Category Archives: Literature

“The Taoist Influence on Japanese Martial Arts,” by Dota

New essay from Dota. Very nice!

The Taoist Influence on Japanese Martial Arts

By Dota

The Japanese Samurai Miyamoto Musashi acknowledged a number of influences on Japanese thought, chief among which were Confucianism and Buddhism. Yet not once does he directly mention the Old Master whose philosophy is so entrenched in the martial arts that the Samurai once pursued with inexhaustible zeal. Yet despite this seeming negligence, Mushashi’s epic martial arts treatise, “A Book of 5 Rings“, is laden with Taoist ideas and analogies. Indeed the very nature of the Japanese martial arts has been shaped and molded by Taoist thinking.

In the interest of brevity one can sum up Taoist thought as being primarily concerned with conforming to nature by finding “the way.” According to the very first verse of the Tao te Ching (the poem attributed to Lao Tzu): “The Tao (way) that can be described is not the real Tao.” Indeed, Lao Tzu devoted considerable energy into conveying the indescribable nature of the way. One could not describe the way, one merely walked it or one didn’t. Could one verbally instruct another on how to ride a bicycle? One either knew how to or didn’t.

Philosopher Arthur Danto astutely observed that the Taoists had a deep mistrust of prepositional knowledge, or what one would refer to as the discursive intellect. Taoism isn’t concerned with the knowledge of the scholar, but rather, with what we would refer to as “intuitive knowledge.” Those that knew the way were able to execute the perfect brush stroke or carve a pumpkin with exceptional ability.

To further illustrate this point, Chuang Tzu narrates the story of the old wheel maker. The latter approached a King and told him that reading his book was a waste of time. He explained to the King that true knowledge couldn’t be expressed in words but could only be grasped. He illustrated this point by describing his own trade as thus:

The other secret of my trade has to do with the roundness of the wheel. If I chisel away at the wheel too quickly, I may be able to complete the work in a short time, but the wheel won’t be perfectly round. Even though it may look quite acceptable upon casual inspection, in actual usage it will cause excessive shaking of the carriage…In order to create the best wheels possible in a timely manner, I must chisel at just the right speed – not too fast and not too slow. This speed is also guided by a feeling, which again can only be acquired through many years of experience.

He then concluded his lesson with the following observation:

Your Majesty, the ancient sages possessed the feelings that were at the heart of their mastery. Using words, they could set down the mechanics of their mastery in the form of books, but just as it is impossible for me to pass on my experience to anyone else, it is equally impossible for them to transmit their essence of wisdom to you. Their feelings died when they passed away. The only things they left behind were their words. This is why I said Your Majesty was reading the leftovers of a dead man.

Karate is taught via instruction and perfected through rigorous practice. Form, movement, and balance can be learned by executing a sequence of gestures and movements known as Kata. The master guides the student to the way but the student is tasked with walking on it and not deviating from it. In the first Karate Kid film Mr Miyagi scoffs at Daniel Larusso’s attempt to “learn Karate from book.” Musashi similarly stated in his treatise that “Language does not extend to explaining the Way in detail, but it can be grasped intuitively,” (Water Book).

But what is the difference between those men that follow the way and those that don’t? Those that follow the way properly are able to execute actions with minimal effort. But while effort is minimized the outcome of their actions is maximized.

This is known as the principle of WuWei (literally non doing). WuWei is also often understood as carefully calibrated action. Consider for example, a perfectly executed Karate shoulder throw. By using a lunging opponents force against him, one can disable an opponent with a shoulder throw; a move that would ordinarily require considerable effort to execute. Actions become effortless for those that know the way.

Musashi’s duels typically lasted only a few seconds. Consider his duel with Kojiro for example. He charged at his opponent and provoked Kojiro into making the first attack. Musashi effortlessly dodged the attack and decisively struck his opponent on the head killing him in a single blow. Musashi almost echoes Lao Tzu when he urges martial artists to be like water which is gentle yet destructive. It is the principle of WuWei that gives the Japanese martial arts their characteristic finesse that many have come to admire. The ancient masters would be repulsed by the drawn out UFC slug fests and would dismiss these fighters as not truly knowing the way.

The Japanese word for way is michi, which literally refers to a path through the Cosmos. The Way has no destination, and simply finding the way is an end in itself. Since Taoism is primarily concerned with each pursuing his own way, it stands to reason that every one of us is (potentially) a wanderer. The wanderer is also a common motif in Taoist art – he who walks a path without apparent destination.

