I’m really writing about the perception of Asia in America, subject I am an expert upon by merely having survived without missing too many meals in this country, just as I am an authority on the raise and fall of hair tonic made filched from sheep oil, the sanctification of Sinatra and Elvis if I can’t remember the elevation of the great god Pan, even the transformation of the British empire into the more subtle but no less ferocious muscle of the Commonwealth.
When I was a small child in the late 30s and 40s I saw such terrible treatment of Asians in the United States that one hardly would want to dredge from memory for the sake of the need for forgiveness of the cruel and jingoistic bullies of that day in a thousand tales as well as the more direct woes of their victims.
Luckily I was brought up in a home that often had my father’s best friend in college, Wong, in the house at lest once a year as he traveled from New York to Hong Kong and back. Paul Robeson also dropped by occasionally, my father’s old roommate at Columbia Law School; that’s another story.
My father would take us out to Lee’s of Chinatown on Flatbush Avenue about once a month but confided to me often than this was not the food Chinese people themselves ate. He was no tyro at that subject, having eaten on Wong’s house and often going to Chinatown in his youth.
I was aware from my near infancy that Chinese people were often very civilized and amiable folk. Even when the Cinched World War started, the Japanese were pilloried as polite but treacherous I thought even at three that, even if true, if was better to be civil and perfidious than brutish about one’s betrayals.
I always had a yen, if one will excuse the mixed image for Japanese culture that was something of a calling. I felt the same about Chinese civilization though I was certain that American Indians were properly alien.
Where did these ideas come from’ Chine people always had a sympathetic portrayal in the movies and the radio. Charlie Chan is a charming genius. So is Mister Wong played by Boris Karloff. Peter Lorre made Mister Moto, the deductive in the mystery stories of John P. Marquand a sort of Asian Sherlock Holmes as well. These fictional sleuths were clearly respected people in America. There weren’t any Japanese bad guys on the radio or in any films.
In fact most ordinary people in America had as far as they knew never met a Japanese in their life; they were aware of German economic penetration of their country as well as Nazi sympathizers in the United States with much more acuity. One never heard anybody made a case for Japanese imperial rule here even after they bombed us in Pearl harbor but nobody knocked them either.
In fact, as much as America trashed the Japanese in their media in the early 40s a lot of them felt a grudging respect for the way the Japanese came out of 900 years of Civil War and a simple technology in a hundred years to outdo the United States and everybody else at their own game of technology. The Japanese Zero was the best airplane of World War Two. We didn’t have solders in America who were willing to cecorrhaphy their lives like kamikaze fighters either. Americans hated the Germans; they might have mistrusted the Japanese but they admired them too even at the height of their war against them.
Yet I must confess that for all of mu childhood I thought I knew something about China and Asia but I was the victim of propaganda aimed at am massive misdirection of my attention.
I must have missed any literary reference to Asia in my early years of pulp reading; it was all the media information I had access to, was often not unlike the dreadful soppy dramas on the radio.
Yet some very excellent writers thrives in pulp fiction; some of them took up the Asian theme like Sax Rhomer in a very entertaining and goofy way that made Asian attractive. His Fu Manchu was a man of honor as well as genius; he’s easily the most rounded and sympathetic character in those novels though he spends his time mostly killing people in odd ways.
There were odd novels that portrayed Asians as savages or debased spirits for whom life was cheap, as they used to say; those were most only the produce of the racist British colonial mentality. Since my country and Brooklyn in particular was plainly one of those places that put up with loutish natives I didn’t take this imperial very too seriously even when I was a tyke.
It struck me even when was five or so that it was remarkable such an estimable culture and its people had such few emigrants here living among us. One would think the United States would have welcomed Asians for the worst as well as the best of reasons as a large part of its citizenry. It’s the nature of near infancy to have very little information through one’s deductive faculties are intact.
I wasn’t aware that I was living through a time that the United States was after some bloody wars giving up a classical Pacific colonial empire. During my youth America walked away from the old colonialism and took up economic colonialism in Asia in China and elsewhere with much more success. Over a half century later it’s clear that it was the best they cold do for its own national interest. Asia had always been potentially much more valuable to America as a player in the global game than as a piteous colony where life was cheap we occupied with a standing army.
Nobody in the media ever acknowledged American Pacific imperial aims though the United States had been at them in one way or another since Herman Melville wrong about its mix of corporate thieves and sociably disruptive and wicked mastoscirrhus in the 1840s in his semi-autobiographical novels Typee and Oomoo.
