Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘R.H. Blyth

Zen in America

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In the latest issue of The New Yorker, Adam Gopnik discusses the recent books Why Buddhism is True by Robert Wright and Stephen Batchelor’s After Buddhism, the latter of which he calls “in many ways the most intellectually stimulating book on Buddhism of the past few years.” As with most of the articles under the magazine’s departmental heading A Critic at Large, it’s less a review than an excuse to explore the subject in general, and Gopnik ends up delivering a gentle pitch for Buddhism as a secular philosophy of life. He writes:

As for the mind’s modules [Batchelor writes], “Gotama [Buddha] is interested in what people can do, not with what they are…We may have no control over the rush of fear prompted by finding a snake under our bed, but we do have the ability to respond to the situation in a way that is not determined by that fear.” Where Wright insists that the Buddhist doctrine of not-self precludes the possibility of freely chosen agency, Batchelor insists of Buddhism that “as soon as we consider it a task-based ethics…such objections vanish. The only thing that matters is whether or not you can perform a task.”

This idea was enormously appealing to certain Americans of the nineteenth century, as Gopnik notes earlier on: “These American Buddhists, drawn East in part by a rejection of Gilded Age ostentation, recognized a set of preoccupations like those they knew already—Whitman’s vision of a self that could shift and contain multitudes, or Thoreau’s secular withdrawal from the race of life…The quietist impulse in New England spirituality and the pantheistic impulse in American poetry both seemed met, and made picturesque, by the Buddhist tradition.”

I find something especially revealing in the way that such adherents hoped to combat certain stereotypically American tendencies, such as material striving and competition, with the equally American notion of a “task-based ethics.” The promise of turning one’s preference for concrete action—or rules of behavior—from a weakness into a strength is very attractive to someone like me, and I’ve always liked R.H. Blyth’s memorable description of the training of a Zen novitiate:

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.

But I’ve also learned to be cautious about appropriating it for myself. I’ve been interested in Zen for a long time, particularly since discovering Blyth’s wonderful books Zen in English Literature and Oriental Classics and Haiku, but I don’t feel comfortable identifying with it. For one thing, it’s a complicated subject that I’ve never entirely gotten my head around, and I don’t follow its practice in fundamental ways. (I don’t meditate, for instance, although reading Gopnik’s article makes me think that I probably should.) My understanding of it is mediated through such Western interpreters as Blyth, and I feel less than qualified to talk about it for much the same reason that Robert Pirsig gives in his disclaimer to Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: “What follows…should in no way be associated with that great body of factual information relating to orthodox Zen Buddhist practice. It’s not very factual on motorcycles, either.”

And my understanding of Zen can best be described as being not very factual on motorcycles. What I like about it is what Stewart Brand, speaking on the related issue of voluntary poverty, once called “the sheer practicality of the exercise,” and I’ve taken as much of its advice to heart as I can. It feels like common sense. The trouble, obviously, is that this extracts a tiny sliver of meaning from a vast spiritual tradition that most Westerners haven’t studied firsthand, and its cultural distance makes it easy for us to abstract whatever we want from it. As Gopnik points out:

[Batchelor’s] project is unashamedly to secularize Buddhism. But, since it’s Buddhism that he wants to secularize, he has to be able to show that its traditions are not hopelessly polluted with superstition…Batchelor, like every intelligent believer caught in an unsustainable belief, engages in a familiar set of moves. He attempts to italicize his way out of absurdity by, in effect, shifting the stresses in the simple sentence “We don’t believe that.” First, there’s “We don’t believe that”…Next comes “We don’t believe that”…In the end, we resort to “We don’t believe that”: we just accept it as an embedded metaphor of the culture that made the religion.

And Buddhism is probably more conducive to this “set of moves” by Americans than, say, Christianity, simply because it feels exotic and unfamiliar. If you look at the picture of Jesus that emerges from a study like The Five Gospels, you end up with a religious ethic that has important differences from Buddhism, but which also shares deep affinities in how it positions the self against the world. Yet it’s so tangled up with its history in America that secular types are unlikely to embrace it as a label.

