When Things Fall Apart

Tetsunori Koizumi, Director

“The Second Coming,” a poem WB Yeats composed in 1919 and published in 1920, is one of those poems whose influence was not limited to his contemporaries. Despite its shortness with only twelve lines, the poem has been a source of inspiration for successive generations of writers and artists with its apocalyptic message: Things fall apart; the center cannot hold; Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world. When Yeats composed this poem, the World War I was coming to an end, with negotiations for the peace agreement between the victorious Allies and the defeated Central Powers going on at the Paris Peace Conference in 1919 and 1920. While the Conference was going on, Europe and other nations of the world were still struggling to cope with the Spanish flu pandemic. As a matter of fact, US President Woodrow Wilson, who was at the Paris Peace Conference, was one of the notable individuals who came down with the Spanish flu in 1920, though he was spared from becoming a victim of the pandemic that is said to have caused some 40 million deaths around the world.

As the words describing a chaotic situation, many authors have adopted ‘things fall apart’ as the title of their books. Chinua Achebe, a Nigerian author, uses these words as the title of his novel published in 1958 to describe how the traditional way of life of a Nigerian tribe was disrupted and uprooted by the arrival of European colonialists and Christian missionaries. Daniel Byman and Kenneth Polack, both senior fellows at the Brookings Institution, use the same words in their 2007 book, Things Fall Apart: Containing the Spillover from an Iraqi Civil War, to describe the chaotic civil war that was threatening to spillover into neighboring countries. The same words were also used by Ramaa Vasudevan, an economics professor at Colorado State University, to describe the chaotic financial markets that followed the Great Crash of 2008 in her 2013 book, Things Fall Apart: From the Crash of 2008 to the Great Slump. Since ‘things fall apart’ for individuals as well as for communities, nations, and international organizations, it comes as no surprise that Pema Chodron, an American Buddhist nun who is the resident teacher at Gampo Abbey, also incorporates these words in her 2000 book, When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times, to describe individuals trying to cope with their chaotic lives.

What about the world of 2020, one hundred years after Yeats published his “The Second Coming”? Are not things falling apart amid the chaos and dread that are spreading around the world with the COVID-19 pandemic? There is no end in sight as far as the number of people afflicted with this disease, with the total number of patients worldwide exceeding 30 million and the death toll approaching one million. Ironically, one of those victims of COVID-19 was Cristina, an American pop singer who released a song titled, “Things Fall Apart,” in 1981 and died on April 1, 2020 due to complications from the disease at age 61. Indeed, we are reminded each day that things are falling apart on many fronts: the health care system, the transportation network, the supply chain of raw materials and goods, the mode of human contact and communication, and so on. The words, ‘things fall apart,’ are popping up here and there in commentaries and opinion pages to describe the chaotic situation of the world in the era of COVID-19.

What are we to do when things are falling apart all around us? Is the Second Coming at hand, as Yeats suggests? Looking at the societal tensions around the world caused by different groups of people exhibiting different patterns of behavior in response to the COVID-19 crisis and other crises like the racial conflict, the refugee problem, and the climate change, it is tempting to agree with Yeats that “The best lack conviction, while the worst/ Are full of passionate intensity.” There is no question that the post-COVID-19 world would be different from the pre-COVID-19 world in terms of the way we conduct our lives. We know, of course, that change and transformation, whether radical or gradual, are always taking place in the world around us. From the Buddhist perspective, what we need to do is to seek peace and happiness in the world of no-coming and no-going, as Thich Nhat Hanh puts it, namely, in the world of here-and-now. In other words, our spiritual journey is not about seeking the Promised Land in the East, or the Pure Land in the West, but about practicing in the present world full of chaos and fear. As Pema Chodron writes in her 2000 book mentioned above, “Sticking with that uncertainty, getting the knack of relaxing in the midst of chaos, learning not to panic—this is the spiritual path.” (Pema Chodron, p. 10) There is no need to look for signs of the Second Coming, for revelation is already within us, if we care to look deeply.

What does the Moon mean for you?

Tetsunori Koizumi, Director

What does the Moon mean for you? The answer depends very much on who you are. For astronomers, the Moon is an astronomical body in the universe, the fifth largest moon in the solar system that circles around the Earth in 27.322 days, and goes through its eight phases in 29.53 days with reference to the Sun. For meteorologists, the Moon, with its gravitational force, is an astronomical body that generates the tidal force, which causes high and low tides in the Earth’s oceans. For entrepreneurs, the Moon is an astronomical body with the rich potential for making profits by exploiting its natural resources.

