Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Echoes of Kuwait

Since returning to Fukuoka I've been cleaning house, going through 12 years worth of accumulated stuff and finding that we should have gotten rid of most of it as soon as we had finished with it, or had declined it when offered.

I suppose Mutsumi and I are not the only ones to do this, to hold on to things thinking that perhaps we will again someday have a need for them. My experience is that most of the time, this isn't the case. I've opened box after box of books, music, photos, letters, student papers, teaching materials, clothing, bags – none of it touched since the day it was consigned to cardboard and a spot in the closet. And still, some of it is hard to part with, even though I know it is going to go back in the box, never to be seen again until I start one of these cleaning exercises again in 2015 or 2020, should I live so long.

I suppose I'm fortunate to be doing this now instead of during a one-week vacation from work when there's not so much time to stop and read an old letter, or glance through a pile of old photos. Otherwise, I might just be chucking stuff into the trash heap just to be done with the project.

(Click photo for larger view)

Among the boxes was one carried over from Kuwait, where we lived from 1995-96. Therein was a notebook of clippings from the Arab Times, our daily source of news and entertainment at a time when the internet was still not widely available and many of us still read newspapers.

The cartoon and above a retraction printed next day

Amidst other amazing stories was the tempest stirred up by religious fundamentalists over a Hagar cartoon published 25 March 1996 in which the barbarian complains to God, "I pray and pray, but you never answer me", to which God replies, "Sorry if you don't get through right away. Keep trying. These days everyone wants to talk to me."

For mocking God, a group of six men visited the newspaper, one pulled a gun and fired at the editor. The gun jammed and all fled. Other brouhahas erupted over attempts to segregate education, women's suffrage, and fashion shows.

Among the more amusing stories are those with a morally indigent tone relating the rising tide of eve teasing, in which young men try to give young ladies pieces of paper on which they have written their names and telephone numbers. But perhaps the strangest story was the one about the Indian fellow arrested for dressing like a woman so that he could sit next to his girlfriend and her mother in the movie theater (which in Kuwait and other Gulf countries have segregated seating).

There was also a ticket from a World Wrestling Federation tournament, described in our clipping collection as the Middle East's first. About all I remember is that I attended the event with Kevin Carroll, a colleague from Kuwait University whom we haven't heard from in a very long time. (If you find this, Kevin, please send us an email.)

There was also the Kuwait University Handbook from 1995-96, in which I found staring back at me a face that is at once familiar, but then again not. Flipping through I saw Rawabi, one of my students who gave me a gift that sits now on our bookshelf and which I see at least a few times every month, a placard on which she inscribed: Thanks for the wonderful things you taught us, wishing to you a happy life in Japan. It's been 15 years since I've seen her and I suppose she now has a family and is practicing medicine somewhere in the Gulf. It would be nice meet her again.

We traveled to Egypt during this time and along the way Mutsumi was practicing her new hobby of painting, the choice of which I suppose was influenced by our upstairs neighbor, an American woman by the name of Norma who had painted all kinds of stuff all over her apartment walls. When I finished my thangka last month Mutusmi said she could never have imaged I had such ability. But looking at her painting here, I think she's shown a little talent of her own, don't you?


Monday, March 30, 2009

Memorial Service 50th anniversary of Occupation of Tibet, Fukuoka, 29 March 09

Free Tibet Fukuoka this past weekend organized events to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Chinese occupation of Tibet, including a memorial service for Tibetans who in the past year lost their lives in protest of China's campaign of cultural genocide.

The service was held at Nanfukuji, a small Shingon temple up a narrow road in a residential area of the city quite close to where we live but which we have never visited.

In the parking lot FTF set up a tent with a series of placards outlining basic Tibetan culture and history, along with a collection of photographs of life in Dharamsala.

Inside the temple, a photo of the Dalai Lama and a thangka had been set up on the altar, and a list of names of Tibetan victims installed just in front.

The memorial service began with everyone circling the altar three times chanting Om Mani Padme Hun, followed by the lighting of the ritual fire and what I suppose was a suttra recitation during which each attendee could approach the altar to offer incense and prayers.

The names of the victims were then recited before the papers bearing their names were folded up and offered to flames.

After a short tea break we reconvened for a discussion of Tibet and Tibetan issues with three young Tibetans living in Japan, two from the North Kyushu area, and one down from Nagoya specifically for the event. One of them noted that the most serious problem in Tibet today is the lack of control by Tibetans of cultural education. Many young Tibetans now grow up being able to communicate only in Chinese. One of the Japanese participants noted that China's policy of control is similar to that practiced by the Japanese Imperial Government in Manchuria and Korea. Another Japanese participant suggested that it was precisely because Japan had done such things to the Koreans, to the Taiwanese, to the Ainu, and to the Okinwans, that it was now the responsibility of Japanese to help the Tibetans and other oppressed people.

