Maybe poverty is better. At least, we should learn to think so, given that circumstances are forcing it on so many of us. Since September’s “Lehman shock” sent the global economy into a tailspin, governments the world over have struggled to fix what is broken, to get things back to “normal.” The U.S. under Barack Obama and Japan under Taro Aso are launching massive stimulus programs. Europe has preferred to stress regulation.
Perhaps both approaches miss the point, suggests Sapio (April 8). Perhaps the point they’re missing is … "seihin." It’s a word composed of two characters: “clean” and “poverty.” In spirit, it is close to the traditional Japanese virtue of “wabi,” which, far from shunning poverty as an evil, cultivates it as a good, a condition to be preferred, because in it lies freedom. There is no one on Earth so free as the poor person genuinely reconciled to poverty. That’s the theory, anyway.
“Maybe what we’re going through,” says Sapio, “is not merely an economic problem but an invitation to radically rethink our attitude toward modern materialism and the ‘consumption society’ that America symbolizes.”
In 1992, a scholar named Koji Nakano published a book called “Seihin no Shiso” (The Philosophy of Seihin). It was a bestseller. The bubble economy of the 1980s had just burst, and an uncertain future, if not outright poverty, loomed. Invoking the wisdom of the nation’s artists, poets and sages of times past, Nakano argued that seeing poverty as an opportunity should come naturally to the Japanese. The fact that it doesn’t suggests a tragic alienation from the culture’s roots.
Sapio reprints Nakano’s pre-publication summary of the book, issued in 1991. The asset-inflated bubble wealth, he said then, “was starting to make the Japanese people strange. Fortunately, the so-called bubble burst. It was exactly what all those people who had been so relentlessly pursuing money -- are they really even Japanese? -- deserved.
“As far as today’s Japanese are concerned,” he continued, “the word ‘seihin’ hardly exists. It’s time we recovered it.”
Where is it to be found? Among the many enlightened ones who embodied its spirit, one of the most appealing is the poet-monk Ryokan (1758-1831). Nakano sums up his career: “All his life he had nothing to do with money. His dwelling was a grass hut, he lived by begging, and all he ever needed were ‘three sho of rice [a small daily portion] and a bundle of firewood.’”
He was a poet, and this poem of his offers as good a glimpse as any into the spirit of "seihin:"
“Picking violets by the roadside I’ve forgotten and left my begging bowl -- that begging bowl of mine.”
This is worlds apart from the utilitarianism that is second nature to us. Or perhaps, Nakano hints, it only seems that way: “Why is Ryokan so loved even today? Maybe it’s precisely because of his 'seihin.'”© Japan Today