Haven of Peace: on the Hawaiian island of O’ahu

It’s December in Hawaii, the busiest time of the year. Tourists abound. Now mid morning, the weather is warm and sunny on the island’s south shore. My girlfriend Sue and I are leaving behind the crowded streets and beaches of Waikiki to visit the Byodo-In Temple on the west side of O’ahu. It’s a place well worth a visit if you ever visit Hawaii, especially if you love peaceful, tranquil places.

You can escape the crowds of Waikiki at the tranquil Byodo-In Temple just on the other side of O’ahu.

Rather than drive the costal highway, we decide to save time cutting straight through the middle of the island. This route takes us through the mountains via a series of tunnels. As we emerge from the last tunnel, our red VW Beetle’s windshield is suddenly pelted by rain. It’s hard to believe just four minutes ago we were looking up at blue sky! The mountains that divide the island are to blame. They push up warm ocean air on the western side causing precipitation.

Around noon, we turn off the main highway, following a narrow, winding road up towards the park’s gate. The road is lined by palm trees and passes through a lush cemetery with rolling grass-covered hills. The graves are widely spaced; almost all are adorned with fresh flowers. As we approach the gate, we pass by a sign that reads, “Haven of Peace.”

Despite the fact we followed four or five other cars into the park, we find a parking spot right away. Although we’re both excited to see the temple, our stomachs are growling so we decide to eat the lunch we brought before exploring the temple.

Our hunger satiated, we grab our cameras and head towards the ticket booth where a man tells us it is $3 per adult. It’s a fair price. We’re both surprised how inexpensive it is to get in.

The rain has stopped now, leaving the air smelling sweet and fresh. The misty clouds overhead cast a soft, even light that wraps everything, leaving no hard shadows.

As we turn to our left, we see an arching footbridge leading to the Byodo-In Temple. The temple is predominately striking red in colour; white panels and yellow ornamental trim work accent the impressive Japanese architecture. Set against the green of the Ko’olau Mountains, the temple stuns one into a kind of reverent silence.  There are a few tourists walking around taking pictures and talking quietly. Others are taking turns ringing a 5 ft. tall Bon-sho, or sacred bell. The resonating sound can be felt as much as heard. Some believe that ringing the bell purifies the mind and brings happiness. The bell rings again and we move closer towards the temple.

A small pond, stocked with gold and orange koi, surrounds the temple. A pair of black swans float by idly. The sound of trickling fountains and bird song fill the air. Gravel crunches under our feet as we tread the path towards the temple entrance.

“Excuse me. Would you take our picture?” we are asked. A small group of young tourists line up with their backs to the temple as my girlfriend tells them all to smile. Snap. One more. Snap. Snap. The trick is to take two more after you say one more.

“Thank you!” they say. We ask if they would reciprocate. They do, and now we are back on the trail.

The Byodo-In Temple was established in 1968. A plaque says the temple was built to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the arrival of Hawaii’s first Japanese immigrants. It was modeled after the much larger and older Byodo-In temple in Uji, Japan.

At the entrance to the temple there is another sign asking visitors to remove their shoes before entering. The temple is an important place of worship for the local Buddhists, as well as a place of great artistic beauty.

buddha-hawaii

Sue and I take off our shoes and enter into the Hoo-do, the main Phoenix hall. Inside is a 9 ft. statue of Amida Buddha covered in gold leaf, save for a few spots that have worn away over the years. Surrounding the Buddha are carvings of numerous Bodhisattvas, enlightened beings of perfect knowledge.

Around the hall are wooden benches, where we sit to contemplate the Buddha. Surprisingly, we are the only ones who have entered the temple, so we have the place to ourselves. We sit on a small wooden bench and listen to the silence. The Buddha’s tranquility washes over us and we feel, in that brief moment, enlightenment is tantalizingly close. Then, as other visitors enter the Hoo-do, the spell is broken and we move on.

Sue says she’d like to see what they have in the small gift shop at the far side of the temple. The small shop is guarded by one of the many feral cats that live on the island. A little girl is crouched down in front of the cat, trying to get its attention, but the cat ignores the girl, interested only in licking its paws and cleaning its face.

The cat is not the only resident of the temple drawing attention. Tourists are also gathered around a peacock, trying to take its picture, hoping it might spread its extravagant tail plumage.

