Saturday, June 16, 2012

The almost infinitesimal trails of thought that flash and flash

I went swinning with the daughters today at noon, and it was nice, even though the water is rather cold still. And there were mosquitoes; the youngest daughter got four bites on her skin. But she was happy anyway.

Bird cherry trees are once again plagued by Yponomeuta evonymellus moth larvae. I think this is the third year in the row this has happened in the nearby park. I remember reading that the bird cherry would develop some resistance to the moth, and thus there wouldn't be consecutive years with lots of moths, but that doesn't seem to be the case.

I thought a bit about Zen today, as I got some good comments from a colleague about a book review I wrote on the book Zen in the Art of Archery by Eugen Herrigel. I thought the book was more modest than its reputation, even though the topic of the book is such that it can't be expressed in words.

My colleague recommended reading professor Shoji Yamada's article "The Myth of Zen in the Art of Archery" (Japanese Journal of Religious Studies 2001 28/1–2).

The article tells a story of Herrigel's teacher, Awa Kenzõ, building his own philosophy based on personal spiritual experiences: "he had no experience in Zen nor did he unconditionally approve of Zen". Then arrived Herrigel, who "came to Japan in search of Zen and chose Japanese archery as a method through which to approach it". And finally there was the interpreter, whose "intentionally liberal translations" confused the matter greatly. The result is something which has little to do with Zen and much to do with the "personal desire of Herrigel".

In a previous posting I pointed out several other book with Zen in the title. It seems that the common thing connecting these books is that they have little (if any) to do with Zen. Which may or may not be a good thing.

Anyway, I didn't put the word Zen in the posting title; the title is from the poem Zen Living by Dick Allen.


Cedric Canard said...

Interesting that you should mention Zen and mosquitoes.

The funny thing about Zen is that by nature it defies definition. People in the West have a need to label, define and sort everything. In the East this tendency does not seem to exist so much. Back when I was doing Martial-Arts we were visited by someone who, we were told, practised Aikido and Zen. We could ask any question and someone asked point blank, "What is Zen?". In answer the man swatted at a mosquito on his arm.

The annoyance with all these books putting "Zen" in their titles is that it is redundant. They are just stating the obvious.

Juha Haataja said...

@Cedric: One of the most interesting things described in the article is the fact that Herrigel, misunderstanding his teacher Awa, interpreted Japanese arts and Zen in a novel way, and later "the ideas in Zen in the Art of Archery [...] were imported back into Japan and widely accepted, creating the illusion that the archery of Awa and Herrigel represented traditional Japanese archery".

So, Herrigel, a person from a West received a mystical experience "born from the momentary slippage of meaning caused by the (mis-)translation of Japanese into German". And the resulting book was translated to Japanese, and became widely accepted there also, despite not fitting the historical facts, and much exaggerating the role of Zen in Japanese culture.

Quite a story. Especially interesting point in the article is the analysis of two key experiences Herrigel had.

First key experience was when Awa shot two arrows to the target, in the dark, so well that the second arrow split the first. Based on what Awa told afterwards to his Japanese colleagues this was just a coincidence, surprising Awa himself. But for Herrigel this event was intentional, a case of Awa demonstrating his unbelievable art.

And the second concerns the doctrine of "It shoots", which was due to mistranslation: the teacher said "Well done", nothing more deep, and from this the doctrine of Herrigel's book was born.

Anyway, your story of a Zen-practitioner swatting at a mosquite is a good one. But if this also was just a coincidence?

Cedric Canard said...

For a long time I have thought that Zen has been mythified by the West into something other then what it was meant to represent. And somehow the West even managed to sell it back to the East as something hallowed.

Books like "Zen and the Art of Archery" have not helped lessen the spread of this myth that surrounds Zen. It's tempting to see this as unfortunate but it is likely that this too is Zen.

Tripping over our shoelaces or swatting a mosquito is no less Zen than splitting one arrow with another in the dark. Even coincidence, in its common definition, cannot exist outside of Zen. At least, that is how I was taught to understand it which is not to say that it is correct.

Devyani said...

"There is a whole portion of reality which is offered to us without our making any special effort beyond opening our eyes and ears,and this we call the world of pure impressions. But there is another world built of structures of impressions, which, though hidden, is none the less real. If this other world is to exist for us, we need to open something more than our physical eyes, and to undertake a greater kind of effort. But the measure of our effort neither confers any reality on that world, not takes it away. The deep world is as clear as the surface one, only it asks more of us. "
- Ortega y Gasset

My sentiments exactly.

By the way, a Talmudic saying:
"We do not see things as they are, we see them as we are."

Juha Haataja said...

@Cedric: "Even coincidence, in its common definition, cannot exist outside of Zen." - That was a good one, worth thinking about. Or rather to not think about.

@Devyani: I really like the Talmudic saying you quote, "We do not see things as they are, we see them as we are." This is deep.