Mar 27, 2009

The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon

The corporate TV news channels have gone into full throttle on the cherry blossoms, some blossoms are actually coming out, will the current cold snap discourage them, is it too early and so forth. Twenty times a day a report on the state of the buds with full color close up video. The viewing of the cherry blossoms is a central Washington DC rite.

Many years ago the Japanese government gave to the government of Washington DC a number of Japanese cherry trees. These were planted in the heart of Washington, around the tidal basin, together with the Japanese ceremony of viewing the cherry blossoms.

(But Americans do not have a lifetime of Buddhism as the Japanese do into which to put the ceremony. This is true. Nevertheless, the ceremony of viewing the cherry blossoms, has been spliced into Washington culture as firmly as a gene from a jellyfish is spliced into the DNA of a potato, and the Japanese ceremony, as understood in Washington, of viewing the cherry blossoms, is carried out every year. Opening ceremonies tomorrow, March 28, Parade, April 4, Fireworks, April 11.)

The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon is the diary of a Japanese court lady, not at all what you might expect a pillow book to be, and coming back from a court ceremony Lady Sei views the newly fallen snow on the outlines of roofs and walls and castle battlements, thinks how beautiful it is, and writes in her diary that “Unfortunately the beautiful crisp outline of the newly fallen snow adorns the houses of the poor just as much as the dwelling of persons of distinction and significance.” A pity, she thought, but she could think of nothing to do about it; equally, getting sunshine to fall only on celebrities has so far eluded US culture.

That opposing impulses may exist even in the same culture is demonstrated by another Japanese institution, Soka Gakai International, a Japanese Buddhist group loyal to the Daishonin, who appear to take the opposite view:

“Date: Wed, 25 Mar 2009 Subject: Daily Guidance for Mar 26
President Ikeda's Guidance for Mar 26
Of foremost importance are the people-not celebrities, the powerful, the rich, scholars or others whom society deems great or praiseworthy. The purpose of all things must be the happiness of the people. Everything else should be but a means to that end. Those who fail to recognize this fundamental point and look down on the people and exploit them are thoroughly vile and contemptible; they are a hindrance to people's happiness.”

I guess the moral is that a potato with a jellyfish gene spliced into it remains a potato, even if it occasionally has strange bouts of jellyfish behavior. Or perhaps -

“The rain it falleth on the just
As well as on the unjust feller
But harder on the just because
The unjust’s got the just’s umbrella"

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