Inside the shop we find the usual t-shirts, books and jewelry one would expect in a gift shop. Sue purchases a small iron statue of Buddha that can easily be fitted into our suitcase for the trip home. I decide to buy a necklace. The woman selling them tells me, “My boyfriend makes all these by hand.”

Satisfied that we had soaked up as much good karma as we could, we reluctantly head back to the hustle and bustle of Waikiki.

THIS ARTICLE WAS ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED BY NOTICE MAGAZINE IN 2015

 

Defending Tolerance: Literature as Catalyst for Positive Change

Defending Tolerance: Literature as Catalyst for Positive Change

It’s the 21st century, yet prejudicial attitudes continue to exist within large segments of the population. Racist attitudes are not as uncommon as one might think. Here in the West, many consider our society to be multicultural, but that’s a pleasant fiction. The West might be multi-ethnic, but in reality, its culture is largely dominated by white, Anglo-Saxon, protestant values. Other cultures, including those of North America’s indigenous people, have been largely marginalized. It’s not surprising then to discover that misconceptions, prejudices, and racism are still a part of everyday life.

Although North America is home to a wide variety of ethnic groups, many are segregated for a variety of socioeconomic reasons. Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, Vietnamese, Filipinos, Somalis, and other minority groups often form tight knit communities where they have little interaction with the larger culture around them. As a result, there are few quality opportunities for different ethnic groups to interact on anything more than a superficial level. When people don’t understand each other they turn to their assumptions, and those assumptions regularly lead to prejudice. However, when knowledge of cultural practices, beliefs and values are shared, celebrated, and publicized, the problem can be overcome.

Literature as a cultural bridge

Literature, and the knowledge it promulgates, is one of the most important tools in the struggle against racism. Through literature, people are exposed to new ideas, new ways of thinking, and most importantly, they are transported to a place where they may view the world through someone else’s eyes. Although many see short stories, novels and poetry as just forms of entertainment, they play an important role in enlightening the masses and combating racism. Literature is a catalyst for positive change; it influences our ideas about others and ourselves. Whether it is classic or modern, literature reveals the struggles of oppressed peoples, the value of family bonds, and imparts profound moral lessons. Two examples of literature as a cultural bridge are “Sonny’s Blues” and The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian.

“Sonny’s Blues”

James Baldwin’s classic short story “Sonny’s Blues” is an insightful example of literature that reveals the hardships that were faced by many inner city black people. Though it was written in 1957, it is still relevant today. “Sonny’s Blues” demonstrates literature’s potential to inform and educate. The story centers on Sonny and his older brother as they struggle to make a living in Harlem after the end of World War II. As black men, they both face the tribulations of segregation, racism and low socioeconomic status. The community as a whole is struggling to make ends meet while at the same time dealing with crime, drug abuse and the general state of despondency. The situation for many blacks living in Harlem was dire. The opportunity to escape those conditions was almost nonexistent. The narrator describes the local school children as, “growing up in a rush [until] their heads bumped abruptly against the ceiling of their actual possibilities.” Baldwin paints a picture showing how little opportunity there was to break free of the oppressive conditions they faced. “Some escaped the trap, most didn’t.”[1]

As the story progresses, the reader comes face to face with the specter of racism when the narrator’s mother tearfully recounts the tale of her brother-in-law’s death. This happens when a car filled with drunken white men ran him down in the street. The narrator’s father was witness to the event. It affected him for the rest of his life and “[until] the day he died he weren’t sure but that every white man he saw was the man that killed his brother.”[2] Here we see the long lasting impacts of racism. Horrific events, which occur in mere moments, reverberate in the lives of those affected, spreading out like rings in a pond until they impact the lives of everyone around them.

Although the brothers have been through much hardship, they respond to it differently. The older brother passes judgment on Sonny for his use of drugs and rebellious actions. Initially, he cannot see why Sonny acts in self-destructive ways; however, in time they come together. Their family bonds, combined with the narrator’s newfound understanding of Sonny, help them mend their relationship.

“Sonny’s Blues” provides a view into a world that is obscured to many of us. By exploring the themes of racism, drug abuse, and family, Baldwin is informing his reader and dispelling many would-be prejudices. As author and professor James Tackach stated, “Baldwin played a spokesman’s role during the American civil rights movement of the 1950s and 60s, and much of his most poignant writing is devoted to the racial issues of his time.”[3] Baldwin’s stories were the vehicle used to drive social change. His literature was more than simple entertainment; it was a shout in the darkness – a shout for equality, understanding, acceptance and tolerance.

