Zen and the art of survival
It’s probably too late to buy it as a Christmas gift, but I wanted to mention that Zen in English Literature and Oriental Classics by R.H. Blyth, one of my favorite books, is now available in an affordable paperback edition from the Catholic publisher Angelico Press, after being out of print for decades. I’ve said before that if I could own just one book that had to fit in a backpack, it would be Blyth, and if there’s any time in which we could use his insights, it’s now. It’s a series of essays on such subjects as “Death,” “Children,” “Poverty,” and “Non-Attachment”—the last of which is so important that it gets four chapters to itself—and Blyth makes his points using copious quotations, anecdotes, and literary illustrations. His tone is captured by an aside toward the beginning:
I remember when I began to attend lectures, at a Zen temple…I was surprised to find that there were no lofty spiritual truths enunciated at all. Two things stuck in my head, because they were repeated so often, and with such gusto. One of them, emphasized with extreme vigor, was that you must not smoke a cigarette while making water. The other was that when somebody calls you (in Japanese, “Oi!”) you must answer (“Hai!”) at once, without hesitation. When we compare this to the usual Christian exhortatory sermon, we cannot help being struck by the difference.
Blyth continues: “I myself heard the ‘Oi!’ ‘Hai!’ so many times that I began to wait for it and look on it as a kind of joke, and as soon as I did this, I began to see a light, or ‘get warm’ as the children say. It is like the grooves of launching. Release the blocks and the ship moves.” Zen in English Literature and Oriental Classics is a collection of grooves. It’s both the best anthology of poetry I know and a source of advice and ideas that are constantly rattling around in my brain:
That is all religion is: eat when you are hungry, sleep when you are tired. But to do such simple things properly is really the most difficult thing in the world.
We ourselves, as we read [Don Quixote], have an underlying sense of shame that our lives are directed to the acquisition of all the things Don Quixote so rightly despised.
Sometimes the inculcation of poverty may be a concession to human weakness, which finds the golden mean so difficult. Poverty then appears as a kind of universal Prohibition…Poverty appears again as a form of safety first, a kind of fire insurance by burning down the house.
What Blyth describes isn’t Zen, exactly, and if you’re looking for a more approachable introduction, you’re probably better off going with Blyth’s friend D.T. Suzuki, or maybe Pippi Longstocking. But that doesn’t mean that we can’t take it as a primary text in itself, as channeled through its author’s specific experiences, tastes, and prejudices. To the extent that I have a personal philosophy, however rarely I manage to live up to it, it’s here. And it’s the last chapter, “Shakespeare,” that I’ve been thinking about the most. Blyth believed that Zen could be found in its purest form in poetry, even in doggerel, so it isn’t surprising that he devotes so much space to Shakespeare, who stands with Jesus and Bashō as one of the book’s central figures. On the very last page, Blyth quotes Macduff, who asks, after discovering that his entire family has been murdered: “Did heaven look on, / And would not take their part?” Blyth concludes:
What is the answer to the question? It cannot be given in Yes, or No, because as the question is understood by most people, it has the same form as, “Have you stopped beating your wife yet?” But you may say, “You are only equivocating: answer the question, does Heaven care for us or not?” The answer is the plays of Hamlet, King Lear, Othello, Macbeth, for when we are watching or reading the plays, and even for a short time afterwards, before the glow has died away, we know the answer. But it is not Yes, and it is not No.
This seems about right to me. But the most extraordinary thing about this book is left almost unspoken. In the closing lines of his preface, Blyth thanks his typist, Mrs. Saeko Kobayashi of Toyko, and he ends it with the simple words: “Kanazawa, May 1941.” It’s as evocative, in its own way, as the famous “Trieste-Zurich-Paris, 1914-1921” at the end of Ulysses, which reminds us that the epic of Dublin was written in exile. Blyth was also working in a place and time that couldn’t have seemed less conducive to his subject or its reception, and it was about to get worse. In the preface to his other masterpiece, the four-volume study Haiku, Blyth writes: “Of the great number of Japanese books that I referred to while writing this and the succeeding volumes, hardly any escaped the air raids.” It wasn’t a period in which Japan itself seemed particularly emblematic of the life of Zen, and certainly not one in which most of his intended readers would be receptive to what it had to say. There are times when Blyth, quietly preparing his manuscript as the war raged around him, reminds me of the narrator in Borges’s “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius,” working on his translation of the Urn Burial while the world as he knows it ends. But that’s how a lot of us feel these days, and the fact that Blyth emerged with his faith in Zen intact consoles me just as much as his book does. I can’t think of a better Christmas present—and even if it’s too late to give it to someone you love, you can always get it for yourself.