for birds and butterflies
the autumn sky -- Matsuo Basho
While Japan is well known for its urban landscape it is not difficult to escape from its cities into its beautiful and diverse countryside. From sea coast to mountainside there is so much to see and appreciate. Hiking is a great way to connect with rural Japan, and luckily there are many well marked trails across the country. Many (if not most) are even accessible by trains or other forms of public transportation.
This year early autumn was a wonderful time to walk along the Nakasendo, an ancient roadway that connected Edo (the Shogun’s capitol) with Kyoto (the official capitol and seat of the Emperor). Once a well-used road filled with samurai, daimyo, merchants and entertainers journeying back and forth between the capitols, it has now dwindled into a forest-hiking path, climbing up and down mountains and wandering through small villages and towns.
The Nakasendo 中山道, meaning Middle Mountain Route, was one of the two major Edo period routes that connected the two Japanese capitols. It was called the middle route, because unlike the Tokaido (the other route connecting Edo and Kyoto) the Nakasendo ran through central Japan, rather than along the coast. Though not as popular as the Tokaido, the Nakasendo was often utilized because it did not require fording any of Japan’s major rivers. Our walk was mostly uphill, with a short drop for about 2k at the end. Indeed many people walk from Magome to Tsumago to avoid the upward climb. For us, the ascents gave us a great deal of satisfaction and a sense of accomplishment. October was a perfect time for the somewhat strenuous walk.
Though sunny, there was a cooling breeze that accompanied us throughout the afternoon, and the forest also provided welcome shade. Though the leaves had just begun to turn, there was enough dried foliage on the ground to provide a welcome crunch as we walked. The walk passed through a wide variety of terrain. At times we walked past recently harvested rice fields, with dried stalks hanging from racks. Then, we would move into a bamboo forest, or climb into a forest of old tall pines and maples. These trees often created a dappled light effect, creating pockets of sunshine and shade.
During the time we traversed the Nakasendo and passed a multitude of small Buddhas, in my mind our trek became a metaphor reflecting the Buddhist Middle Way, a path that transcends and reconciles the duality that characterizes most thinking; the quest for a way of life that would give the greatest value to human existence and help relieve the world of suffering, as both a rejection of self-indulgence and self-mortification. The towns seemed to represent the enticing call of materialism and the self-indulgence it commands, while the hills and forest of the Middle Route, were an escape into spirituality, where the small settlements created healthy sense of balance between the two extremes. Even the old lady, with her sweet potatoes appeared to me to be a guide, providing sustenance for my spiritual journey. The choice of walking direction was also significant, though the Magome – Tsumago route may have been easier, our up hill struggle made our journey more significant and meaningful.
Thinking of Shakyamuni’s (the most common name used in Japan for the historical Buddha) Middle Way created an inter-textual link to Maimonides’ similar concept of the Middle Way, based on Aristotle’s Golden Mean. In the Mishneh Torah Maimonides suggests that people should aim for a middle ground between the extremes of every characteristic. So, for example, a person should not express extreme rage, but at the same time he (or she) should not be as emotionless as a Vulcan, like a corpse with no feeling. Likewise, one should not be a miser nor should one squander all ones money, but rather one should give as he/she can afford. Maimonides concludes that this golden mean is the “way of wisdom,” and any person whose traits fall in the centre is considered wise. Balance and the attempt to follow a middle path were central to Shakyamuni and to Maimonides. Both warn us of the danger of moving to the extremes either of temptation or mortification.
Kabalistic thought also encourages us to live lives in balance, walking a middle way, which is equated with the “way of holiness.” We are asked to be “holy” just as God is “holy,” leading us to model our actions on the divine potential that is within each of us. To the Kabbalist the knowable aspects of the divine are described in terms of the ten sefirot. In a sense these are hypostasis of the attributes of action through which we perceive God’s activities in our world. There are, for example, sefirot called Justice (Din) and Mercy/Righteousness (Hesed). To the kabbalist these sefirot are not static but rather are part of a dynamic interaction, which when harmonious, facilitates the flow of energy from the Ein Sof to the material world. These sefirot, however, don't only exist in the divine, but are also found in all aspects of the created world, that is to say within each of us and within everything. When we actualize our individual sefirot through our actions, we are “holy” just as the divine is “holy.”
But, we too need to create a harmonious interaction between our different parts, and to walk a middle road creating balance. In the midrash God creates worlds based on pure justice and pure mercy and neither proved to be sustainable. It was only a world built on the balance of the two, which could stand and continue to exist. This particular balance is a difficult challenge for many of us, yet one that is essential if we want to walk in God’s way. It is very easy to be judgmental, believing that our view of life is an absolute, by which everyone else can be judged. It is also easy to think that it is our job to fix everyone else. On the other hand, it is also easy to ignore injustice, and think that the problems of the world are not our problems. Perhaps it would be better if we expressed our individual aspects of judgment in self judgment, working to make ourselves the best we can be, and our righteousness and mercy in a remembrance that we have an obligation for tikkun olam, to help create a better world for all that share this planet with us.