Altogether this was a wonderful day for me. I met some Tibetans and reconnected with that part of my life in Nepal. I sat in a Japanese temple, my first such visit in many months, enjoying the heady aroma of wood, tatami and incense. And as the main speakers were themselves foreigners using a less idiomatic form of the language, I was able to follow a two-hour discussion of politics in Japanese.

For those in Japan interested in connecting with groups working on Tibetan issues, have a look at some of the following links.


Saturday, March 28, 2009

Treasures of Miidera Temple, Fukuoka City Museum, 01 April - 10 May 2009

01 April - 10 May

A collection of national Buddhist art treasures is arriving in Fukuoka for 40 days beginning April 1. The items are from the Tendai temple of Miidera, one of Japan's four largest temples and also one of its oldest.

Lake Biwa from Miidera, ca 1890's
(from NY Public Library Digital Gallery)

The exhibition features nearly 300 pieces, including a large number of statuary as well as several examples of Japanese thangka dating back to the 13th century. You can see a selection of Miidera's national treasures and other famous pieces at the temple's website. If there is a particular item you would like to see, you might like to check its availability in the exhibit list. Not all items will be on display, and not all items will be on display for the entirety of the 40-day exhibit.

01 - 19 April

01 - 19 April

01 - 19 April

01 - 19 April

21 April - 10 May

01 April - 10 May


Friday, March 27, 2009

Praying for tomorrow

We pray for our life of tomorrow,
Ephemeral life though it be;
This is the habit of our mind
That passed away yesterday.

Zen and Zen Classics


Yesterday we took a walk through Maizuru Koen and found the cherry trees in full bloom. I went back this afternoon with my camera.


Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Among the apes

To dwell on the improbability of spending seventy-odd years on this planet as one of six billion worrying apes upsets the consoling belief that deep down inside I am a permanent and independent soul.

Stephen Batchelor
Living with the Devil

Deliberately telling lies

The Chinese government last week sent a delegation of Tibetan legislators to the United States to counter what it calls a lack of accurate information about life in occupied Tibet.

Regarding accusations of torture and imprisonment for expressing political or religious views, a fellow by the name of Tenzin Chodrak said of his fellow Tibetans, "I think that some of them are deliberately telling lies, and some of them are saying so because of bias."

If you have the stomach, watch this video released just yesterday by the Tibetan exile government and see for yourself what kind of bias Tibetans might be harboring. The first part of the video is rather mild and shows protesters in March 2008 being whipped with batons as they lay handcuffed. The second half is more gruesome, with footage of the mutilated body of a young man tortured for intervening in the public beating of a monk by Chinese security officials.

While the Chinese government cries crocodile tears for being misunderstood by the American public, it succeeded this week (presumably through economic blackmail) 0f convincing the South African government to deny a visa to the Dalai Lama, who was to attend a congress of Nobel Peace Prize winners. That meeting now seems in jeopardy as many of the other winners are refusing to participate if the Dalai Lama is denied entry into South Africa. Among the Peace Prize winners is Bishop Desmond Tutu, former SA president FW de Klerk, and former political prisoner Nelson Mandela, all of whom it appears are still needed in South Africa to remind their countrymen of right and honorable behavior.


Kobe: 20-22 March 09

Friday, as you must be aware by now, was the first day of Spring, known here in Japan as Higan and celebrated by all as a national holiday. We took the occasion of a long weekend to pay a visit to Kobe and celebrate Mutsumi's father's birthday. He may be 83, but he's still clear and sprightly.

The weather over Japan for most of the weekend was not very holiday-like, cloudy, windy and wet. Besides stepping out for dinner, we did a little shopping for groceries that you can't find quite so easily in Nepal. Being an old port town, Kobe has for many years had a large foreign population, including a sizeable community of South Asians, who have established a few groceries specializing in food from the subcontinent. We visited one of these on Friday, the Muslim holiday and conveniently located just a block or two from the Kobe Mosque. Quite frankly, I have never seen so many foreigners in one place in Fukuoka. The tiny store was quite literally packed, with more outside waiting to get in. Just to browse the shelves we had to walk in a slow moving line. But that was all part of the fun, checking out selections and taking in the foreign languages.

Most of our time was spent at home, where Mutsumi gave dad an impromptu yoga lesson and where we spent much of the days being entertained by our now one-year old niece, Shiori.

