Tagore on death

Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941) wrote essays, plays, stories, and poems, all of which gather a mature Hindu philosophy of life into a cornucopia of lyric depth and expression. Yet the death poems are especially attractive, perhaps because they reflect deep emotional links to far-flung cultures and peoples everywhere. Death is universal but reflections on death must be likewise in order to reach the standards of art and ring authentic. In the death poems, Tagore adds an existential dimension that other writings need not have. We want to read the soaring and beautiful Sadhana on a different plain, and the pungent dramas and lyric poems. These are like simple flowers gazed upon as for the first time on a trodden path. Not so the death poems.

Lyricism marks the death poems, reflective of similar efforts of poets and artists treating this theme. The poems are not, however, like like the famous Japanese death poems, intended as ultimate statements in short rasping verse, sharp and riddling the complacent mind. Tagore is lyrical always, but as deft and serene as a storm-tossed craft that can move and shift with each change of fortune.

One set is titled On the Shores of Eternity, assembled by Deepak Chopra. The poems are scatterings of Tagore, like identifiable leaves from throughout his career. Chopra wants to show how Tagore saw life and death as partners, as friends, as lovers, as intimate sides of a single reality. Here Tagore sees death as an intrigue, an expectation, a piquancy, and awaits it with anticipation, if not joy. How can Tagore maintain such aplomb? This familiarity comes from meditation and silence. Says Chopra:

He went to the core of inner silence. What did this silence tell him? First it made him aware that death is always stalking us, every moment of our lives, not as an enemy but as part of the Unknown that surrounds existence. You have only to look over your shoulder to see that death is a little closer than the last time you looked. Having faced this fact, should you live in perpetual anxiety? For Tagore this knowledge made life magical, because he was forced to change his priorities. ‘Things that I longed for and things that I pursued, let them pass away,’ Tagore writes. ‘Instead let me truly possess what I overlooked and ignored.’

But while many of the poems here do reflect an optimism, even triumphalism, about death, not all do, and that is redemptive for the average reader who cannot share this confidence nor climb Tagore’s heights, or at least cannot always keep up with him. Indeed, the somber rings truer, as if philosophical or religious tenets have evaporated, cleared the mist before us, revealing, unveiled, our lone sentiments. Tagore often speaks of the flower, the flower that is born and cries out to the world “Do not fade away.” Or of the tears of grief that water our days, but like earth’s rains, give life to the flower. Or of the lowly fireflies that say to the stars that one day the light of the stars will fail, and the stars listen and do not reply.

Here is the poem to which Chopra alluded, “The Stars Look On”:

The day will come
When the sight of this earth will be lost
I will take my leave in silence
As the stars look on

I know the sun will rise again
The hours will still bring pleasure and pain
In heaving waves.

When I think of the end, time crumbles
I see by the light of death
That the lowliest existence is rare
And the worst moments are precious

What I longed for will be set aside
The things I pursued in vain —
Let them pass
Let me turn
To things I overlooked
And carelessly threw away
To possess them truly until they are mine

As the stars look on.

But it is in Tagore’s final poems that the economy of expression deepens and the sense of immediacy prevails. This set is a collection by Wendy Barker and Saranindranath Tagore (Rabindranath’s nephew) is titled simply Rabindranath Tagore: Final Poems. They are the poems of his final year. He writes of the sickbed, the pain, the weakness, the bleakness, the solitude. But Tagore grasps at the core of what is happening, if not seizing the mystery itself, exploring it without fear or dissembling. Images of night abound: “deep-night interior,” “ancient dark-swept night,” “long painful night,” “an ashen moment of dusk,” “cruel night.” And daytime is never the same as when he walked in the fields or orchards. All is quiet now in languorous days. Tagore the artist is even so ever vigilant of self, and just as he recorded in poetry the very process of living, he records faithfully the process of dying.