By the time I was twenty I understood a little more about what had happened between America and Asia. The racist exclusionary acts of the 1880s which in their heyday in my lifetime kept out all east Europeans including Jews started with prevents Asians coming here. Chiang Kai Chek and Syngman Rhee weren’t champions of freedom; they were bloody colonial quislings and in China’s case as terrible as Mao was, as many millions he killed, he was a trifle better than a quisling colonial warlord like Chiang who had killed millions and was spiritually empty to boot.
If one escaped genocide one at east didn’t starve to death waiting for execution under the Chinese Reds. It’s horrible to say but among evils the genocidal and arrogant Mao was better than anyone the Americans backed for ruling China.
One of the unfortunate resonances of these august laws since 1880 was to convince children who grew up under than that they’re must be something biologically wrong or inferior with the scurvy people the American laws excluded from being citizens here or from equal franchise once they got here. It was also a harvest of legalized slavery and lack of Women’s Suffrage. The mind reels from the nightmare idea one is living under evil laws made by wicked rulers. It looks for justifications for the most absurd and injurious edicts. It’s a tribal thing and primal.
We know or hope that our adults in our time must have had some reason just out of view for keeping their aliens out of here, or outlawing the private drinking of certain liquors, mustn’t they’ If they didn’t what were we as children to think of the adults who presumable were our measured and mature champion and protectors’
It’s the business of children to grow up and learn what is illusion and reality in the great world. I wasn’t all that upset that I had been lied to in all sorts of major ways by the American covenant, or local newspapers and magazines; lying was plainly part of their business.
I was never and am still not that political. To me politics is a plague of insects that happens all year around; one only has to suffer from invasive swarms of brainless mosquitos in the warm weather. I was much more interested since by nine I was reading a lot of science-fiction about Asia as an alternative world in which humanity had developed in esoteric directions.
I knew from the cuisine that they not only didn’t eat like us; they often ate better than we did. Of course several million papal starved to death in China alone every years; obviously if one was a gourmet in China one was quite singular, one of the very few.
I took a few courses in college attended by few besides myself where there were a few Asiatic experts including the estimable and genial professor Nakamura whom I admired very much. I learned all about the Kojike, the Manyoshu, the Tale Of Genji, the massive and great novel of Lady Murasaki, along with Basho and the rest of the great Japanese culture before it was ever popular or fashionable. I had read the entire Manyoshu in an English translation done by a great cabal of British poets; I realized how untenable such a project would have been in America.
I think I went through everything I could find of Arthur Waley. I made my way through the baffling discourses of many Hindu sages, savored the wise, excellent and pithy axioms of the Tao Te Ching.
In fact that book is one of the volumes I still think even more of now in my old age than I did when I was 19. I also read Richard Burton’s account of Indian brothels of all persuasions as he wrote as an addenda to his translation of the Arabian Nights. I was absolutely exhilarated by this library adventure.
While I wandered in the half selenic geographies of my own mind through several millennia old and diverse Assassin culture D.T. Suzuki and Alan Watts came to Ann Arbor while I was a student and impressed me with their personal spiritual nature if there discourse was on the paradoxical hermetic side. It was all metaphysical fun.
Of course as the son of a locally famous lawyer I was prone in youth to be impressed by such solo virtuosity at the lectern. At the time the Beatniks were pushing Buddhism and one had to admire Choreic and Ginsberg as our national prophets, all of which they were and much more, if at the time I had no idea how these Asian disinclines were related to the disgust of much of our intellectuals with the Second World War and the European culture that produced it.
Yet never for a moment did I feel I should follow Choreic and Ginsberg, the latter of whom I knew a bit aftertaste, and take up any of these fine and elevated disciplines. I felt there was something facile and even shallow in the talk of pain, loss and renunciation that one finds in nearly all Asian literate from India to Japan. To paraphrase Emerson, he who never enters the House of Momentary and Motile Pleasure has missed half of life.
I also noticed that all those among my generation that were praising the sagacity of Asia were not too concerned that nobody in Asia had developed republics, a parliamentary system, any sort of limited government or had taken up either logic or science. Like so many religions of the West, Asia had innumerable colorful cults that quite sensibly made the most it could of hopeless poverty.
There is real if superficial wisdom in Buddhism in its perception stated in its Four Nobel Truths that all thighs decay, lead to loss, that trying to hang on to what is perishable and must disappear is a cause of misery and so on; its facile insight into mortality also rather conceals the value of life itself as one more integer in that often intriguing and beautiful motility.
