The eternal loop

An article writer in a past issue of the Buddhist magazine Tricycle described his personal interests, how little they intersected with worldly concerns, and asked rhetorically:

Am I out of the loop? Well, that depends. As William Carlos Williams wrote, “It is difficult / to get the news from poems / yet men die miserably every day / for lack / of what is found there.” I’d argue that I’m in the loop, the loop that Hsieh Ling-yun and Meng Hao-jan and Wang Wei and Han Shan and Su Tung-P’o and Shih-wu and countless others call home. It’s a bigger loop, an older loop, a far more stable and enduring loop.

That much said, it is difficult, isn’t it, to write on a computer, flip a switch for electricity, expect the refrigerator to preserve food, drive a vehicle down the street — and still claim to be out of the loop. The loop is bigger not just because we think we can afford to absent ourselves from parts of it, but because, happily, we have access to historical resources like the ancient Chinese poems. The content of ancient poems is just one example of an intellectual alternative to a physical reality.

The Taoists understood that only “heaven and earth” last. Buddhism called it impermanence. But these are natural law, so to speak, the nature of things, in short, the Tao. Today (and from the beginning, really) the evanescent is not what infects or undermines the “ten thousand things” but rather the material and artificial culture that surrounds us daily and rips us away from nature. Moderns might call the Tao flux, but not impermanence, permitting moderns to enjoy the worldly concerns our writer disdains. (One strives for a deeper metaphor than “heaven and earth” when reflecting on the destruction of earth itself, while the populace blithely ignores nature.)

Being in the loop with the ancients is always relevant because human culture is itself primarily a superficial gloss to material existence, an epiphenomenon that ignores the authentic values that we glean from remnants like poetry. We can weary of art, music, or literature as so much manipulation when a product for mass consumption pursued one day and discarded the next. In contrast, the ancient Chinese poets present a structure from feelings, and present feelings with structure. This structure and the well of authentic observation from which they emerge is transcendent. At the same time that the ancient poets bid us to pay attention to the moment — for it is the whole outpouring of the universe at the given time — we find in poetry the preservation of moments, reproduced for us accidentally, not consciously. For us, who have access to it, we grasp it deliberately and affirmatively.

The “moment” is brokenly understood by moderns who assign it a hedonism of spirit, a false epicureanism. For the ancient Chinese poets, as Taoists or Buddhists, the moment is the instance of the Tao to be understood. It is to treasure the snow in winter and not long for the flowers of spring. It is to treasure the fruit of summer and not rue the coming autumn; it is to treasure the falling leaves of autumn and not reflect on the snows of winter. It is to appreciate the moment before it is gone and not to resent its passing, not to rue what is gone or what is to follow.

This is not romanticism of the moment but a profound awareness of what is real. All of time is the Tao or Path, and the path is only ourselves watching in silence and awe. To this loop, yes, we can become a part, for it is a big loop and we have already been a part of it all along.

Yugen and poignancy

Wabi and sabi are familiar concepts of Japanese aesthetics in part because they are readily applied to objects of art, therefore tangible, observable, providing feedback to the artist and crafter making an object distinct from their mental construct. But this acquaintance and literal method of verification of the product of aesthetic principles tends to overlook deeper aspects of wabi and sabi and the concepts behind them.

In the first place, the concepts of wabi and sabi were not originally artistic or even aesthetic but religious and philosophical. Since ancient Shinto times in Japan, nature was identified as the source of spirit, including animism that posited the existence of spirits in natural objects such as mountains, rivers, trees, and rocks, but also the source of inspiration, strength, and guidance. The primitive view of nature deepened over the centuries with the influence of Buddhism, where nature already carried an epistemological component.

A fruitful philosophy of nature arose that evaluated existence and relationship of beings and constructed a way of perceiving reality and encompassing its sense of mystery or enigma. The concept of yugen emerged, the term literally meaning “dimness,” an apt sense of mythological origin and perceived governance of the universe that is elusive, difficult to grasp or define, less control. Human beings were at its mercy and enlightenment meant learning to cope with mystery, with yugen.

Yugen accommodates the sense of mystery that does not assume too much knowledge, too much surety, and dares not carry arrogance or presumption. Rather, a still and thoughtful observance and sense of wonder or awe is fostered by yugen, restoring human beings to their proper place in a large universe which occasionally reveals glimpses of itself and its inexorable ways, but mingled with beauty, provoking moments of awe and wonder.

Expression of yugen were religious as much as artistic, the latter reflecting the urge to depict and speak openly in order to hit upon insight, the religious view content to organize the sentiments of mystery into ritual and familiar expression. The Japanese waka and haiku poets came to excel in approaching yugen, just as literary drama from novels to No plays came to present situations and circumstances where human beings could approximate mystery or yugen as it engulfed their lives, circumstances, and feelings.