Of course, this scavenging of traditions for spare parts is quintessentially American as well, and it comes out of an understandable impulse to correct our worst tendencies. In all honesty, I’m one of the least “Zen” people I know—I’m ambitious, competitive, and deeply invested in measuring myself against worldly standards of success, all of which I intend to renounce as soon as I’ve proven that I can win in all the conventional ways. It’s all very American of me. Yet it would be equally true to say that I’m drawn to the doctrine of nonattachment because I need it, and because it serves as a corrective to ingrained personality traits that would otherwise make me miserable. I’m not alone, either. Gopnik refers briefly to the San Francisco Zen Center and “its attempted marriage of spiritual elevation with wild entrepreneurial activity,” and the one thing that the most famous exponents of Zen had in common is that they were all hugely ambitious, as well as highly systematic in the way that they pursued their goals. You don’t become the spokesman for an entire religious tradition by accident, and I suspect that their ambition usually came first, and their lifelong effort to come to terms with it was channeled, not into withdrawal, but into a more active engagement with the world. This might seem contradictory, but we’re also simply more likely to talk about Blyth, Pirsig, D.T. Suzuki, Alan Watts, and the rest than the nameless monks who did the sensible thing and entered a life of quiet meditation. It skews our picture of Zen a bit, in particular by presenting it in intellectual terms that have more to do with the needs of writing a book than the inner experience of a principled adept, but not to an extent that seems impossible to overcome. It may well be, as Gopnik notes, that “secular Buddhism ends up being…secularism.” But even if we arrive there in a roundabout way, or call it by different names, it still amounts to the best set of tools that we have for survival in America, or just about anywhere else.

Swallowing the turkey

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Benjamin Disraeli

Lord Rowton…says that he once asked Disraeli what was the most remarkable, the most self-sustained and powerful sentence he knew. Dizzy paused for a moment, and then said, “Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof.”

—Augustus J.C. Hare, The Story of My Life

Disraeli was a politician and a novelist, which is an unusual combination, and he knew his business. Politics and writing have less to do with each other than a lot of authors might like to believe, and the fact that you can create a compelling world on paper doesn’t mean that you can do the same thing in real life. (One of the hidden themes of Astounding is that the skills that many science fiction writers acquired in organizing ideas on the page turned out to be notably inadequate when it came to getting anything done during World War II.) Yet both disciplines can be equally daunting and infuriating to novices, in large part because they both involve enormously complicated projects—often requiring years of effort—that need to be approached one day at a time. A single day’s work is rarely very satisfying in itself, and you have to cling to the belief that countless invisible actions and compromises will somehow result in something real. It doesn’t always happen, and even if it does, you may never get credit or praise. The ability to deal with the everyday tedium of politics or writing is what separates professionals from amateurs. And in both cases, the greatest accomplishments are usually achieved by freaks who can combine an overarching vision with a finicky obsession with minute particulars. As Eugène-Melchior de Vogüé, who was both a diplomat and literary critic, said of Tolstoy, it requires “a queer combination of the brain of an English chemist with the soul of an Indian Buddhist.”

And if you go into either field without the necessary degree of patience, the results can be unfortunate. If you’re a writer who can’t subordinate yourself to the routine of writing on a daily basis, the most probable outcome is that you’ll never finish your novel. In politics, you end up with something very much like what we’ve all observed over the last few weeks. Regardless of what you might think about the presidential refugee order, its rollout was clearly botched, thanks mostly to a president and staff that want to skip over all the boring parts of governing and get right to the good stuff. And it’s tempting to draw a contrast between the incumbent, who achieved his greatest success on reality television, and his predecessor, a detail-oriented introvert who once thought about becoming a novelist. (I’m also struck, yet again, by the analogy to L. Ron Hubbard. He spent most of his career fantasizing about a life of adventure, but when he finally got into the Navy, he made a series of stupid mistakes—including attacking two nonexistent submarines off the coast of Oregon—that ultimately caused him to be stripped of his command. The pattern repeated itself so many times that it hints at a fundamental aspect of his personality. He was too impatient to deal with the tedious reality of life during wartime, which failed to live up to the version he had dreamed of himself. And while I don’t want to push this too far, it’s hard not to notice the difference between Hubbard, who cranked out his fiction without much regard for quality, and Heinlein, a far more disciplined writer who was able to consciously tame his own natural impatience into a productive role at the Philadelphia Navy Yard.)

