Tetsugen

If books and writings cannot supersede indirect or intuitive understanding, at least at the apex of reason and intellect, then what are the sources of this understanding? The transmission of Zen in the example of the previous post has its equivalent in every culture and tradition. The intuitive traditions do not reject reason. Rather, the intuitive traditions are constructed around the assumption that reason will be exhausted before it will have approximated that understanding that gives equanimity and peace.

The existential and human condition gives latitude for the individual’s sense of what Shunryn Suzuki describes as “activity which is completely burned out, with nothing remaining but ashes.” It is not a book which is burned (as in the story cited in the previous post) but the self in activity. This sounds inimical to the solitary, activity refers to everything we do or are, all at once. Burning oneself out, right down to ashes, is a radical image, but not incompatible with solitude.

This proposition of intuitive understanding of what we are to do is the giving over entirely to a perceived or intuited reality, regardless of where it leads. For wherever it leads is within the bounds of reasonableness and the fullness of meaning intuited by right-mindedness. It is, necessarily human, for we cannot be anything else. But it is not restricted in the same way that humans are who get their cues from society and culture. It is not action that is rash but the dogged pursuit of what can be done given the insight one has gotten. And this insight transcends social expectations, challenges, shames, and gives meaning. We have the familiar but defying example of the bodhisattva to point to this path. But here is a more tangible example:

In the days when only Chinese texts existed in Japan, Tetsugen decided to have the sutras printed in Japanese characters. This would be a great undertaking, as it involved making all of the wooden blocks for the printing and then the production and distribution of 7,000 books.

Tetsugen began traveling about and collecting the funds. He received a few coins at a time, but thanked each donor. After ten years he had sufficient funds. Just then a terrible flood swept the region and famine followed. Everyone was homeless and hungry. Tetsugen used all the funds he had collected to alleviate the suffering. Soon he was penniless.

Tetsugen began collecting funds again. After many years he had collected what he needed. Just then a pestilence swept the land. Many suffered and were left bereft. Tetsugen spent the money he had collected to alleviate the suffering. Soon he was penniless.

A third time, Tetsugen began collecting money for his project. After twenty years he had collected what he needed. The wooden blocks were commissioned and the books produced and distributed. It is said that Tetsugen made three sets of sutras, but it is the first two that surpassed the third and will be remembered.

Books & writings

Books and writings can be a hindrance or an aid. In today’s world where nearly everyone is alienated from nature and natural experiences and where culture is irredeemable (but it always has been, you will object), there is no substitute to awareness and learning. This does not mean that we become intellectuals or become dependent on them; only that we must read sufficiently in order to choose wise habits and share conversation with wise people of the past.

Our reading must be as edifying as encountering someone we might have met a thousand years ago or more. We must feel as compelled as if we had spent a lifetime in a mountain or forest or desert or cave. The wrong books, like the wrong people, are a waste of time and a hindrance on our path. That said, we must understand what is meant by “wrong” in this context, just as we must understand what “right” means when we speak of right intentions or right livelihood.

Books and writing are not passive. They can fully engage our minds and give our hearts courage and kindness. Conversely, they can unsettle and distract from stillness. Books crowd the shelves and call out for attention. I don’t want to be obsessed with them, like the hapless protagonist of Elias Canetti’s Auto da fe. Anything can be turned into a vanity and an escape from self. Learning has no limit, but life, time, and circumstances insist on priorities to knowledge.

Today right books can be contrasted with the crowd, the relentless drumbeat of media, violent external thoughts and images, but also with our own thoughts that rise like dust motes undisciplined by the mind. Yet one must get past both books and anti-books, the conundrum of possessing and letting go. (And like St. Augustine, I will add “but not yet.”) Here is a Zen story that illustrates this paradox well.

The old master had but one successor. He gave his disciple a book passed down from master to master for seven generations, with his own annotations. “This book is very valuable,” said the old man solemnly. “I give it to you to represent your succession.”

The disciple demurred, saying that he had received the master’s Zen without writing, and had understood it. The master acknowledged his disciple’s achievement. After all, he was his successor. But the old man insisted on his accepting the book.

They talked a while longer. The disciple felt the book in his hand. Suddenly he threw it into a flaming brazier beside them. “What are you doing!” yelled the master, angry for the first time in his life. “What are you saying!” the disciple shouted back.

Simplicity

Simplicity is not the opposite of complexity, subtlety, or depth. Simplicity refers to a relationship with the external world. Simplicity is a detachment or disengagement from the values of the world. For the hermit or solitary, the consequences of this detachment or disengagement ripple through the more obvious and visible aspects of his or her external life, eventually touching and transforming the entirety of life. Encountering such a person will not automatically reveal his or her inner life. But the outer life will reflect the values of simplicity.

Hermits and solitaries throughout history have been ordinary people, but also scholars, poets, counselors, artists, and mystics. What they had in common was a sensitivity to self that could not abide the contortions of personality required by those who seek to engage society and the world in its fullest (i.e., its worst) sense. Simplicity undoes the knots, smooths the crooked, and makes visible the obscure. But it does so first for the hermit and solitary. To the world, it looks differently — at minimum a challenge, at most an affront to authority.

