Thursday, April 9, 2009

Layer 144 Zen, the Blues, Religion and Philosophy.

Monday 6th April

I’ve lost all control of my Zen music player. It now has a mind all of its own, and all I can do is switch it on or off, and press ‘play’ or ‘pause’. But when cabled into the Kenwood hi-fi in my flat it randomly cranks out the 4 gigabytes of excellent sounds I copied into it last year.

This morning it decided to start gently with Louis Jordan’s “She liked to boogie real slow”, and then hammered straight into the Stones’ “Can’t you hear me knocking?” with that incredible riff that just grabs the attention by the scruff of the neck and doesn’t let go for the next seven minutes of guitar, vocals and sax magic - classic Keith Richards. Music you just have to stop everything for and rock to.

And then to move things on even higher and wilder it threw at me “Rattlesnake Shake” - 24 minutes of brilliant electric blues recorded when Peter Green was at the very peak of his creative genius, way back in the mid to late sixties when Fleetwood Mac were the best blues band on the planet, bar none. This track still grabs me now like it did then. The Blues is timeless and beyond any dictates of fashion, fad and fly-by-night style.


Last night I was strolling around in the dark up at Osaka Castle, taking photos of its floodlit exterior, enjoying the atmosphere of fellow sightseers amid the flowering cherry trees, and suddenly heard the unmistakable sound of a National resonator steel guitar having its fretboard caressed with a bottleneck slide. I was drawn like a magnet to a bench in the pitch blackness under some trees, where the player turned out to be a youngish Japanese guy sitting with his girlfriend.

We got into a conversation, and he then played and sang “Sweet Home Chicago” with great expertise and feeling, the bottleneck shimmering and sliding up and down that beautiful chromium instrument. Another moment of pure Zen, to add to the many I’d already experienced on the day’s excursions around the Horyu-ji temple complex outside of Nara.

It then turned out that the girlfriend had with her a ukelele, which she played to accompany a beautifully sung version of “Loving You (has made my life so beautiful)” The guy joined in with his National. La la la la la.

We asked them for some ideas about where to go in Osaka to listen to good music played live in a bar or club, and will follow up later in the week.


Korean-style eating consists of sitting around a bowl of blazing hot charcoal lumps set within a table and cooking your own meat pieces to your own preferences - rare, medium or charred. The high-tech version of this cooker utilises a stainless steel bowl that somehow blasts the coals with air to get them up to red-hot temperature really quickly whilst sucking out the smoke and fumes through holes around the rim of the bowl, located just below the surface of the table.

Korean Town in Osaka has a number of narrow streets, little more than alleyways, that are lined with tiny restaurants. The most popular ones have queues outside that contain more people than are seated in the restaurant. The less popular ones employ people to stand outside and drag in the tourists and passers-by.

Japanese people out dining and drinking with colleagues and friends are quite funny. Within a few sips of beer they can go from self-contained and self-restrained ultra-quiet and polite beings to something approaching pie-eyed raucousness and wild laughter.


I’m starting to get my bearings, now that I’ve realised that the map I’ve been given has south at the top and north at the bottom. Last night I made my way home from Mukogawa station to my flat without a hitch.

I could use a day or so just to sit quietly and take in all that’s been happening - to review photos and videos and do some writing. That was my basic plan yesterday till Yoko phoned in the morning and said that since she’d been up and working since 5.00am she’d completed the essential work she needed to do and was free to take me out for some more cherry blossom and temple sightseeing. She’s amazing.

This afternoon I’m due to meet a colleague of hers who’s arriving from Tokyo. It will be interesting to find out what his interests are, and how well he speaks English. I’m extremely fortunate that Yoko speaks English as well as she does, so that I can ask her everything I need to know about this fascinating country.

