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Chapter 11
The Philosophy of the Karakuri


A Tea Room in the Space Shuttle

In the Age of Biomation, What Are the Limits of Medical Technology?

The Boundaries Between Life and Death, Man and Machine

An End to Hierarchy and Anthropocentricism

Human Existence in the Intermediate Zone


A Tea Room in the Space Shuttle

In the West, technology and humanity have come to be thought of as in opposition to each other. The schema that as technology has developed, human beings gave been estranged from nature and alienated is no doubt connected to Jean-Jacques Rousseau's naive criticism of civilization and his call for "return to nature." But no one who objectively considers the blessings that technology has bestowed on us in our daily lives would reject modern scientific technology.

Ours is not a binomial, dualistic choice between technology and humanity. The challenge that faces us today is to develop a philosophy that humanizes technology. As I wrote earlier, my study with its IBM computer sits next to and opens into my tea room, Yuishikian. There, a space has been created in which the latest technology exists in symbiosis with the traditional, natural art of the tea room, without the least dissonance. The study is a very pleasant space. "A Tea Room in the Space Shuttle" is the slogan I have invented to express the symbiosis of humanity and technology. The space shuttle flying through the heavens at a tremendous clip does not by itself represent mature technology. Only when a space shuttle that includes the human space represented by the tea room is launched will it be able to bring a new enjoyment and pleasure to human beings.

In Japan, technology is not thought of as standing in opposition to humanity but as an extension of humanity. We find the concept of the symbiosis of mankind and technology in the Japanese tradition in the Edo period, in the form of a fascination with automata, or karakuri. In 1815 Tagaya Kanchizen's Instructional Illustrated Catalogue of Automata (Karakuri Kummo kagamigusa) was published, and in 1798, Hosokawa Yorinao's Illustrated Miscellany of Automata (Karakuri zui) was published. In the same period, the automated-puppet plays of Takeda Ominoshojo were popular in Osaka (so popular, in fact, that Takeda gave his name to the genre, known as Takeda plays), and the master carpenter Hasegawa Kambei invented various mechanical stage devices for the Kabuki theater and introduced a new level of spectacle and excitement to the popular stage.

Hosokawa's Illustrated Miscellany of Automata includes a diagram of a prototype of today's robot: the tea-carrying doll (chahakobi ningyo). Here's how it works. When the host, seated opposite his guest, places a cut of tea in the doll's hands, it carries the cup of tea to the guest. The guest takes the cup from the doll, and it stops. After drinking the tea, the guest sets the cup back in the doll's hands. It turns around and returns to the host with the empty cup. The mechanism of the tea-carrying doll consists of a spring made from baleen and a complicated system of interlocking gears. And the doll is modeled in the form of an adorable child rather than in the machinelike form of a Western robot. In the Edo period, the technology that was incorporated into a device was not displayed on its exterior but incorporated invisibly in the interior, giving people a feeling of wonder and mystery. The role of machines was not to express their own independent identities but that of human beings.

Examples of karakuri architecture include the suspended central pillar of several pagodas and the helix structures of "snailshell" towers, or sazaedo. The five-storied pagoda at the Yanaka Kannoji, built in 1627, and the five-storied pagoda at Nikko, built in 1818, both have suspended central pillars that hang from above without actually touching the ground. They support nothing. The purpose of these central pillars is not to directly support the pagoda but to lower the center of gravity of the entire structure, thus stabilizing it. Examples of "snailshell" towers can be found in the Sansodo at Rakanji, built in 1779, and the Sazaedo at Seishuji in Aizu Wakamatsu, built in 1796. The outer walls of these halls rise and fall in a helix structure, suggesting the Buddhist idea of migration through birth after birth and making a never-ending journey up and down the tower possible.

These are examples of the way in which technology in Japan has been made infinitely attractive through humanization, in contrast to the unadorned, exposed mechanisms of the West.

In the Age of Biomation, What Are the Limits of Medical Technology?

Dr. Kazuhiko Atsumi, who attracted attention worldwide by transplanting a mechanical heart into a goat and keeping it alive for 344 days, has coined the word "biomation" to mean the application of technology to biology. Dr. Atsumi, in a conference paper, has the following to say about biomation in the twenty-first century.

