There was something universally silly about the film The Last Samurai. It was a story that could have easily enough been told by an all Japanese cast and the foreign nature of Tom Cruise’s character, while providing the opportunity for contrast with the Japanese cast and setting, seemed like a third wheel on the audience’s attempt to take in the experience of the last Samurais.
While discussing the film with my good friend Jon Twitch (who is from the other side of the political spectrum of me), we both found it rather disturbing. He broadened my horizons by pointing out that even Dances With Wolves could seem like a whitewashing of events in American history as far as it attempted to capture native American life, and to do so felt the need to insert a relatable white figure into the cast. Touche. But there was something different about Dances in the sense that Lt. John Dunbar (Kevin Costner) was central in ways besides merely his interaction with the native Americans. In a very real sense the story did focus on the horrors he suffered in war and the ‘journey westward.’ But nonetheless it does tell something that one of the more popular films ever about native Americans is understood through the eyes of a white hero.
I had also felt that the accusations of The Revenant being a whitewashed telling of native American experience were unfounded. To me, clearly, the purpose of the film was a complex plot of man against nature and man against man, and the unique perspective of DiCaprio’s character was meant to crisscross into a lot of powerful stories from the beginning.
Whitewashing is back in the spotlight with the film The Great Wall which is oddly enough being directed by a Chinese native and features two Chinese stars who have a lot to benefit. I think that while whitewashing is a relevant narrative for the Western world we forget that in the age of globalization one of the goals of these films is to bring together as many stars from divers backgrounds as possible to increase the market share of the film when it goes to China or other places. Never underestimate the willingness of Koreans to see films for the mere presence of a single Korean actor or even there simply being Korean text (such as Moon 2009).
It might behoove us to analyze this from the perspective of the bottom line sometimes, more than thinking about it in terms of a nefarious attempt to interject ‘whiteness’ (for lack of a better word) into the film. Not everything comes down to an americentric interpretation of race and ethnic relations. 🙂
But nonetheless… The Last Samurai was disturbing. Perhaps moreso in the fact that it seemed to be such a great film with powerful symbolism.
One of the symbols, of course, is found at the end when Tom Cruise’s character is observing the death beneath the cherry blossoms hints at the parallels between a Samurai and a cherry blossom. This is not something that is cleverly revealed by the film writer Edward Zwick came up with — it is actually a very old concept that was even included in Japanese textbooks from the late Taisho period.
I dug around the internet to try to find out just how old we can take the cherry blossom as the symbol of the Samurai representing their ephemeral nature and willingness to die unselfishly and with great candor… There are references to the fact that the Japanese kamikaze painted cherry blossoms on their aircraft, and we see that the Judo symbol has a cherry blossom on it, We are assured in what appear to be good articles that the symbolism must be quite old, but sadly there is nothing more concrete that I found in my initial searches.
But as the history of Mon is quite old, we can imagine that this does go back deeper into feudal Japan and may be as old as the concept as the Japanese warrior.
Depending on your perspective, it can be a ‘good’ or ‘bad’ thing that there are drastically different canons, doctrines and schools of thought within Buddhism. Some people find it troublesome, but ultimately you could see it as its own manifestation of upaya (skillful means), and right in line with the original Buddhist doctrine. It is worth noting that there is evidence that even after Mahayana had become distinctive there were monasteries where both the Theraveda & Mahayana monks would live side by side.
Unlike Christianity, doctrinal differences generally did not create too many problems. And it is now that we can say it is fortunate for Christians that there is less emphasis on differences in sect and more emphasis on our universal principles.
There are many ways to relieve suffering. There are many ways to conceptualize the world around us. One can make an argument that ‘right view’ is rather narrow, and I’ll even tend to agree with that, but other than upholding the Five Precepts it is hard to be too concerned with people deviating within the general doctrine of Buddhism. Especially on issues of cosmology where we have a rich heritage of deities in some schools, the deification of Buddha in others and a sense of ‘godlessness’ still in some others, there is plenty of room for people to express themselves and practice how they want.
