Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘D.T. Suzuki

Pulling the cart

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However high and soaring to the sky our ideas may be, we are firmly fixed to the earth; there is no way of escaping this physical existence. Whatever thoughts we may have, they must definitely be related to our body, if they are to have the power to influence life in any way. The Zen monk is asked to solve highly abstract metaphysical problems; and to do this he devotes himself to meditation. But as long as this meditation remains identified with abstractions, there will be no practical solution of the problems. The Yogin may think he has clearly seen into this meaning. But when this does not go beyond his hours of meditation, that is, when it is not actually put to experiments in his daily life, the solution is merely ideational, it bears no fruits, and therefore it dies out before long. Zen masters have, therefore, always been anxious to see their monks work hard on the farm, in the woods, or in the mountains. In fact, they themselves would lead the laboring party, taking up the spade, the scissors, or the axe, or carrying water, or pulling the cart.

D.T. Suzuki, The Training of the Zen Buddhist Monk

Written by nevalalee

April 8, 2017 at 7:30 am

Zen and the art of survival

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R.H. Blyth

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.

Zen in English Literature and Oriental Classics

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.

A short lesson on poetic economy

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Plum Blossoms by Qi Baishi

A Chinese poet happened to compose this couplet:

In the woods over there deeply buried in snow,
Last night a few branches of the plum tree burst out in bloom.

He showed it to his friend, who suggested that he alter “a few branches” into “one branch.” The author followed his friend’s advice, praising him as his “teacher of one character.”

D.T. Suzuki, Zen and Japanese Culture

Written by nevalalee

January 12, 2013 at 9:50 am

Return to the Newberry Library

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If you’re a certain kind of book lover in Chicago, the high point of any year, even more than the Printers Row Lit Fest, is the Newberry Library Book Fair. As I mentioned in my post last year, this book fair represents the apotheosis of the kind of library book sale I constantly dreamed about as a kid: more than 120,000 books, most only a few dollars, arranged in one of the most beautiful libraries imaginable. (For those who don’t know it firsthand, this is the library memorably featured in The Time Traveler’s Wife.) I’ve been looking forward to this event all year, and even managed to rework my writing schedule this week so that I had a free day on Thursday, when the library doors opened. You’d think that with all this buildup, the fair couldn’t possibly live up to expectations—but if anything, it’s even better than I imagined.

Oddly enough, I’ve found myself becoming more restrained in the books I buy. Last year, I observed that I had to hold myself back because of my upcoming move, and wrote: “Next year, I won’t have any such restrictions.” Yet I’ve been pickier than usual this year, picking up and putting back several books—including Architecture Without Architects, Everyman’s Talmud, and the charming paperback Star Trek Lives!, with its early discussion of fanfic—that I would have happily added to the pile in the past. What happened? Maybe it’s a newfound frugality; maybe it’s a sense that while I currently have ample shelf space in my home library, it won’t last forever; and in a couple of cases, the books themselves were just a little too tattered to justify the purchase. I’ve also found that my reaction to a used book has become weirdly intuitive: I’ll carry a book for a while, then leave it, because it doesn’t quite fit with the others I’ve found so far.

In the end, I emerged with what I can only call a well-rounded portfolio of books. As always, the first day’s haul included a mixture of books that I’ve wanted to check out for a while and the usual happy accidents. The first category included a five-volume slipcased paperback edition of Leon Edel’s biography of Henry James; a similar two-volume edition of Toynbee’s abridged Study of History; and D.T. Suzuki’s Zen and Japanese Culture, which I nearly bought a few weeks ago, but found at Newberry for only a dollar. The serendipitous category includes Creative Intuition in Art and Poetry by Jacques Maritain, whom I quoted here not long ago; The Duality of Vision by Walter Sorell, a study of artists who have excelled in more than one creative field; a lovely book of photographs on The Zen Life; and The Maple Sugar Book by Helen and Scott Nearing, whom I’ve mentioned on this blog before.

My favorite discovery is probably a 1955 edition of The Week-End Book, first published in London by the Nonesuch Press. All Things Considered did an amusing segment a few years ago on this volume, which is essentially designed as an all-purpose manual to be brought along by Londoners on their weekends in the country. As a result, it’s delightfully miscellaneous. It contains an excellent poetry anthology of more than two hundred pages; information on the plants and animals of the English countryside; a discussion of village and pub architecture; manuals of stargazing and birdwatching, complete with birdcalls transcribed for piano; and helpful, often tongue-in-check advice on cooking, etiquette, the law, first aid, and games. (The section on games begins: “Everyone knows Up-Jenkyns, but here are a few finer points…) In short, it’s the kind of lucky discovery that can enrich an entire lifetime, and which you can only make at a book fair like this. Is it any wonder I’m going back again tonight?

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