The development of technology has let to the replacement of human labor by that of the machine, in other words, automation. The labor accomplished by machines has gradually evolved from physical labor -- as in the steam engine, the automobile, the conveyor belt, the telegraph, telephone, typewriter, and copy machine -- to mental labor, accomplished by computers and the other apparti of "artificial intelligence." The end result has been the widespread dissemination of information technology, which has in turn contributed to the evolution of an information society. At the same time, however, this information society has resulted in problems such as standardization, homogenization, and alienation. To solve these problems, we must learn a lesson from the subtle behavior of living organisms and from software. In other words, the mating of the automation of manmade technology and the bio of living things will give birth to the technology of a new human society. I call this hybrid product biomation. The age of biomation will be an age of humanity, of freedom, of multiplicity, of individuality, of art, of leisure, and of health and medicine. NOTE 1

Since John von Neumann's work on automate, thinking machines have greatly increased in speed until they have approached the processes of human thought. In the post-machine age, human beings and machines will grow even closer, and in certain areas, the borders between the two will be crossed, creating a symbiosis between man and machine. For example, even today some people live with a pacemaker implanted in their heart. Artificial limbs have advanced so greatly that they approach human limbs in complexity. Implants of machines to supplement or replace human biological functions are bound to increase. NOTE 1

The reverse possibility also exists: that human beings could make up one part of a machine. A recent film, for example, portrays a plasma production plant in which thousands of bodies of human beings in permanent comas are used to produce blood that is then trucked away for use by living human beings. This is a blood factory that incorporates human beings as one part of its machinery.

Of course most Japanese feel a strong repulsion to the idea of using coma patients to produce blood. But there is some possibility, certainly, that this could happen in the near future, when this will be technologically feasible. If it should happen, or even before it happens, a tremendous debate is likely to arise: Should we permit this? And if we do, are we to think of these coma patients as human beings or as machines?

With the progress of medicine and biotechnology, many new and complicated issues of bioethics will present themselves. On that subject, Dr. Atsumi has this to say: "New medical technology such as heart transplants, in vitro fertilization, genetic medicine, and the synthesis of living tissue is bound to change society's ways of thinking in fundamental ways, and agreement on the values of a new ethics will be required."

I think that one approach to this problem is to make a distinction between parts of the body that may be replaced and those that may not. Human hair is used, for example, in thermometers. Hair is undeniably a part of the human body, but since it grows back its use is universally regarded as acceptable. Blood is also replaceable. There will be no influence on a person's individuality or character even if all of his blood is replaced in transfusion. To a certain extent, skin a d organs are also replaceable, and in fact today they are being transplanted from one person to another.

If we pursue this line of reasoning, we finally come to the brain, which controls the spiritual, mental activity that is at the core of human personality. As long as the brain is healthy, an individual is an individual; all other parts of the body are expendable. The brain does not function in terminal coma patients. They have no will, no thoughts, no feelings. We can regard their state as the extreme in which only the portions of the body that are replaceable continue to live. Of course we should respect the dignity of death, but if there is no chance that brain functions can be restored and the person, while still alive, expressed his own agreement, it might well be acceptable to allow that person's body to produce blood for others. It becomes, in the end, a matter of each individual's choice.

The Boundaries Between Life and Death, Man and Machine

I once visited a German hospital for the handicapped where about twenty children suffering from hydrocephalus were being cared for. Hydrocephalus enlarges the skull to nearly a meter in circumference. These children were all suspended from the ceiling, head down. They cannot survive in any other position. If they are placed in a standing position, the weight of their heads will break their necks, and lying down their head might be shaken by some vibration, again causing death. But they can survive for some time if they are hung upside down.

The hospital was making every effort to keep them alive, in the hope that sometime soon a miraculous treatment would be discovered that could cure them. The children smiled at me on my visit. Though their skulls were enormously enlarged, their features were normal in size and seemed to be pulled together in the middle of their faces. But in spite of their smiles I asked myself if these children who, even hanging upside down, would only survive a few years could be called full human beings, and whether they were happy. All doubts aside, however, clearly the humanist position is to recognize that every person, no matter how weak, has a right to live and we must make every effort possible to assist him. The opposite belief, that the weak and malformed should be killed, is nothing other than Hitler's elitism, the Nazi philosophy of the Master Race.

In practice, all human beings find themselves somewhere between these two extremes. For example, millions die of starvation in Africa every year. If every Japanese were to donate ten percent of his annual income to relieving starvation in Africa, all of those victims could be saved. But no one goes that far. Saving the lives of others is a fine thing, as long as it doesn't inconvenience you. AIDS provides another example. Some people insist on AIDS patients' human rights and say we must not discriminate against them, while others say they should be quarantined and not allowed to came into contact with the healthy.

By defending the rights of the AIDS patient we incur the risk that his fatal disease will be spread to others in exchange for the belief that human life has no meaning unless it is guaranteed to all. As a result, we must reconcile ourselves to the fact that AIDS will spread to a certain extent. Compassion is an extremely expensive proposition, and in a sense it is very inefficient. Nevertheless, we cannot adopt the Nazi philosophy that the weak and "inferior" should die. Whatever the cost, humanity as a whole must create a structure in which the weak can live with the strong, the sick with the healthy. If the consensus of humanity is that the human race as a whole should be "improved" and its survival take priority over individual lives, then elitism is of course one way to achieve that goal; but no doubt instead we will choose the way of living in symbiosis with the weak and the ill, even if it is inefficient and means a shortening of the survival of the human race.

