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A Matter of Life and Death

November 18, 2007

Ruined Cottage

As a reminder of death in life, decay can be seen from many angles. In traditional Japanese culture it serves as both a touchstone and a pivot point:

In the earliest period of Japanese history, the attitudes of the traditional “Way of the Gods” making up the Shinto religion put greatest emphasis on the vitality and purity of one’s own present life. Death represented pollution and decay. Six centuries or so later, these values were reversed….a widespread sense, which followed the spread of a more popular Buddhism in medieval Japan, that the world was basically a place of sorrow, a temporary illusion to be replaced by the ultimate reality of a Nirvana. (“Japanese Literature: Four Polarities” by J. Thomas Rimer)

While these perspectives on life are diametric, those on decay are not. The Shinto vision sees decay as a polluted precursor of death, a negative motion to the bad side of the cycle, while the Buddhist vision sees decay as a sorrow, but a sweet one that marks the passage of time, which will eventually take us somewhere better. So for Japanese aesthetics, which is mostly Buddhist, decay is not just a necessary part of life, but the essence of life. In the West, we talk about feeling most alive in the presence of death, but this is always directed to high drama events of violence – threats, accidents and the battlefield. In traditional Japan, it is about quiet events, the fallen cherry blossoms, the broken down hut, the rusty lock:

Rusty lock medium width

Unfortunately the lock would not work, and when he went back to look for help no other manservant could anywhere be found. “It’s very rusty,” said the old porter dolefully, fumbling all the while with the lock that grated with an unpleasant sound but would not turn. “There’s nothing else wrong with it, but it’s terribly rusty. No one uses that gate now.” The words, ordinary enough in themselves, filled Genji with an unaccountable depression. How swiftly the locks rust, the hinges grow stiff on the doors that close behind us! “I am more than thirty,” he thought; and it seemed to him impossible to go doing things just as though they would last, as though people would remember. (Tale of Genji by Lady Murasaki, Waley translation)

Decay is the pivot of life, the moment of true reflection.

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