I must point out that many of Japan’s cherished heroes were wanderers too, such as Musashi and Yagyu Jubei. Both of these individuals refused to hang up their swords and become artisans during the largely peaceful Tokugawa Period of Japanese history. They wandered the countryside (the Samurai had no restrictions on travel) and dueled several opponents that crossed their paths.

Musashi is said to have won 80 duels during his lifetime. So entrenched is the image of the wandering martial artist that it has left its imprint on contemporary Japanese pop culture as well. The characters Ryu and Akuma of the Street Fighter franchise are wanderers pursuing the way of the martial artist. In a statement saturated with Taoist overtones Akuma proclaims: “For some, it is the path, not the goal,” (Street Fighter Alpha 1).

Ultimately, while the spirit of the Japanese martial arts is obviously Japanese, their character is clearly Chinese.

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Filed under Asia, China, Disciplines, Guest Posts, Japan, Literature, Metaphysics, NE Asia, Philosophy, Regional

Julie Covington, “Don’t Cry for Me, Argentina”

The best version ever, from the play Evita from 1977. There have been many covers of this song including a famous one by Madonna. None of them really come anywhere close to the original, which still reigns. Sarah Brightman and Madonna’s versions are simply not as good, though they have their fans. Better than Karen Carpenter’s too, and Karen is one of the finest female singer-songwriters of the modern era.

The only version that nearly matches this one is by Elaine Paige. It is the one good cover of this song, but even it does not quite match the original.

This is the Elaine Page version. Very beautiful, and her theatrics are the best of all. Very nearly as good as the original. Versions by Nicolle Scherzinger, Madelena Alberto, Babara Streisand, Patti Lu Pone, and Suzann Eren and Lea Salonga all have their fans, particularly those by Eren and Scherzinger.

This really is an operatic song, but it is nevertheless perfectly suitable for pop as Madonna showed us two decades later to great success.

Reactive in death, polarizing in life, for better or worse, Eva Person continues to define modern Argentine politics and culture.

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Robert Burns, “Tam O Shanter”

This poem was written in and is being read in a language called Scots, which is not a dialect of English as many people think. Scots split off from English in ~1500, or 500 years ago. This is approximately what two languages sound like when they have been split apart for 500 years. I listened to this, although I can make out some words and even phrases here and there, honestly, I do not have the faintest idea what he is talking about, and I am missing most of this language. I can hear ~25% of it, if that.  However, a good friend of mine from England listened to it and she said she could make out ~70%. So there you go. See if you can make heads or tails of this stuff.

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Filed under Balto-Slavic-Germanic, English language, Germanic, Indo-European, Language Families, Linguistics, Literature, Poetry, Scots

Keats

Do any of you like John Keats? Famous English Romantic poet who lived in the Romantic Era. Born 1795, died young of tuberculosis in 1821 at age 25. He led a pretty sad life. Other Romantic poets were Percy Bysshe Shelley, Lord Byron, and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Sidney Lamb, Thomas Carlyle and William Wordsworth. There sure was a lot of great poetry around back in those days. Except for the tuberculosis and doctors who tried to cure you via blood loss, it was probably a great time to be alive.

I have wandered through quite a few of Keats’ poems, but that doesn’t mean that I understood what was going on in all of them. Keats’ poems are often hard to understand. But even if can’t figure out what the poem is about, they often feel real nice to read due to the beauty of the language. However, Ode to a Nightingale seems pretty straightforward to me. It’s beautiful stuff!

Ode to a Nightingale

My heart aches, and a drowsy numbness pains

My sense, as though of hemlock I had drunk,

Or emptied some dull opiate to the drains

One minute last, and Lethe-wards had sunk:

‘Tis not through envy of thy happy lot,

But being too happy in thine happiness,

That thou, light-winged Dryad of the trees,

In some melodious plot

Of beechen green, and shadows numberless,

Singest of summer in full-throated ease.

 

O for a draught of vintage! That hath been

Cool’d a long age in the deep-delved earth,

Tasting of Floa and the country-green,

Dance, and Provencal song, and sunburnt mirth!

O for a beaker full of the warm South!

Full of the true, the blushful Hippocrene,

With beaded bubbles winking at the brim,

And purple-stained mouth,

That I might drink, and leave the world unseen,

And with thee fade away into the forest dim-

 

Fade far away, dissolve, and quite forget

What thou among the leaves hast never known,

The weariness the fever and the fret

Here, where men sit and hear each other groan;

Where palsy shakes a few, sad, last grey hairs,

Where youth grows pale, and spectre-thin, and dies;

Where but to think is to be full of sorrow

And leaden-eyed despairs;

Where Beauty cannot keep her lustrous eyes,

Or new Love pine at them beyond to-morrow.