Simplicity is not naivety, primitivism, or innocence. The Rousseauan psychology of primitive peoples, as presented by the structuralist anthropology of Claude Levi-Strauss, for example, assumes good of the primitive and evil of the civilized. This premise has been adapted by many (including New Age advocates). It presents a hostility to thought, an anti-intellectualism, and a contrived notion of freedom that is based on myth and parable about primitivism. But none of this is simplicity.

Simplicity is not a frustration with the limitations of undisciplined human consciousness. Simplicity is not what Nietzsche properly called resentment — resentment at complexity, or even contrivance. Simplicity does not seek revenge, competition, conformity, or advocacy. Simplicity does not idealize because it does not see anything as completed but in a process, a natural course of being. Simplicity, therefore, does not even need archetypes, however useful, because simplicity is a condition inherent to a certain stage of being that has outlasted and survived archetypes. Myths, parables, and archetypes are useful learning tools, but — as the Zen saying goes — once we have seen the moon we no longer need to watch the finger pointing at it.

Simplicity does not try to recreate, visualize, or fantasize an ideal person. That person is not real, anymore than a painting of a person is alive. We know that any approximation to the ideal (we can still project one, for the sake of thinking and reflection) is going to be complex, tortuous, and filled with false paths. But this is not the portrait of the ideal, one of struggle and confusion. Simplicity is not the pursuit of an abstraction or ideal but the process of reaching the inner core (couer, “heart”) of meaning and being. Simplicity does so by discarding artifice, contrivance, presumed needs, desires. Simplifying life is like Michelangelo or Rodin removing from the stone what is unnecessary.

Life is an art and our efforts benefit (at a minimum) from reflecting on aesthetic principles. Achieving a kind of wabi-sabi of diurnal existence makes complexity subtle, makes shallowness deep, and makes solitude an embrace of everything. The Analects says (4.25): “Virtue never dwells alone; it will always have neighbors.”

Sugawara no Michizane

Over the course of many centuries, how many public souls have glimpsed the virtues of solitude and simplicity and sought to recluse themselves — and failed to do so for one reason or another?

Reclusion in the classical Chinese sense of being “in the family” was, from Confucius to the Tang era and beyond, a primary option (short of the solitude of the hermit). It is evident in China and Japan among the well-placed. They sensed the precariousness of their status and the suddenness of fortune’s change, while tugged at by the sentiments of family, privacy, and rest.

Sugawara no Michizane (845-903) was such a soul. He was a government official, highly titled, respected as a poet, court historian, and loyal bureaucrat. But after his six-year old son died suddenly, his perspective on things changed. One year he was at last granted a vacation — only a five-day leave was ever allowed. He stayed at home, observant of the household, attentive to his wife, his children, his garden, reflecting on departed friends. Too soon his leave was over.

I must leave and set out on the long road to the palace.
One sigh brings a sinking feeling in my belly,
a second sigh and tears begin to flow ….
Heaven is indifferent to my longings for leisure;
even at home I’m busy all the time.
Karma piled up from long ages past
keeps us coming and going in these bitter lives.

The death of his son had introduced him to bitterness. He wrote: “Since then I hate the gods and buddhas; better if they had never made heaven and earth.” Unexpectedly, Michizane found himself caught in a political trap at the palace. He fell from favor, stripped of title, and was removed from office. He was banished to a distant province and left impoversihed, allowed to be accompanied only by his two youngest children. His wife stayed behind and his older sons were banished to the opposite direction of the country.

Michizane worries about his impoverished wife. The past haunts him. Trivial memories set him into despondency. He thinks, for example, of his well-tended bamboos breaking in winter cold and how they would have made nice writing slips and fishing poles. He writes:

How unbearably happy life might have been!
No matter how many times I say it, it’s useless now.
It only brings more tears and sighs.

Michizane’s health breaks quickly from malnutrition and the effects of weather. His hovel of a hut leaks cold rain. His clothes are always wet. His single precious box of books and letters is ruined. He is always hungry and cold. His body is weak, full of rashes and boils. “The shadows of sickness darken my whole body,” he writes.

A poem entitled “The Lamp Goes Out” turns out to be his last. Here it is in its entirety:

It was not the wind — the oil is gone;
I rue the lamp that will not see me through the night.
How difficult it is to make ashes of the mind, to still the body!
I rise and move into the moonlight by the cold window.

Sugawara no Michizane died several months later at 58.

Abraham (Faith III)

Kierkegaard is the modern architect of the riddle of faith. Deriding the pulpiteers and professors for their portraits of easy assent, Kierkegaard shows that faith is ultimately an enormous leap across a chasm, with no assurance that one will reach the other side intact. This notion launches existentialism, with the further proviso that we don’t know that there really is another or reachable side of the chasm.