R.H. Blyth

Which brings us back to the sentence that impressed Disraeli. It’s easy to interpret it as an admonition not to think about the future, which isn’t quite right. We can start by observing that it comes at the end of what The Five Gospels notes is possibly “the longest connected discourse that can be directly attributed to Jesus.” It’s the one that asks us to consider the birds of the air and the lilies of the field, which, for a lot of us, prompts an immediate flashback to The Life of Brian. (“Consider the lilies?” “Uh, well, the birds, then.” “What birds?” “Any birds.” “Why?” “Well, have they got jobs?”) But whether or not you agree with the argument, it’s worth noticing that the advice to focus on the evils of each day comes only after an extended attempt at defining a larger set of values—what matters, what doesn’t, and what, if anything, you can change by worrying. You’re only in a position to figure out how best to spend your time after you’ve considered the big questions. As the physician William Osler put it:

[My ideal is] to do the day’s work well and not to bother about tomorrow. You may say that is not a satisfactory ideal. It is; and there is not one which the student can carry with him into practice with greater effect. To it more than anything else I owe whatever success I have had—to this power of settling down to the day’s work and trying to do it well to the best of my ability, and letting the future take care of itself.

This has important implications for both writers and politicians, as well as for progressives who wonder how they’ll be able to get through the next twenty-four hours, much less the next four years. When you’re working on any important project, even the most ambitious agenda comes down to what you’re going to do right now. In On Directing Film, David Mamet expresses it rather differently:

Now, you don’t eat a whole turkey, right? You take off the drumstick and you take a bite of the drumstick. Okay. Eventually you get the whole turkey done. It’ll probably get dry before you do, unless you have an incredibly good refrigerator and a very small turkey, but that is outside the scope of this lecture.

A lot of frustration in art, politics, and life in general comes from attempting to swallow the turkey in one bite. Jesus, I think, was aware of the susceptibility of his followers to grandiose but meaningless gestures, which is why he offered up the advice, so easy to remember and so hard to follow, to simultaneously focus on the given day while keeping the kingdom of heaven in mind. Nearly every piece of practical wisdom in any field is about maintaining that double awareness. Fortunately, it goes in both directions: small acts of discipline aid us in grasping the whole, and awareness of the whole tells us what to do in the moment. As R.H. Blyth says of Zen: “That is all religion is: eat when you are hungry, sleep when you are tired.” And don’t try to eat the entire turkey at once.

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.

The kingdom of leaven

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The Parable of the Leaven by Jan Luyken

Last month, at the church that my wife and I attend in Oak Park, the pastor delivered a sermon on a passage from the First Epistle to Timothy, which I can only assume was intended to make his overwhelmingly liberal congregation uncomfortable:

I exhort therefore, that, first of all, supplications, prayers, intercessions, and giving of thanks, be made for all men; for kings, and for all that are in authority; that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all goodness and honesty. For this is good and acceptable in the sight of God our savior, who will have all men to be saved, and to come unto knowledge of the truth.

He followed this with a prayer that invoked both presidential candidates by name, asking that they be granted wisdom and strength, regardless of the outcome of the election. After the service, my wife said to me: “I don’t want to pray for Donald Trump.” I responded, a bit lamely, that I had to give the pastor credit for delivering a message that the majority of his congregants probably didn’t want to hear. But I didn’t disagree with her. And it’s a point worth raising again today, when well-meaning calls for the country to come together are being opposed by voices that argue, unanswerably, that it’s hard to ask the groups that are most vulnerable right now—minorities, immigrants, the LGBT community—to preemptively forgive and embrace their oppressors.

