June 4, 2001

Welcome to Phlit, the e-publication that flits lightly from topic to topic, and never discusses any topic ad nauseam, ad infinitum, or ad hominem.

Clyde Fisher, a Phlit subscriber from Texas, asked that I mention what our book group is going to discuss in the future, in case someone wants to “read along” with the group. Thus, Phlit could become a book discussion group as well as an e-newsletter.

On July 18, we’re going to discuss Changes in the Land: Indians, Colonists, and the Ecology of New England, by William Cronon; this book is of special interest to those of us who live in New England. On September 19, we’re going to discuss Siddhartha, by Hermann Hesse. Oddly enough, I’ve never read Siddhartha, though it’s very popular, and has influenced the spiritual development of many readers.

1. Ten Zen Basics

I received an e-mail message recently, asking me to explain my enthusiasm for Zen. I responded as follows:

1. Zen emphasizes the Here and Now, the present moment. Zen teaches us to be aware of the present moment. Awareness and perception are important in Zen — more important than logical, rational thinking. The most eloquent Zen sermon is Buddha’s Flower Sermon, in which Buddha said nothing, but simply held up a flower.

By de-emphasizing logical, rational, conscious thinking, Zen helps us to connect with our bodies, and with our unconscious. Thus, Zen can make us more whole, more healthy, more happy.

2. If you examine the etymology of the word “Zen”, you find that Zen means meditation, sitting meditation. Thus, it’s clear that meditation plays a central role in Zen. If you understand meditation, you understand Zen. The best way to understand meditation is to do it. If you want to take up meditation, you may want to read a book on the subject. Among the most popular books on meditation are Still the Mind, by Alan Watts, and Thich Nhat Hanh’s books. I myself took up meditation (and yoga, too) with the help of Full Catastrophe Living by Jon Kabat-Zinn, and with the help of the two audio tapes that accompany Full Catastrophe Living.

Meditation is non-doing, non-thinking, non-willing. Zen loves nothingness, but Zen isn’t nihilism. While most people focus on the printed words, Zen loves the margin of life, the blank space. Zen teaches you to enjoy not only pleasant thoughts, but also no thoughts, a blank mind. While most drivers prefer green lights to red lights, Zen likes red lights as much as green lights. Lao Zi said that the most valuable part of a house is not the walls and roof that the builder constructs, but the empty space within. The Zen spirit lives in the Roman saying, “Liber non est qui non aliquando nihil agit” (he is not free who doesn’t sometimes do nothing).1

The chief writers on Zen are D. T. Suzuki and Alan Watts. The best book on Zen is Watts’ The Way of Zen. Suzuki’s works include Essays in Zen Buddhism, An Introduction to Zen Buddhism, and Zen and Japanese Culture. D. T. Suzuki should not be confused with Shunryu Suzuki, author of Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, a classic in the field.

3. Zen originated in India, and resembles the original teaching of the Buddha. Zen developed in China, and was influenced by Lao Zi and other Chinese thinkers. Zen flourished in Japan, and left its mark on many facets of Japanese culture (haiku poetry, No drama, the tea ceremony, swordsmanship, archery, flower arranging, etc.). One of the classics of Zen literature is Zen in the Art of Archery, which was written by a German philosophy professor who lived in Japan in the 1930s. We can assume that the genuine Zen spirit is still alive in Japan today (and probably still alive in China and Korea, too). I might mention in passing that the genuine spirit of Hindu mysticism, and of yoga, is still alive in India.

4. Zen came to the West around 1900. Zen came to the West from Japan, since Zen sank deeper roots in Japan than anywhere else. Japan was closed to the West until after 1850, so Zen long remained unknown to the West. (Western philosophers like Schopenhauer, Nietzsche and Thoreau were familiar with Indian philosophy, and perhaps with Confucius, but not with Zen.) The advent of Zen is a recent phenomenon. The advent of Zen is one of the major developments in Western philosophy in the 20th century.

Zen currently enjoys broad popularity in the West. There are meditation classes everywhere you look. Zen is popular with artists and writers, with businessmen, etc.

5. Zen has a long history and a rich literary tradition. It has been tested by Time, and it has passed the test. Perhaps the best introduction to Zen history and Zen literature is Zen Flesh, Zen Bones.

6. Like other schools of Eastern thought, Zen sees the Ego, the I, not as an island, but as part of the mainland; Zen sees the Ego not as independent, but as merged with the surrounding world. (One might compare this aspect of Zen to the philosophy of Hume, which dissolved the Ego into a bundle of sensations.) Perhaps the best discussion of this aspect of Zen is The Book: On the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are, by Alan Watts.

7. In merging the Ego with the surrounding world, Zen puts us in touch with nature, Zen teaches us to appreciate nature. The most Zennish writers (Basho, Thoreau, etc.) are preoccupied with nature. Oriental painters, influenced by Zen and by similar world-views, appreciated nature long before Western painters did.

8. Zen is partly a religion, partly a philosophy, and partly a rejection of both religion and philosophy.

9. Zen is a type of mysticism. It resembles other types of mysticism — Christian, Islamic, Hindu, etc. The Zen spirit can be found in every country and in every religion. The Zen spirit can also be found in literature — in Whitman, in Thoreau, in Wordsworth, etc. Perhaps the best book on Zen in Western literature is R. H. Blyth’s Zen in English Literature. Blyth was an Englishman who lived in Japan during the 1930s and 40s. In addition to Zen in English Literature, Blyth wrote a 4-volume history of Zen, and a multi-volume anthology of haiku.

