Hanami without Sakura

I met the mayor of the city on the weekend.  It was a bit of a strange weekend all up.  First, I woke up and had a bit of a look at my Facebook and checked my inbox.  Nothing really interesting.  Facebook as always had a few interesting photos to rest the eyes upon, a few gags, and some more important stuff.  So what exactly happened that day, Garant.

Well, its simple really.  Knowing that you would be in Australia in less than a week, you knew it was time to make one final splash.  But first you had to take out the trash.  You sent a couple of messages on Facebook to let the world know you were coming to the park, for hanami without sakura.

Oh that’s right.  Here’s the thing: the absence of charity in Japan has often struck me as being cause for great concern.  All of the sadness seems hidden away.  I know that’s true.  I’ve been to Tokyo and after arriving they don’t let you sit down on the street, so a lot of people- the homeless that is- move to Osaka.  Over here in Nagoya, the homeless are there if you know where to look.  You certainly don’t see too many, but they are there.  Look down sometimes, and you’ll find a homeless person passed out in the garden for lack of nutrition.  Or sometimes, you’ll find a blue tarpolin stretched out with a homeless wanderer living inside, lying down.  I play a little bit of shogi in a park and I know a few people there that I can’t imagine holding down a job.

The church in Japan seems quite bizarre to me.  In Australia, there are all of these guys wandering around trying to convert the world to god knows what for who knows why.  There are all of these wandering preachers- evangelists- telling everyone that they are sure to go to hell, unless they do the logical thing, “Believe in Jesus”.  And then what, believe in what?  Believe that he is the Son of God, and the key to the eternal kingdom; you just have to listen to the little radio in your heart, a still quiet voice that tells you what to do.  Acknowledge that you have made mistakes in your life, so therefore are not God, must not be immortal, except you will almost certainly go to hell, the way you’re going.  Inside every human life with out Jeezus, as they say in the Bible belt, there is emptiness, a hole that needs to be filled, a special God-shaped hole.

For me, this is simply ridiculous.  If anyone just walked around saying I know the son of god, I know the son of god, believe me when I say I know the son of god, in different cultures they would certainly have been thrown in prison or stoned for blasphemy or, at the least considered mad.  And the church was persecuted, but they also actually did things.  That’s why people started to join.  Because they presented a fairer, more loving, more inclusive community than there was at the time.  The same thing happened with Buddhism where a lot of early converts- how many, I don’t know- were outcastes or untouchables.

Sometimes, the church is doing the opposite, they are making people, ordinary people, feel untouchable.  Ordinary human beings have a measure of guilt and remorse for past mistakes and a few questions about where it all began and what the point of it all is.  That’s completely natural.  What is a bit misguided, though, I think is to target those human weaknesses.  It’s just, well, silly, to think that you can fill a void with a set of beliefs or doctrines.  It only works if you give people something to do.  A lot of the churches I have been to are pretty good on the sins of commission and not terribly brilliant on the sins of ommission.

For those of you who don’t know what that means, it means churches are always telling you what not to do, and rarely telling you want to do.  You are supposed to be the salt of the earth- a little earthy, and just a bit different.  Or at least to try.

(I’m going to tell you the worst sermon I have ever heard.  It came from a pretty good guy, actually.  This was in a Pentecostal church at university after I had reconverted myself.  I don’t know why I started going there.  I think I was doing my usual thing of trying to give everything a second chance, and trying to follow life as it unfolds.  Anyway, the preaacher told us that the Holy Spirit was like some gold that was in an old, beat up used car.  Without the Holy Spirit, or the gold, the person was all but junk.  I think that’s junk.  That is, to me, junk theology.  What, Mahatma Ghandi is junk
because he does not accept the Holy Spirit?  Or the Dalai Lama or Jeffrey Hopkins, his translator.  There is a man I really respect and admire whose name is Matthieu Ricard.  He also translated for the Dalai Lama, but into French.  His father was a philosopher who was quite influential in France.  His most famous book was called Without Jesus or Marx.  His son, the young Matthieu, trained as a scientist but, after seeing some footage of Tibetan monks, he decided to pursue that course instead.  I strongly recommend his book Happiness for what it has t o say on the interface between Buddhist practice and the psychological sciences.  Okay, sure but those guys are religious.  Well what about a doctor who saves lives through cutting edge research, or even just your run of the mill GP?  Surely, they don’t need the Holy Spirit to have a life worth living.  That’s why a lot of things are simply mysteries and to pretend that you have read the Bible- or even studied the Biblle- and have all of the answers is kind of ludicrous.

