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Archive for the ‘Society’ Category

What the Cherry Blossom Still has to Teach Us

In Art, Asia, Buddhism, Ecology, Epistemology, Ethics, Health, Hinduism, History, Japan, Lifestyle, Literature, Nature, Opinions, Philosophy, Religion, Sakura, Society, Spirituality, Taiwan, Tradition, Travel, Worldviews on March 2, 2013 at 9:42 pm

From past to present, flowers continuously find purpose in our lives and imaginations.  Besides serving to brighten gardens, flowers fill the air with rich and subtle fragrances. They are used as tokens of affection for those among the living and dead. They remain a constant source of artistic inspiration, as seen in the Indo-Islamic artwork of medieval India and the Impressionists paintings of modernizing Europe. They are used to identify political allegiances and are often employed as powerful symbols of human achievement as well as human folly. From being an essential ingredient of herbal teas to a customary offerings to Hindu Deities, flowers remained a mainstay in the lives of numerous people from around the world. Why do these shapely but fragile angiosperms appeal to us so much?

For Babur, the first Mughal Emperor, the flowers of his royal gardens provided a comforting reminder of Farghana, his beloved but forever unreachable homeland. For poets like William Shakespeare and John McCrae, flowers have been the topic of imaginative imagery and the substance of metaphoric language. While Shakespeare often used flowers to represent human emotions in his plays and sonnets, McCrae described poppies growing on Flanders fields as being torches held by dead soldiers in his powerful poem, In Flanders Field. For Buddhists and Hindus mystics alike, the lotus personifies the successful realization of spiritual enlightenment, with the roots of the flower entangled in muddy water but the blossom rising above the surface in all its captivating glory.

Obvious, people from all walks of life enjoy flowers for a variety of reasons. Although I appreciate many of these reasons, I nonetheless find that the Japan-based Buddhist perception of the cherry blossom, or Sakura, to be among the most relevant and instructive. That might seem like a fairly bold claim, but I cannot think of any flower that can better teach a human being how to think and live in our fast-paced-post-modern world. Up until the last two years, I did not pay much attention to cherry blossoms. It was during a spring visit to Yangmingshan, an active volcano near Taipei, that I first encounter these breath-taking tree flowers. Watching their pink, white, and violet pedals constantly fluttering to the ground, it struck me how sadly and beautifully these marvelous cherry blossoms seemed to come and go. Being surrounded by these falling pedals, I could not help feeling that they had more to offer than aesthetic value. However, by the end of spring, the illusive and mysterious Sakura became lost from sight and mind.

It was during my second encounter with cherry blossoms in Vancouver that my interest became rekindled. Watching how the cherry blossoms rapidly budded at the beginning of spring and gradually vanished by the end of spring, I came to better appreciate the transient but cyclical nature of the Sakura season. While visiting Vanduesen Botanical Gardens, I had the opportunity to see cherry blossom trees in full bloom side by side with pine trees, an interesting eco-cultural experience of West meeting East,  fleeting pink mingling with forever green, flower pedal next to pine cone. It was like simultaneously walking in two worlds with one foot in the Asian Pacific Rim and another in the Canadian North. Now I admit, this observation certainly says a lot about myself; after all, walking in two worlds is not exactly new stuff for a second generation Indo-Canadian. Perhaps I could even be accused of choosing to see something of myself in the Vanduesen blossom trees. Nonetheless, I prefer to think, like the cultural ecologist David Abram, that human beings tend to discover a lot about themselves in what is not human.

While my interest in cherry blossoms has since soared to new heights, it was not until I recently read a thoughtful passage in Neil Ferguson’s Hitching Rides with Buddha that I could finally fully articulate my reason for finding such frail and short-lived flowers so fascinating and inspirational. During his hitchhiking adventures across Japan in pursuit of the Sakura, Ferguson, in one of his reflective moments, observed that:

The imagery of sakura is problematic. It has long been entwine with the notions of birth and death, beauty and violence. Cherry blossoms are central to the Japanese worship of nature… and yet the sword guards of samurai warriors bore the imprints of sakura as a a last, wry reminder of the fleetingness of life… The starkest image of sakura is that of the Ishiwari-Zakura, the stone-splitting Cherry Tree… [that] took root and grew in a small crack in a very large boulder… [eventually] splitting the vast boulder in two like life out of stone-grey death. The power of beauty to shatter stone; as brutal and sublime as any sword.

Although I already learned much about the Japanese notion of Sakura before reading Ferguson’s passage, his personal observation of  its paradoxical meanings did much to broaden and deepen my own awareness of the dynamic nature of these flower trees in a Shinto-Buddhist cosmology. While initially viewing the Sakura season as nature’s way of subtly teaching by gentle example about the “fleetingness of life,” my understanding of the cherry blossom tree gained new dimension as I recognized how it simultaneously teaches us how powerful, stubborn, and destructive the will to live can be. The Sakura season always comes to an end but always with the promise that it will begin anew next year. Problematic imagery indeed.