From time to time I feel the moment for travel has come.
On the day of leaving, cast a veil
of humble sunset-glaze.
Let the time to leave
be quiet, still. Let no pompous memorials
build the hypnosis of grieving.
Let the lines of trees by the departure door
bestow the tranquil chanting of earth
on quiet heaps of leaves.
Let night’s soundless blessing slowly descend,
iridescent offerings of the seven stars.

And always the container of day and night, of ebb and flow, of youth and dying. What does this cycle reveal? How do we extract its meaning — or is this an arrogance that belies the simplicity of the flowers and the stars …?

The first day’s sun
the new appearance of being —
Who are you?
There was no answer.

Years went by.
Day’s last sun
asked the last question from the shores of the west
in the soundless evening —
Who are you?
There was no answer.

Like all sages, Tagore shows us that the consciousness of death gives meaning to life — or, rather, gives us the opportunity to craft this meaningfulness, and to extend these values to everything around us. The flowers and the stars and the fireflies are not projections of ourselves, not alien works. They teach us about equanimity and the cycles of the universe. We have to pay attention to them more than to the preoccupations of society, culture, and the pursuits of the world.

Fukuoka and non-action

A practical application of non-action is the farming method of Masanobu Fukuoka (1913-2008). While farming is today viewed as a complex technological endeavor, Fukuoka shows that non-action, which is cooperation with nature, yields clean and healthy food in abundance; he called the method “natural” in contrast to traditional (tillage) and modern (chemical) methods.

This method completely contradicts modern agricultural techniques. It throws scientific knowledge and traditional farming know-how right out the window. With this kind of farming, which uses no machines, no prepared fertilizer and no chemicals, it is possible to attain a harvest equal to or greater than that of the average Japanese farm.

The virtue of natural farming is its deep-rootedness in a philosophy of nature derived from Taoism and Buddhism.

Although he studied agronomy and plant pathology, and worked as a technician witnessing farm methods, Fukuoka’s insight was based on his experience of the arrogance of modern scientists, technologists, and their political apologists. One day early in his career, a realization occurred that

completely changed my life. It is nothing you can really talk about, but it might be put something like this: ‘Humanity knows nothing at all. There is no intrinsic value in anything, and every action is a futile, meaningless effort.’

Although this conclusion seems negative and nihilistic, it responds to the pretensions to knowledge of science, technology, and modernity. It returned the young Fukuoka to a rich cultural heritage of philosophy and reflection. Then, one night, the young Fukuoka sat in a grove overlooking the harbor and awaiting the morning mist, in mental darkness and silence, when suddenly a heron cried out. The sound struck him like enlightenment.

My spirit became light and clear. I was dancing wildly for joy. I could hear the small birds chirping in the trees, and see the distance waves glistening in the rising sun. The leaves danced green and sparkling. I felt that this was truly heaven on earth. Everything that had possessed me, all the agonies, disappeared like dreams and illusions, and something one might call ‘true nature’ stood revealed. I think it could safely be said that from the experience of that morning my life changed completely.

Fukuoka quit his lab job and eventually returned to his father’s farm in the country. He worked on the farm but always questioned why human intelligence intervenes into the natural course of sentient and insentient beings to transpose its own ways. And because he was eventually growing grains and fruit trees, he questioned the farming methods based on assumptions of experts. He discovered that doing less, and arranging so that nature can take its best course, worked best. Not that hard labor was shunned but that it was reduced considerably, as was expense and environmental damage, by non-action.

Today Fukuoka’s method is usually called no-till, and has become the basis of permaculture. The “non-actions” of no cultivation or tillage, no fertilization or composting, no weeding by tillage or herbicide, and no chemicals nevertheless yield equal or better harvests of better tasting and healthier food. The notion of non-understanding means focusing attention completely on the natural process of plants, animals, microbes, sun, air, and water. The forest floor is a model biological cycle. “Simply serve nature and all is well,” writes Fukuoka. Careful observation saves time and effort while being as productive as any modern method.

