Some notes on silence and the concept of “ma”
Pico Iyer, in his book A Beginner’s Guide to Japan writes that,
More important than learning to speak Japanese when you come to Japan is learning to speak silence. My neighbors seem most at home with nonverbal cues, with pauses and the exchange of formulae. What is the virtue of speaking Japanese, Lafcadio Hearn noted, if you cannot think in.
It is a beautiful way of writing about Japan —and yet I think Iyer is mistaking silence with “ma.” In Japan, silence is conveyed
Chinmoku 沈黙 , which is a composite word made up of the Kanji for “sinking” or “to sink” (沈) and “to be quiet” or “to shut up/keep one’s mouth closed” (黙).
Strictly speaking the term “Mugon” 無言 is closer to the concept of “wordless” or “with nothing to say” or “mute”. In some cases it could be used to describe a noun (say a man, a practice, a ritual etc) as “silent”, For example : “Mugon no otoko” which means “a silent man” or “a man who doesn’t speak”. But using this word as a term for silence would be erroneous.
The term “Shizukesa” 静けさ can also be used, which means calmness.
What Iyer is talking about, I think, is the pregnant pauses and white space of “ma.”
Kyoto Journal published a gorgeous special issue on “Ma” recently. It is digital and costs $5—I really recommend getting a copy. Here is a breakdown of “ma” by Gunter Nitschke:
[P]lace is the product of lived space and lived time, a reflection of our states of mind and heart. In the original Chinese, the above poem ends with the character 間, which in Japanese is pronounced chiefly as ma.
Originally, this character consisted of the pictorial sign for “moon” (月) — not the present-day “sun” (日) — under the sign for “gate” (門). For a Chinese or Japanese using language consciously, this ideogram, depicting a delicate moment of moonlight streaming through a chink in the entranceway, fully expresses the two simultaneous components of a sense of place: the objective, given aspect and the subjective, felt aspect.
“Ma” is both time and space! It is probably the best word for what Pico Iyer is talking about so wonderfully. It can be pronounced as “ma,” “gen” or “aida” and it evokes the space between and shared or the time between and shared.
Human beings 人間 are people 人 and between 間. This is also from Nitschke:
Clearly, the Japanese language is shot through with a dynamic sense of place. But the profound importance of the ma concept in Japanese society is best revealed in the everyday terms for “human being” and “the world”:
人間 (nin-gen) Human being (literally, person-place or person-in-relationship)
世間 (se-ken) World, society (literally: world-place or world-in-relationship)
仲間 (naka-ma) Coterie; companion (literally: relationship-place)
Here is a fantastic article by DAMIAN FLANAGAN in the Japan Times called Linguistic Ignorance Can be Bliss about the way Pico Iyer’s inability to understand basic Japanese can shut him out of certain cultural nuances but can also help him to better see certain cultural nuances since he has retained the critical distance of an outsider. Here is Flanagan:
The late British critic A.A. Gill had it right when he once observed in connection with his peer, Jonathan Meades, that there are two types of cultural criticism. The first cultural critic comes protected by the full body armor of specialist, narrow learning and foreign language ability. The second type attempts a far riskier endeavour of relying on an innate, intuitive sense of things. The second type is much more likely to make mistakes, but also far more likely to make spectacularly fresh observations.
Here is one more quote from Iyer on Genji:
Japan’s foundational novel, The Tale of Genji, is notoriously hard to translate, because proper names are sometimes avoided, the subject of a sentence changes halfway through and speakers are seldom indicated. As the scholar of Japan Ivan Morris writes, the hard-and-fast divisions we like to maintain—between past and present, question and statement, singular and plural, male and female—don’t apply. “Sometimes it is not even clear whether the sentence is positive or negative.”
Even those sentences that do have clear beginnings in Japan generally trail off, like pen-and-ink drawings that leave most of the page open for a viewer to complete. In England, I learned to start sentences by saying, “I’m not exactly sure . . .” but in Japan the studied vagueness is not just about diffidence but about allowing room for someone else to turn an opening note into a duet.
I loved Iyer’s new book on paradise. I will post my review in Rumpus when it comes out March 28.
Pine Trees Screen (松林図 屏風, Shōrin-zu byōbu) by Hasegawa Tōhaku. The empty space in this piece is considered to be as important as the trees depicted.
What a wonderful essay! And thank you for the references, I am reading both. Regarding Damian Flanagan's A.A. Gill quote that there are two kinds of cultural criticism, I think I am come from a third type. Some of my thoughts about Japan come from years of study, but there are huge areas where I am a complete novice and feel very much like an outsider who notices things that aren't of interest to "experts." Or maybe I'm a fourth type, since he doesn't consider people who have grown up both inside and outside, the way I have--neither fully Japanese nor Western.
Or maybe my thoughts aren't even categorizable that way, and I'm just an odd duck.
I sometimes think about returning to my study of Arabic because I'm 100% an outsider there, and it's very relaxing to know exactly what I am.
Omg! I love this! I'm going to keep coming back to this time and time (!) again . . . Everything you've written here. I dare say that the raft of incomplete poems using the pine tree is undoubtedly a reflection of these various accountings of silence and place, silence in space, the quiet of change inhabiting the infinitesimal of the dewdrop world in the grain of a sighting tree. . . :)