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian

The modern novel The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian, by Sherman Alexie is another example of how literature sheds light on the issue of racism, poverty and stereotypes. The novel , written in 2007, follows the experiences of Arnold Spirit (Junior) as a young man living on the Spokane Indian reservation. A somewhat geeky and awkward kid, Junior feels out of place, even when surrounded by his own people. When Junior decides that he wants to attend an all-white school in Reardan, he is seen as a traitor by his best friend Rowdy, as well as other Indians on the reservation.

Through a series of mishaps and tragedies, Alexie paints a vivid picture of life as seen through the eyes of one hopeful adolescent boy. Junior’s experiences at his new school help inform the reader what it is like to be on the receiving end of racist remarks. For example when Roger, one of the boys at school, asks Junior, “Did you know that Indians are living proof that niggers fuck buffalo?” the reader experiences the shock that comes from such an insensitive remark.[4] When Junior retaliates by punching Roger in the face, Roger calls Junior an animal.

Later in the novel, Junior faces racism again when Penelope’s father Earl tells him, “Kid, if you get my daughter pregnant, if you make some charcoal babies, I’m going to disown her.”[5] Blatant racist remarks and racial slurs are almost commonplace for Junior, but Alexie’s novel also demonstrates how poverty, and rampant alcohol abuse serve to define Junior’s existence. When Miss Warren, the school guidance counselor, informs Junior that his sister has died in a horrific accident, the reader is made witness to the cataclysmic consequences alcoholism has had on Junior and his family.[6] The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian breaks down stereotypical images of American Indians. Instead of proud warriors riding bareback through the open prairies, hunting buffalo, Alexie shows Indians in a contemporary fashion. By doing so, Alexie is using literature to change perceptions as well as to spotlight important social issues. His commentary on reservation life, although entertaining, also has another purpose: to inspire and initiate change.

Literature Prevails

Because literature can be such a powerful tool, it often threatens to upset the status quo. The evidence of this is clear. Even today – in a time when western societies claim to be open-minded and free – censorship of literature still occurs. Matthew Rothschild, a writer living in Arizona reported on one such incident:

The Tucson Unified School District banned the Mexican American Studies program. It specifically targeted seven books, but the entire curriculum, including some fifty titles, was off limits. School officials actually came into classrooms while students were present and took the books away.[7]

Often the people that aim to protect the status quo, actually give power to the very authors they seek to silence. Sherman Alexie was one of the authors whose book was banned. When asked his feelings on the banning, Alexie responded:

In a strange way, I’m pleased that the racist folks of Arizona have officially declared, in banning me… that their anti-immigration laws are also anti-Indian… You give those brown kids some books about brown folks and what happens? Those brown kids change the world. In the effort to vanish our books, Arizona has actually given them enormous power.[8]

Racism is still a serious problem, but Alexie and others have acknowledged the power of literature to “change the world.” Books like The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian, short stories like “Sonny’s Blues” and many other works of literature, are part of a great library of hope. Each letter, each word, each story builds upon, and strengthens, the wall of defense against bigotry, hatred and ignorance. As long as stories are being told, as long as people are reading them, literature will continue to be a catalyst for positive change.


 

 End Notes

[1] Baldwin, James. “Sonny’s Blues.” Norton Anthology of Short Fiction. 7th Ed. Richard Bausch, R.V. Cassill. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc. 2006. 22. Print.

[2] Ibid. 30.

[3] James Tackach. “The Biblical Foundation Of James Baldwin’s “Sonny’s Blues”.” Renascence 59.2 (2007): 109-118. OmniFile Full Text Select (H.W. Wilson). Web. 9 Apr. 2012.

[4] Sherman Alexie. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian. New York: Hachette Book Group. 2009. 64. Print.

[5] Ibid. 109.

[6] Ibid. 201.

[7] “Censored Writers Respond.” Progressive 76.4 (2012): 17-19. OmniFile Full Text Select (H.W. Wilson). Web. 9 Apr. 2012.

[8] Ibid. 17-19.


Bibliography

Alexie, Sherman. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian. New York: Hachette Book Group. 2009. Print.