So what would Jesus do? When we honestly ask this of ourselves, the answers don’t become any easier, and perhaps they shouldn’t. But it’s an important question. I’m agnostic, and I go to church mostly for the sake of my wife and daughter, but I also spend more time thinking about the words of Jesus than I do of any other religious figure or philosopher, if only because they reward extended reflection. My usual gateways are The Five Gospels, in which the Jesus Seminar valiantly attempts to separate the authentic sayings from material that has accrued or been deliberately added over time, and the work of the scholar R.H. Blyth, who saw Jesus as an exemplar of the life of Zen. This approach is unavoidably skewed, a view through a particular lens, but that’s also something that we all do. The fact that evangelicals voted overwhelmingly for Trump tells me that they’re picking and choosing, too, and that they’re acting according to the subset of the Bible that they find most congenial to their needs. I don’t have any qualms about doing the same thing. In part, it’s because it consoles me, but it’s also because I refuse to allow the religious right and their opportunistic allies to claim Jesus for themselves. On some level, we’re all editing the text, taking the parts that we need and leaving the rest. For instance, I doubt that my pastor would have gotten the same response from the crowd if he had gone just a few verses further in his text and read: “Let the woman learn in silence with all subjection. But I suffer not a woman to teach, nor to usurp authority over the man, but to be in silence.”

The Parable of the Mustard Seed by Jan Luyken

And when I turn to what seem like the original words of Jesus, or at least the ones that might plausibly have been preserved through a purely oral tradition, there are two that stand out for our present moment. The first is “Love your enemies.” The second is “Give to the emperor what belongs to the emperor, give to God what belongs to God.” Neither is a particularly easy saying, but they both arise from the same set of concerns. As I’ve written elsewhere, I prefer to see Jesus as the ultimate pragmatist. If you believe that the kingdom of heaven is something that is happening right now, it has a way of focusing your priorities. Hating your enemies is a waste of time and energy. If you’re ruthlessly practical about it, you find that it makes more sense to love them. Similarly, from the perspective of the truly destitute, the beggars who are beneath even the ordinary poor, it doesn’t matter who rules. It certainly doesn’t change the way they ought to act. Jesus of Nazareth, the historical figure, would be utterly indifferent to political outcomes. That seems clear enough. But part of me also resists it. Taken literally, it appears to advocate passivity, acceptance, and a surrender to the idea that everything is part of a larger plan. Maybe it is—but it’s worth remembering that this plan can also include our reactions to it, in pockets of opposition, big and small, that take place far from the circles of power. And it doesn’t speak much to those who are honestly afraid right now. So you’ll forgive me if I push past the obvious answer, even if I suspect that it’s probably true, and dig deeper for something that gives me what I need.

I’m going to close my thoughts on this awful week, then, with the idea of the kingdom of heaven itself. Jesus talks about it endlessly, but he never says explicitly what it is. Instead, he speaks in parables, which are ultimately the only way in which it can be described. And what strikes me the most about the kingdom of heaven, as reconstructed from the sayings that we have the greatest reason to regard as genuine, is how modest and everyday it is. In the original version of the parable of the mustard seed, for example, it’s a tiny seed that grows into a weedy little shrub. It’s only much later, in versions that were designed to make this disconcertingly humble analogy seem more conventionally impressive, that it gets inflated into “the greatest of shrubs,” or a majestic tree in which the birds of heaven build their nests. But the underlying image is that of a common plant that grows underfoot and can’t be eradicated. And in both Matthew and Luke, it’s followed by the most beautiful parable that we have, as well as one of the strangest:

The kingdom of heaven is like leaven which a woman took and hid in three measures of flour, till it was all leavened.

I may not know what the kingdom of heaven means, but I think that we get very close to it here. It’s invisible. Like leaven, or yeast, it’s something that the unthinkingly devout dismiss as impure, unclean, or sinful. It does its work in hiding. And it happens in the hands of a woman.