What I do believe in is the life of Jesus and the life of the saints.  I believe in those things.  I believe that, for any of her flaws (yes, I’ve read The Missionary Position by Christopher Hitchens), she did live a life that touched and continues to touch others.  You can’t say people or institutions can’t have flaws.  But institutions can be on the whole constructive and beneficient or not.  That’s an argument that everyone has to weigh their own opinion on.  I think I will scream the next time I hear someone say everyone has to believe in evolution but wars are only fought because of religion.  Why are the chimpanzees fighting then?  Because of belief?  Its just a walking contradiction.  I love John Lennon’s music, but I don’t imagine that life without religion would fix everything.  It wouldn’t.  But religion, properly practiced, can help.

So I set off to go to the park with all of these intentions of trying to raise a bit of money though selling a few books, or asking people if they wanted to take a photo with my dog.  I wanted to do that on Sunday.  On Saturday, I just wanted to see some friends.  No-one came, but I did only announce it last minute on Facebook.  It was just something I needed to do before I left Japan.

But first, I met the mayor.  I was walking down towards Seiyu, my local shopping market when I saw some local residents milling around a local politician.  I asked who it was.  Someone told me it was the mayor, himself, Mr Kawamura.  So, his handlers asked if I wanted a photo.  Actually, that would be neat, I thought.  I can put that on Facebook.  My battery was dead though, so that was even better because his staff kindly took one for me and mailled it to me the same day.  I don’t agree with everything that is going on in Japanese politics, because, as hard as I try, I really don’t understand it.  I certainly think that he has made mistakes in office but I don’t really want to talk about them right now.  I will say that he is a man of the people, and that he is a charismatic and popular leader in the city of Nagoya.  At least he was.  I’m not sure what everyone thinks right now.

So after that bit of excitement, I headed down to the park.  I met a few people.  Everyone played with my dog, who got tired.  I talked a little bit about my blogs.  I freaked out a little, felt a little paranoid.  And I learnt some important things about my illness.  I learnt stuff like when people are doing simple things, there is no secret code to decipher, beyond basic body language- how the person is feeling and how people are reacting to circumstance.  So that was really good.

On the Sunday, I went out again.  This time I weighed myself down with two bags full of books.  First, I had a clever plan.  After receiving my photo of Kawamura sensei, which read that he was a supporter of little people and little revolutions, I thought maybe it will be okay to show people his message in support of such things.  Who knows if that was a good idea or not?  I just think when you are trying to accomplish certain goals we should use, as Malcolm X should have said, all good means necessary.  My basic goal was to trial my paper cup idea.  It was an interesting experiment.  First, I needed to have some money in the cup, so I asked a few people if they wanted to raise a little money for Fukushima.  No-one understands charity here very much.  It’s just not something that you see a lot of.  In frustration, I gave away a book.  One young guy looked interested in my books but disappointed that they were all in English.  So I picked a book of short stories (Bad Haircut by Tom Perrotta), and asked him if he had a dollar.  Then I gave him one.  Then I gave him the book, he gave me the dollar, and I put it in the cup.  Some people will think that’s completely illogical.  He got a book, I lost a dollar.  Well, I don’t need every book and I don’t need every dollar.  What I do need is for the church to start doing such things, too.  The crazy things, the illogical things, the out of the ordinary and strange and different.  The dollar I give away is a sign for others that it’s okay to do the same.

(Actually, this is the second time I have tried my paper cup experiment.  The first time was the previous Thursday.  I got my first paper cup from my old company, thought about its’ uses and held onto it for a day.  At the end of the day, my new friend was saying something about a couple of girls playing guitar.  I had been talking to him about paper cups, so I thought I’ll show him.  I did a bit of maths in my head.  Worked out what 80% of one beer was, and used as many denominations as possible to make that amount, which I put inside the cup and gave away.  “Thank you, you gave us money,” they said. “I love you,” they said.  I told my friend that maybe I just started busking in Japan.  I might have.  Who knows.  BTW  I know there are buskers already.  Yet, the system seems a little different in Japan, and it’s not as common.  But that’s cool. Maybe I started “busking for others”.)

I only collected another 121 yen or so that day, until I finally met a young American who I had a pretty good chat with.  He bought two books, and emptied his change of about 340 yen.  Triumphantly, I thought, that will do me for the day.  I walked through a crowded line into the Greenery Association and showed them my letter from the mayor, told them it was for Fukushima in Japan, and just left them the cup.  Now what happens on his end is his responsibility.  At least its a little reminder that people are out there who want that thing to get better.  Who knows what might happen if a couple of these stories spread.

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