Bausch, Richard and R.V. Cassill. Norton Anthology of Short Fiction. 7th Ed. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc. 2006. Print.

“Censored Writers Respond.” Progressive 76.4 (2012): 17-19. OmniFile Full Text Select (H.W. Wilson). Web. 9 Apr. 2012.

Tackach, James. “The Biblical Foundation Of James Baldwin’s “Sonny’s Blues”.” Renascence 59.2 (2007): 109-118. OmniFile Full Text Select (H.W. Wilson). Web. 9 Apr. 2012.

Critical Review of Luc Besson’s 1994 film The Professional

As a journalist-in-training, I’ve wanted to write a critical film review for some time now. So when the chance to take a film course presented itself, I jumped at the opportunity. Fortuitously, my first major assignment was to select from a list of 17 films and write a review about one. The list included films made from 1960 up until 2012, but in all honesty, I didn’t recognize many titles on the list. In general, I’m not opposed to new experiences, but in selecting a film to write about I wanted to choose something I had at least a little familiarity with. I also intended to publish my review on my personal blog; I surmised by selecting something with popular appeal, it might be relatable to a wider audience – or at least the two or three people lonely enough to read it. It came down to Harron’s 2008 film American Psycho or Besson’s 1994 film The Professional. In the end, I chose the latter.

The Professional’s (1994) plot is simplistic: a professional assassin, Léon, is obliged to look after his 12-year-old neighbour, Mathilda, after her family is gunned down by a group of murderous, dirty cops. She offers to do Léon’s housework if he teaches her how to ‘clean’, a euphemism for murder. Mathilda is set on revenge and she needs Léon to teach her his deadly art. The two develop a complex relationship, which ultimately leads to Léon’s destruction. As the film comes to a close, Mathilda summarizes her situation quite succinctly saying: “My family got shot down by DEA officers because of a drug problem. I lived with the greatest guy on earth. He was a hitman, the best in town, but he died this morning and if you don’t help me, I’ll be dead by tonight.”

Although plot of The Professional (1994) is straightforward and easy to understand, the film also contains layers of complexity, especially pertaining to the relationship that develops between the Mathilda and her new guardian Léon. Certainly, the character Stansfield, played by Gary Oldman, is an important factor in advancing the plot, but this film is not about plot; it’s about characters. The complexity emerging from the interactions between Léon and Mathilda, as well as their development in the course of the film, is represented in the symbolic meanings of prominent objects. Objects take on meaning when the context of the characters’ motivations and relationship to each other is considered.

Case in point: the houseplant. Early in the film, Léon is shown paying great attention to his houseplant. He carefully cleans each leaf, misting them one-by-one with a spray bottle and then wiping them down with a soft cloth. He attentively positions the plant near the window in his apartment each day so it can absorb life-giving rays from the sun. At one point, Mathilda notices Léon’s horticultural diligence. She asks, “You love your plant, don’t you?” Léon replies, “It’s my best friend. Always happy. No questions. It’s like me, you see? No roots.” In this bit of dialogue, the symbolic meaning of the houseplant is partly uncovered. The houseplant is a kind of surrogate. It’s a friend, a child and a mirror of Léon, all at the same time. The houseplant represents Léon’s desire to have a companion and someone to take care of. But Mathilda says Léon should put the plant in a park so it can grow roots. She says he should be watering her if he wants her to grow. Here, Léon is being asked to give up his lone wolf status by bringing Mathilda more fully into his life.

This is the domestication of the predator. As the film progresses, we see the effects of Léon’s domestication. He goes out of his way to protect Mathilda, which leaves him vulnerable both emotionally and physically. When he rescues Mathilda at the DEA offices and when he asks his boss to give his money to her if he should die are good examples of this process. In some ways, he is compromised as a professional; however, Léon never fully turns his back on his way of life. Again we see the symbolic importance of the houseplant when, near the end of the film, surrounded by DEA and police who are hell-bent on killing him and Mathilda, he knocks a hole in the wall as an escape route. He then wraps his plant in a cloth and drops it down the space between the walls before putting Mathilda in. His continued dedication to the houseplant evinces strong remnants of his ruthless assassin identity. Therefore, Léon is not giving up the connection to his old life. He is still the wolf.

