On Philosophy
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On Philosophy

Japan Reflections

Somewhere in Kyoto

A couple of weeks ago, Kanchana and I visited Japan for the first time. To say “we had a good time” is an understatement. Japan was “Food heaven, Jazz heaven, and (especially relevant to me) Train heaven — all rolled into one”.

But beyond this material appreciation, the trip also awakened some spiritual curiosity. I was particularly interested in the following observations.

  • Non-Individualism. Whether it’s through extreme hospitality and politeness, or through the way that everyone seems to blend in, or through the focus for more collective space at the expense of individual space, Japan seemed a deeply non-individualistic culture.
  • Formalism. From greetings to dress to how train drivers behave, there is a lot of Formalism. This felt less mechanical and scripted, and more a sense of peace and flow.
  • Minimalism. This was obvious not only in art, furniture, food, and design in general, but also in outlook and discussion. A focus on essence, voiding elaboration. An embracing of simplicity and austerity.
  • Quality. Every product and service in Japan seemed to be very high quality. It was difficult to find anything that was 2nd grade of shoddy.

Much of this seemed connected and embodied in Japanese Zen Buddhism. I was particularly interested in the concept of Wabi Sabi (侘寂) — which I learnt about after the trip from Marcel Theroux’s BBC documentary, and this useful blurb by Alain du Botton. Roughly, Wabi and Sabi are being at peace and appreciating Suffering and Impermanence, respectively.

At the back of my mind, I always felt that there was some common thread linking all these ideas. To say the common thread was “Buddhism” felt partly true, but also felt incomplete. I wanted something more specific.

A couple of days ago, it occurred to me that the following explanation is consistent with the observations:

Non-Individualism, Formalism, Minimalism, Quality and Wabi Sabi are all connected to living through contemplation, as opposed to living through thought.

As I thought about this more, the following contrasts occurred to me.

The Contemplative Life vs. the Thoughtful Life

  1. Thought pursues a specific goal. Contemplation has no specific goal. With thought, the destination is more important than the journey. With contemplation it’s all about the journey.
  2. Thought consists of navigating a large set of ideas, until a single idea is reached. Contemplation consists of focusing on a small set of ideas, or one idea — with repetition. [Minimalism]
  3. With thought, not only is the journey secondary, a shorter (more “efficient” or “optimal”) journey is considered preferable. The ability to “think quickly” is better. With contemplation, there are no such constraints on the journey.
  4. With thought, success depends on efficiently reaching the destination goal. With contemplation, success depends on the quality of the journey. [Quality]
  5. The results of thought are easier to measure, and often possible to define beforehand. It’s difficult to measure and describe the effects of contemplation, and usually impossible to predict.
  6. Thought is said to be “creative” — “Creative thought”. Contemplation, on the other hand, often involves, formal, mechanical tasks (e.g. Observing one’s breadth) or formal steps (e.g. walking slowly). These tasks and steps are often scripted and have been used for hundreds of years [Formalism].
  7. Paradoxically, often it’s hard to be creative by trying to “think creatively”. More often, mechanical contemplation leads to more creative and better quality results. The subconscious is often better at creativity than the conscious.
  8. Thought is optimized for “single tasking”. It’s impossible to think of more than one thing at the same time. Switching between different trains of thought (multi-tasking) is tiring. Contemplating involves sub-conscious multi-tasking. The subconscious is good at multi-tasking.
  9. Thinking is always focused on our individual identities — even when we are thinking about something outside ourselves or trying to achieve a non-individualistic goal. Contemplation draws us away from ourselves and is unconstrained by our individualism [Non-individualism].
  10. With thought, success and beauty are precision and correctness. A successful result is robust and constant. With contemplation success is transient, impermanent, and ambiguous. It is appreciated while it lasts [Sabi].
  11. With thought, there is the constant allure of success; reaching the goal; winning; a perfect destination. There is no such thing with contemplation. There is no goal, and often the journey is difficult, imperfect, and must be peacefully endured [Wabi].

Disclaimers

  • The reader of this note might incorrectly infer that our experience of Japanese culture and society was unanimously positive. This is not the case. Some things we did find alarming, troubling and sometimes disgusting. This note focusses on a subset of our experience; not all of it.
  • This note is inspired by Japan, but not a description of Japan.
  • When it comes to history, philosophy, neuro-science and religion, I’m very much an amateur and layperson. Hence, internalize the spirit of my writing, if not the letter.

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Nuwan I. Senaratna

Nuwan I. Senaratna

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I am a Computer Scientist and Musician by training. A writer with interests in Philosophy, Economics, Technology, Politics, Business, the Arts and Fiction.