A second important principle of Japanese aesthetics gives animation to yugen through literature and art: mono no aware. The phrase literally means “the ah! of things” or “the poignancy of things,” referring to the evanescence or impermanence of things, understood not only as a religious concept of Buddhism but as an emotional construct, human feeling expressed in daily moments of insight, irony, and reflection. Like yugen, mono no aware can be traced to Chinese artistic expression, made unique, however, by Japanese culture.

In the arts mono no aware is expressed by an object or event or sequence, depicted in a painting, a drama, a sequence of events within disappointment and sadness in the lives of men and women, in a painting, a musical passage, a poem evoking the trembling beauty of an insightful moment felt, then lost, or by nature itself, as in the perpetual turn of the seasons, the glorious emergence of cherry blossoms only to see them inexorably fall to the ground, the cry of birds and insects in late autumn foreseeing their shortening days, the solitude of the moon casting its silent light during the long darkness of night.

Returning to yugen, to the sense of mystery that seems to govern and at times abandon the universe, does not obliterate the reading, learning, and thinking of the ages, but puts it all in perspective. The sources of mono no aware sentiment are all around us, yet only in pausing to note them do we note also the intrinsic nature of the sources, and the intrinsic nature of all beings, including ourselves.

Introvert well-being

Some years ago, a Wall Street Journal article argued that introverts are happier when acting or behaving like extroverts, who, the article maintained, are happier than introverts generally. This conclusion was repeating a common understanding not popularly questioned until Susan Cain in her 2012 book Quiet: the Power of Introverts in A World That Can’t Stop Talking and in her TED talk, where she argued that, specifically in the employment setting, introverts have unique skills that can establish their sense of achievement and satisfaction if the organization will accommodate them. Accommodation simply means managerial awareness of psychological distinctions that can better tap the contributions of all personalities, including introverts, who are thoughtful, observant, detail-oriented, circumspect, imaginative, and critical thinkers and excellent trouble-shooters.

A psychological trial at the University of Australia, first reported in the British Psychological Society’s Research Digest, now shows that introverts are better off not acting or behaving like extroverts.

As the researchers conclude: “dispositional introverts may reap fewer wellbeing benefits, and perhaps even incur some wellbeing costs, from acting more extroverted.” The negative observation by introverts was not merely a memory bias, having been told over and over in the past that extroverts are always happier. Rather, researchers noted that the environment fostered by managers, what researchers called “intervention,” directly affects outcomes.

Introvert personality preferences should be accommodated to help foster the preferred outcomes of the organization. “By allowing more freedom to return to an introverted ‘restorative niche,’ a less intensive intervention might also result in fewer costs to negative affect, authenticity and tiredness.”

The conclusion is more reserved that Cain’s, to be sure, but helps begin to establish a more objective view of the issues involved.



Anthropology has long shown that religion, rather than an intellectual contrivance or a set-out system of commandments and controls, is simply a social and cultural phenomenon, evolving in a cultural group like agriculture, healing, food-preparation, or rituals of birth, marriage, and death. Religion is loftier because it intends to address the origins of the universe and the trajectory of human existence within a perceived scheme.

But because religion is a common phenomenon, a universal expression, its contents can be cataloged and compared. The panoply of detail is fascinating, and comparative studies inviting. How each culture finds an interpretation of the universe that fits its own physical and psychological experiences reveals a criteria for self-understanding, regardless of an individual’s social or cultural upbringing. The process mitigates hostility towards one’s own culture while promoting understanding of other’s cultures. Thus distilling common factors is both a relativizing process but also a “scientific” process. Once information is gathered, imagination and creativity salvage the effort from the extremes of exceptionalism on the one hand and relativism and science on the other.

Since no modern can adhere to the practice and ritual of a given religion without, in effect, betraying or ignoring the cultural specificity of the given ritual, the dilemma for the sensitive and respectful has been to create syncretic approximations to a more universal religion, synthetic approximations to universal systems of thought, decorated by spiritual or ritualized elements.

In the Eastern world, such syncretism has been more natural: Vedanta as the product of Vedic and spiritualized Hinduism, Zen as the product of Taoism and Buddhism, Tibetan Buddhism as the product of Buddhism and Bon. The distinction between popular ritual and intellectual thought, too, has been easier to maintain in the East, as even the Dalai Lama has noted. The religious tensions of the East have been promoted by external imperial expansion, as in the Muslim presence in India, the coming of Christian missionaries in China and Japan, or diasporic circumstances, as suffered by the Rohingya in Myanmar.