In a day and age where universal truths are becoming harder to maintain, and what we think we know becomes more easily debatable, perhaps the cherry blossom has something to teach us. In constantly reminding us that things that are seemingly contradictory can co-exist, it visibly demonstrates a way of thinking that is organic, pragmatic, and grounded in a world we all live in. In celebrating the cycle of birth and death on a yearly basis, it also models a natural way of being that balances an optimism for a colourful life with an acceptance of an unavoidable death. These are just a few of the revelations to be found in the beauty and sadness of Sakura.

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Why Making Reading A Part of Your Life is One of the Best Decisions You Can Make for Yourself

In Activism, Books, Culture, Globalization, Lifestyle, Opinions, Science, Society on September 29, 2011 at 1:45 pm

Although reading is widely recognized as a respectable hobby, the negative connotation of being a ‘bookworm’ lives on. Sure it is considered cool for adolescents to like to read popular fiction such as the Harry Potter series. It is even true that enjoying the occasional New York Times Best Seller is considered chic, and an essential part of bourgeois-pseudo-intellectual-Starbuck culture. However, when an individual’s passion for reading goes beyond superficial interest, it is not always well looked upon.

One charge is that reading too much undermines physical activity and encourages laziness. If you choose to spend long hours reading on a sofa instead of playing sports or working out, you might eventually find yourself needing to shave more than just a few pounds. Moreover, there is the view that beside being a form of entertainment, fictional books are not especially useful in the real world. While some dismiss it as being recreation, others, more harshly, regard it as a waste of time. Lastly, and perhaps the most persuasive of all, is the accusation that too much reading, like playing too much computer games, isn’t good for you. If you favour literature over interacting with other human beings, pursuing life goals, and becoming involved in day-to-day life, reading can become a form of escapism from reality. Rather than motivating personal development, it will serve to impede it.

Ironically, the logical extreme of these concerns is perhaps best represented in the main character of the modern classic, A Confederacy of Dunces. Ignatius J. Reilly, an obese penniless former graduate student, is obsessed with medieval literature to the point of harbouring a warped perception of himself and the world around him. More in touch with the writings of the Roman philosopher Boethius than his mother’s emotional and financial woes, Reilly’s bookish knowledge seems encourage his laziness, indifference, and reckless behaviour.

Maybe there are justifiable grounds for believing that there is such a thing as reading too much. However, I believe that for the vast majority of book lovers, reading is not only a healthy activity, but a pursuit that furthers personal growth and social awareness. There are good reasons for taking this stance.

For one thing, the view that excessive reading can lead to an unhealthy lifestyle rings hollow when one considers the amount of time people spend doing other more harmful indoor activities such as watching television. If anything, with the vast amount of up-to-date and self-help literature available, books are able to alert us about why regular consumption of fast-food and being a couch potato is so harmful to human health. In developed countries especially, books make it possible for almost anyone to gain an in-depth understanding of health issues in such a way that word-to-mouth, or even fast-pace-minute-by-minute media sources, simply can’t. How people choose to live with this easy-to-access information though is a different matter. After all, if you enjoy reading books but regularly sit or lie down for hours, chances are you probably have bigger problems than an addiction to ink on paper.

The novelist-activist Alice Walker once remarked “[i]f a book doesn’t make us better, then what on earth is it for?’’ Although she eloquently pointed out that the reading experience is relevant, she overlooked the fact that there is no way to know for sure whether one tale or the next will impact you positively or not. No matter how famous or popular a particular work is, it’s impossible to know if you will relate to it until you take the time to read it. Even then, you can’t be sure that it will be relevant to your existence today, tomorrow, next year, decades later, or perhaps ever! As most dedicated readers soon realize though, when one strikes gold, a story has the power to fill them with limitless inspiration, compassion, hope, courage, and determination. Literature, regardless of genre, has the potential to profoundly influence a person to make constructive changes to their lives and way of thinking. Making reading a regular part of life then, contrary to being a useless pastime, is if anything, a very worthwhile time investment.

If one is skeptical of opinion-based explanations for why a passion for reading is healthy, he or she may soon find themselves confronted by scientific proof. In “Why Fiction is Good for You,” the Globe and Mail considers a cognitive psychologist’s belief that  plays, stories, poems, and novels produce mental models in which readers can experiment with ideas about themselves and others. Describing preliminary psychological studies that support his hypothesis, the article proceeds to elaborate on the possibility that reading and talking about fictional works can powerfully shape our personalities. Comparing the reading experience to the use of a flight simulator, the psychologist explains how reading books and participating in book clubs enables people to open their minds to new ideas, perspectives, and possibilities within a ‘safe place.’

The implications of such research findings are significant. The studies would strengthen the view that fiction and non-fiction make it possible for hundreds of millions of human beings to access as well as share complex ideas, facts, worldviews, memories, and experiences from the comfort of their libraries, homes, and portable devices. Also, they would provide empirical evidence that books indeed have a vital role to play in enabling people to become informed and socially active like never before. Perhaps then, the title of bookworm would take on a entirely new meaning. One certainly can hope anyway!

For those interested in reading the Globe and Mail news report:

http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/arts/books/why-fiction-is-good-for-you/article2159339/