 

Away! Away! For I will fly to thee,

Not charioted by Bacchus and his pards,

But on the viewless wings of Poesy,

Though the dull brain perplexes and retards.

Already with thee! Tender is the night,

Clustered around by all her starry Fays;

But here there is no light,

Save what from heaven is with the breezes blown

Through verdurous glooms and winding mossy ways.

 

I cannot see what flowers are at my feet,

Nor what soft incense hands upon the boughs,

But, in embalmed darkness, guess each sweet

Wherewith the thicket, and the fruit-tree wild –

White hawthorn, and the pastoral eglantine;

Fast fading violets covered up in leaves;

And mid-May’s eldest child,

The coming musk-rose, full of dewy wine,

The murmurous haunt of flies on summer eves.

 

Darkling I listen; and, for many a time

I have been half in love with easeful Death,

Called hi soft names in many a mused rhyme,

To take into the air my quiet breath;

Now more than ever seems it rich to die,

To cease upon the midnight with no pain,

While thou art pouring forth thy soul abroad

In such an ecstasy!

Still wouldst thou sing, and I have ears in vain –

To thy high requiem become a sod.

 

Thou wast born for death, immortal Bird!

No hungry generations tread thee down;

The voice I hear this passing night was heard

In ancient days by emperor and clown:

Perhaps the self-same song that found a path

Through the sad heart of Ruth, when sick for home,

She stood in tears amid the alien corn;

The same that oft-times hath

Charmed magic casements, opening on the foam

Of perilous seas, in faery lands forlorn.

 

Forlorn! The very word is like a bell

To toll me back from thee to my sole self!

Adieu! The fancy cannot cheat so well

As she is famed to do, deceiving elf.

Adieu! Adieu! Thy plaintive anthem fades

Past the near-meadows, over the still stream,

Up the hill-side; and now ‘tis buried deep

In the next valley-glades:

Was it a vision, or a waking dream?

Fled is that music – Do I wake or sleep?

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Turgenev!

Turgenev is usually listed as one of the great Russian writers of the 19th Century along with Leo Tolstoy, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Anton Chekhov and Nikolai Gogol. He was the favorite Russian novelist of Henry James and Joseph Conrad, who both said he was better than Dostoevsky. Vladimir Nabokov rated him below Tolstoy, Chekhov and Gogol but ahead of Dostoevsky.

Although Turgenev quarreled with Tolstoy and Dostoevsky during his lifetime, both eventually came to praise him.

After he died, Tolstoy said:

His stories of peasant life will forever remain a valuable contribution to Russian literature. I have always valued them highly. And in this respect none of us can stand comparison with him. Take, for example, Living Relic, Loner, and so on. All these are unique stories. And as for his nature descriptions, these are true pearls, beyond the reach of any other writer!

Turgenev never married but had many lovers and affairs. He had a lifelong affair with a Spanish-born opera singer who was raised in Paris. He spent most of his time in Western Europe, especially Germany and France. He preferred cosmopolitan Western Europe over his native land. He died at age 64.

He was particularly noted for his great ear for dialogue, as you can see in the excerpt below. Just to give you a taste of what he is like, here is a passage from the play, A Month in the Country:

You know, Ratikin, I noticed this a long time ago …You are wonderfully sensitive to the so-called beauties of nature, and talk about them exquisitely … very intelligently … so exquisitely, so intelligently, that I feel sure nature should be indescribably grateful to you for your beautifully chosen, happy phrases about her; you court nature, like a perfumed marquis on his little red-heeled shoes, pursuing a pretty peasant girl … the only trouble is, I sometimes think that nature will never be able to understand or appreciate your subtle language – just as the peasant girl wouldn’t understand the courtly compliments of the marquis; nature is simpler, yes, cruder than you suppose – because, thank God, she is healthy …Birches don’t melt, they don’t have fainting fits like ladies with weak nerves.

Nnnice!

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Filed under Eurasia, Literature, Novel, Regional, Russia, Theater

The Great White Death!

