The Earth Cycle Days of the Ox

Today was an Earth Cycle Day of the Ox (土用の丑の日 doyo no ushi no hi). On this day Japanese people eat eels. And the full story is even better than this two-sentence summary.

The old Japanese calendar, drawing on the Chinese tradition, used the elements to distinguish between seasons. As everyone knows, there are five elements: earth, fire, water, gold, and wood. The latter four of these were assigned to the four seasons. The fifth became the Earth Cycle, which was assigned to the last 18 days of each season. Thus, all five elements got an equal share of the year.

So much for seasons. Months are irrelevant to this discussion, so I’ll pass over them. How about weeks? They revolved around the 12 animals of the Chinese zodiac: Rat, Ox, Tiger, Hare etc. There was also the rokuyo system but I won’t get into that either. Anyway, 12-day week, 18-day Earth Cycle, so most years there are two Days of the Ox in every Earth Cycle.

What does this have to do with eels? Well. The prevailing theory is that the Edo period teacher and inventor Hiraga Gennai was approached by some eel vendors having trouble selling their goods in the summer of 1822, even though eel is a traditional summer food. He drew up some slogan boards saying “Eat Eel on the Earth Cycle Days of the Ox”, apparently since ox (ushi) begins with the same syllable as eel (unagi). Why not just every day of the ox? Well, the summer Earth Cycle happens to dip into the hottest days of the year, so the sign would remind people that eel was a good food to eat in that weather.

The slogan boards were an instant hit, and the advertising spread throughout the country–in 1822. The calendar was reformed, the months were renamed, the complicated association with the elements was forgotten, the 12-day week was exchanged for a 7-day one–in the 1870s. Western buildings sprang up throughout Japan–in the 1880s. Baseball, curry, and steak became popular foods–in the 1890s. The empire conquered Korea and Taiwan, entangled itself in unwinnable wars, and lost everything. America took over for a few years and left. Cars were manufactured. Robots were invented. And in the 21st century still, every year the restaurants and grocery stores post up signs: “Eat Eel on the Earth Cycle Days of the Ox!”

Few people in Japan know what the terms Earth Cycle or Day of the Ox mean these days. Most likely nobody at all could tell you when an Earth Cycle is off the top of their head. (The Cycle has been neglected; lacking an official astrological recalculation, it is slowly drifting backwards into July and will reach early July by 2100.) But the saying remains.

The World’s Top 5 Most Obnoxiously Long-Lived Advertising Slogans

5. “A peach / Looks good / With lots of fuzz / But man’s no peach / And never wuz / Burma-Shave”, etc. (1927)

4. “All The News That’s Fit To Print” (1896)

3. “Ivory Soap: 99-44/100% Pure” (1891)

2. “They come as a boon and a blessing to men, The Pickwick, the Owl and the Waverley Pen” (1869)

1. “Eat Eel on the Earth Cycle Days of the Ox!” (1822)

Posted: July 21st, 2011 | Japan 2 Comments »

I guess “Misguided” wasn’t a strong enough word

Ann Coulter, 2011

There’s not much to say about the format of this book, so I’ll breeze over it and get to the tally of good vs. bad statements. The book is about 30% insightful and 70% lost in the mist of ideology. Part I is an extended political blog, by which I mean a commentary on current affairs, with a bit of injection of a book the author has been reading and a few excursions to past political battles. Ann Coulter belongs to that rare class of people who get paid to produce blog posts. In this case she is trying to make the point that liberals are populists who call for democracy as mob rule, while Republicans represent the heritage of America’s intellectuals and never appeal to the mob. It’s kind of a disingenuous argument, but maybe a thoughtful one: we constantly see in this book liberals supporting random, unjust mob violence while conservatives support formal warfare with a named enemy. The conservative approach to force is more regimented and targeted. Liberals like to think they can avoid force, organization, or targets. I don’t think that means Republicans have never been populist, though.

Part II is a history of the French and American Revolutions as told by Ann Coulter, which is exactly what you think it is. There’s not much worth quoting from this part of the book. However, it’s a fair antidote to anyone who claims Coulter lacks a grasp of political regimes and ideologies. She also gets a swipe in at hippies, and Martin Luther King. I think her point against King is pretty poignant–people who remember with excitement the 1963 Civil Rights March cannot really say they did anything there other than show up and be part of the mob. But, because it’s Ann Coulter, this is framed badly, as part of an ideological argument rather than a measured analysis.

