Basho and Tennyson

D.T. Suzuki’s little 1957 essay “East and West” is one of the more succinct statements contrasting ways of thought and observing. To illustrate his point, Suzuki uses a poem of Basho and an equivalent poem by Tennyson. We learn something about poetry, culture, and mind in his little lesson.

Both poems speak of a flower. Here is Basho’s haiku:

When I look carefully
I see the nazuna blooming
By the hedge!

As Suzuki explains, the poet writes of a single moment, probably walking slowly along a garden lane and coming upon the beautiful flower peeking through the hedge. The sight elicits a moment of sheer joy, admiration, fascination. The poet reflects the Easterners’ closeness to nature, notes Suzuki, not simply the awe-inspiring setting of mountains, mighty seas, or splendid sunsets but the humblest manifestations such as a blade of grass, dewdrops, or a flower in a remote and unexpected place.

In contrast, there is Tennyson, whose short equivalent poem is well known:

Flower in the crannied wall,
I pluck you out of the crannies;–
Hold you here, root and all, in my hand,
Little flower — but if I could understand
What you are, root and all, and all in all,
I should know what God and man is.

Both poets have been impressed by a flower, but as Suzuki notes, Basho does not pluck it. He looks at it, nearly wordless, filled with a deep and full emotion. Tennyson plucks the flower out of the wall. He literally tears it out, the whole root, thus killing it. He must satisfy his analytical curiosity, even at the price of the flower. The scientific method par excellence. Tennyson then goes on talking about the flower, or, rather, talking about himself — and he goes on, and on.

Tennyson intellectualizes life experiences. Neither he nor the flower are God, nor man, but he isn’t clear how to go about his intellection, what he really expects to learn from this now-dying flower. He never lets on that the flower has any aesthetic quality that stirred him. The flower is a scientific conundrum, though one expects that something about it drew his initial interest.

At this point Suzuki can compare and contrast “two basic characteristic approaches to reality. Basho is of the East and Tennyson of the West.” One may object that the Easterner, especially today, is not immune to the intellectualizing and analytical frame of mind, or that among Westerners there are mystical and reflective souls. But these are often in spire of rather than because of their culture. The ascendancy of Western technology and materialism works feverishly to undermine, even destroy, Eastern culture and premises. Like Tennyson, the West yanks the flower of the East from its roots, from its lifeline, and so it dies.

Suzuki is considering a set of values, a persona of culture, a continuity of being. Not surprisingly, he can refer to Lao-tzu and Chuang-tzu as the core of that culture, just as he can refer to Basho and any number of Eastern poets to make the same point. To see the dying culture lying rootless before us is to fail to have seen the living, breathing flower that surprises us as we saunter down the bylanes of history, as we sit reflectively in the garden of time now torn down and scattered. We have so little time to try to understand.

Suzuki closes his short essay with an explicit list of contrasts, beginning with what Denis de Rougement pointed out as characteristic of the West: the person and the machine. Eastern philosophy has no need of the machine because the machine, any machine, usurps human functionality and quickly escalates into something that the person (that other Western invention) cannot control. The person is burdened by responsibility, celebrated as free and individual, but there is no compartment of life where the person really is free — free that is, from machines, which in fact are made explicitly to assure that persons are not free. As Suzuki puts it:

The machine, behaviorism, the conditioned reflex, Communism, artificial insemination, automation generally, vivisection, the H-bomb — they are, each and all, most intimately related, and form close-welded solid links of a logical chain.

And that chain is intellection in the Western sense of science, politics, culture, and structure. When the West encounters chaos, paradox, and the nameless forces in the universe from stars to flowers, it creates concepts and theories to explain them, even calling the theories and concepts inexplicable and tentative. What is needed is to stop the concepts and intellection and technology that is destroying the world and wiping out cultures and to simply see what is right before us.