This time around I feel I’m learning much more about the impact of post-war ‘westernisation’ on Japan and its people. The British may feel that the second world war was a traumatic event that changed our national way of life forever, but in fact cultural life continued much as it had previously, with a class system and a political, religious and military elite firmly in place despite the Labour landslide and the creation of a welfare state after the war. We still had the House of Lords and a monarchy, and indeed still do.

We have no real concept of what the Japanese people must have experienced - having had so many of their young men needlessly killed by the recklessness and expansionism of their ruling and warrior classes, whose hubris led them to attack the USA in the belief that their mighty warships and airforce could put an end to American expansionism and influence in the western Pacific.

We have no idea what it must have been like to have experienced attack with atomic weapons, and to have had so many cities flattened with conventional bombing and firestorms. We have no idea of the damaged caused to the national psyche by post-war occupation and domination by people of a completely alien culture, who then set about imposing their own cultural norms as much as they possibly could.


Actually there is one other control I have over the Zen player - I can fast-forward over tracks I don’t want to listen to, and I can flick back to the beginning of the current track for a repeat. I’ve thereby just converted the 24 minute howling monster blues-fest that is Rattlesnake Shake into a 48 minute wall-vibrating extravaganza. Which was nice.

The Kenwood machine has a kind of exaggerated bass sound, so I’m noticing more than ever John McVie - the man who put the Mac into the Mac - how chunky and funky his bass-playing always was.

And now the sky is blue and the sun is shining and I must get out there. One of the delights of the little Zen, of course, is that it’s highly portable and goes everywhere. Just like the real thing.


Yoko talked about ‘westernisation’ leading to the Japanese ‘losing’ their religion, or religions. Especially Shinto, which seems to have become pretty much the scapegoat for the actions of the Japanese ruling classes. Post-war defeat and trauma must have led to a wholesale loss of self-esteem and self-confidence, as far as the nation was concerned.

But also individuals. The nuclear bombs were the forerunner and the momma and poppa of ‘shock and awe’ - more a tactic for traumatising the enemy than any real wartime necessity, given that by the time those weapons were used, the Japanese navy and airforce were virtually destroyed.

It must be part of the Japanese psyche to show deference and obedience to rulers, regardless of whether they are legitimate, illegitimate or imposed by wartime defeat. But I still don’t understand the degree to which the American occupiers believed they had a right to treat the Japanese like a blank slate on which to write a new set of cultural norms, including the right to ban teaching and learning about Shinto and Buddhism in schools.

In my conversations with the post-grad students the other day I gathered they go along with the view that religion can’t even be mentioned in schools - even the basic precepts of, say, Buddhism, Christianity, Islam, etc.

Yoko tells me that her parents were Buddhists, but that she, as an adolescent, rejected their ‘religious’ beliefs, as adolescents are pretty much bound to do. We therefore have a situation whereby if religion can only be discussed and learnt about in homes, then we can expect ignorance of religion to become the norm. Yoko knows next to nothing about Zen because she never had the opportunity to hear about it in school, and she’s never been sufficiently interested to find out for herself.

Naturally I argued that Zen and Buddhism aren’t really religions, since their object is not to instil obedience to some supernatural ‘god’, but to develop techniques for human development with the ultimate goal of achieving Enlightenment, with each of us being responsible for our degrees of enlightenment and our own views of what enlightenment consists of.

Within certain branches of Buddhism there are rituals and key texts, which may or may not be learned within a temple. If we see Buddhist temples as essentially places that facilitate meditation, however, then Buddhism can legitimately be described as a philosophy rather than a religion. Zen masters and other Buddhist leaders are essentially teachers and practicing philosophers, and not priests or intermediaries.

One of the main paths connecting several of the temples in Kyoto is called the Path of the Philosophers. It’s the duty of each of us to become aware of our own philosophies, to the degree to which those philosophies are truly our own rather than indoctrination inculcated from our society and culture, and to become practicing philosophers - through meditation and the practice of inner reflection. We have to be able to identify our beliefs and our driving forces, and also be able to justify them to ourselves and others.

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