Part III discusses the segregationist left and the Central Park Jogger case to explain how liberals always appeal to the mob. The information here is mostly just the facts, attempting to contribute to the “mob rule” theory. In Part IV, we delve into an attack on the Lamestream Media and a passionate defense of CNBC analyst Jim Cramer and Sarah Palin that leans towards bizarre.

Then we learn that the New York Times proudly carries an award in its office that one of its reporters received for covering up the death of 15 million Ukrainians in the Holodomor, and refuses to give it back despite the pleas of many intellectuals. Also, they backed Mao Tse-tsung over Chiang Kai-shek. Also, “Senator John Kerry (D-MA) dismissed Republican arguments [against Pol Pot] as ‘anti-communist hysteria.'” (265) And Noam Chomsky still supports Pol Pot. (266) Juicy stuff.
Read the rest of this entry »

Posted: July 20th, 2011 | Res pueriles 3 Comments »

How Sangha and Paccekabuddha Refute Peace for Buddhists

When Siddhartha Gautama became Shakyamuni Buddha he decided against peace. What does this mean?

Perfect peace, inner and outer peace, means accepting whatever happens to you. Please consider this for a moment.

If someone attacks you with intent to kill, you have the choice of resisting or accepting. Resisting your attacker means fighting them; the political concept of “non-violent” resistance means very little in such a physical situation. Accepting your attacker is the only peaceful solution. It also means that you will die. If you can accept your own death you are a truly peaceful person.

If someone invades your community and asks you to surrender to their will, you have the same choice. If you “non-violently” resist the invaders, you may not be taking up arms but you are demonstrating that your beliefs conflict with theirs, which is a disruptive response, not a peaceful one. Complete surrender is the peaceful option. A perfectly peaceful community is therefore one that will be extinguished at the slightest touch.

The principal legacy of Buddha is the sangha, or community of monks. The sangha follows a very strict set of rules. They do not surrender to people who ask them to secularize their community. The establishment of a rule-abiding community in human society is not a peaceful action. It implies a small but recognizable level of resistance to the emotions and entanglements of lay society. Its membership is strictly voluntary, but it actively fights inner disorder, through its dispute system, and self-extinction, through its mission to propagate the dhamma. We must acknowledge that the sangha probably has the effect of promoting peace and absolving suffering in the society it depends on. The sangha is a skillful means to dhamma. But it is not a perfectly peaceful community and was not meant to be.

(Aside: Under the leadership of a Buddha I can accept that the sangha would be perfectly peaceful because any opposition to the sangha could be eliminated without conflict through a peaceful and compassionate reaction instructed by perfect understanding. But ordinary people are not Buddha.)

For people to follow rules they must believe in them. Belief is not a rational concept. No amount of rationality can force someone to drop everything and take up the monk’s robes. To make that decision you must have, as Buddha did, a belief (1) that the dhamma can be taught through sangha (2) that it will change the state of the world and (3) that this is a good thing. Unless if you are already Buddha these things are not obvious. They require a deep mystery to activate themselves in your mind, a recognition of Buddhism as a power and a force beyond a voluntary practice of meditation.

These three beliefs are cultural institutions. In Buddhist countries their power is strong; you believe, your family believes, and your friends believe. It is relatively easy to be a monk. In the West, none of those things are likely to be true. Many people may have a strong grasp of the dhamma in the West. But the dhamma is not acting on the world through a strong sangha. At best it is taking baby steps, during face-to-face personal encounters, in carefully considered acts that everyone must agree to be promoting peace in order to be considered Buddhist. Teaching mindfulness can be done over the Internet, but this is not the same as acting mindful. Only when people believe in the ability of dhamma to change the world for the better can the sangha be grown. They must not only believe tentatively that it sounds like it makes sense; they must devote themselves, they must give money, they must build, they must tell their friends and make their beliefs more acceptable. The sangha thereby is forced to institute itself on the world.

