June 21st, 2005

me: ooh!

Reading in the garden.

It's my last day on campus and I am having my tea break with Ten Jin in Dabney Gardens. I didn't know his name before today. I sat with him, weather permitting, and since this is Pasadena it usually was, to eat my lunch, to read articles or to sip a hot beverage when I took a break. (Despite the heat, it never occurs to me to order anything iced.) I always visited him by myself. If I saw someone else sitting on the wooden benches near him, I left.

He perches perpetually on the back of a cow wreathed in brass leaves with a lotus flower tucked behind her ear. The surrounding trees shade them from the sun, though his conical hat provides additional cover. His sandaled feet dangle inches above the untrimmed patch of grass beneath him. His back stays straight while his solemn, lined face tilts downward. He'll never lift his eyes from his book.

My cell phone is in my office. I never speak a word in his presence. I hardly even look at him. I simply enjoy knowing he's there. But tomorrow I will be six thousand miles from this place and I don't know when I'll be back again. So I stand up from my bench and apprehensively bend over the plaque rooted in the ground by the cow's nose. It reads:

Ninth Century Japanese Philosopher
Gift of
September, 1967

How little a name means without a living being to infuse it. History attempts valiantly to supply what death and time erase. History is made of scraps of physical evidence, colored by the perceptions of the recorders and the bias of the collectors, patched together with imagination and logical deduction. It can never replicate exactly the embodiment of the name. I don't think that means history always fails, however. The ultimate product of history is legend, not truth, and legends give us hope.

Ten Jin himself demonstrates this, for that is not even his real name. In life, this ninth century Japanese scholar, poet and politician was known as Sugawara Michizane. His considerable literary talent brought him to the attention of the Emperor Uda, who promoted him to an office that his status in the aristocracy did not merit. His political rivals made him pay for his elevation when the emperor retired and he died in exile.

The events that occurred after his death, mostly in the line of natural disasters, caused consternation in the court and impressed his admirers. Both groups believed his spirit was exacting retribution for his ignominious demise. Their fear and awe induced his renaming and deification. Thus, from an erudite academic incapable of surviving court intrigue, the legendary patron of scholarship and literature Ten Jin was born.

This figure, the deity of a still-popular Shinto cult, stands in a garden of an institution where the students and the faculty strive to uphold the principles of rational scientific inquiry. Ten Jin reminds us that our academic successes can't immunize us against the power that superstition has to shape our personal histories.