Non-action has more lasting practical value:

Lao Tzu, the Taoist sage, says that a whole and decent life can be lived in a small village. Bodhidharma, the founder of Zen, spent nine years living in a cave without bustling about. To be worried about making money, expanding, developing, growing cash crops, and shipping them out is not the way of the farmer. To be here, caring for a small field, in full possession of the freedom and plenitude of each day, every day — this must have been the original way of agriculture.

Fukuoka goes further and characterizes natural farming as two methods: broad transcendent and narrow natural, which he puts into Buddhist terms:

Broad Mahayana natural farming arises of itself when a unity exists between man and nature. It conforms to nature as it is, and to the mind as it is. It proceeds from the conviction that if the individual temporarily abandons human will and so allows himself to be guided by nature, nature responds by providing everything. …

Narrow [Hinayana] natural farming, on the other hand, is pursuing the way of nature; it self-consciously attempts, by ‘organic’ or other methods, to follow nature. Farming is used for achieving a given objective. Although sincerely loving nature and earnestly proposing to her, the relationship is still tentative. … In terms of personal practice, this is fine, but with this way alone, the spirit of true natural farming cannot be kept alive. …

Pure natural farming, by contrast, is the no-stroke school. It goes nowhere and seeks no victory. Putting ‘doing nothing’ into practice is the one thing the farmer should strive to accomplish. Lao Tzu spoke of non-active nature, and I think that if he were a farmer he would certainly practice natural farming. I believe that Gandhi’s way, a methodless method, acting with a non-winning, non-opposing state of mind, is akin to natural farming. … The ultimate goal of farming is not the growing of crops, but the cultivation and perfection of human beings.

Fukuoka spent many decades on his small farm with his family, shunning cities and society, but he entertained groups of young people who would stay in huts on his mountainside property to work with him, learn his methods, and listen to his philosophizing. He developed a food mandala, and elaborated on natural diet based on the seasons, cherishing the wilder versions of modern vegetables and grains. He composed The One-straw Revolution (from which the quotes here are taken) and other books on natural farming that must be deemed classics today. Fukuoka wanted to articulate the idea of a human community based on “a village without war or peace,” ideas familiar to readers acquainted with Taoist and Buddhist classics and with the Tillers and Farmers movement in ancient China. Toward the end of his life, Fukuoka retired from work and lived in one of the huts on his mountainside overlooking his land, which he considered a “Garden of Eden.” From retirement he writes that

The way of natural farming is forever uncompleted. Nature can never be understood or improved upon by human effort. In the end, to become one with nature, to live with God, one cannot help others or even receive help from them. We can only walk our paths alone.

Even for anyone who has never farmed or gardened, knowledge of what is happening to food and, indeed, what constitutes food today, is absolutely incumbent upon us, as much as or more than an abstract intellectual knowledge. Food is the vital link to nature. Harmony with nature is best evidenced with what and how we grow as food. Fukuoka shows that philosophy is indeed bound up with daily practical life — or, rather, that practical daily life is intimately an aspect of philosophy and nature.

Zizek and non-action

Non-action is not indifference or sloth. It is not the retirement of Po Chu-i or the idleness of Kenko. It is not sloth or numbness. Non-action or wu-wei enters a sphere or cycle of energy, but the individual does not expend but rather utilizes the energy, the flow of energy around him or her. Non-action is therefore cooperation and harmony with natural cycles and flows of energy, not action in the sense of separate and deliberately autonomous assertions of ego and desire.

Non-action is found in curious places. The epilogue of popular thinker Slavoj Zizek’s recent book, Violence, reflects on the dilemma of what to do to bring about positive change in the social realm given the apparently innate and dogged presence of violence (which he explores throughout the book in many fascinating contexts). Zizek is a post-everything thinker — anti-postmodern, post-ideological, post-deconstructionist — and puts no credence in inherited structures, or at least has no expectation of benignity. He sees that modern society and technology have created monstrous structures that defy change or reform. His book studies modern violence as change expression, from war to revolution to state control and imperialism to psychological expression and cultural symbolism. What, really, is violence except a form of action and intentionality?

