Tuesday, 15 February 2011

Nikko, The Three Monkeys and coincidence

Improbable autumn perfection in Nikko

Nikko is a World Heritage Site, and only two hours away. It is the burial place of Tokugawa Ieyesu, the Shogun who unified Japan and ended the battle period, ushering in the Edo Period when foreigners like me were not welcome unless they were arms dealers. Stupendous as Nikko is, I am satisfied with the living heritage woven into the small community I live in, so it took nearly two years to get round to seeing it, and I was punished with a very disorientating coincidence, if you believe in that kind of thing - punishment and coincidence I mean.

I prefer the small scale to the bombastic, accidental beauty to the grand scheme, and in my view tiny local shrines that a few families have visited for centuries are more connecting than those that have become a major business.  By the same token, the light and life you experience on a hill is more important than its height. In any case, thanks to nuances of weather and season you never go up the same hill twice.  Travelling deep is better than travelling far. Live by the aphorism and you will die by the maxim, I say, and you can misquote me on that.

Aphorisms don't travel well, or at least they change as they go. Take the three wise monkeys, for example. In the west seeing no evil, hearing no evil, and speaking no evil suggests a kind of selfish avoidance of noticing anything bad in case you have to take responsibility for doing something about it. In Japan it is amongst other things about keeping yourself pure and avoiding spreading evil. From it's origin, probably in China, it has changed it's meaning as it has spread and been appropriated, gaining a power that is more paradoxical than any single interpretation. Like many symbols that at first seem simple, it is, in the end mysterious.

The Three Wise Monkeys, the famous 17thC wooden carving at Nikko

On our return home from Nikko last autumn I left a web radio station playing upstairs and went down to chat with my wife. We fell to talking about the three monkeys and their meaning for a few minutes, until I went back upstairs to continue working. As far as I am aware - which may not be very far as it turns out - I had not thought about the three monkeys for a very long time -  at least for a few years. Having just talked about them for the first time in memory, I re-entered the room exactly on cue to hear an old R n' B song playing. The singer asked me "Have you heard the one about the three monkeys: see no evil, hear no evil, and speak no evil?" Exactly on the nail, as I came into the room, as if it had been timed for maximum effect. As I said, mysterious. It freaked me out I can tell you, and sent me scuttling down the stairs.

Anyway, I must go now, I have just thought about someone I haven't seen for years - that will be them on the phone now.

Now tell me your freaky coincidence story...

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