Moby Dick is Herman Melville’s greatest work and is one of the greatest books ever written in English or really in any other language. Endless ink has been spilled about Ishmael, the sailor on board the whaling ship The Pequod and Ahab, the mad possessed captain of the ship, out to get his revenge against the greatest sperm whale of all, the great white whale, Moby Dick. Revenge against what? Earlier, Moby Dick had waged a war against Ahab’s ship when the whalers tried to kill the whale. In the course of the tumult and the whale’s attacks on the ship, Ahab lost his leg and now walks with an ivory peg-leg.

Moby Dick himself, or as I refer to him, The Great White Death!

Moby Dick himself, or as I refer to him, The Great White Death!

Really the best part of Moby Dick is the prose. I will print a few samples of it here so you can see how great it is.

Let us look at Ishmael talking.

Here the sea and the land clearly stand in for some deeper issues:

Glimpses do ye seem to see of that mortally intolerable truth; that all deep, earnest thinking is but the intrepid effort of the soul to keep the open independence of her sea; while the wildest winds of heaven and earth conspire to cast her on the treacherous, slavish shore?

But in landlessness alone reside the highest truth, shoreless, indefinite as God – so, better is it to perish in that howling infinite, than to be ingloriously dashed upon the lee, even if that were safety.

Consider them both, the sea and the land; and do you not find a strange analogy to something in yourself? For as this appalling ocean surrounds the verdant land, so in the soul of man there lies one insular Tahiti, full of peace and joy, but encompassed by the half known life. God keep thee! Push not off from that isle, thou canst never return!

Two whale heads of killed whales are fastened to the ship as trophies:

Oh, ye foolish! throw these thunderheads overboard, and then you will float light and right…This Right Whale I take to have been a Stoic; the Sperm Whale, a Platonian, who might have taken up Spinoza in his latter years.

He ponders the meaning of “whiteness,” of the obsessive themes of the book.

Is it that by its indefiniteness it shadows forth the heartless voids and immensities of the universe, and thus stabs us from behind with the thought of annihilation, when beholding the white depths of the milky way? Or is it, that as in essence whiteness is not so much a color as the visible absence of color, and at the same time the concrete of all colors; is it for these reasons that there is such a dumb blankness, full of meaning, in a wide landscape of snows – a colorless, all-color of atheism from which we shrink?

Ishmael on what’s eating Ahab:

Small reason was there to doubt, then, that ever since that almost fatal encounter, Ahab had cherished a wild vindictiveness against the whale, all the more fell for that in his frantic morbidness he at last came to identify with him, not only all his bodily woes, but all his intellectual and spiritual exasperations. The White Whale swam before him as the monomaniac incarnation of all those malicious agencies which some deep men feel eating in them, till they are left living on with half a heart and half a lung.

…he strove to pierce the profundity.

The surface of the ocean and its deeper waters are obviously stand-in’s for weightier things:

Beneath this wondrous world upon the surface… another and still stranger world…

Ishmael dislikes philosophy:

So soon as I hear that such or such a man gives himself out for a philosopher, I conclude that, like the dyspeptic old woman, he must have ‘broken his digester.’

Yet he spends quite a bit of time philosophizing himself:

What things real are there, but imponderable thoughts?

And has not much use for religion either.

Hell is an idea first born on an undigested apple-dumpling….

Better to sleep with a sober cannibal than a drunken Christian…

…Christian kindness has proved but hollow courtesy.

…a man’s religion is one thing, and this practical world another.

Yet he also wonders about the same obsessions that haunt the religious:

Methinks we have hugely mistaken this matter of Life and Death. Methinks that what they call my shadow here on earth is my true substance.

But he is brimming with great aphorisms:

…if you can get nothing better out of the world, get a good meal out of it, at least.

Starbuck, a sailor, is a budding capitalist who sees whales as nothing but another commodity:

I came here to hunt whales, not my commander’s vengeance. How many barrels will thy vengeance yield thee even if thou gettest it, Captain Ahab? It will not fetch thee much in our Nantucket market…

Pip, a castaway is rescued by sailor Stubb, only to jump off his ship. Stubb, another budding capitalist, albeit a vicious one, leaves Pip to flounder in the sea:

Stubb indirectly hinted, that though man loves his fellow, yet man is a money-making animal, which propensity too often interferes with his benevolence.

And Ahab has a few thoughts of his own:

All visible objects, man, are but pasteboard masks. But in each event – in the living act, the undoubted deed – there, some unknown but still reasoning thing put forth the mouldings of its features from behind the unreasoning mask. If man will strike, strike through the mask! How can the prisoner reach outside except by thrusting through the wall?

