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Thread: ARTS: Has anyone read Zen in English Literature and Oriental Classics?

  1. #1

    ARTS: Has anyone read Zen in English Literature and Oriental Classics?

    I came across this title, Zen in English Literature and Oriental Classics, by R. H. Blyth. It was originally published in 1942. I was wondering if anyone had anything to say about it. Some of the things he held up as Zen in the first chapter seemed a little odd, but the premise is compelling: "all that is good in European literature is simply and solely that which is in accordance with the Spirit of Zen."

    Gassho,
    Onkai
    Sat
    Last edited by Jundo; 01-24-2021 at 02:34 AM.
    On (Warm)
    Kai (Sea)

  2. #2
    I read it long ago. It is a very old book, with some misunderstandings of Zen as I recall (I don't recall the details apart from my impression, but there was very limited information on Zen 80 years ago in the west).

    He reaches to find "Zen" in some classic prose and poetry of the West, such as Shakespeare. If I recall, it was mostly his own creative readings of such passages.

    So, please enjoy the book, and the beautiful literature, but take it with some salt and not so literally.

    Gassho, J

    STLah
    ALL OF LIFE IS OUR TEMPLE

  3. #3
    Quote Originally Posted by Jundo View Post
    I read it long ago. It is a very old book, with some misunderstandings of Zen as I recall (I don't recall the details apart from my impression, but there was very limited information on Zen 80 years ago in the west).

    He reaches to find "Zen" in some classic prose and poetry of the West, such as Shakespeare. If I recall, it was mostly his own creative readings of such passages.

    So, please enjoy the book, and the beautiful literature, but take it with some salt and not so literally.

    Gassho, J

    STLah
    Thank you, Jundo

    Gassho,
    Onkai
    Sat
    On (Warm)
    Kai (Sea)

  4. #4
    I think Kokuu is very familiar with it, and will be around with his impressions.

    I found a very short excerpt online so that folks can get a taste, and a longer sample can be perused here:

    https://openlibrary.org/books/OL2422...ental_classics

    Prof. Blythe is finding parallels to an old Zen Koan featuring Master Sekito, and how our own mind creates the cages which bind us:

    "What about emancipation?" a monk asks Sekito.
    "Who puts you under restraint?" said the master.
    "What about the Pure Land?" asks the monk.
    "Who defiles you?" was the reply.
    "What about nirvana?"
    "Who puts you in samsara [this world of birth-and-death]," was Sekito's reply.


    From "Zen in English Literature and Oriental Classics":

    [Extract from Chapter VIII: Everything depends on the Mind]

    ‘In Resolution and Independence we find the solitary line

    By our own spirits are we deified,

    and we think immediately of the monk who wished to be free, and the counter-question by the master, Sekito,

    “Who puts you under restraint?”

    The answer is given by Blake in the last line of the second verse of London.

    I wander thro’ each charter’d street,
    Near where the charter’d Thames does flow,
    And mark in every face I meet,
    Marks of weakness, marks of woe.

    In every cry of every Man,
    In every Infant’s cry of fear,
    In every voice, in every ban,
    The mind-forg’d manacles I hear.

    There is the same thought in The Sisters, where Tennyson says,

    My God, I would not live,
    Save that I think this gross, hard-seeming world
    Is our misshaping vision of the Powers
    Behind the world, that makes our griefs our gains.

    This self-betrayal, self-imprisonment of the mind, caused by its misshaping vision, is expressed in some famous lines from the 3rd Act of The Borderers:

    Action is transitory - a step, a blow,
    The motion of a muscle - this way or that-
    ’Tis done, and in the after-vacancy
    We wonder at ourselves like men betrayed,

    Wordsworth states the problem, but his wording of it shows that he does not understand it properly. A better word than transitory would be instantaneous; there is no gap between the mind and the action. But afterwards when there is a separation between the mind and the Mind, there is a sense of separation, of betrayal, - not only in the after-vacancy but in the pre-vacancy also. This is what Ummon means when he says to his monks,

    If you walk, just walk. If you sit, just sit, but don’t wobble whatever you do.’
    Gassho, J

    STLah
    Last edited by Jundo; 08-18-2020 at 12:00 AM.
    ALL OF LIFE IS OUR TEMPLE

  5. #5
    Hi Onkai

    I don't actually know this book but am very familiar with R H (Reginald Horace) Blyth's writings on haiku, which are greatly treasured in the haiku world, although his understanding of the form is now considered rather limited and romanticised. His four volumes on haiku are still sought out by every serious haiku student in the west today (I only have one volume sadly).

