The Sound of the Mountain

Gulf Coast Online Editor

Mar 17, 2011

"Bright, bright, and bright, bright, bright, and bright, bright. Bright and bright, bright, and bright, bright moon." ¶Myoe, Buddhist Priest, 1173-1232 I've been thinking a lot lately about Japan. I think we all have. Shortly after I heard about the earthquake, and then the tsunami, I picked up my old, handworn copy of book by a Japanese novelist whose work I've always loved: Yasunari Kawabata. His most famous books (in America, at least) are likely Thousand Cranes and Snow Country, but my favorite has always been The Sound of the Mountain. In it, Shingo Ogata, the aging patriarch of a Tokyo family, begins to lose his memory. As he does, he hears what he believes to be a sound emanating from a mountain in the distance, even as he knows the mountain must be silent. The story follows Shingo and his family as they deal with the consequences of a fast-changing culture. Shingo prefers the old ways, those to which he's most accustomed. His memory, he notices, is not the only thing that's fading from his life, all while the mountain, far away, refuses to be silent. Kawabata won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1968. His acceptance speech formed a treatise on Zen Buddhism that focused on the theme of "nothingness," "not the nothingness or the emptiness of the West, [but rather] the reverse, a universe of the spirit in which everything communicates freely with everything, transcending bounds, limitless." Kawabata stressed that truth, in Zen, involved "the discarding of words," which makes his passion for writing seem almost unexpected, and yet anyone familiar with his work can attest to how much he can communicate with so few words, as with the strokes of calligraphic painting. This "discarding of words" seems to echo in the poem by Myoe quoted above, in which the word "bright" appears so often as to nearly lose its meaning, until finally it is again reinforced by the image of the moon. Kawabata also said that in Japanese landscape painting, "there is contained the concept of the sere and wasted, and even of the sad and the threadbare. Yet in the sad, austere, autumnal qualities there lies concealed a great richness of spirit." Japan these days, at least as we in the West see it on the news, seems sere and wasted indeed, and yet the richness of spirit about which Kawabata spoke lives on. Japanese rescuers make their ways into and out of the hot zones in Fukushima, cooling the reactor cores, risking their lives for total strangers. In Miyagi, volunteers feed hungry evacuees rice balls and instant noodles. And the Japanese are not alone: Cultures and countries the world over have sent rescuers of their own to help. I don't speak a word of Japanese and I'm woefully unfamiliar with Japanese culture, but I think I recognize a great richness of spirit when I see it. If you feel you do as well, please consider a contribution to Japan's people, their proud history, and their hopeful future by donating something, even if only a little, to the American Red Cross's relief efforts in Japan. In so doing, you will support the richness of the Japanese spirit with the richness of your own.