East and West

T. D. Suzuki once contrasted East and West using a poem of Tennyson and a poem of Basho on the poet’s reaction to a flower. In Basho, the wonder and astonishment at the flower’s beauty and simplicity is a moment of enlightenment and revelation. In Tennyson, the poet wants to yank the flower from the crannied wall in order to scrutinize it and derive its secrets. As Suzuki notes, the Western world kills the flower in order to understand it. The Eastern poet want to become that living flower and in so doing understand the oneness of all things.

Today the typical Asian scientist, merchant, or politician is likely to think like a Westerner, Eastern culture being overthrown by the West in the past century and a half. Conversely, Eastern ideas have come to the West, but far more modestly and appealing quietly to our ethical and aesthetic sensibilities. It is not a matter of who will “win” but what is our own true nature.


In the middle of the night a rush of wind through the trees awakens me, as the chimes — the heavy copper ones — clang vigorously. Then, just as suddenly, everything is quiet again. The silence is a palpable presence, especially after observed noise, absorbing all sound. Silence is not “non-being.” The silence is like Basho’s frog at the edge of the pond, “absorbing” a passing moth. The normal state is silence, subjective, discrete, ever-present. In meditation, silence sits like Basho’s frog ready to pounce on a thought. And depending on its mood, silence can quietly absorb the thought for us like a courtesy, or shout “Aha!” and jump into the pond with a “plop!”

Amish and “plain” Quakers

Amish and “plain” Quakers are representative of what one observer (referring to Catholic religious orders, however) calls “corporate solitude.” The Amish and plain Quakers form a society in the corporate sense but practice “solitude” or voluntary social disengagement in the larger context of the country in which they reside. The content of their religious beliefs is both a source of internal cohesion and external separation. However, this disengagement is viable not only because of the sectarian beliefs that separate the groups from the mainstream (physical way of life, rejection of state authority) but also because of the presumed tolerance of the society around them. This is the same factor that has been the bane of hermits and eremites throughout history and throughout the world: the attitude of others not embracing their vision of life. The ideal has always been to find not only tolerance or even acceptance but a positive attitude from the larger society, as in traditional Hindu India or ancient China or desert Egypt. In the case of the Amish and plain Quakers, perhaps no successful equivalent exists in history, but the sense of tolerance from the larger society is a necessary and tenuous element in their successful “solitude.”


Some years ago, media told us about hikikomori, the extreme social withdrawal among young (and not so young) males in Japan. Their behavior — not coming out of their rooms or going out — both frightens and embarrasses their parents. But at least hikikomori is considered of social and economic as much as strictly psychological factors. In this sense it is not unique to Japan or to males.
On personal and community blogs, agoraphobia and other phobias are freely acknowledged by participants, and they want to share honestly feelings and support. Phobias and hikikomori may have as much to do with positive alienation (a la R. D. Laing) from a corrupt, aimless, and amoral culture. What Sartre’s “Nausea” title suggested for a previous generation. In this frame of mind, there often seems a potential to follow an authentic life of simplicity as much as any evidence of what society may label as mental disease. The desert fathers, the sadhus of India, the Japanese mendicant-poet hermits, the Chinese mountain hermits and so many other eremites all may have shared this sort of positive alienation and a touch of universal insight … a touch of what has been boxed into the labels of hikikomori and agoraphobia.


A frog occupies the old plastic rain gauge by the gate. The rain gauge is a faded translucent yellow, cracked at a point where rain never reaches anyway, hung on a rusty nail and nearly forgotten. But something at the top opening of the gauge caught our attention one dusk while returning from a walk. The frog sat at the top, surveying the approaching night. During warm days he abandons the gauge and hides himself elsewhere, but on cooler days he sits at the bottom, relatively safe, dreaming of night and wondering if it will rain a little to make his new cell that much more comfortable.