This is the reason that some people can essentially practice Buddhism as a sort of philosophy and others practice it more in the vein of a religion. This is the strength of Buddhism, and is not a weakness.
If we spend too much time trying to narrowly define it or to argue doctrine within it we are missing the very point. The Buddhist and the ecumenical Christian, the academic and the philosopher should rejoice in the plurality of Buddhist thought.
The below post is originally from a politicsforum.org post that I made earlier today, and it contained some interesting information that I had to track down concerning the nature of pre-Zoroastrian Iranian religion. Overall, I think it was one of the more interesting things I’ve really thought about and while I am not sure of the veracity of all of it, I open it up to discussion.
If anything seems funny in the wording, remember it was originally in reply to other people; I haven’t bothered to take away this quality from it and present it in its original format to you.
Hinduism & Buddhism are both Salvific faiths just as Islam & Christianity are. Buddhism has all manner of texts (especially Mahayana Buddhism) that emphasize the role of the teacher as ultimate. To be a Dharma teacher is quite an important and great thing in Buddhism. Many sutras focus on the idea of spreading the teachings of the Buddha as an important and necessary path for the Buddhist monk, and there are examples of sutras condemning monks who spent their entire lives looking inward as opposed to spreading the message.
Hinduism was transmitted to Indonesia for a long period of time — perhaps with the very goal of providing a method of attaining salvation to the masses. I can’t really comment further on that… But I would guess the lack of salvific outreach to others has to do with the fact that India was already a massive, divided place and expanding beyond Hindustan isn’t exactly an easy task. Not to mention, it is not as if the Hindustanis had the infrastructure or means to really make an easy going of a sustained mission abroad… though apparently to some degree this did happen in Indonesia.
Perhaps it is also worth noting, as FRS did, that Hinduism is a great patchwork of many different beliefs there; consider the Zoroastrians of the Iranic world. Before Zoroastrianism the Iranic religion is incredibly similar to Hinduism, and while tere are some different gods there are basically such striking similarities, that the Rg Veda is considered to provide us information with pre-Zoroastrian Vedic-Aryan deva worship. You can read more here.
So, basically, until Islam took out Zoroastrianism, we know that the most accessible lands surrounding India were essentially Buddhist (Afghanistan, parts of northeast Iran), or they were Zoroastrian (the rest of Iran, much of Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, etc.). Zoroastrian can be regarded on some level as a reformed, monotheized version of the regionalized Hindu-esque religion that had existed there…
… And gods know (appreciate the subtlety) that there was probably significant variation in the daily language, names and worship of the gods in Bihar and the gods in Tamil Nadu, and the gods in East Bengal and the gods in Punjab.
We might be running into a situation where Hinduism cannot spread to these lands beyond the Hindu Kush because it was more or less already there. Albeit, in a different and reformed version (though who is to say that there was not enclaves and villages still practicing a faith more similar to that of the pre-Zoroastrianism?).
In some sense, could we not argue that Hinduism had nowhere to expand from India, because it already had the Persian & Afghan empires?
(And we all know that it is Islam that supplants Zoroastrianism).
How does this dial into it?
Perhaps something like:
– Hinduism was salvific and spreading, as it did to Indonesia.
– Hinduism had no need to ‘spread’ to Persia and Iranic lands because it was more or less already there. It was then just reformed drastically right around the same time that Buddhism was formed.
– Buddhism & Jainism cause rifts within Hindustan and spread far and wide; the success of Buddhism in spreading abroad to some degree functions as a transmission as it is of Hindu culture, and perhaps even hints at the impotence of Hinduism to be of importance within Indian society. It is suggested by Gombrich in his book What The Buddha Thought that Buddhism was a religion primarily of the merchant / trader class, as it stands, and thus makes sense that while the Hinduism of the Brahmins stays put, the Buddhism of the Vaishyas spreads further & furhter.
– As time passes the Zoroastrians & Buddhists are defeated by the Muslims. Hinduism now has no options to spread and rather will be fully prepared to reel back in the face of Islam.