Here you can see her holding her nose, a gesture she has come to associate with the question, Ikutsu? or, How old are you? In her one-year old brain, ikutsu has become mixed up with the word kusai, or smelly.


Thursday, March 19, 2009

What is the net doing to our minds?

Writer Nicholas Carr poses the question in a recent piece in Atlantic:

Never has a communications system played so many roles in our lives—or exerted such broad influence over our thoughts—as the Internet does today. Yet, for all that’s been written about the Net, there’s been little consideration of how, exactly, it’s reprogramming us. The Net’s intellectual ethic remains obscure.

His conclusion addresses the anecdotal evidence that opens his essay, stories of fragmented concentration and frustrated deep reading:

The idea that our minds should operate as high-speed data-processing machines is not only built into the workings of the Internet, it is the network’s reigning business model as well. The faster we surf across the Web—the more links we click and pages we view—the more opportunities Google and other companies gain to collect information about us and to feed us advertisements. Most of the proprietors of the commercial Internet have a financial stake in collecting the crumbs of data we leave behind as we flit from link to link—the more crumbs, the better. The last thing these companies want is to encourage leisurely reading or slow, concentrated thought. It’s in their economic interest to drive us to distraction.

Read the full article (if you can) here.


Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Fukuoka Free Tibet events March 2009

For a guilt-free Tibet experience in Fukuoka, you might like to join the two events being sponsored by Fukuoka Free Tibet over the 28-29 March weekend.

Undercover in Tibet &
Discussion with Tibetans living in Japan
28 March
Fukuoka-shi, Chuo-ku, Arato, FukuFuku Plaza

Film begins 17:30, admission 500yen
This British television documentary first aired in spring 2008 and follows a young Tibetan, now naturalized British, who ventures into Tibet to talk with people the Chinese government would not like you to hear from, including victims of torture, sterilization, and forced resettlement. I reviewed this film last year here, including a link to Google films. Presumably the Fukuoka screening will include Japanese subtitles or narration. After the screening there will be a discussion with Tsering Dorje, Students for a Free Tibet Japan.

Memorial Service for Victims of Chinese Occupation
29 March

Fukuoka Shi, Chuo-ku, Sakarazaka, Nanfukuji Temple

Service begins at 15:00

This will be a short religious service commemorating the victims of 50 years of Chinese occupation of Tibet, followed by discussion with resident Tibetans.

For more on these events, you can visit the Fukuoka Free Tibet website, through which you may contact the organizer in English.


Tibetan Treasures at Kyushu Museum 11 April - 14 June 2009

The Chinese government just a couple of weeks ago attempted to obstruct the auction in Paris of what it calls looted national art treasures, while here in Fukuoka we have the Japanese government, through it's national museum in Dazaifu, cooperating with the Chinese government in a month-long exhibit of Tibetan cultural relics. I don't think anyone asked the Dalai Lama if they could borrow a few statues and paintings from the Potala palace, but a few such items will be on display here in Japan.

Just this week I met two well educated Japanese women who admitted they knew very little about the situation in Tibet, about the Dalai Lama, or about Tibetan Buddhism. And if that is true for them, how much more so for the general population. Most potential visitors to the exhibit are not likely to weigh the consequences of supporting this project through the purchase of tickets; even those of us acutely aware of the situation are subject to old habits, to reacting to pleasant forms and ideas. While buying train tickets this week, Mutsumi noticed the colorful image of Damarupa and added a set of exhibition tickets to her purchase. When she showed them to me that evening, I was pleasantly surprised to find such an exhibit opening so soon after arriving back in Fukuoka.

My intention yesterday was to add a post here announcing the exhibit for the benefit of local readers, but as I began to do a little research at the museum's website I noticed that the pieces in this exhibit are administered by China's State Administration of Cultural Heritage and the China Cultural Heritage Exchange Center. The Chinese government has over the past decade begun to realize the benefit of preserving Tibetan culture as a valuable asset in attracting tourists and in burnishing a self-created image as a protector of the Tibetan people. This exhibit in Japan seems to be part of what the Chinese today might generously refer to as the government's marketing strategy; the Maoists would have had no shame in calling it propaganda.

My purpose here is not to discourage people from attending this exhibit. Especially for those like my female friends, it might prove the beginning of a process resulting in clearer understanding. Perhaps an interest in the culture will lead them to learning about the strained conditions under which many Tibetans now live, and that may lead in turn to more informed decisions, increasing pressure on the Chinese government, and better living conditions for Tibetans.

