Learning from Shinto, Shared Silence, and Ping Pong

A conversation with essayist and novelist Pico Lyer

Following are brief excerpts from a conversation between Pico Lyer and Tim Leberecht, conducted on the sidelines of a TED Summit in Edinburgh.

Learning from Shinto: the reality of robots

“Japan is so far ahead of the world in robotics, because they see the soul in them. They’ve always imagined that your laptop, your telephone, has a spirit inside. This really comes from the Shinto vision. One of the most prominent exports from Japan nowadays is Marie Kondo, the decluttering guru, who of course is doing exactly that, with the same spirit: asking your cocktail dress whether it still is sparking joy in you, or closing the eyes of your stuffed teddy bear so it doesn’t feel the pain. To us this is so novel and imaginative.

None of my Japanese friends would think twice about that, and they would never kick a robot or they would probably never speak harshly to it. But the other thing that’s so interesting and to us peculiar about Japan is that they will have robots as company and robot dogs and robot cats in old people’s homes. I think they’re prepared to suspend disbelief, so that a robot sitting next to them, holding their hand, is as useful and sustaining as you are.

If an elderly couple doesn’t have a child around to look in on them, they’ll literally hire an actress to visit them every Sunday and knock: ‘Hello mom, hello dad. I’ve missed you so much. Let’s have a lovely Sunday together.’ And to us this sounds so alarming.

But I think to the Japanese, it’s a very practical response to a hole in the heart. In other words, the sense of what is real and unreal is very different.”

Shared silence: meeting Leonard Cohen

“Leonard Cohen is the ultimate man of the world who chose to become a monk. … One interesting thing about him is that he never found a woman he could settle down with, but he had this Japanese Zen teacher for 43 years who spoke very little English. Leonard spoke no Japanese and they had the deepest companionship in so far as Leonard never found an anchor for his life. … Later when I would visit him in his home, he would take two chairs out to his tiny garden in his broken down neighborhood in central Los Angeles, we would sit there, and he wouldn’t say a single thing. At first, that was surprising to me because he was the most articulate spellbinding speaker and writer I’ve ever met. But it was moving to me, too, because despite being so gifted with words, he had realized that words bring us apart and silence brings us together. And that the greatest gift he could share with anybody was to be silent with somebody. To see somebody as fluent as Leonard Cohen doing that is obviously something you never forget.

… If you ask me who my one teacher in life is, I would say it is silence.”

Ping pong: about the concept of winning

“In my ping pong club in Japan, we play best of two sets. So much of the time, there’s no loser. If you do happen to win, you will be quickly paired with probably a less good player to lose the next round. In the total of 16 players, they aspire to have eight winners and eight losers with more or less an equal state of delight when they leave. … They want to enlist in the illusion of equality. That’s why the harmony of the Symphony Orchestra is not based on a group of soloists — it’s about each person playing their part perfectly so as to create Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony more beautifully than ever before.

… I come from the U.S. and England, where I was told that one should always win, which means losing and being miserable half the time. Once the winning streak stops, you’re in a state of turmoil. … That’s going to be counterproductive. Being released from this, being told that your job is just to play this game and have fun will take away the pressure and actually allow you to perform far better.”

A British-born American essayist and novelist who has made Japan his home for almost 30 years, Pico Iyer travels seamlessly between the airport and the monastery, between adventure and stillness, and between globalism and mysticism. He’s the author of 14 books including Video Nights in Kathmandu, The Lady and the Monk, The Global Soul, and most recently, Autumn Light. He’s also written several hundred articles, essays, and reviews for publications including The New York Review of Books, Harper’s, The Financial Times, The New York Times, and National Geographic.


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