– Hinduism is then eventually enclosed by Islam to the West, and then there’s the far more Buddhist Bengali lands that eventually become Islamic; the Muslims then even spread their messages to Malaysia & Indonesia via Indian trade routes and usurp the old lands where Hinduism spread…
So after a 1,000 years they grow accustomed to constant inward looking.
It’s easy to become extremely introverted when surrounded by enemies… Ask the Koreans, ask the Shi’ites, ask the Druze, etc.
I recently took some time to listen to an extensive podcast on medieval guilds which featured the economic historian Gary Richards and it was utterly illuminating concerning the functions & roles of guilds in medieval Europe. The full podcast, of course, can be listened to via player.fm.
Of course, there are countless sociological and historical reasons as to why our ancestors functioned the way that they did… You know, in a more civilized and socially conscious fashion than anyone does today. It is also clear that the idea of getting anyone to behave with the manner & neighborliness of a medieval person is a long shot, but let us pine for the old days together for a moment.
First off, throw the image that you have of guilds out of your head; it isn’t solely an organization of pre-modern businessmen trying to fix prices and pull one over on the consumer. The word guild has a far broader reach. Any organization at all could be called a guild.
In medieval England, nearly every village had at least one registered ‘guild.’ These can be referred to as ‘societies’ as well, and some of these village guilds were nothing more than a prayer society. During the podcast Richardson stated that he believed nearly every adult in England probably was involved in some guild or another. But, of course, many of these were more so village social organizations, and not necessarily within the scope of our interest as we talk about former business practices.
The guilds that did exist that were associations of, say, pewter makers, blacksmiths, tanners, etc. formed very naturally and lived very interconnected lives. Remember that villages would be organized in a logical fashion — tanners and butchers deal with a lot of carcasses and do all manner of processes to make leather; you’d want them congregated in one area near the outside of town. Blacksmiths were involved in extremely loud work that likewise had a lot of fire and produced a lot of smoke and waste — again, you’d want them in one neighborhood.Thus, these guilds were also on some level neighborhood associations. They encompassed the entire section of town where all of the people of a single occupation lived.
It is also important to note that in the highly religious medieval times the craftsmen were devoted to their patron saints. Believing in purgatory as well as Heaven, the guildsmen would gather and pray not just for one another and their families, but also deceased guildsmen who may be stuck in purgatory. A very strong religious zeal existed within them — and in medieval England the primary threat that came with cheating your guild and being estranged from it was one of no longer receiving the prayers and blessings of the group you are with.
But guilds certainly weren’t just prayer warriors… Guilds offered mutual insurance to one another. If a guild member were to have died early, it is fully known that basic sustenance would be provided for his family and even dowries would commonly be furnished by his fellow guildsmen. There was a distinct sense of great social responsibility within the guild…
Guilds would compete to see who provided the best services to their communities and gave the most mutual assurance. They wished to be prestigious and have a measurable positive impact on the community. it was well documented that on the day of their patron Saints, they would have lively festivals and parades. This would include paying for lavish public performances of plays often depicting the life and good deeds of their Saints. The guildsmen would wear special liveries or badges indicating their membership in the guild — for it was a sign of distinct pride to have such an association with organizations that provided for the community.
Of course, guilds were dedicated to their economic work as well. Their trades were closely held secrets, but what was also important was providing quality products. It was common to put a symbol, emblem or ‘signature’ of sorts upon their products because the markings would have reputations attached to them. Thus, one of the other functions of a guild was to look into the work of their registered craftsmen and insure that nobody was doing things to make their products worst (like putting too much lead into their pewter, for instance).
Of course, this was a very different epoch in human history but as a fan of history I always hope to learn something from it. In this case what is clearly worthy of our attention was how, while the time was not as technologically advanced nor had the comforts of modern times, it does appear that they did their best to take care of one another, and a great point of pride was their ability to Give.
All of these elements stand out in stark contrast to the nature of how our business is done, and it is certainly harder to think of us as being the perpetual superior to these medieval peoples.