The Moon, while it may be just another astronomical body in the universe for astronomers, meteorologists, and entrepreneurs, has always been a source of inspiration for their creative works for artists. In music, we are familiar with such compositions as Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 14 in C-sharp minor (1801), popularly known as the Moonlight Sonata, and Claude Debussy’s Clair de Lune, the third movement of his piano suite, Suite bergamasque (1905). The opera, Rusalka, composed by Antonin Dvorak, which was first performed in 1901, contains a beautiful aria, “Song to the Moon,” sung by its main character, the water sprite from Slavic mythology. Composers of popular songs, too, have found the Moon as a source of inspiration for their works, from Henry Mancini’s Moon River (1961), to The Police’s Walking on the Moon (1979), and to Savage Garden’s To the Moon and Back (1997), to name just a few.

The Moon has also been a source of inspiration for painters. One prominent example from Japanese masters of woodblock paintings is Hiroshige’s “Omi Hakkei: Ishiyama Akituki (The Eight Views of Omi: Autumn Moon in Ishiyama, 1834).” The painting shows the full moon shining over the Ishiyama Temple located in the present-day Shiga Prefecture, where Murasaki Shikibu, a lady-in-waiting at the imperial court in the Heian period (794-1185), is known to have spent some time while working on her novel, The Tale of Genji. Vincent van Gogh’s “Starry Night” (1869) may be chosen as a representative painting from Western masters. Here the moon is depicted not as the familiar round shape but as a tortuously twisted shape, reflecting the mental pain van Gogh must have been going through when he painted this work as he was confined in a mental hospital at Saint-Remy-de-Provence.

What does the Moon mean for Buddhist practitioners? The Theravada tradition says that it was on the full-moon night that Siddhartha Gautama realized Enlightenment, thus becoming the Buddha. Thus, Thich Nhat Hanh, inheriting that tradition, writes in his biography of the Buddha: “The clouds rolled back to reveal the bright moon and stars. Gautama felt as though a prison which had confined him for thousands of years had broken open.” (Thich Nhat Hanh, Old Path White Clouds, Chapter 18) What, then, did Gautama realize? It was, according to Thich Nhat Hanh, the means to over come ignorance: “And the means to overcome ignorance were the Noble Eightfold Path.” (Thich Nhat Hanh, ibid., Chapter18) While we can only speculate whether the discovery of the Noble Eightfold Path had something to do with the eight phases of the Moon, the Therevada tradition is still maintained in the form of the Uposatha practice, which involves reciting of the eight precepts for lay practitioners.

What is more important for Buddhist practitioners is, however, the fact that the Moon serves as a reminder of the impermanence of all formations, for the moon changes its visible shape to us as it orbits around the Earth. Some people may become oblivious of this visible change in the Moon’s shape as they are preoccupied with their worldly affairs filled with greed and hatred. One notable example of such obliviousness is Fujiwara no Michinaga, the most powerful member of the Fujiwara clan who dominated the imperial court in Heian period, who is known for the following waka: “Kono yo woba, wagayo tozo omou, mochizuki no kaketaru kotomo nashito omoeba (This world is my world, like the full moon in the sky on a clear fall night. The moon keeps shining on me while maintaining its full shape).” Needless to say, even a teenager knows that the Moon keeps changing its visible shape to us as exemplified by the following words of Juliet, which she utters in response to Romeo’s declaration of his love for her: “O, swear not by the moon, the inconstant moon, who monthly changes in her circled orb, lest that thy love prove likewise variable.” (Shakespeare, Rome and Juliet, Act II Scene II) The most convincing use of the moon as the metaphor for empty and illusionary nature of our existence in the world is found in the following words of Master Sheng Yen: “Our environment and all phenomena in it exist only temporarily. They are like reflections of the moon on the water—empty, illusory forms.” (Master Shen Yen, Attaining the Way: A Guide to the Practice of Chan Buddhism, Boston: Shambhala, 2006, p. 128) While the Moon we look up in the sky may be real, the Moon reflected on the water is certainly illusory. Buddhist practitioners thus need to look down on the water to be reminded of the Buddhist Dharma that all formations are impermanent and illusory.