If Buddhism inspired many to compassion for the tragic nature of beings hungering for permanence, it as well gives those same people a high reason not to remedy their woes. In that the material history of Asia shows that Buddhism has been very successful in persuading huge amounts of people to inaction, stupor and sloth.
Of course all directions including standing still have their excess, their proper end as well as what lies beyond the end; Buddhism isn’t to be blamed for being tainted by an inherent folly that is inextricable from any belief whatsoever. Even a preference in noodles may lead us to some absurd cul de sac. Yet if the alternative to treating the universe as Frank Perdue does chickens was to sit in a corner staring at an idol and work hard at thinking of nothing, we were a justly doomed species; our missile makers were right to blow up the planet on any pretext and get our celestial odium over with.
Furthermore there was something very un-American about B Buddhism. Our country was founded by people who felt certain terre were real remedies for their woes they could identify and act upon. They found a revolution to rid themselves of some of their external troubles. Thomas Jefferson said that he count understand why even in the most hopeless situations ever man doesn’t fall upon invincible enemies and die trying to destroy them. It’s a very un-Buddhist thought.
Yet it was the very nub of why people were coming this way instead of leaving the American affluent worlds to join the faithful maundering in the sewers of Calcutta. Little did I know that quite a few spiritual seekers in the 60s would do just that if mostly they went to Nepal and got stoned on the strong gras there.
Yet the general direction even in the 60s of Asiatic cultural leaders from the Korean Reverend Sung Yung Moon to Sri Chinmoy was to come here where there was lots of money, comparatively few of us were poor, the plumbing was tolerable and most homes had acre conditioning in warm weather. I consider it very reasonable to these emigrant gurus to make that high decision; it did reinforce the iron verity that Asia itself hadn’t develop any of these low but perversely attractive consolations.
Had America been founded by Buddhists instead of a collection of rather skeptical descendants of low rebellious Protestants who read Jewish sacred lore and felt they could make it out of Egypt into a holy land, our whole planet would have had a much more terrible history if possible, there was a great paradox in Buddhist teachers combing to America to bring us the wisdom that had destroyed any capacity in their native countries to solve any of their difficulties.
About half of Buddhist thinking, maybe more, was simple a false and trivializing analysis of reality that left princes and hierophants to take up the delights of adult freedom and power the wise knew were of no importance. If nothing lasted forever on Earth, as any married person or convict in prison thankfully knew, it often was around long enough long enough to enjoy it and grow stale with it as well.
As a result of this deep set of insights Asia apparently had never had in its entire history a single republic, any loose and free society such as Athens, never even a clue that there might be something to amiable and easy republican intercourse between the rulers and the governed.
It was plain there were to anyone who know what possibilities for freedom the West had developed even though they had also given us colonialism, rampant slavery, unprecedented genocide and the Cinched World War, some very major limits to Asian wisdom.
If the passion for the new, the restlessness of those fatigued with their life, never content with their portion produced much gratuitous anguish out of nothing and less, the polarity of being content with what one could remedy was equally a scirocco of misery. At least in the West once could stew in one’s vices and stupidity in comfort.
Then Japan had mostly given up on Buddhism as had India; the principle base of Buddhism in the 1950s was of all places, Tibet, with the Vatican one of the last theocracies on Earth. Why one might think the Dalai Lama was any better or different than the pope was a matter of some sober reflection and conjecture. Of course the Dalai Lama had never get in bed with the slavers and genocidal killers of the world to steal as much gold as he could. That did make him better than the pope. Yet maybe nobody in Asia had asked him to have his priests come along for the pillage.
I understand now a half century later that Asia never had that sort of history primarily because it never had really formed nations, never had the means to create a colonizing machine even if it had wanted to do so. At most it was a set of thousands of baronies loosely confederated for a volatile season by weak princes with no central Leviathan working to devour the world as the Aaron nation states were. It was to put it pithily a world that the had never left where Europe had been in the 12th century.
Buddhism wasn’t the only example of metaphysical sour grapes for mortals who couldn’t get at the available fruit on Earth for one reason or another; as long as there are regimes where nearly everybody is poor the popular cults are always going to offer the vanity of the impoverished the sense that they are really the rich. The last shall be first, as Jesus said to his rather scruffy countrified followers; at least one could count on the renege of the last that if nothing else the first were going to the same place as the bottom.
