Sunday, April 15, 2012

The Spirit of Nonpartisanship

Scott Bradley


I have just begun R.H. Blyth's 'classic' Zen in English Literature and Oriental Classics. Well, that's not entirely true; I've thus far only read the back cover which quotes his 'thesis' that "all that is good in European literature and culture is simply and solely that which is in accordance with the Spirit of Zen."

This statement nearly takes my breath away. Unless I am misreading it, this is a proclamation of extreme partisanship. Zen is presented as the sole touchstone of Truth, and all other presumed 'goods' must be judged accordingly. One could easily flip it over and declare all that is good in Japanese and Chinese culture is "simply and solely" that which reflects European values.

Alternatively, one could say that there is a quality transcendent of every cultural form which can be seen in them all. And this, I suggest, is much more in the "Spirit of Zen" than is Blyth's proclamation.

I say this because I have a great deal of respect for the spirit of Zen — so much so, that, as I have elsewhere said, sometimes it becomes necessary to remind Zennists — even the revered masters— what that spirit is. This may seem over-reaching since I am neither a Zennist nor a practitioner of the methods by which they purport one may realize that spirit. And I confess that my sense of this spirit is largely theoretical. Nevertheless, in the spirit of Forrest Gump, I declare, "I might not be very smart, but I know what love is". I may not be 'enlightened', but I know that partisanship is not its consequence.

When reading the Zen masters we often find partisanship much in evidence. There is a right way and a wrong way, orthodoxy and heresy. And this does not escape the notice of their translators and apologists who take pains to lamely (in my opinion) explain it away.

Perhaps it would be helpful to return to the observation that there are no saints, only people. Even those whom we so wish to raise up and declare Consummate Human Beings, to use the Daoist appellation, are not truly so. There are only approximations of a non-existent ideal. And there is a great deal for us to learn about ourselves and the nature of our spiritual quests in coming to grips with this inclination to incarnate and venerate perfection. Is there not an inkling of freedom here?

There was a time when I might have tossed this book aside because of this failing, just I did long ago to another book about Zen which opened with a similar declaration of partisan superiority. But perhaps I am a bit more open now for having at least begun to sense what is the "spirit" of Zen — and Daoism, and every cultural embodiment of the quest for Openness.

You can check out Scott's other miscellaneous writings here.

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