Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Mount TBR #41

I read this book for the Mount TBR Reading Challenge hosted over at My Reader’s Block from January 1 – December 31, 2015. The challenge is to read books that you already own.

Zen and Zen Classics, Volume I General Introduction from the Upanishads to Huineng - R. H. Blyth, 1960

Blythe was a degree-free scholar who studied, thought, and wrote about the influence of Zen on Japanese literature and mode of life. His books on Haiku had great influence on the Beats. His Zen in English Literature and Oriental Classics has a devoted following from Alan Watts to Steward Brand. His life and times were endlessly interesting: a vegetarian when that was whacky; a conchy that went to jail during WWI; an English teacher in colonized Korea for a decade; enemy alien interned in Japan during the war; staffer with MacArthur during the Occupation; tutor to the Crown Prince who is now Emperor of Japan;  dead suddenly, too young  at 66, in 1964 in Tokyo.

But he has received zilch attention from scholars probably because he was an amateur scholar. Everything he knew about Zen was from reading in the original Chinese and Japanese and from talking to luminaries like Daisetzu Suzuki. Another strike against him is that he wrote books on a topic sedulously avoided by academics, humor - Oriental Humour, Edo Satirical Verse Anthologies, Senryu: Japanese Satirical Verses and Japanese Humour.

Anyway, as the title implies, this book has history. Interesting but I found rather bewildering the parade of Indian and Chinese sutra titles, the splattering of Chinese characters across the pages, and names given in both Chinese and Japanese forms.  He also had a tendency to make sweeping generalizations about why certain races developed or didn’t develop Buddhism one way or the other - in other words, generalities that we would not tolerate even in a freshman composition.

Blyth didn’t intend to write a handbook but I got much out of treatments of human and cosmic transience, and the physical dimension of existence. As Marcus Aurelius argued, death, transience, and health loom as unavoidable aspects of our lives but because they are outside the scope of human agency, they had better to taken as  matters of indifference. Wealth and reputation, it goes without saying, are not so much objects of scorn and contempt as objects of amused derision or icy compassion.

The universe is a framework for our development. Zen, for instance, is about getting over yourself by practicing an accomplishment such as karate, flower arrangement, tea ceremony, calligraphy. We had better let go of control in order to gain control. Trust that the universe will do what it will do. Let go of discriminating with shoulds, musts, and outtas. Then, with the ego submerged, extending that no-mind to work or love or raising kids or being incarcerated. So much is out of control, but knowing what we do control will make us free. As Marcus A says,

One type of person, whenever he does someone else a good turn, is quick in calculating the favour done to him. Another is not so quick to do this; but in himself he thinks about the other person as owing him something and is conscious of what he has done. A third is in a sense not even conscious of what he has done, but is like a vine which has produced grapes and looks for nothing more once it has produced its own fruit, like a horse which has run a race, a dog which has followed the scent, or a bee which has made its honey. A person who has done something good does not make a big fuss about it, but goes on to the next action, as a vine goes on to produce grapes again in season. So you should be one of those who do this without in a sense being aware of doing so.

Still, Zen makes me uneasy. Its indifference to reason and leading a moral-ethical life (though I suppose Zen training could deepen its pursuit), its irrationality since explaining it in words is as exasperating as using words to understand it; getting good at Zen requires a teacher; and the Japanese influence has made the practice of Zen perfectionistic and, in the words of Alan Watts (I think), a marathon of self-torture.

No comments:

Post a Comment