Dhamma is not peaceful, because Buddhism teaches that it requires propagation, and the propagation of dhamma is not peaceful. It is a force that acts on the world, eliminating wrong view and establishing deeper understanding. It does not drift through the air, seeping into the ears of meditators and giving them ethereal power. Sangha does not exist without its human believers, its pious monks and pious laity. It is very much a worldly force that builds order and disturbs the natural chaos. Trees must be chopped down to create its gathering spaces. It represents itself in monks, temples, pagodas and books, in local histories, in familiar illustrations and jataka tales. These things are not excess junk surrounding the dhamma but a reflection of the cultural power of the sangha, the same power that is necessary to maintain the community of monks and the vinaya they keep.

Who is a perfectly peaceful being? The Tripitaka gives us the answer. Some Buddhas are what we call paccekabuddha (縁覚 engaku). “Buddhas are enlightened by themselves and enlighten others: Paccekabuddhas are enlightened by themselves (but) do not enlighten others: they comprehend only the essence of meaning (attha-rasa), not the essence of the idea (dhamma-rasa). Because they are not able to put the supramundane dhamma into concepts and teach it; their realisation of the Dhamma is like a dream seen by a dumb man and like the taste of a curry from the city to one who lives in the forest”. (Suttanipata Commentary)

“Thus having entered upon religious life, he retires to the forest and goes on alone.” (Niddesa) He does not chop down any trees, for he needs no meeting spaces. He forces no bhikkus to wear robes or abstain from alcohol. In fact, he forces no one to hear the dhamma, but lives alone, “like the horn of a rhinoceros”.

If you were to summon superhuman self-control and achieve inner peace today, you would not become a Buddha. You would become paccekabuddha, understanding transience and dependent arising, but not how to control the force of compassion. Perfectly aware compassion makes you more than peaceful; it makes you a net positive force. If compassion were peaceful then an enlightened world, a world where all men become Buddhas, would be a peaceful one. But compassion is not peaceful, so a world where all men become Buddhas is simply an opening into further enlightened work.

In establishing the sangha the Buddha went beyond the concept of peace, because he not only saw the dhamma but knew the dhamma inside and out, and could not live anything other than dhamma, and was led by the dhamma to compassion, and was led by perfectly aware compassion to create an institution. Buddhists must therefore believe that this institution, when it follows the rules laid out by Buddha, is a positive force in the world.

Posted: July 19th, 2011 | Dharma, World Peace 1 Comment »

Mysticism and Strength

The simplest method for humans to achieve power is through use of force. Battering your opponent, regardless of laws or rules, will give you a temporary power over them. But force itself is brute and limits one’s strength to the abilities of the body. Mysticism multiplies strength. A single exercise of force, accompanied by the mysticism of power, can resonate in distant, unaffected observers as if they themselves were the actor or the victim.

In its primitive form, we describe this as sympathetic magic. By sticking pins into a voodoo doll, the superstitious believe that they can cause injury to an unknowing victim. Its civilized form is more complex, but no less mystical: by sticking planes into the World Trade Center, a handful of individuals caused hundreds of millions of people to feel pain and sorrow; by assassinating Osama bin Laden, we felt a thrill as if we ourselves had punched the enemy in his turbaned face.

Should these feelings be denounced as irrational? It is in fact crucial that we feel them. For millions of people to live in close society, the bonds of mysticism must be exercised constantly. When we come into dispute, we must rely upon our shared faith in the value of communication, heritage, religion, money, and so forth. These things are all mystical ideas, which are only able to prevent injury if both sides well and truly believe in them. If those fail, we must fervently believe that the law will resolve our problem, for without society or law, we have no method of resolving our dispute but brute force.

Mysticism is the world’s most dangerous weapon. It is the belief that a policeman can be summoned or that a missile can be launched, a belief which is more present in our everyday lives than the policemen or missiles themselves. Its form gives the weak superhuman strength, even life after death. Its ruin renders nobles savage and heroes villainous.

A society without mystical ties cannot exist. Aiming to build a society of unbelievers is not a “rational” idea because it does not account for human nature; it is antithetical to how human beings operate. In fact, those who reject the ties of society are detrimental to its function, until the point when they find something in society that they can appreciate.

Posted: July 16th, 2011 | Secular-Religious 3 Comments »