For ourselves, we already have tickets. I thought perhaps to sell them to someone else, but still the money has already been paid to the Japanese and Chinese governments. Perhaps we will go and in observing perhaps find some way to help visitors better appreciate what they are seeing.

TIBET Treasures from the Roof of the World

2009 April 11 Sat. to June 14 Sun.
Kyushu National Museum

- ポタラ宮と天空の至宝 -



Monday, March 16, 2009

Sign of the Dhamma

Captured this afternoon on the Chikagai, one of the city's shopping districts. In the 10 minutes I shot this monk, I saw no one put anything in his bowl. When I dropped in 500yen, I saw he had only 100yen. A couple of hours later when I rode by on my bicycle, I saw a middle aged woman drop a coin in his bowl as she passed.


Sunday, March 15, 2009

Of surveys and prophets

It's been a quiet first week back in Fukuoka. Except for a trip to the supermarket and an equally short job interview conducted in the neighborhood McDonald's, I've spent my time at home. I haven't had a need or an urge to go into the city and I've had plenty on my computer to keep me busy, including editing two papers and setting up a couple of new websites (about which I can tell you more later).

Early in the week while scanning the headlines I ran across news of the 2008 American Religious Identification Survey showing an increase of 7% (since the last survey in 1990) in the number of Americans identifying themselves as having no religion. Additional data from the survey suggests this generation of non-believers will have no religious traditions to pass on to the next generation, which should lead to further increases in this segment of the population:
  • 40% say they had no childhood religious initiation ceremony such as a baptism, christening, circumcision, bar mitzvah or naming ceremony.
  • 55% of those who are married had no religious ceremony.
  • 66% say they do not expect to have a religious funeral.

While browsing related articles on the Survey, I bumped into a headline on The coming evangelical collapse. I wouldn't normally have taken much note of this, the number of breathless, sensational essays on the internet being outdone only by the number of nude pictures and porno movies, but as it was published in the Christian Science Monitor I had a peek. I found something unexpected, a calm voice of reason and compassion from within a group that is most often represented by shrillness, fear, condemnation and intolerance. The Internet Monk is himself a Christian and has an even more interesting and thoughtful essay on his blog on why evangelicals rank so highly in surveys of most disliked groups in America, a take on the post-9/11 Why They Hate Us diagnoses.

The Internet Monk in turn led me to a childhood icon, David Wilkerson. If you grew up in the 60's in America and went to church, you may have once run across his book, Cross and the Switchblade, Wilkerson's experience with New York youth gangs. I don't now recall who introduced me to this book, but I do remember reading it. I also remember seeing the movie at a church screening. I don't remember much about either and would have never thought of them if someone at The Internet Monk hadn't published a link to author David Wilkerson's website, where the old man is now ending his days warning Christians to stock up on canned goods for the coming apocalypse.

Indian guru Sai Baba doesn't seem to have made any such predictions lately, though he has made some outlandish ones in the past. You can find Baba's face all over Nepal and India, in posters, paintings, pendants, amulets, any kind of trinket you can market you can probably find a Baba version. I didn't know much about him and having little faith in gurus had no desire to waste my time learning until I found a recent BBC documentary claiming to expose some very un-godlike behavior. Not un-gurulike, because we all know that those who are idolized and given authority most always abuse it. Baba is no different and may be even worse for having so many worshipers. The BBC film claims are based largely on those from American devotees who in their private interviews with the guru found much to their chagrin that Baba likes oiling up young white boys. He also enjoys, it seems, regular treatments of fellatio. The reporter puts Baba's claims that the oil treatments are part of a religious tradition worshiping the lingam to Indian social commentator Khushwant Singh, who replies: “There’s no Indian tradition to support the fact that, you know, worship of the Lingam includes also doing the blow job, if that is what you are referring to.” If you want to see some more slight of hand, check out this video of Baba manifesting a necklace.

It must be terribly embarrassing for modern, educated Indians to have guys like Baba represent their culture to the world. It is at least for the Science and Rationalists' Association, who have for many years traveled across India debunking fakirs, swamis, and gurus. Given the size and conditions in India, it seems it may be many years before their work will be anywhere near done, before they can look on an Indian Religious Identification Survey showing growing numbers of Indians indifferent to religion.


Wat Suthat

We' ve lost count of the times we've been to Thailand, but it seems we have yet to run out of Wats to visit. Located not far from the central train station and a 5-minute walk from our hotel, Wat Suthat is a good-sized temple that appears to more than just a museum. A large number of worshippers were in attendance during our early morning visit.

We didn't see such notices at any other wats.

Close-up of the base of the throne.