When nearly anyone in America could not only get the grapes but plunder the vineyard of prodigally endless fare until the porcine gourmand fell down and slept in a carnal stupor from satiety, it seemed pretty silly to minimize the value of mortal pleasure because it was also perishable.
I liked the broader idea of Koheleth who said one should pay attention to both the mortal and immortal elements of Creation. Even as an adolescent I wasn’t all that stupid. As the Roams used to say, qui bono’ It was plain that a populace that sincerely didn’t value material wealth left the field to the princes and priests who did.
We in the United States were certainly due for new ideas in morals and metaphysics. Our philosophy that made imperial America resonate in the first decades of its puissant empire in the 1950s didn’t come from Asia, it came from Playboy. Even if one waist Huge Hefner or James Bond they and people real or fictional like them supported every vigil by artificial masters of nothingness in the United States that there was. As the material levels of some of the gurus prove, if most of them hadn’t been Playboy philosophers themselves they would have stayed in Asia.
Although there were plenty of poor people in the United States in the 1950s it wasn’t all that hard if one really wanted to take up such a direction to be well off in something between a few years or a decade.
By the time I was twenty I noticed that such cults had a way of stifling the poor that was more effective than force when they told them there was nothing to being rich but corruption; in fact wealth, affluence, power, freedom and even good health were not the worst things that could happen to you. I suspect these Asian religions were attractive for the same reasons though of course they had as all religions do their many and delvers sages and housed gaggles of elevated spirits.
In any case it seemed to me in the 1950s the general direction of the world was a low but initially necessary material affluence and ample time for reflection and leisure that would leave every fundamentalist religion behind with the dodo and the dire wolf.
As interested as I was in Asia in the 1940s and 50s, I was as much isolated in the 1960s because I was very skeptical of the value of some elements Asian culture, particularly its religions, to anybody in the United States but a few masochists and sentimentalists.
Meanwhile as bigoted as some of the United States, paretically its corporate juggernauts, had been toward Assassin and Asians from 1880 to 1960, as an ancillary codicil to the general move toward racial equality in the 1950s and 60s the last of the nefarious exclusionary acts, at the end championed by the pious Senator McCarren of Nevada, was shelved; Asian, who might have enriched our country once in ways we will never know, began to come to this country again.
I experienced it all superficially as a sudden explosion in the variety of Asian foods one could eat in New York, There were around me various Indian gurus who settled here to form cults from the spectacularly brainless Hare Krishna American sect to the more intellectual and measured if equally improbable cult around Sri Chinmoy. I even at diverse times had long talks with both the late Hare Krishna thaumaturge and Sri Chinmoy himself when I interviewed him on the radio.
New York, San Francisco and the colleges were invaded by legions of Asian spiritual masters, some of whom were quite comical, others sinister. There wee many kinds of such itinerant magicians here to build moneymaking engines for themselves from the enterprising Sun Yung Moon to several Japanese Zen masters.
When one is faced with folly one can chose to be discreet and let those dupes immersed in it go fashionably crazy without comment or one can drop occasional pithy remarks suggesting that those whom one loves, admires or honors in some obscure and unfathomable way are being envenomed by nonsense and are going daft as hatters.
If I heard the most incredible babble from those netted and devoured by the Asian cults in the 60s to the present I must say their disposition to go bonkers was compared to the European variety of aggressive and often genocidal imperial religions not as terrible as anything that come our way from the Old World of the West. If one fancies being nuts, it’s preferable not to be a serial killer or a card carrying, dues paying member of a sacred genocidal gang too.
The imperial Western regions as well as Islam inspire many to elevated spiritual slaughters as well as moral inquiries that are exemplary in their honesty if they are never quite taking up an honest science; they also have the sometime effect on ordinary people of persuading them that they were put on earth by the personal choice of God to destroy the families and communities of their neighbors on this planet and turn the entire human population of the Earth into lunch for the monks of their sacred operations.
One doesn’t find any Asian religion I’ve come across producing such sanguinely zealous activity, almost always linked to a pillaging army, in the service of a theocratic machine for slaughtering many and stifling all. It says something for Buddhism that it isn’t and never was an pious issuer of licenses to kill though it’s not saying much.
If people were going to go crazy it was better that they only injured themselves in their hunger to be bonkers. Asiatic religions persuaded many people I knew to lead lives in which they had the most sacred reasons one could imagine for doing nothing.