Written by nevalalee

November 11, 2016 at 9:04 am

Zen and the art of Pippi Longstocking

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Pippi Longstocking

A few weeks ago, I picked up a copy of Pippi Moves In! by Astrid Lindgren and Ingrid Vang Nyman, which is the first English-language collection of the comic strip featuring Pippi Longstocking. The strips were originally published in the Swedish children’s magazine Humpty Dumpty in the late fifties, a decade after Lindgren’s novels appeared, and although they caught my eye mostly because I hoped they would amuse my daughter, I haven’t been able to stop thinking about them since. In the first strip, we’re introduced to a pair of ordinary children, Tommy and Annika, who live next door to an empty house in the village of Villa Villekulla. “It’s so stupid that nobody lives there,” Annika says. One night, Pippi Longstocking moves in, and when we first see her, she’s casually lifting a horse over her head. (“Nobody can lift a horse!” Annika exclaims. “I can,” Pippi replies.) “Tommy and Annika don’t know it yet,” the narrator continues, “but she’s the strongest in the world.” Pippi lives by herself, with a suitcase of gold coins left by her absent father, and she immediately befriends the two kids, giving them presents—including “a nice dagger with a mother-of-pearl hilt” for Tommy—before telling them to come back to visit her again soon. The ensuing stories are charming in themselves, but the more I read them, the deeper they become. In fact, Pippi is nothing less than a perfect example of the life of Zen, as outlined by R.H. Blyth in Zen in English Literature and Oriental Classics. Zen is notoriously hard to define, and the best you can do is learn to recognize it, like Judge Potter Stewart said of pornography, when you see it. Then you just point and say: “There it is.”

And there’s a lot of it here. Take Pippi’s two most salient qualities—her strength and her wealth. She’s the strongest girl in the world, but she never resorts to violence for its own sake, and she only uses her strength to gently reprimand unlikable adults, like the man she finds beating his horse. (“Keep out of it,” the man says, “or else I might beat you too.” Pippi quietly breaks his stick over her knees, and replies: “That won’t happen, because your stick is broken.”) Similarly, she blithely observes that she’s “as rich as a troll,” but she just uses her money to buy a store’s worth of candy to share with all the kids in the village. In other words, she has the kind of unthinking trust in her own limitless resources that only a child, or a Zen adept, possesses: she gives freely of everything, because she takes it for granted, and she knows that there’s plenty more where it came from. Freely given, it circles back around to the paradoxical freedom that comes from voluntary poverty and spiritual powerlessness, which become identical, in their inward sense of liberation, to the casual wealth and strength that Pippi possesses. In fact, Pippi works hard, and she’s always absorbed in what she’s doing. She’s a “thing-searcher” who gets to keep whatever she finds on the ground, including “gold nuggets and ostrich feathers and dead rats and tiny little screws and things like that,” and she has to be dissuaded from laying claim to a drunk sleeping in a field, although it bothers her that someone else will come along to swipe him. Pippi concludes: “Just think how stupid people are. They are carpenters and shoemakers and chimneysweeps, but no one is ever a thing-searcher. And it’s such a great job.”

Pippi Longstocking

Pippi’s wisdom has many of the qualities of a Zen koan, with Tommy and Annika as her bewildered novices. When Annika asks why she has a horse on her porch, Pippi replies: “Well, he wouldn’t be happy in the living room, and he’d just get in the way in the kitchen.” After being told that she can’t mix pancake batter with a bath brush, she says: “Of course I can!” When she finds a large tin can, she puts it on her head to pretend that it’s the middle of the night, and then tumbles over a fence. She sits up and says: “Imagine if I wasn’t wearing this can! I might have fallen on my face and really hurt myself.” When a teacher asks why she’s drawing on the floor instead of on paper, she sensibly replies that it’s the only way she’ll have room to draw her entire horse, and then she lies down for a nap. (As Blyth notes: “That is all religion is: eat when you are hungry, sleep when you are tired.”) Then there’s this classic exchange, after Pippi and her friends have gotten shipwrecked for fun on an island in the lake, and she dictates a message in a bottle:

Pippi: “Here’s what to write: ‘Help us before we perish. We’ve been pining away for two days on this island without any snuff.’”
Tommy: “I can’t write that!”
Pippi: “Why not? We don’t have any snuff, do we?”
Annika: “No, but we don’t use snuff.”
Pippi: “Exactly. That’s why we don’t have any. Just write what I said.”

