From one of our most astute observers of human nature comes a far-reaching exploration of Japanese history and culture and a moving meditation on impermanence, mortality, and grief.
For years, Pico Iyer has split his time between California and Nara, Japan, where he and his Japanese wife, Hiroko, have a small home. But when his father-in-law dies suddenly, calling him back to Japan earlier than expected, Iyer begins to grapple with the question we all have to live with: how to hold on to the things we love, even though we know that we and they are dying. In a country whose calendar is marked with occasions honoring the dead, this question is more urgent than anywhere else.
As the maple leaves begin to redden and the heat begins to soften, Iyer offers us a singular view of Japan-of its customs, its esoteric beliefs—a fascinating combination of Buddhism and Shintoism, and it’s serene philosophies on love, life and loss.
1. The ethereal beings that lend meaning to every aspect of life
What makes the air feel thronged is the presence of household deities and ghosts, the spirits that for my neighbors inhabit every last desk or box of chocolates. Nothing essential ever seems to die in Japan, so the land is saturated with dead ancestors, river gods, the heavenly bodies to whom Hiroko gives honorifics, as if they were her country’s CEOs.
2. The multiple shrines dedicated to Shinto and Buddhist gods at every corner…
Our closest place of worship— our modern neighborhood is cleansed of all shrines and temples— is named after Susano, the badboy god of waves and storms who was banished for smashing a hole in the hall of heaven belonging to his sister, the sun goddess.
3. …and the deep belief in their benevolence
It doesn’t seem amiss to pay respects to the local spirits, who, Hiroko assures me, are the ones who ensure our health and long life I pull the thick rope, clap my hands twice to summon the gods and close my eyes, hands joined. “Thank you,” I think, “for looking after our home, and our family, this community, while I was gone. Thank you for protecting my mother and me in California.”
4. The beauty evident in the transience of all things
We cherish things, Japan has always known, precisely because they cannot last; it’s their frailty that adds sweetness to their beauty. In the central literary text of the land, The Tale of Genji, the word for “impermanence” is used more than a
thousand times, and bright, amorous Prince Genji is said to be“a handsomer man in sorrow than in happiness.” Beauty, the foremost Jungian in Japan has observed, “is completed only if we accept the fact of death.”
5. The significance of deer in spirituality and mythology
A white deer is said to have been seen carrying a Shinto god over the hills here in the year 763, and when the word arrived that the Buddha had delivered his first discourse in a deer park, the creatures’ status as “god messengers” was confirmed.
6. The rapidity with which seasonal and lunar changes are recorded
There are sixteen phases of the moon here— I try never to confuse the “waiting moon” with the “waiting for the twilight” moon— and I’m sometimes reminded that, as in classical China, there are seventy- two seasons in the year, so that every five days marks a new old world.
7. The porous veil of autumn
On the autumn equinox— today— the sun sets in exactly the western area where the Japanese believe their paradise to be; divisions between the living and the dead are porous.
8. The enormous faith in ancestors and the days of the dead
For three days in mid- August, it’s believed, the dead return to their homes, to look in on their loved ones, and the whole country stops while people scatter to their ancestral places to welcome back the ghosts.
9. The sanctity of mourning
For one year after a death in the family, a person is polluted, and must not bring her scent of death into the place of gods. She cannot send out New Year’s cards this year, and if she lived closer to tradition, she’d be wearing black every day for twelve months.
10. And above all the serene grace of its attitude to living
I can hardly recall the bright- eyed kid who made such a pious point of telling himself that purity and kindness and mystery lay inside the temple walls and that everything outside them was profane; the beauty of Japan is to cut through all such divisions, and to remind you that any true grace or compassion is as evident in the convenience store— or at the ping- pong table— as in the bar where two monks are getting heartily drunk over another Hanshin Tigers game.