Have you ever experienced a time in your life when you felt a huge surge of change sweep over you leaving you with little doubt in your mind that life would from this moment on be irreparably altered in some way or other? A life changing or perspective altering event which redirects the current that your existence had until this point been flowing in?
I have, quite recently in fact, and thanks to an involuntary and unknowing intervention from the acclaimed Japanese writer Harumi Murakami I committing the the event to paper. I have never met Harumi Murakami and although as a student of Japanese language it may not be entirely outside the realms of potential reality that some day I may meet the great man, it is accurate to state that at this time Mr. Murakami has no knowledge of me and even less of the contribution that he has made to this event and nor will he have knowledge of the gratitude I feel towards him for all of his involvement.
So.. to set the scene, imagine that you are on holiday, a relaxing and very peaceful holiday where the stresses and strains of the real world are disarmed, locked up and re-educated so that when you are reunited with them at the end of your vacation they have little effect on your high spirits. You are not however thinking about the end of your vacation you are simply soaking in the serene environment, perhaps sipping a cold mojito and reading a mindless novel which requires little mental involvement but rather it gently massages the enquiring parts of your brain with enough adventure, romance or mystery to leave you with a feeling of extreme satisfaction. Remember that feeling, because on the night of my life-changing experience I was reaching to the end of a comparatively normal day, one which I had been at lectures during the day, I had attended an iaido class in the evening and had attempted to brainwash myself with kanji drills prior to retiring to bed in the early hours of the morning. Hardly an exotic paradise, rather a cold, dark and damp flat in the centre of Edinburgh.
So, shortly after midnight I went to bed but sleep is often an enigma to me, the process of getting to sleep should really come naturally after almost 32 years of practice but I just don’t understand the process. My father is the type of guy who could as easily fall asleep on a tightrope as he could on a king size duvet, which is no mean feat for a man of his size. I however have extreme difficulties in negotiating a slumber treaty between my brain and the rest of my body, whilst I may be physically exhausted sometimes I am rarely mentally jaded, there is always something being considered, planned or executed inside my cerebrum. It is almost like my brain can see into the future and knows exactly how much time it has left to process all of life’s mysteries before the biggest mystery is unfurled and I fall into the longest sleep of all. However I must fight the temptation to digress, I was neither physically or mentally tired that night and so under the faint illumination of my bedside lamp I read the final 200 or so pages of “Kafka on the Shore” by Harumi Murakami.
Absorbed in the novel as I was, I was led by occasional references to classical music that Murakami sprinkled throughout the book and began craving some classical aural accompaniment to my reading experience and I managed to find a compilation CD with Barber, Beethoven, Debussy and the likes, on it went and I continued reading. Within minutes I was lost once again in Murakami’s world, lulled by the background music and entirely engaged by the plot. I flew through the remaining pages and have no idea how much time passed only that when the final page had turned it was still very dark in my room around the unlit edges of my room. I placed down the book and turned out the bedside lamp and then I closed my eyes, still listening to the music I felt exactly like I started to relax, and started to feel much like one might were he lounging on a relaxing and very peaceful holiday. The more urban, stressful environment of my present surroundings was easily coerced from my thoughts by the complete satisfaction that I felt from Murakami’s exceptional storytelling. I lay in the darkness contemplating all of the questions that had been raised throughout “Kafka” and how imaginatively and succinctly they had been answered in the closing chapters, I considered the way in which Murakami had handled death throughout the story and then my mind started writing it’s own travel ticket, the book was now fading into the darkness and I was about to embark on a magical mystery tour of philosophical and spiritual and as I mentally rambled the background track noticeably changed, and then IT happened.
Before I explain what IT was I am going to need to bring you up to speed on what kind of a person I am, this will not involve an in-depth minutely detailed description of the minor or indeed major events of my life, after all we all have places to be and things to be getting on with. I would rather sparingly expedite the relevant facts, that way I can let your imaginations paint a far more fascinating account of my character than the tedious truth would allow for. I have since the age of four been without religion, I was still at the time shipped off to Christian Sunday schools where we’d be told how cool Jesus was.. or something along those lines but, I was more or less sceptical on the whole thing from an abnormally young age. As I’ve grown up I am no less sceptical on any philosophy or religion which requires a “leap of faith” in order to justify against increasing amounts of empirical evidence which contradict the writings of such faith. I am and have always felt that I am inherently a good person however for the majority of my life thus far the gauge by which to judge such a claim has been the Christian morality that my society has evolved upon and I have longed for sometime to find a morality which is based on something a little more.. human. At the same time as being sceptical I am conversely very open minded on non-ecumenical matters and enjoy learning about unfamiliar people and cultures, even though I could never believe in a philosophy which attributes grand claims to a supernatural overlord I can understand that other people may have insecurities which may seem too great to handle personally and hence they find great strength in the notion that an omnipotent being has their back and will take care of these insecurities. I am however digressing, I must learn to pull in the reigns on this troubling habit. The fact of the matter is that from an early age I have felt somewhat alien in an inherently Christian society and as such I have long looked for a society where I could feel more naturally at home.