Kierkegaard shows that fear, dread, and angst haunt the individual. We are aware that assent to existing culture and society is easy but dishonest. We are aware today — in a way that previous centuries were not — that society and culture do not take into account the individual as an immediate existent person, a unique consciousness with a potential to go in any direction. The individual is still seen as a unit of society, a necessary dependency. What highlights this unease more than literary dystopia and reflections on technology and mass culture?

Kierkegaard’s paragon of existential situations is the Old Testament Abraham. You probably know the story: gone to a foreign land, Abraham is promised by God that he will father a great people, but he remains childless through advancing age until a son Isaac is born to him. But then God demands of Abraham that he offer his son as a sacrifice, that he kill him.

This is to be the test of his faith, his worthiness, according to traditional belief, but for Kierkegaard this is the height of anti-rational propositions. And Abraham says nothing one way or another, an infuriating silence suggesting either enormous faith or enormous fear and dread.

Abraham obeys, and at the last moment, is told by God to hold back, that he has passed the test. Is this reality a test of obedience or of faith? What does it tell us about the content of faith versus reason? How can such a demand be reconciled with logic?

As cultural anthropology, the story may signify the end of ritual human sacrifice. Or as a story of origins, it may signify the worthiness of Abraham to be an exemplar father-figure and archetype to his people. Whether the subtext of logic and rationality was understood by its ancient composers, however, is not clear. For the religious authorities of Kierkegaard’s and our time, it is just data to be assimilated and accepted.

But for Kierkegaard, the story is urgent and oppressive, for it is the heart of the individual’s decision-making. Kierkegaard understands Abraham’s ordeal as representing the perpetual angst and dread that all notions of faith represent. Furthermore, Abraham’s faith-affirmation requires a material reward. He has accepted the wager, that the promise of a great successor nation based on his progeny Isaac will somehow be made true. His faith is utterly unreasonable in the worldly and human sense. Not so, perhaps, for God, who can undo anything, play with omnipotence like a game. But for the existentialist, the demand is absurd, immoral, unqualified.

Abraham’s successor will be the somewhat different figure of Job, but Job too, for all his sufferings on God’s behalf, will have to expect a material reward if faith is to have meaning and logic. In the story, God restores Job’s land and possessions and children as surely as he gives Abraham his son. Hence the necessity, too, given the “theologic” (God’s logic) of Jesus’ resurrection — the material reward is necessary to validate faith.

No wonder that modern demythologizing and scholarship overthrow everything that faith assumes about God. The material reward betrays the spiritual nature of the relationship, reduces it to mere anthropomorphism. But Kierkegaard, the Christian, is already aware of this possibility, and knows that everything will depend on the individual and the subjectivity, on nothing external or objective.

To Kierkegaard faith is not given or inherited but a leap of the individual. There is no other way to reconcile the material and the spiritual, the rational and the spiritual. Still, the irrationality of faith is not fideism to him, as it might be to a milder and more skeptical personality like Montaigne or even Unamuno. Fideism accepts the complete unreasonableness of the tenets of faith and so accepts faith “just because” — which is really a quietism or a resigned acceptance of the dominance of culture and social mores. That is the posture of the pulpit and pew as much as the skeptic who must still function within the strictures of society and institutions. By rejecting fideism, Kierkegaard presents an existential insight that will not dodge the content of faith.

Other traditions have wrestled with the same issue of whether the irrationality of belief propels faith to a sacrosanct position — or simply makes it absurd. When Krishna tries to convince Arjuna that war and violence are just another veil and that he must carry out his duty in the world regardless, Arjuna may have been as shocked as Abraham should have been, but neither figure is presented that way by the writers because they want conformity to an authoritative interpretation of reality as being beyond human comprehension. Arjuna should be suffering the angst of Kierkegaard and not the blind faith of Abraham. But Arjuna must take the leap of faith, too, and with no material reward to boot except, perhaps the conventional Hindu concept of reincarnation.

Like the scriptural heaven and the conventional forms of reincarnation and metempsychosis, the substitute material rewards to Abraham and Job are part of an outcome that wants to point to a happy ending, not a tragic sense of life. The world condemns enough people to sacrifice their possessions, loved ones, and futures with no expectation of peace or serenity, let alone reward. Worldly contentment seems a natural goal of human beings but they subconsciously know it is a false promise.

To accept the leap of faith, the factors must be motivating enough to allow acceptance of the destruction of one’s material life and conditions, reinforcing the constant wager that is life. We know the mathematical odds.

Pascal’s wager was the notion that if God existed and the system of reward and punishment was true, then he (Pascal) must conform to a way of life that was at once personally satisfying while at the same time “covering” himself for what reason could not prove and his faith could not convince, i.e., God’s judgment. But Pascal’s rational caution would probably not have brought him to the point of killing his son (if he had had one) like Abraham or strapping up for war and violence like Arjuna. Pascal’s caution tempers the excesses of authority and power, while giving the individual room to explore issues of faith and reason. But the gamble still flies into the teeth-gritting face of angst.