To me, the white whale is the wall, shoved near to me. Sometimes I think there’s naught beyond. But ’tis enough. He tasks me; he heaps me; I see in him outrageous strength, with an inscrutable malice sinewing it. That inscrutable thing is chiefly what I hate; and be the white whale agent, or be the white whale principal, I will wreak that hate upon him.

Ahab addressing a sperm whale, in a passage in which diving seems imply something deeper than plunging down into the sea:

Of all divers, thou has dived the deepest…

Niice!

Great stuff or what?

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One Island, Three Books

Ok here we go with the old stranded on a deserted island chestnut.

Now suppose you were stranded on a deserted island (not “desert island” as so many improperly say), and you could only bring three books with you, all fiction, all novels. Which do you choose?

I choose:

  1. Herman Melville, Moby Dick (1851)
  2. James Joyce, Ulysses (1922)
  3. Thomas Pynchon, Gravity’s Rainbow (1973)

Now have at it, mavens.

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Filed under Literature, Novel

D. H. Lawrence

A lot of people nowadays dislike D. H. Lawrence’s classic books such as Sons and Lovers, Lady Chatterly’s Lover, The Rainbow and Women in Love. I have read all four of them. Indeed the imagery can get rather heavy-handed and downright idiotic at times. His basic point, that humans should get out of their civilized shells enough to get in touch with their primal and of course sexual nature, is good enough for me, but he can be pretty ham-handed with the way he goes about hammering this point into your head.

Also his paragraphs can go on and on. And as far as erotic literature goes, it’s isn’t even very dirty by today’s pornographic standards, but I think it’s enough to at least turn’s women Romance-novel aware minds on.

I took a class once on D. H. Lawrence. It was all women except for me and one other guy.

Well, it was paradise.

The women in the class were turned on enough by Lawrence’s prose. I remember one very beautiful young woman, maybe 27 years old, often sat next to me. We were talking about one of the books and she was basically saying how she was getting so turned on reading them that she couldn’t wait for her husband to get home (he was off on some trip).

But I would like to point out, just for a moment, one thing often overlooked about Lawrence: what a great stylist he could be. Here is a passage from one of his classic travel books, Sea and Sardinia:

Cold, fresh wind, a black-blue, translucent, rolling sea on which the wake rose in snapping foam, and Sicily was on the left: Monte Pellegrino, a huge, inordinate mass of pinkish rock, hardly crisped with the faintest vegetation, looming up to heaven from the sea.

Strangely large in mass and bulk Monte Pellegrino looks and bare, like a Sahara in heaven: and old-looking. These coasts of Sicily are very imposing, terrific, fortifying the interior. And again one gets the feeling that age has worn them bare; as if old, old civilizations had worn away and exhausted the soil, leaving a terrifying blankness of rock, as at Syracuse in plateau, and here in great mass.

Oh! Man that is nice!

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Try Until You Die

“A man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for?”

– Robert Browning

That’s right. Never give up. Never stop trying. Never say uncle. Never say never. Keep on keeping on. Carry on, carry on. Get up and do it again. Nobody likes a quitter.

P.S. Browning is a really great 19th Century poet. You might want to check him out.

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Humans Are Perverse

Only part of us is sane; only part of us loves pleasure and the longer day of happiness, wants to live to our nineties and die in peace, in a house that we built, that shall shelter those who come after us.

The other half of us is nearly mad. It prefers the disagreeable to the agreeable, loves pain and its darker night despair, and wants to die in a catastrophe that will set back life to its beginnings and leave nothing of our house save its blackened foundations. Our bright nature fights in us with this yeasty darkness, and neither part is commonly quite victorious, for we are divided against ourselves and will not let either part be destroyed.

Rebecca West, Black Lamb and Grey Falcon (1941)

So we all have a bit of Doctor Jekyll and Mr. Hyde in us, and to be human is to have a dark side. The universe is bipolar, and both visions are correct, even at the same time as we learn in Zen. The world is either a good place where the possibility of decency and success combined exists, as in soaring goodness of Shakespeare’s best characters, or it is consists of a blackened existence, as in a Ben Jonson play where near every character is a scoundrel with a depraved heart  and the the few good men are ineffectual and impotent and as in Dostoevsky, evil always triumphs and good falls down in the gutters to defeat.

Bottom line: the human heart is both divided and perverse.

P.S. That Rebecca West book is not only one of the finest novels of the 20th Century, but it is also one of the greatest works in English-language literature. And it’s only 1,181 pages long!

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