Zizek concludes that positive change is virtually impossible on any large scale because we have underestimated what violence is. Violence is not a single or one-sided expression but contextual. Action — regardless of its degree of violence or even non-violence — action itself is intrinsically violent. Even a smile can be more violent than a frown. But he is speaking primarily on a social plane, so we can follow his logic first at this social level, but it certainly has psychological implications, as will be seen. Zizek introduces his idea this way:

The lesson of the intrinsic relationship between subjective and systemic violence is that violence is not a direct property of some acts, but is distributed between acts and their contexts, between activity and inactivity.

Zizek offers an analogy from “one of the more unsettling notions in quantum physics”: the Higgs field.

Left to their own devices in an environment to which they can pass their energy, all physical systems will eventually assume a state of lowest energy. To put it in another way, the more mass we take from a system, the more we lower its energy, till we reach the vacuum state at which the energy is zero.

So far, so good. But the Higgs field is a hypothesized something from which we cannot take away anything “without RAISING that system’s energy” (emphasis Zizek). Thus the Higgs field appears even when the energy of a system is reduced to nothing. There is a system or something which is “lower” than nothing. It is more effort to reduce this something further than it is to stay at nothing.

In social terms, action (such as violence) is only perpetrated by systems with “something,” while actions against systems, states, and structures are intrinsically reactive and have no value, no efficacy. Even when they appear to have legitimacy or efficacy (as in social revolutions), something belies success and reasserts itself even though the opposed system seems to have been reduced to nothing, like Higgs field. Of course, what reassert themselves are essential human instincts and unconscious phenomena reasserted at a social level as power and structure, projected anew onto the subtleties of a social plane which is technically non-existent (given the argument that only individuals really exist).

In a crude analogy, the social “nothing” (the stasis of a system, its mere reproduction without any changes) “costs more than something” (a change), that is, demands a lot of energy, so that the first gesture to provoke a change in the system is to withdraw activity, to do nothing.

Zizek goes on to use the story in Jose Saramago’s novel Seeing as an illustration. In this novel, a populace does not vote for or against a candidate or plebiscite but submits blank ballots; it abstains from voting, from participation, from legitimizing. And it then goes about its daily life, parrying the maneuvers of the ruling powers “with a truly Gandhian level of non-violent resistance,” says Zizek.

Zizek notes that in psychoanalysis, repression (Verdrangung) is simultaneously an acceptance and a rejection. Repression gives credence or legitimacy to the object that disturbs it. More radical, however, is repudiation (Verwurfung), which does not grant legitimacy or being to the thing. Zizek quotes fellow-philosopher Alain Badiou’s assessment that action essentially recognizes what the powerful already know, and in effect gives them recognition and efficacy. “Better to do nothing,” concludes Zizek, “than to engage in localized acts the ultimate function of which is to make the system run more smoothly. … The threat today is not passivity but pseudo-activity. … The truly difficult thing is to step back, to withdraw.”

Although working in the political realm of thought, and with a preoccupation over how to change externals, Zizek’s remarks can nevertheless be helpful in understanding the historical non-action ideas of Taoism and Zen.

The core document for Taoism is Lao-tzu, where a formal presentation of the only legitimate form of power or kingship is in non-action, a guiding or orienting mechanism that brings each person into harmony with nature. Zen inherits non-action more so than any other Buddhist inheritance; in fact, it has been maintained that Zen is more properly a form of Taoism than Buddhism (as Ray Grigg argues in The Tao of Zen).

Non-action is the right tool because it unmasks activity and change for what they really are: a dissolution of personal and social energy and a constant disruption of the context of our reality. This foreground, represented as politics and social conflict in the focus of Zizek and others, can nevertheless be examined and understood, and can prompt withdrawal and non-action in its own way. The result may be a social application to the problem of how to live, but it can sustain a whole theory of appropriate social interaction. That is a first step, but even one which so many people will never take.