sullen and unsatisfied. You can be enthusiastic and attempt to change the world, but ultimately you will not succeed, because there will always be stupid people. Perhaps the best way, or the most balanced way, is to accept the fact that there will always be stupid people, and truly find joy in the fact that stupid people exist. Which brings us to the next point:

2. Open your heart. Live in the moment.

We have a lot of dissatisfaction in our lives, which, of course, leads to suffering. And most of that dissatisfaction comes from the fact that we are never truly living in this moment. We worry about the future, or desiring something from the future, or we compare the present to the past. We always want to be somewhere else - no, some time else. And we are never truly here.

It's very interesting that Mr Ng, who has a lot of Buddhist philosophy leanings, discovered the solution in a Bible passage: 1 Corinthians 13:4: Love is patient, love is kind. And he said that he had an moment of epiphany, and that feeling you get when old words which were essentially meaningless to you suddenly gained a deeper meaning and understanding. I have yet to have such an enlightening episode; I have much more to seek. But therefore, a way to manage interactions with stupid people is to love them: to be patient, and to be kind. Not necessarily in a condescending or pitiful way.

Mr Ng told a story about when he was walking along this highway in rural China. He was going to visit a temple in the middle of nowhere, and the bus only took him so far, so he had to walk the rest of the way along a highway. Along the way, a huge truck was heading towards him, so he stepped off to the side of the roads, onto what he thought was a leaf-strewn road shoulder. It turned out to be a leaf-filled drain, and he sprained his ankle in the process. So there he was, one foot in the drain, in possibly excruciating pain, and his first thought was: "I bet I look so ridiculous to the driver right now." Later, when he was waiting at the bus stop for the bus to take him back to the city, he was watching the sunset, and he came to the sudden realisation: life is good. Yes, his ankle was hurting and he had to hobble all the way back from where he came from; yes, he missed his chance to visit the temple; yes, he might have looked completely stupid to the truck driver. But when you look at it all from a kind of detached perspective, it's hilarious and funny and it just feels so good to be alive, to have these kind of crazy experiences.

So the point is this: open your heart, not just to people but to life.

3. The Sand Koan

This last bit of wisdom comes from another story. His current Zen master once travelled to Thailand to meet with his Grand Master. There had been some construction work going on in the temple, and there was a huge mound of sand in the temple complex. The Master gathered his monks and told them, "I think we should move the mound of sand over there." So the monks and acolytes picked up their shovels, shifting spadefuls of sand one by one. It took them three days. Don't forget: tropical heat, and the fact that monks only have three sets of robes, and you know you're going to be doing sweaty work the next day too so you won't want to wash your robes that day because they're just going to get dirty again. So when the mound is completely moved over, the Master comes out again and looks at it, and says, "Now that I look at it, I think the mound of sand shouldn't be so close to the entrance. Let's move it over there instead." So the monks and acolytes spend another three days of work moving the sand over to the new location, with a lot of grumblings and mutterings. Finally, the sand is moved, and the Master comes out to look at it, and says, "No, still no good. I think we should move it over there." At this point, the man got angry and started shouting vulgarities in English, but the message was clear from the tone of his voice. Then, one monk came up and tapped him on the shoulder, and said one thing:

"Thinking about doing the thing is more difficult that doing it."

Today I am reminded of wisdom.

On the way back, I spotted a lady wearing a kimono, complete with the wooden sandals; one of the first instances of someone wearing traditional dress in this modern metropolis. I wondered where she was going, where she was coming from, and why she would she be in such a getup? Was she working in some themed cafe somewhere, or does she work in some very traditional company with a strict employee dress code? Perhaps she just wanted to wear something different; maybe in the ultimate form of social commentary, she was wearing un-modern to stand out amongst the business suites and the lolita lace. Then she disappeared from view, and she was gone.

I almost wrote, "in a puff of black smoke", but she wasn't ninja enough.

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