I suppose if one is gong to be terminally slothful, it’s better to feel one’s incapacities to generate a life are a virtue. On the other had, if one thinks such nonsense, one has less chance of recovery from one’s own internal chaos than if one were unhappy with one’s choice of a premature sacred death.
Most of these faithful worked only enough to live frugally, produced no children, were apt for no reason at all to spend a good part of their waking hours staring into space in static vigils like catatonics. One can only do that at the center of a very powerful empire with somebody protecting one with iron muscle and even missiles. It was lucky that we had a motile empire run by American mandarin predators and armies of lupine spirits that was feeding them.
Just as the metamorphisms of a cuisine eaten by one out of a million papal to fast food lunches in volume was not exactly what this fare had been in Asia, the translation of Asiatic cults to American forms always had within them a shift of perceptual and moral options that made them different here. If one is hopeless, poor and hungry and sees no alternative to such a condition as one looks around for milers in all directions it makes sense to elevate ascetic tastes one has to embrace anyway to a virtue.
If one has nothing on Earth it might be wise to take up looting other worlds in the vaporous safaris one can embrace in a metaphysical pilgrimage. If one didn’t have any science it might be wise to repair to a few reliable magicians to remedy one’s material woes with a faintly scented nosegay of aery gewgaws and nubile demons.
America didn’t have their problems. It also was facing some more practical satraps of an Asia that from Japan to Malaysia had learned everything the West had to show in technical skills to produce broad amounts of material wealth, was disinterested to scornful itself in its prior cults fomented by poverty, social ineptitude and general discomfort.
I’ve watched over the decades Asia cults become fashionable and then a kind of fossilized cache for urban octogenarians who unlike the terminally senile had a high mission in what they did while they were staring into space. One told me he was looking at nearly invisible energies whirling around him. It seemed to me one could have the same experience watching television; it is in fact his other avocation to watch the tube.
Although none of these acolytes of emptiness would have felt comfortable listening to the wisdom of a rabbi or the pope, anything the Dalai Lama said on all subjects they deemed presumptively charged with sagacity. If they were piqued with the foibles of this remarkable and plainly more than affluent Tibetan exile, they had local Zen masters, gurus, America savants trained in the glories of total inaction to repair to when they fell the need of such exotic spiritual consolations.
None of it ever make sense to me nor could it to many American in the midst of a very active materialist culture dedicated to action, simple remedies for one’s difficulties and revels porcine feasting to a fault. Nearly all Asian cults have a singular dislike of the erotic; the ambition to be instant saints of some of my generation didn’t distract these American tyros at the study of nothingness from finding some nubile stray mates along the way to sate one with amorous stupors or ameliorate the fevers of Eros during those seasonal attacks of nether carnal hunger, itches which seasonally like Biblical locusts and upper middle class taxes sometimes plague us all.
Yet one had to admit that in these very matters of static reflection with no consequence or even a sign of life Asia was superior to Europe. Not a single Asian religion has in thousands of years of their known extant history ever took up pious genocide in sacred partnership with an looting and savagely murderous army. If it took an imitation of dealt over decades to do it for some, one shouldn’t complain.
Yet I have thought many times when meditating in a transcendental way about the follies of Asian cults that Aristotle’s perception that all directions contain their dark side should be applied fairly to these severe disciplines in emulating the inner life of a stone.
One does best even when doing nothing to pairs a middle way between pilgrimages that must lead to excesses. Measure, s Shakespeare says continually, is the operative tool to assay the value of Asia for us or even for Asia itself. We finally have been enriched by Asia in everything from philosophy to cuisine; we shouldn’t approach any of its double-edged gifts with other that a civil skepticism.
Let’s not forget that the Trojan Horse was a very nice looking imitation horse.
All acts and thoughts are ultimately neutral if we define them as paradigms external to us. We can make them the fulcrum of our redemption or the means to corrupt ourselves beyond even the tolerance and patience of heaven.
As much as we’ve been adorned here and there by superior Asian ways, some Asia itself has turn Bolshevik and figured out for the first time in its long history how to feed and clothe many of its people tolerable thanks to the West. I hope one day Asia offers its gratitude to Europe for bringing it Communism.
We should certainly value Asia at its best yet not expect anything more from it that we do from the ancient sagacity of the Mayans or the wisdom of the Etruscans if we ever figure out what these estimable folk were saying in their own forgotten written language.
We wouldn’t want to do without the technology and the revolutionary partiality to action of the West either if the world has paid a terrible wage in slaughter and slavery for its two-edged existence.