Beyond the symbolism of objects are the notable interactions between Mathilda and Léon. In my estimation, the contrast between the two characters and how they interact with each other is the most significant feature of the film and the reason why it is so compelling. In many ways, Léon is childlike. For example, he is seen drinking copious amounts of milk and eating cereal, typical of children. Furthermore, he is unable to read. He also seems to have a kind of ignorance of the world around him. A scene in the film that brings this to light is when Mathilda decides they should play charades. She dresses up like Madonna, Marilyn Monroe and Charlie Chaplin, but Léon has no idea whom these people are. All he knows is how to kill effectively; popular culture is alien to him.

In contrast to Léon’s childlike characteristics, Mathilda exhibits some very mature mannerisms. For example, she smokes cigarettes, wears slinky cloths and speaks provocatively. Indeed, Léon berates Mathilda for her language more than once in the film. When they are staying in the hotel, she tells the superintendent that she is Léon’s lover. Would it be cynical to wonder then, if the film’s director Luc Besson is flirting with pedophilic undercurrents? The argument can be made that whenever an unrelated man spends time with a very young girl, it must be very clearly explained that the relationship is on the up and up, or certain assumptions might be made.

Yet, Léon and Mathilda’s contrasting reactions to violence are telling. Those reactions reveal the core of each character, which is grounded in the normative view of a child and an assassin respectively. Because of this, the audience is able to see and feel the effects of violence through the eyes of these two protagonists. For example, in the opening sequence of the film, violence is seen as clinical and almost humourous. Bad guys are getting killed right and left, but the audience feels little or no sympathy. It is assumed the bumbling idiots deserve no respect. This treatment of violence reflects the unflinching, unfeeling ethos of the assassin. In marked contrast, Mathilda is devastated by the violence to her family. In particular, the audience is meant to feel sympathy for the young brother who was cute, innocent and totally defenseless. Mathilda’s reaction sets up the motive, as well as the audience’s endorsement, for the revenge violence that is to follow.

In her New York Times movie review, Janet Maslin (1994) makes note of the “extravagant violence” of the film (para. 9). According to Maslin (1994), the oversentimentality of the film overshadows the violence. She sees the cataclysmic explosion at the end – Léon’s suicidal coup de grâce – as “maudlin.” I agree with her assessment. The movie does wander into sappy territory at times. For example, when Léon saves Mathilda by opening up a hole in the wall, the two hold hands while Mathilda sobs and begs Léon not to make her go down the shaft alone. A saccharine sound score adds to the effect.

Maslin’s (1994) review suggests Léon “has a true sweetness” and that “he and Mathilda can redeem each other with the purity of their platonic love” (para. 9). Although there are no obvious indications that the relationship between the Mathilda and Léon was anything other than plutonic, I still can’t help but wonder if Besson wanted the audience to consider the appropriateness of the friendship.

The final criticisms in Maslin’s (1994) review are the problematic and “condescending American stereotypes,” such as the mob boss in the Italian restaurant, and the limited acting skills of Natalie Portman (para. 10). I can see her point about the stereotypes: do we really need another Italian-American mobster figure working out of his restaurant? However, if Besson were an American director, would this even be an issue? I think not. And let’s cut Portman a break! She did a fine acting job, emoting everything from playfulness to cunning to despair.

The Professional (1994) has become somewhat of a cult classic and for good reason. It’s a film that’s both entertaining and surprisingly nuanced. Yes, there is plenty of violence, but the multidimensional relationship between the solitary assassin and the resilient ingénue is the film’s redeeming quality. It’s a redemption that’s reflected in Leon’s personal development. When Léon agrees to open the door for Mathilda, thereby saving her from Stansfield’s goons, he is also opening his heart. By doing so, he’s letting in sentimentality. Consequently, his fate is sealed. He will die to protect Mathilda, but in doing so, he avenges the death of her family.

If you’ve not yet seen the film, I suggest you pour yourself a tall glass of milk and allow yourself to be sentimental. You’ll not be disappointed.

WORK CITED

Besson, C. (Producer), & Besson, L. (Director). (1994). Léon: The Professional (Motion picture). United States: Columbia Pictures.

Maslin, J. (1994, November 18) The Professional (1994) Film review; He may be a killer, but he’s such a sweetie. The New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/movie/review?res=9806E6DD1031F93BA25752C1A962958260