Dialogue : Roger PENROSE and SATO Humitaka

Not the Tools, Not the Materials

SH: Do you remember, at the tea ceremony at Urasenke the day before yesterday, the name of the tea house written 600 years ago by the tea ceremony founder, " Shasen"- sha, meaning to throw away, and sen, a net to catch fish. This comes from the Chinese classic ZHUANGZI: that people must catch fish to survive, but after catching the fish, they should throw away the net.

RP: Throw away the net?

SH: Yes, the implication is more abstract: that language is like a net. We need language for communication, but the important thing is communication. So throwing away the net also implies dispensing with language. It may be necessary, but we shouldn't depend too much on it.

RP: That's like our saying "kick away the ladder." One climbs up somewhere and then one doesn't need the ladder. It's a means to achieve an end, but once achieved, one doesn't need the means anymore.

SH: No need to store so many tools!

RP: I see, yes!

SH: Keep things simple.

RP: And minimalist.

SH: And even language should be minimized!

RP: Well, I can understand that. It's the ideas, not the way that one expresses them. Of course, in mathematics this is very true. I mean people sometimes call mathematics a language, which I myself don't see. Okay, you use certain symbols and certain operations, which you write in a particular way, but that's not the important thing. Exactly how you write it is really totally unimportant. It's the concept that underlies what you write. So, in a sense, one is abstracting what's beneath, which seems quite similar.

SH: Yes, very similar. Tea ceremony also aims at a way of life in which is simpler is better, not accumulating too many tools.

RP: The word "crutch" is sometimes used-it's a way to prop oneself up. But then afterwards one doesn't need it. I can appreciate that.

SH: Algebra is also like something to catch fish: we need it to find something, but when that thing is found, we can throw the tool away. Tea ceremony culture manifests such simplicity. Their gardens and tea houses are utterly simple and beautiful....

RP: Yes, yes, reduce to as little as is necessary. I worry about this, because I go around with all sorts of rubbish in my house-far too many belongings. My wife tells me I should throw things away, but I have great difficulty....

SH: Women better appreciate simplicity. (laughs)

RP: Yes, I think it's true. But on the other hand, she has more clothes than I have, so it's almost the same.

SH: We see this in the history of Buddhism. Buddhism was a cultural import from China; it's not indigenous to Japan. So in the first era, we imitated Chinese buildings. All the pillars and walls were painted bright red. Even now, if you go to China, you can see the original style, always painted red and it looks brilliant. But soon the Japanese people began to prefer something simpler, and now we see the traditional buildings are all plain wood.

RP: Yes, but they were going to paint Ginkakuji, the "Silver Pavilion" silver. Did they never do it?

SH: They papered it with silver at first, but it peeled off. Then maybe that generation couldn't afford to replace it. And incidentally they began saying that this was much more beautiful, the simple wooden wall.

RP: What's the relation between Shintoism and Buddhism?

SH: Shinto is a more traditional religion and has no tradition of painting. All Shinto shrines are just of plain wood. It's interesting that in Shinto shrines are always supposed to be new. Every 50 years or 100 years, they rebuild them.

RP: They tear them down?

SH: And reconstruct them in exactly the same shape. So it's the shape that's important, while the wood should be always new. That's how they've lasted for a thousand years.

RP: So the concept is preserved, but not the actual material ?

SH: The material is not important.

RP: That's very consistent with quantum mechanics, isn't it? (laughs) This electron and that electron are identical, so it doesn't matter which one. Whereas the structure, of course, is the important thing.

SH: No identity of substance....

RP: No identity, that's right. So that seems very modern, doesn't it?

SH: Yes, like group theory. So the Shinto shrines in Ise or Izumo, they always look new. What they do is they continually plant and maintain trees for the next shrine around the existing one. Then they cut down these trees and rebuild the next shrine.

RP: I see. So they use those trees?

SH: Yes, they self-supply the trees.

RP: But temples, they keep the same buildings. So Buddhist temples are sometimes very old as material, but in the case of shrines, it is always new.

SH: In Japan there is no tradition to use rock for building shrines or palaces-only wood. So there are no ruins from ancient times. In the past they did not so much try to preserve the substance or material itself, but would replace it with an identical structure.

RP: Is this to do with wood deteriorating, or is it just an idea ?

SH: Certainly there's also the technical aspect, that it's difficult to maintain a wooden building for more than a thousand years. Maybe they thought it better to replace them more frequently.

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