After many years of searching I found such a society, arguably several hundred years too late, but even nowadays the feudal moral code still provides a modern nation with a non-religious guide of good and bad. I am talking about Samurai, the Japanese equivalent of the English knights of the round table. These men were a warrior caste and they lived by an unwritten set of rules collectively known as Bushido, which shares several qualities with the European concept of chivalry. Whilst being influenced by Buddhism, Shinto and Confucianism it is primarily a non-religious set of rules by which the Samurai conscientiously lived their lives. Bushido promoted benevolence, respect, politeness as well as justice, honour and truth, there is no uber-saviour in the sky waiting to slap your ass if you break the rules but if a Samurai did not follow the rules of Bushido then they would not be accepted by their peers, they would not remain Samurai for long and chances are they would not remain… for long, additionally dishonour would sweep through the family like a tsunami through a small Pacific island. In Samurai and in Bushido I found that which I had been searching for many years and have become fascinated by them, the more I read, the more fascinated I become not only about Samurai but also Japan, both modern day and ancient, and as a result I am studying Japanese language at university. However, there has been one hangover from a Western upbringing that I have struggled to contend with, and that is to fully understand the Samurai attitude to death. Having read such classics as “Hagakure” by Yamamoto Tsunetomo and “The Book of Five Rings” by Miyamoto Musashi amongst others I understood that the Samurai has to be ready to react instantly in order to protect their master and in order to most effectively carry out this role they must put aside their own feeling of mortality, they must in effect live life as if they are already dead. I understood the concept completely, well almost, I understood the purpose but I could not comprehend how in practice this concept could be realised. How do you selflessly release your attachment to life but still continue to live? This question had been eating away at me for years but this was about to change.
Pitch black, an icy chill in the air, eyes closed, mind on an inquisitive journey around the all too familiar topic of death, a vaguely familiar classical piano tune starts playing and during the next four or five minutes everything falls naturally into place. All of the factors leading up to this moment are of equal importance and were it not for this chance, coincidental path of experiences of the early hours of this cold Edinburgh morning, the same thoughts may still be cloying at me and keeping me awake night after night.
As the first key of the piano was hit my imagination took control of all of my senses and started painting a vivid picture of what the music was trying to represent. The scene opened up with a very lush green field in spring time, perhaps early April, this was a particularly abundant field with long unkempt blades of grass stretching up towards the midday sky as if begging the passing clouds for water like a baby reaching out to it’s mother for milk. Surrounding the field was an old wooden fence which had seen better days but looked like it had gracefully aged over many decades, as naturally as the grass in the field grew, the field stood guard, keeping lookout and protecting it’s neighbour from harm without regret. Many strong oak trees gathered around the outskirts of the fence providing further cover to the secluded, lavish field. As the tune continues droplets of rain fall towards the thirsty inhabitants of the field, each one landing on a grateful blade of grass, as it lands it splashes and smaller droplets fall onto the leaves, the water rolls gently down the blade, stem-ward and trickles towards the earth below. As the intensity of the music increases it becomes apparent that the droplets of rain are falling more rapidly, youth seems to be returning to the jaded fence as the water splashes over it’s withered frame, the trees stand solidly offering up no outward sign of gratitude but nonetheless there is the sense of appreciation emanating from their immense trunks. It starts to become clear that the intensity of the music has a direct correlation with the intensity of the rain as the shower starts to subside, the ivories are tinkling at a slower, more subdued tempo. The whole scene sparkles with the sun reflecting of the remaining raindrops, there are small puddles around the base of the supporting joints of the fence and small showers continue under the great branches of the oak trees as the droplets of water fall between the leaves high up on the tree. Peace has returned to the field after a very welcome burst of excitement has fallen from the clouds above. The strands of grass seem completely satisfied, almost as if they had been sipping an ice cold Mojito whilst reading a riveting novelette on a relaxing vacation away from the stresses of real life. The baby is no longer calling out for nourishment and the world is at ease. The tune has finished, it was “Clair De Lune” by Debussy, had I checked this information whilst it was playing then there is a very high chance that none of this would have happened, as clair de lune is apparently French for moonlight and doesn’t therefore convey the picture that it painted in my head on this cold, dark morning in Edinburgh.
There is a chance that what follows may sound a little twee or contrived and if it does then I have no real defence to such a claim, it is just how my thoughts at the time organised themselves and I had little control over it. This chain of events led to my breakthrough in a way which I am unable to effectively explain and this is something which I’ll no doubt dwell on for a long time to come.
As the song finished, my philosophy on death was born, my Western upbringing induced hangover dissipated. The Samurai and Murakami and Debussy inspired vision transformed into an incomplex metaphor for life. In the painting above life is represented by the passing rain cloud, in essence it is an April shower. The natural journey of life is short in the greater scheme of the seasons, and our purpose in life is to nourish and enrich the lives of those who depend upon us, it is to bring colour and the feeling of youth to those closest to us, and it is to provide support to even the strongest of our friends or accomplices. Just as naturally as the rain shower begins, it also ends but even though the droplets no longer fall, the affect that they had continues to exist, the grass grows longer, the trees grow stronger and the fence.. well it enjoys the affects of youth in such a way that extend it’s own existence allowing it to continue looking after the field for another day. As much as the shower is a metaphor for life, during the extent of life we are all individually thirsty blades of grass, the strong oak tree or the aged fence and we are affected by the lives of every other rain shower that passes. This may be simplistic and is clearly not an absolutely original idea but that was never the point, as soon as the realisation that death is a necessary and acceptable part of the fabric of the universe fell into place I finally understood what it was to live without fear of death. I may not have the need in modern times to live each day as if I am already dead but crucially I can absolutely understand the concept. Live isn’t about fear, it’s about experience and death is the ultimate experience of life. It is an experience however which I am happy to leave be for now, but when I do eventually engage in this ultimate experience, I would rather like Debussy’s Clair De Lune played at my funeral. A non-religious affair, of course.