The advances of science and technology have made the previously clear-cut boundaries between life and death, man and machine, vague, and a new ethical agenda awaits humanity. There can be no doubt that the issue of the symbiosis of mankind and technology, including the complex problems discussed above, will press in on us with greater urgency as we approach the twenty-first century.

An End to Hierarchy and Anthropocentricism

Another issue that the twenty-first century must face is the creation of a new way of thinking about life and death, and a new way of living to match it. Society governed by Modernism -- that is, industrial society -- has placed a higher value on life than has any other period in human history. This excessive evaluation of human life is greatly mistaken on two counts.

First, it assigns special value to human life at the cost of all other life. In its most extreme form, this viewpoint denigrates all other forms of life in inverse proportion to the importance it places on human life. Just as god was once absolute existence, now humankind is, on earth, the absolute form of existence. It is a hierarchy, a anthropocentricism, which places human life at the center and all other life on the periphery. As such, it is perfectly natural that his attitude should come under attack from the science of ecology.

But the answer to the problem is clearly not to return the earth to the time when life first appeared on the planet. In the ecology of nature, there is natural selection; the weak are eaten by the strong. The sudden explosion of the population of one species drives another to extinction. If the criticism of this anthropocentrisism is nothing more than excessive faith in ecology, we fall into the path of a typical binomial opposition, or dualism.

Humankind cannot live without eating other living things. To regard vegetarianism as more ecologically sound than meat-eating is sort-sighted. My teacher Shiio Benkyo, in his Buddhist teachings of symbiosis, has described the human condition, the fact that we must eat other organisms to live, as a relationship of mutual life, of living and giving life. The Buddha, human beings, animals, plants, and stone by the side of the road -- all are living symbiotically in an enormous life cycle. They are living and giving each other life in symbiosis. Human beings consume other life forms as vegetables and meat, fish and rice, but when humans tie they return to earth and become in turn food for plants and animals.

The stone by the roadside -- minerals and inorganic materials -- are also necessary to preserve human life. Neither regarding human life as more important than any other form nor suggesting a return to an ecology of some prehuman age are valid alternatives. All consideration of the subject of life and death must begin from a recognition of other life forms. A lifestyle that is based on an awareness that we are all kept alive by other forms of life is the philosophy of symbiosis. A lifestyle that simply regards other forms of life as sources of food and raw materials will eventually create the need for another way of living and thinking.

Human Existence in the Intermediate Zone

The second error is to regard a human being as a single organism separate from all other organisms. Careful thought shows that human beings are not made up of two opposing elements, matter and spirit. Our abdomens are populated by a variety of organisms, including different viruses and bacteria. If these other forms of life were eliminated from the human body, we could not live. In addition, all sorts of inorganic substances are found in our bodies; they sustain our life. In the bodies of most humans, too, even though they are not sick, live disease organisms and disease-causing viruses. We are living together with these organisms. A human being is actually a symbiotic complex up of a plurality of living things in dynamic relationship with each other.

In contrast, the view of humanity advocated by Modernism is that we are an unadulterated organism composed of matter and spirit. This abstract and non-living model of a human being has come to be what we call a human being. The concept of health resembles that of progress. It has meant the unending approach to a purer and purer human being. The invasion of any other form of life has been dubbed disease and that life from is regarded as an enemy, an attacker. Classic Western medicine has regarded treatment as the killing of this invader; one of its typical treatments is surgery -- the cutting away of the disease producer and even the "invaded" tissue with it.

Recently other methods of treatment are gaining attention, including holistic medicine, which seeks to encourage the body's natural defenses and to enlist mental and spiritual powers to assist the body. The techniques of traditional Chinese medicine are also being studied, but the belief that a healthy organism is one from which all foreign bodies and other life forms have been eliminated is a strong one.

An excessive affirmation of life is an absolute terror of death. In the present age there is greater fear of sickness and death than of war. As Susan Sontag has said, sickness, especially such incurable sicknesses as cancer and AIDS, has become an unnecessarily prevalent metaphor for death, for fear, and has thrown society into anxiety.

In their fear of death, people try to avoid the thought of it. They try to enjoy life by banishing death from their awareness, by denying death. But from birth we are half-healthy, half-sick. There is no absolutely perfect human, who from birth is absolutely pure, absolutely without any other form of life, who never experiences physical breakdowns. All human beings have some physical imperfection, large or small, and are living in symbiosis with other organisms, such as bacteria or viruses.

Sickness is nothing other than the collapse of that symbiotic balance, a change leading to death. All humans live in the intermediate zone between total life and total death. In the future the science of medicine will no doubt head in the direction of learning how to preserve that intermediate state, that state of symbiotic balance with disease organisms. The philosophy of symbiosis is a philosophy of enjoying the symbiosis of life and death.



1. K. Atsumi, "New Concept -- BIOMATION -- Its Revolutionary Impact of Industry and Society." Proceedings of Discoveries International Symposium, OSU, 15-43, 1982.