Saturday, November 25, 2006

Beneath a Single Moon 3: Mindfulness, not Religiosity

A little later on, we're going into the influence of Buddhism and Zen on the Beats in the 1950s. But for now, let's mention a historical note that many writers at that time were reading R.H. Blyth and D.T. Suzuki, especially on haiku and poetry. Though most of the Beats never produced haiku in the "pure" or aesthetically formal sense, they were deeply influenced by the focus and attention involved in creating haiku. This focus and attention is no doubt from Zen: the moment of epiphany, the ecstatic ordinary, mindfulness in everyday existence.

R.H. Blyth was not a literalist about Zen. He expanded his definitions of Zen, in his major work on the topic, Zen in English Literature and Oriental Classics, to claim that art is frozen Zen, and all of Thoreau is a haiku. (The overlap in subject matter and style between Thoreau and Basho has been remarked on before.)

I read Blyth early on, in my teens. I think his loose definition makes some people grind their teeth in a most un-Zen-like manner, but overall I think his intention was to point towards practicing mindfulness in all things, especially in the arts and in writing. Zen is, in Blyth's conception, a way of looking at the world with focused attention and total mindfulness. It is a Poet's Way.

It's wise to remember, here, that Blyth was one of the very first Western authors who became widely read on Zen by other Westerners, so his early literary influence was extensive; he was one of the first conduits for Zen studies between East and West. Does his brand of Zen still hold up, nowadays, with so much more Zen teaching now available in translation? I think it does, in terms of his basic conception, if not his specific liss of what is Zen and what is not. I think he was correct about Thoreau, who really was in some ways the one writer of his circle (the Concord Transcendentalists) who really "got it." Other Zen scholars since Blyth have tacitly agreed with Blyth's assessment of Thoreau, if not literally, than in spirit. Still, there was little else available when Blyth first published his works. Blyth was scholarly in that he quoted sources in their orginal languages. He was a learned and well-read man, with a solid poetic and philosophical standing.

I think Blyth's way is a valid way of looking at "open-field" Zen; not everyone has the time or inclination to sit zazen for many hours, or to be able to get away from life to do a long sesshin (a several-days long practice wherein people spend days in zazen and walking meditation), or become a full-time monk or priest. For the average lay practitioner, open-field Zen is a useful daily reminder to live life with mindfulness, and help one focus on what one is doing, right now, this moment, rather than letting the monkey mind chatter on endlessly about zillions of other things, as it is prone to do.

Traditional monastic Zen has many rules, formulations, and tropes of practice and technique. Open-field Zen, which is more what Blyth was promoting, is total mindfulness, all the time.Peeling an orange with mindfulness is the same path as chanting the Buddha's name. Anyone can practice this; you don't have to be a monk or priest, or take refuge in the Dharma (i.e. be specifically initiated into Buddhist practice), you don't have to live anywhere special, or do anything special. It's a mindset and worldview, and can be undertaken in parallel with any other activity.

The Japanese Zen scholar who is largely credited with introducing Zen to the West, D.T. Suzuki was a great teacher of Zen in America, but he was also of the "square Zen" or traditional and academic school. He wrote brilliantly about Zen, and was responsible for teaching artists like John Cage and others in New York, with the cultural ripple effects that spread out from there. Suzuki is also directly responsible for Thomas Merton's encounters with both Zen and Meister Eckhart; this is the encounter that woke Merton up, to become the mature mystic he later became. (Prior to that, he was a bit dry and classical and dogmatic.) But it's always necessary I think to remember that Suzuki came from academic studies, a professorial background which affected his approach to teaching. Within that, however, he managed to practice a Zen style of teaching that could bring his students towards satori while lectured: a dry-speaking imp, at times.

The argument is made that attaching Zen to haiku is like saying all Western poetry is based on Christianity. The argument is then made that poetry is words and images, not religion or belief-systems.

But one cannot divorce artistic product from the cultural context in which it is produced. (If an atheist wrote a poem about a girl and an apple, many people would still think about Eve in the Garden.) One cannot avoid the influence of "religion" in Japanese poetry—by "religion," we mean spiritual cultural context—whether one writes poetry influenced by Taoism, Zen, or Shinto, or the more esoteric Japanese Tantric sects. While there may be a reductionism in claiming that all haiku is zen, there is a similar reductionism in too absolutely claiming that all haiku is not Zen, either.

Zen in this broad (Blythian) sense mean mindfulness in general, and haiku is the poetic form that best captures that sensibility. You don't have to be a practitioner of Buddhism to realize that the Zen influence adds zing to haiku.

Furthermore, no-one said all Western poetry was influenced by Christianity—but only someone ignorant of the history of ideas would deny the fact that a great deal of it was. A great deal of Western poetry was also influenced by the ancient Greek and Roman gods, cults, and religions; the Renaissance revival of Hellenism was a secular revolt against Medieval Christianity, in some ways, but it had the side-effect of reintroducing so-called paganism back into the cultural mainstream. One can make a strong case for the influence of both Christianity and the Greeks to be the strongest threads influencing Western art and literature throughout their history. Throwing that all away is akin to throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

Similarly, no-one said all haiku was inflluenced by Zen; nor did I ever state that Zen was the only influence on haiku. But I do maintain that Zen was present there at haiku's inception, and that some of haiku therefore must have been influenced by it. The fact is, Buddhism and literature were blended together at that time, nad had been for centuries. I genuinely wonder if Basho would have made any distinction; I'd require some compelling evidence to be convinced that he might have. His travel journals are filled with references to, and haiku and haibun located at, numerous shrines, temples, and sacred pilgrimage sites, that he often went far out of his way to visit while on his journeys. That alone might indicate there was some involvement with Buddhism (and Shinto) going on, on Basho's part. By the time of Shiki's haiku revival some centuries after Basho, by that time there were no doubt other streams, including "purely aesthetic" or "purely literary" and non-Zen streams.

We're talking about historical influences here, not absolutes. Whatever haiku has become now, and whatever it will become, erasing its origins is reductionist, with far less evidence to back up the argument.

No one has to be religious to write poetry. I guess that needs to be said again: No one has to be religious to write poetry. I'm not religious myself, in any conventional sense of the word. But neither do I choose to ignore the history of literature, and pretend that literature has no history.

And, Zen is all about imagery and words. It's also about action, and reflection. It's about "the mind of poetry." Zen is all about seeing what's there right in front of you, unclouded by judgment or prejudice, and describing it, just as it is, without mental clutter.

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