I don’t think Lindgren was out to create anything more than wonderful entertainment, but whenever an author manages to write honestly and unsentimentally from the point of view of a child, and honors the logic of childhood, the result is a glimpse into the heart of Zen: it’s why we’re told that we have to become like little children to enter the kingdom of heaven. We see this in the Alice books, and in the Artful Dodger of Oliver Twist, of whom Blyth observes: “What seems to be at first impudence rises with an influx of energy into an identification of himself with the whole machinery of the Law.” But Pippi’s nearest relative is Don Quixote. As Blyth writes: “[Don Quixote] is in a state of muga, a state in which he himself is nothing, he seeks nothing for himself, his personality is always dissolved in the valor and glory of the action itself.” You could say much the same about Pippi, except that she succeeds where Don Quixote fails, even as they both embody what Blyth calls “entire engrossment, conscious and unconscious, in what one is doing.” (He writes sadly: “We ourselves, as we read the book, have an underlying sense of shame that our lives are directed to the acquisition of all the things Don Quixote so rightly despised.”) As it happens, Zen in English Literature and Oriental Classics, which has been out of print for decades, has recently been reissued at last in an affordable paperback edition, and I’d encourage everyone to get a copy: it’s close to my favorite book in the world. But you would do just as well if you only bought Pippi Moves In!

A revision of experience

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Kobayashi Issa

However spontaneous such poems may seem, we know that a great many of them were the result of arduous toil…Issa is well known, in spite of his fluency and the large number of verses he produced, to have revised his poems over months and years, for instance, the following:

Waveringly,
A huge firefly
Passes by.

This verse is the result of many revisions, but the final version appears artless and the work of a moment. This revision of verse is a revision of experience. The experience had matured in the words of the haiku so that he came to know what he should have wanted to say.

R.H. Blyth, Haiku

Written by nevalalee

November 14, 2015 at 7:30 am

My great books #3: Zen in English Literature and Oriental Classics

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Zen in English Literature and Oriental Classics

Note: I’m counting down my ten favorite works of nonfiction, in order of the publication dates of their first editions, and with an emphasis on books that deserve a wider readership. You can find the earlier installments here.

Like many young people of a certain disposition, I used to entertain a fantasy of giving away my possessions, leaving home, and traveling the world with nothing but what I could comfortably carry on my back. These days, that dream seems very remote: if nothing else, having children makes it much harder to justify. And even when I was “male, unmarried, and well-connected,” as E.B. White tartly characterized the ideal reader of Thoreau, there was one big barrier in my way: I couldn’t bear to leave all my books behind. If nothing else, though, I’ve always known which book I’d take with me if I were limited to just one: Zen in English Literature and Oriental Classics by R.H. Blyth. Most readers might not recognize the title, but this little book has a lot to recommend it. My tattered paperback copy is small enough to fit into even the tiniest backpack. Along with so much else, it’s the most interesting anthology of poetry and prose, both eastern and western, that I’ve ever encountered. It’s a mine of insights and ideas that never cease to reward contemplation, no matter how many times we’ve studied them before. And of all the books I’ve read, it comes closest to expressing my own philosophy of life, which has less to do with Zen itself than with the quirky, peculiar amalgam that Blyth offers us here. His version of Zen has sometimes been called “limited,” but it’s less interesting as an objective exposition of existing doctrines than as a primary text in itself, as channeled through its author’s specific experiences, tastes, and prejudices.

R.H. Blyth himself was a fascinating figure, an Englishman who went to Japan before the war and never left, and whose work was largely responsible for introducing haiku to the west. Zen in English Literature is his masterpiece, an eccentric, sometimes ornery series of meditations backed by the poems of Bashō and the plays of Shakespeare. I don’t always agree with his aesthetic pronouncements—he despises Coleridge, whom I adore, and I’ve never been able to work up his degree of enthusiasm for Wordsworth—but the conclusions that he draws from the evidence are constantly rattling around in my brain. (His discussion of voluntary poverty, for instance, is the best I’ve ever found: Blyth describes it as “a form of safety first, a kind of fire insurance by burning down the house.”) It was one of the few books I brought with me on a recent visit to see my dying grandfather, and Blyth’s words on death and loss, while not exactly consoling, are indispensable. In the very last lines of the book, he 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.

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