    I guess he could be considered in a similar way to how Jundo talks about D T Suzuki, in leaving us a great deal about the spirit of Zen and haiku, but without necessarily the kind of historical accuracy we expect today. This is possibly not surprising as he considered Suzuki his friend and mentor.

    Blyth himself was an interesting man. He taught English in Korea (while it was under Japanese rule) and later married a Japanese woman and moved to Japan, to the same city where D T Suzuki lived. During WWII he was interned as a hostile alien and in the internment camp met Robert Aitken, author of our Mind of Clover precepts text.

    In addition to looking for Zen in English literature, he did the same with haiku, searching for commonality there. He loved Zen and haiku and loved English literature and poetry and I guess he wanted to find the same meaning in both. In The Genius of Haiku he devotes a section to comparing haiku and English literature, finding commonality in places such as Tennyson:

    The moan of doves in immemorial elms (The Princess)

    And Matsuo Basho's famous poem:

    The summer grasses
    all that remains
    of warrior's dreams


    He finds there, however, that haiku are all the weaker for not adding human emotion, missing the point that haiku, by their very nature use imagery to suggest emotion rather than adding it explicitly.

    He also considers these opening lines of Wordsworth as a haiku (it isn't) and indicative of the poet as unsui (clouds and water) which is fanciful but still enjoyable in a way:

    I wandered lonely as a cloud
    That floats on high o'er vales and hills

    (I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud)


    Although I haven't read the book on Zen and English literature, I would expect to find the same kind of associations. While we can smile at Blyth's naivete and lack of depth of understanding of Japanese culture (although D T Suzuki can similarly be found guilty of doing the same and seeing all of Japanese culture as part of Zen), I still think his joyful appreciation of haiku, Zen and English literature can be enjoyed for what it is, without being taken overly seriously in terms of historical and cultural accuracy.

    Together with people such as Harold Henderson, he was responsible for inspiring a love of haiku in the west, although I don't think he is seen in the same way for Zen. The house journal of the British Haiku Society is called Blithe Spirit in respect to him.

    Anyway, this is rather tangential to the question but I hope it sheds a bit of light on the man and his life and work. I am actually rather interested to read that volume now!

    Gassho
    Kokuu
    -sattoday/lah-
    ------------------------------------
    Feel free to message me if you wish to talk about issues around practicing with physical limitations. This is something I have been sitting with for a fair while and am happy to help with suggestions or just offer a listening ear.

  6. #6
    Thank you, Kokuu, for the background of R.H. Blyth. I'm now interested in his other works. I'm enjoying Zen in English Literatue although his understanding of Zen is different.

    Gassho,
    Onkai
    On (Warm)
    Kai (Sea)

  7. #7
    Where did you find the book, Onkai? I think that all of Blyth's books are out of print now and most tend to be quite expensive.

    Gassho
    Kokuu
    -sattoday/lah-
    ------------------------------------
    Feel free to message me if you wish to talk about issues around practicing with physical limitations. This is something I have been sitting with for a fair while and am happy to help with suggestions or just offer a listening ear.

  8. #8
    It was on Amazon. Here is a link: https://smile.amazon.com/Zen-English...s%2C173&sr=8-2
    I hope that works for you in the UK. Also, I use Amazon Smile. If you need another link, let me know.

    Gassho,
    Onkai
    Sat/lah
    On (Warm)
    Kai (Sea)

  9. #9
    Thank you!

    Gassho
    Kokuu
    ------------------------------------
    Feel free to message me if you wish to talk about issues around practicing with physical limitations. This is something I have been sitting with for a fair while and am happy to help with suggestions or just offer a listening ear.

  10. #10
    I wonder if it is worth moving this thread to Poetry Corner?

    Gassho
    Kokuu
    -sattoday/lah-
    ------------------------------------
    Feel free to message me if you wish to talk about issues around practicing with physical limitations. This is something I have been sitting with for a fair while and am happy to help with suggestions or just offer a listening ear.

  11. #11
    If you think people who would be interested in this thread would be more likely to find it there, that would be good.

    Gassho,
    Onkai
    Sat/lah
    On (Warm)
    Kai (Sea)

  12. #12
    What author or book would you recommend about haiku? Thank you.

    Gassho,
    Onkai
    Sat/lah
    On (Warm)
    Kai (Sea)

  13. #13
    Thank you Kokuu, I just found the haiku subforum.

    Gassho,
    Onkai
    Sat/lah
    On (Warm)
    Kai (Sea)

  14. #14
    Quote Originally Posted by Onkai View Post
    If you think people who would be interested in this thread would be more likely to find it there, that would be good.

    Gassho,
    Onkai
    Sat/lah
    And ... done!

    Gassho, J

    STLah
    ALL OF LIFE IS OUR TEMPLE

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