Buddhist priest Myoyu Tamaoki describes the world in terms hard to argue with. “Calm,” she says, “is elusive.” Disaster, ruin and upheaval, if not hitting you personally at any given moment, may strike the next, as a glance at news of them hyperactive elsewhere cannot fail to remind you. “Everyone,” Tamaoki says, “is on edge.”
The priesthood and her other profession — nursing — put her in the thick of things. She nursed her son, who suffers from acute allergies. She nursed her dying husband. Seeking spiritual enlightenment, she underwent religious training. Maybe we all should, in search of that elusive calm. For those not so inclined, Tamaoki, writing in this month’s edition of PHP magazine, suggests an easier path — a threefold path: “body, mouth, will.”
Supposing, she says by way of example, you want to lose weight. You put it into words: “I want to lose weight.” That’s easy. Willing it is more difficult: “I’ll go on a diet. I’ll exercise.” The body balks: “I don’t want to diet and exercise. I want to eat and loaf.”
Will fights back. It summons images of a slimmed-down you, trim, svelte and fit. That helps. All right — diet, exercise; here we go. Words, body and will in harmony equal peace of mind.
Is it really that simple? Hardly. “Thoughts come and go,” Tamaoki says. “Feelings come and go: worry, anxiety, dread. It’s beyond our control.”
Or is it? Maybe not. “Ritual motion,” she suggests, “controls thought” — to some degree. “The brain,” she says, “can apparently only focus on one thing at a time.” Develop a “magic movement” — a twitch of the shoulder, a raising and lowering of the arms, a certain stride; jump up and down – anything, whatever serves; trick the brain into absorption in motion and it forgets to think, at least at intolerable intensity. It’s something athletes know, she says. Enlightenment and athletics merge. Let the unathletic and the unenlightened take note, drawing what lessons they can.
Down from the clouds, now, to the real world. Tamaoki knows it well: “We’re in a tunnel with no exit in sight.”
A fellow nun, not Buddhist but Catholic, not from Japan but from Myanmar, experiences the tunnel as a black hole. “They opened fire and started beating protesters,” sister Ann Rosa Nu Tawng told Sky News of a Feb. 28 incident in Myitkyina, a city of more than 300,000 in northern Myanmar. She flung herself down on her knees between police and protesters. “I thought, ‘Today is the day I will die.’ I decided to die. I thought it would be better if I died instead of many people.” She survived; the violence ebbed; she stayed to tend the wounded.
She too must possess a kind of calm, awesome and inexplicable to ordinary mortals — or perhaps not. Maybe intense circumstances will draw it out of many of us, or some of us, who don’t know we have it. This month’s Japan edition of Act!, the newsletter of the international aid group Doctors Without Borders, surveys conditions in South Sudan, where Japanese troops and civilian personnel have been active as peacekeepers, engineers and medical workers since the African nation’s independence in 2011.
How, in conditions the newsletter describes, do people sustain the will to live? Independence, won by war, spurred tribal civil war. Summer floods aggravated food shortages. Hunger inflamed conflict. Medical care is stretched to the breaking point — “hospital breakdown” in Japan is bad but hardly bears comparison. Doctors cope as best they can with war wounds, malaria, AIDS — now, of course, coronavirus, to say nothing of the hazards, often fatal, of giving birth under such conditions.
Pediatrician Mayumi Iwakawa says of her experience serving in the region: “The people are remarkably cheerful and devoted to their families. They honor us doctors with their trust — but when there’s no hope (for a loved child) they sense it and accept it. Their attitude is different from ours. They accept death as part of life.”
One imagines a visitor from Myanmar or South Sudan in Japan, looking around and being struck dumb with wonder. Life seems so easy. The trains run on time, crowds flow in the street, kids play in the park, supermarket shelves bulge, bellies are full. Would our imaginary visitor be surprised to discover that misery and suffering thrive even so?
Catastrophic tragedy aside — surging female and teen suicide under the impact of the pandemic, for instance. Consider the relatively small stuff. A complex society like Japan’s opens many doors — and closes no fewer. Success beckons, failure looms. There are so many ways to fail — professionally, economically, socially — and so many causes of failure — bad luck, personal inadequacy, psychological unfitness for things as they are, though admirably fit for things as they might be, maybe should be, but aren’t.
This is territory the weekly Spa magazine has made its own. Last month, the magazine considered the plight of people earning little — or nothing — despite high academic qualifications. At some point they fell by the wayside and never regained traction. The pseudonymous “Haruya Matsuda” is one such.
He’s 43, a Keio University graduate with a degree in economics — a good student but a poor socializer. His solitary ways got him bullied by more exuberant classmates. He shrank into himself, left school, went back, left again, developed a condition known as anthropophobia — fear of people — and retreated to his childhood bedroom, getting sucked into the internet, turning night into day, finally managing to graduate all the same, and, there he was, out in the world.
He got lucky. An old school acquaintance hailed him on the street. He’d just started a venture company; would Matsuda join? Matsuda jumped at the chance — too fast. Instead of the freedom he’d been promised, he found himself working under a boss who rode him, he says, to the point of harassment.
He quit. He lives now on a small allowance from his parents and tries his luck at online day trading. If he runs into someone he knows, he calls himself an investor.
“Maybe I’ll invest in your company’s stock,” he says. His income at the moment is zero, but “slowly, I’m gaining confidence.”
Big in Japan is a weekly column that focuses on issues being discussed by domestic media organizations. Michael Hoffman’s latest book is “Cipangu, Golden Cipangu: Essays in Japanese History.”
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