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Religiously Speaking ....

As most Americans, from conservatives to liberals, have fallen into an absurd delusion that the Harvard-educated black Messiah can walk on the water, I am quickly losing interest in politics. Originally TokyoFreePress was meant to be a political blog, but now I suspect it no longer deserves to be called one. I no longer share with these political pundits the same pastime of untiringly scratching the surface of what's going on in Washington, let alone in Tokyo.

I couldn't care less, indeed, what's to become of America or Japan.

But do you understand what I really mean when I say politics doesn't matter to me anymore? If you are Japanese or American, you certainly don't understand the real implication of my political apathy. I'll tell you why I feel that way.

Throughout my 73-year life, I have never belonged to a religious group because I haven't been dumb enough to take part in the nationwide endeavor to relativize values by saladizing various religions. Moreover, I suspect man's faith is something that should not be institutionalized in the first place. Hence, when I die, I refuse to be incinerated and buried either in Buddhist or Christian format. This, however, is not to say I haven't been influenced by the teachings of Jesus Christ and Gautama Buddha.

Admittedly my take on Christianity is a little heterodox in that to me, Mary Magdalene is the central figure in the life of Jesus. Some say she was a prostitute. Some others hypothesize that she was Jesus's mistress, or even his wife. I don't know exactly what she was. But I do know she was much more than just a disciple of Jesus Christ. Other disciples are said always to have been jealous about her and kept asking Jesus, "Why do you love her more than all of us?" I sometimes think God sent Jesus to save the beautiful woman, alone, or God sent her to save Jesus.

Equally important to me is Buddhism. Among other teachings of Buddha, I think his central tenet is this one: 色即是空. 空即是色.

You find these eight characters in one of the sutras translated into Chinese from Sanskrit. One English translation of these words reads:

A more explanatory translation goes:

I would rather compress this tenet this way:

I know how the average American would respond to this. An African-American who has a crush on Obama would approvingly grin and say, "You are damn right, brotha. I neither think nothin' ain't matta." But actually he ain't understand nothin' about Buddha's tenet at all. Buddha wasn't that stupid.

Since John F. Kennedy's advocacy of affirmative action, every time you say, "One's skin color doesn't matter at all," your American friend hears you say, "Black people should be given as decent jobs as whites and paid as much as whites." Actually this is a total distortion of Buddha's teaching.

The yellow interpretation of this tenet is even sillier than the black one.

In the website of Meiji Yasuda Institute of Life and Wellness, Inc., Tomomichi Oba, an adviser to the institute, tells an interesting episode about the conversation then Japan's Finance Minister Michio Watanabe had in 1982 with U.K. prime minister Margaret Thatcher.

A week or so earlier, Watanabe had delivered a speech at the annual assembly of the International Monetary Fund. At that time he insisted that his speech writer include a citation of this particular part from Buddha's teaching to conclude his address. At first, the speech writer translated it like this: "Color is sky, sky is color." (In Japanese, the Chinese character 色 could mean color, and 空 could mean sky.) But afterward he somehow felt like consulting a book authored by Daisetsu Suzuki, famous scholar specializing in Zen. Finally Suzuki's translation was added to the "color is sky" thing "to make it more understandable" to Westerners. (Suzuki's version goes: "What is form, that is emptiness. What is emptiness, that is form.") Of course all the congregation at the IMF assembly was intently listening to the supposedly profound words.

Then back in Tokyo he met with the visiting Thatcher. Looking quizzical, she asked Watanabe what he had wanted to say with these esoteric words. Watanabe's answer: "I wanted to say that when we are going through hardship like this one, we policymakers must sometimes ask our people to share the suffering with us. [When doing so] we've got to have a compassionate heart." The Iron Lady instantly refuted: "No, compassion doesn't help in dealing with such a difficulty. A clear brain does."

I think the Japanese people by and large share the same interpretation with the Finance Minister whose head was filled with emptiness. In the last 13 centuries, they have been taught to endure predicament inflicted on them on the pretext that worldly things are all empty and impermanent. This is what they mean by 色即是空.

I remember reading a book written by Karl Jaspers, German psychiatrist and philosopher, some 55 years ago. I forgot the title of the book but I was impressed by an anecdote inserted in it so much that I still can tell the story.

The director of the mental hospital is known for his unparalleled compassion toward the inmates. One day when he strolls around the garden, he spots an inmate casting a fishing line into the swimming pool. The director stops by the patient. Smiling knowingly, he says: "What kind of fish do you catch here?" The madman says: "Don't be silly, doctor. You can't catch any fish in a swimming pool."

This tells you something important about life. We are all casting a fishing line in the swimming pool. So don't ask me what for I'm still talking about the creeping socialism in America or writing a book review on Goldberg's Slobbering Love Affair.

To me "Nothing really matters" means "Nothing really matters" - no more, no less. If there is something that does matter, it's my own Mary Magdalene who gives me the reason to be around despite all this farce.

In short Jesus tells me the reason to live, whereas Goutama teaches me how to deal with life which is nothing but Shakespeare's "ado about nothing."

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Authored by: samwidge on Tuesday, March 17 2009 @ 08:53 AM JST
You have, Mr. Yamamoto, touched on hundreds of things here and it seems to me that no Christian of any stripe could really find fault with any of it (though we are a very combative bunch and we love to argue fine points).

Your mention of Kennedy and Affirmative Action intrigues because this is an extraordinarily complex issue. Do note that Affirmative Action keeps talented males from key positions in management of major corporations merely because it is impossible to fill desperately needed, low paying jobs in today's larger industry with small boned people. Those small boned people tend to be women and so they get the better jobs whether deserved or not.

However you work the Buddhist quote, it bears truth.

On the other hand, I find your impression of the Japanese people very interesting. Empty headed? Perhaps. Perhaps not. In the early postwar years, Americans described Orientals as "inscrutable." Even today we tend to find this to be so. It is not that your people are secretive but merely that there are some things that they don't discuss or share. In the end, it makes me wonder what it is that Americans likewise don't discuss or share. Are there questions that should be asked of us, too?

In the context of religion, all of us face mysteries that may never be explained.
Authored by: Y.Yamamoto on Tuesday, March 17 2009 @ 10:16 AM JST

Dear Jack:

As always, I appreciated your thought-provoking feedback.

As to the inscrutability of the Japanese, I can tell you this:
They are blank-faced simply because their heads are blank, too. It's laughable that Japanophile westerners often take this for a sign of oriental profoundness.

On the other hand, westerners, especially Americans, have expressive faces. So a serious problem has arisen as their heads have become more and more empty primarily because of affirmative action. I know you are an exception.

I'm not really an exception to my fellow countrymen. I may not be as dumb as the average Japanese. But my face is becoming more and more deadpan. My young friend says, "I've never seen you laugh although you keep joking." This is because of Parkinson's.

Yu Yamamoto.