Friday, March 20, 2009

Cleanliness is next to Godliness

Cleaning is considered a vital part of the training process in all traditional Japanese disciplines and is a required practice for any novice. It is accorded spiritual significance. Purifying an unclean place is believed to purify the mind.

Geisha of Gion, Mineko Iwasaki


On the advice of one of my readers, I read this book as a contrast to Memoirs of a Geisha - some people don’t realize that the book-turned-movie is actually a work of fiction. Well written and researched, no doubt, but fiction nonetheless.

Geisha of Gion, on the other hand, is a true account of one of the most popular Maiko in Kyoto, if not all of Japan, nearly half a century ago. Although her story walked arm-in-arm with Memoirs of a Geisha 90% of the time (different time periods, so practices differed slightly as well), I did find some astonishing misconceptions in the latter. Given that mizuage holds different meanings for “commoners”, maiko, courtesans, and prostitutes, I suppose I could forgive the author if he hadn’t disgusted me with details.

What most surprised me, though, was Iwasaki’s decision to leave the trade before she was even thirty. She was hoping to cast a spotlight over Gion and show her teachers and trainers just how outdated the rules of the willow world had become. Seventy others followed her example, but none of their disappearances caused the landslide they desperately sought.



The quote above, however, has little to do with that. It simply struck my eye as a tenet of Japanese culture and Buddhist tradition. Another that clearly stands out above the rest was one I read nearly two years ago, in Japanland:

(Abbreviated conversation)
“Do you know the secret of life?”

“The first step… is to keep the temple clean.”


If you ever want to know how a person thinks, look at the interior of his living quarters: that is his mind, without a trace of irony. My room is scattered with bits of food, clothing, post-it notes, books, and trash. I can safely say my imagination wanders from one idea to the next without sinking its talons into any smooth, refined train of thought. The monks’ quarters, by contrast, are ridiculous neat and ordered. No doubt this serves them well with meditation practice.

If we assume this is true, and extend it to its logical conclusion, then it serves to point out that Japanese women may have the clearest and sharpest wit of all the peoples in the world.

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