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Friday, November 6, 2015

In the Realm of the Senses

Nansen-ji, Kyoto
-- By Tom Phillips

In college, more than fifty years ago, I was shocked to learn that the ancient Greeks gave Ethics a higher value than Aesthetics.  In my private pantheon, beauty was paramount, and included or implied every other virtue.  I believed instinctively in Keats's Ode on a Grecian Urn --  "Beauty is Truth, Truth Beauty, -  that is all ye know on earth, and all ye need to know."

A few years later I became a student of Zen Buddhism, which seemed to treat the two as one -- beauty as a realization of truth. This year I fulfilled a lifelong dream, touring Japan and contemplating the beauty of  Zen gardens.  And it was there that I finally, sadly, laid Keats's romantic illusion to rest.
A note to my fellow Aesthetes, if there are any left out there: Beauty is beauty, Truth truth.  The two are not mutually exclusive, and in a Zen garden they may find common ground.  But elsewhere, beauty is just beauty, and can even be used to mask falsehood, ignorance and evil.

I love Japan, and for two weeks I came home every night drunk with the beauty we encountered at every turn.  This is truly the realm of the senses, where everything is artistically prepared: every cup of tea and bite of sushi, every bath, flower arrangement, every bow and gesture, every corridor and doorway, every word and phrase, is refined and shaped to please the eye, ear, touch, taste and mind.

The other country I know where the life of the senses is supreme is France, and there it is mixed with a lively intellectual life, moral and political debate.  In Japan, though, the aesthetic point of view seems to have stunted the growth of the rational.  An American-educated Japanese, a pastor and schoolteacher, told me Japan is like a big small town, where public debate is stifled by the need to avoid unpleasantness.  Expressing an opinion is considered rude, and most people avoid it. When an argument does break out, it is based on feelings and prejudice, not logic; people get angry, and they can't be friends.  Debate tends to get so heated that the response is to push it down and cover it up.  A newspaper reporter we met said the press is nominally independent, but timid and wary of controversy -- free speech curbed by heavy self-censorship.

Marching through Nagoya 
Still, things may be changing.  In Kyoto we saw spirited demonstrations -- one against nuclear power in the wake of the Fukushima disaster, one against racism, i.e. discrimination against other Asian peoples.  And in Nagoya we took part in a small but growing movement for gay rights.   On Halloween, we marched with nearly a thousand dressed-up people through the downtown shopping district, and got many looks of delight from surprised people on the sidewalks. Our friend Duncan Mark, an American expatriate, said  they've only been doing it for four years, but this year's march was the biggest yet.  Gay rights is barely on the radar in Japan, same-sex marriage isn't even mentioned, and most sexual minorities are still in the closet.  But something's happening, and we were thrilled to be part of it.

The calm I felt contemplating a Zen garden in Kyoto was a beautiful experience,  But the exhilaration of marching through Nagoya was something better.  At 73, I finally get it.  The Greeks were right.  A thing of beauty may be a joy forever.  But the good is what we need to live for now.

-- Copyright 2015 by Tom Phillips

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