Like other types of mysticism, Zen prizes the moment of enlightenment, which it calls “satori”. In the moment of enlightenment, you have a keen sense of being alive, a keen appreciation of everyday reality. Zen monks often seek to attain satori with the help of a “koan”, that is, a question or problem, posed by their teacher, that is baffling to the rational mind, that forces one to abandon rational thinking.

10. What is the sound of one hand clapping? The sound of silence.

2. Semper Incipere

Every year in late May, Americans observe Memorial Day, a day for remembering those who were killed in war. Doubtless many nations have a similar holiday. Many war documentaries were aired on American television around Memorial Day. One documentary, “Return With Honor,” was aired more than any other. It tells the story of Americans who were imprisoned in North Vietnam. The hardship and torture endured by these prisoners is burned into the memory of many Americans.

Watching a documentary like “Return With Honor” is itself a traumatic experience; you feel as if you were enduring the torture described in the documentary. You hope that you would handle the situation well if you yourself were imprisoned in the “Hanoi Hilton,” and you also hope that, if you were on the other side, if you were a captor instead of a captive, you would handle that situation well, too. You feel elated when you hear of a North Vietnamese guard who is appalled by the practice of torture, stops, and leaves the room. You feel elated when, in 1969, after the death of Ho Chi Minh, the North Vietnamese stop using torture. And you feel elated when the prisoners are finally released, after being held captive for as long as eight years.

Torture is an attempt to crush the human spirit, hence it seems more deplorable to me than any other action. The North Vietnamese practiced torture on a large scale, for many years, with authorization from the highest levels of government, with no military rationale, for no reason except to crush the human spirit. But they aren’t alone. Torture has always been part of human society. Torture was common among American Indians, and doubtless among other primitive peoples as well. It seems that torture was used by the South Vietnamese against communists, and some people say that this was done with American approval (personally, I’m skeptical of that). The prison known as the “Hanoi Hilton” was built by the French, and its implements of torture were used by the French against the Vietnamese. The French also used torture in Algeria. It’s well known that the Japanese and Germans practiced torture during World War II.

As a rule, the Germans didn’t torture American prisoners, but after carpet bombing of German cities began, the infuriated Germans tortured captured American pilots (by forcing them to carry heavy rocks uphill until they collapsed). George Kennan, an American historian for whom I have high regard, has argued that bombing civilian populations — whether in Germany or in Vietnam — is morally indefensible. Whether that’s true or not, being bombed is certainly a traumatic experience, something that one must endure to understand, something that leaves you with little pity for those who carry out the bombing. But bombing doesn’t justify the torturing of captured pilots.

The North Vietnamese guards demanded information from the American prisoners. The prisoners had been instructed to reveal only their name, rank and serial number. If they refused to answer the guards’ questions, they were sometimes tortured to death. To save their life, and to put an end to the intolerable pain that was being inflicted on them, they usually “broke,” that is, they gave some information (often fabricated). Some of them were permanently “broken,” but most bounced back the next day, and again refused to accede to all their captors’ demands.

Martin Luther said that virtue was always beginning, semper incipere. Broken today, bouncing back tomorrow.

3. A Visit to ULAE

ULAE is the acronym of Universal Limited Art Editions, a print-making studio on Long Island (in the state of New York). ULAE is one of the leading print studios in the U.S., with a reputation for high standards and excellent craftsmanship. Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg are two of the renowned artists who make prints at ULAE.

ULAE was started by Tatyana Grosman and her husband, Maurice, in a garage on Long Island in 1957. ULAE makes prints in limited editions of about 50 or 100. The plate is broken afterwards, guaranteeing that the edition is limited.

Now ULAE has begun making some digital prints. When I visited, a print more than six feet long was coming out of a huge inkjet printer. As the prints left the printer, the current director of ULAE, Bill Goldston, began tearing the edge of each one. He gives each print a personal touch, a signature, by tearing the edge; he said that he liked the look of paper that had been torn “just so.” He said that if none of his employees could tear it as he wanted, he would tear every edge of every print himself. To ensure that the paper was torn in the right place, Bill used a “tear guide,” that is, a piece of plastic (or glass).

The tear guide is not straight, not symmetrical. Unfortunately, I didn’t witness the making of the “tear guide,” which was made to produce a tear, a paper edge, that had the right mix of chance and order, the right asymmetry. I thought of Ruskin, who loved the asymmetry of Gothic architecture, and loathed the symmetry of Renaissance architecture. I wonder: is the same tear guide used on every print, or is a new tear guide created for each print?

When I got home from ULAE, I went on the Internet, intending to visit ULAE’s web site. I found that it doesn’t have a Web site. ULAE isn’t interested in publicity, it’s interested in craftsmanship. In a world bent on publicity and advertising, it’s nice to know that some organizations are preoccupied by the work of art.

4. George W. Bush

George W. Bush is the greatest patron of the arts since the Medici. His effort to reduce income taxes, and eliminate inheritance taxes, favors concentrations of wealth within particular families, and such concentrations of wealth are greenhouses of culture. Weren’t the Medici themselves a family in which wealth had accumulated over the course of generations? Tax relief is a better way to promote culture than direct funding of the arts, and it’s a better way to promote culture than direct funding of education. I could name a dozen famous writers and artists who lived off family money, but I couldn’t name one who received funding from a democratic government.

© L. James Hammond 2002
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1. Quoted in Erwin Panofsky, Meaning in the Visual Arts, Epilogue, §5. In 2015, an article in Huffington Post raised the question, “What would you recommend for people who are interested in mindfulness meditation but aren’t sure where to start?” “What is really good is the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) course that was developed by Jon Kabat-Zinn. It is taught all over the world. It’s an eight-week course that teaches you the basics that get you started with the practice.” If you want free audio lessons on meditation and yoga, try Palouse Mindfulness. back