In the West this tension has been more intrinsic to history. Persecution, pogroms, and wars of religion have dominated Western history not only in antiquity and Early Modern Europe but even today, where violence, however, is transmuted into cultural rivalry. After the rise of science and technology, the displacement of institutional religion excluded popular spiritual alternatives other than esotericism. The influx of Western-language translations of sacred books from the East in the late 19th century, promoted a new syncretism, dominated by Theosophy, which linked Western spiritism and generic supernaturalism with imagined Tibetan Buddhism, with its deities, demons, and angels. Permutations such as Fourth Way, New Thought, anthroposopy, and other syncretic bodies of thought emerged. The premise of many syncretisms is that a more original or root body of knowledge, necessarily esoteric, exists at a level never explored or consciously suppressed by the major religious authorities.

This premise now crosses the East and West divide. Helene Blavatsky, founder of Theosophy, believed that in Tibetan Buddhism were to be found mysterious supernatural powers as much as universal knowledge, and hidden masters who knew this knowledge and skills. G.I. Gurdjieff similarly presented hidden masters as the source, in his estimation the mysterious Sarmoung Brotherhood. In a curious inversion, the successors of Blavatsky, Annie Besant and Charles Leadbeater, identified a young J. Krishnamurti as Theosophy’s forthcoming World Teacher, for which Krishnamurti was being groomed. After much education, travel, and socialization around the world, Krishnamurti rejected the ideas of the Theosophists, but he became a world teacher after all. And Krishnamurti’s premise is basically that no body of thought or tradition derived from institutions is reliable or believable. Krishnamurti combines a Socratic philosophical method of questioning with a Buddhist emphasis on self and enlightenment of self as a contemplative project.

Where does the syncretism that especially animates the Western interest in yoga, meditation, and similar practices go for vindicating the logic of the new thinking? Here T.D. Suzuki (or a successor) explains the nature of Buddhism to Westerners, and Westerners explain Buddhism to readers of specialized presses or glossy magazines that offer expensive retreats in highbrow locations around the world. As with the subject of religion, the new syncretism can be viewed simply as a cultural phenomenon. Only a given individual and the person’s intellectual effort can reconcile truth, but that is an intellectual effort that frustrates the very goal of syncretism. Is one best off sailing new waters, or familiarizing oneself with already-met waters? Or realizing that whatever waters one encounters, the river is different every time one attempts to step into it.

Hermit’s Walk

The eminent Japanese philosopher Kitaro Nishida (1870-1945) spent much of his life in Kyoto, teaching at the university there and, after retirement in 1927, writing. He used to take breaks to walk along a quiet tree-lined path from the university along a canal, with several shrines and temples along the way. In those days, the path was doubtless solitary and restful, but since then it is populated with tourists, visitors, and small vendor stands catering to them. The path is called “Philsopher’s Walk” or “Path of the Philosopher,” retaining a sense of what it may have been like a century earlier when Nishida walked it.

In a parallel vein, philosopher’s walks are named walkways in Heidelberg, Germany — along the Neckar River, a scenic path popularized by Romantic-era writers and thinkers — and in Toronto, Canada — between the University of Toronto and a quiet old residential area. The Heidelberg area has plaques and signage, being close to old shops and a church. The Toronto path was a deliberate plan for pedestrian access to and from certain academic buildings and beyond.

A walking path conceived as a nature trail near Ripton, Vermont, is named for the American poet Robert Frost, who, however, did not walk this route during his lifetime but lectured and taught nearby for a while later in life. The US National Park Service maintains this interpretive trail, as it is called, and has put up placards of Frost poems along the trail.

(As an aside concerning Kyoto: the city of Kyoto was a priority target site for nuclear bombing for the United States Targeting Committee in World War II. The Secretary of War Henry Stimson intervened to suggest that post-war relations with Japan would suffer if Kyoto was destroyed. But the art historian and archaeologist Langdon Warner may have been the more influential voice, arguing forcefully concerning preservation of the cultural jewel of Japan that housed thousands of shrines, temples, a university, and other historically significant sites.)

The philosopher’s paths suggest a counterpart: a “hermit’s walk” or “hermit’s path.” Perhaps they exist already for some, in a deep forest somewhere, unmarked and unintended, pr in a public park, with placards of hermit quotations or sayings carried in the walker’s mind. Such sayings would probably include poems of Chinese wilderness poets, a passage from a Hindu or Buddhist sage, a saying of Paul of Thebes, a passage from Rousseau, Thoreau, or Muir. There are many possibilities, slanted toward nature versus society, toward the mystical or spiritual versus the formal and engaged. And perhaps a little composition book to read and reflect upon, filled with favorite sayings collected over years of reading, while taking a moment to sit on a boulder or mound, taking a break from walking. The latter, empty and meditative, a quiet state of mind in nature, is the ideal. The experience may a nearby destination or a planned visit to a nearby park, a frequent practice or an occasional vacation. Nature bathing with a little thoughtfulness is a salutary experience.