Saturday, March 17, 2012
The fall of tortoises
Zen Buddhism advises you to step off the 100-foot high pole, but though last week's post was a cliffhanger, I won't walk off that particular cliff until next week. This week I prefer to talk about a Japanese man who pretended to be a cat. But wait! I can explain, though not entirely. My sister lived in Japan for four years (and now she has lived in Korea for the same amount of time - you can read her blog about it to the right of this post). During the whole time she lived in that fascinating country, I never visited her once. Japan, you see, is far away, and in any case I was more interested in traveling to Italy back then. I also never knew that I'd become interested in Zen; not to imply that Zen has anything to do with Japan, but you know what I mean. Despite my never visiting her, she did send me innumerable postcards and also give me a number of Japanese novels for Christmas. I've read one of them now, I am a Cat by Soseki Natsume (in translation!), and I thought I'd tell you about it.
I am a Cat is narrated by - you guessed it - a cat. Soseki originally wrote only a single short-story employing that particular narrative technique, but when readers whined for more he ended up expanding the story into a full-length novel. The novel shows the strain of having to stretch out such a simple idea over hundreds of pages: soon enough, the focus shifts away from the cat and his thoughts to the lives and conversations of the characters the cat is constantly watching. The main character is Sneaze, the cat's 'master' (though we know who is really charge). A bumbling schoolmaster, he enjoys frequent visits by his friends, Waverhouse, a cynical free-thinker, Coldmoon, a young scholar, and Singleman, a Zen practitioner. The novel has not one plot but several, as various fads and schemes pass into Sneaze's consciousness and - not too long aftwerwards - out of it. It is written in a light, whimsical, and thoroughly English style, reminiscent of nothing so much as P.G. Wodehouse.
Soseki's novel is not Zen scripture in the sense of the Diamond Sutra, nor Zen literature in the sense of the Blue Cliff Record, nor even a Zen book like Bring me the Rhinoceros. But it does arguably get to the essence of Zen in a fairly direct way, partly simply by swapping the heroic narrator Western readers have been used to since Conrad for an ordinary domestic cat. But the cat also makes statements that could pass as pithy summaries of the Zen approach to things: hearing humans muttering about how life would be so much easier as a cat, he observes that 'if they really want their lives to be nice and easy, it's already in their own good power to make them so. Nothing stands in their way.' There are also occasional references to Zen institutions and traditions, often lightly mocking, such as the story about His Ineffable Holiness the Sixth Patriarch Hui Neng, who discovered that placing one's buttocks on a cold stone was a reliable corrective for rushes of blood to the head.
But a more serious case for Zen is made in a long speech in which Singleman tries to convince his friend Sneaze that however hard you try to fix things, new problems will always arise. 'For the real issue', he goes on, 'the problem in your mind, remains unsettled, however hard you wrestle it around, until your dying day...Nobody, however mighty, can do as he likes with the world. None can stop the sun from setting, none reverse the flow of rivers. But any man is able to do as he likes with his own mind.' Hence the importance, says Singleman, of a systematic program for developing control of the mind, and that is what Zen offers. He ends by quoting a stirring quartet supposedly composed ex tempore by Sogan, a 13th century Chinese master, when faced with decapitation by a Mongol swordsman, which ends with the defiant declaration 'One is not awed/ by threats of such a blowless blow'. (The Mongol swordsman was apparently so disconcerted that he dropped his sword and fled.)
Singleman's comments are predicated on a distinction between Western 'positivism' and Japanese quietism: 'The progressive positivism of Western civilization has certainly produced some notable results, but, in the end, it is no more than a civilization of the inherently dissatisfied. The traditional civilization of Japan does not look for satisfaction by some change in the condition of others but in that of the self.' Placed in that light (and described in that manner) the traditional Japanese way certainly looks attractive, but Western readers may want to reassess their initial reaction after reading one of Singleman's examples: you may, he says 'live under an oligarchic government which you dislike so much that you replace it with a parliamentary democracy', but changing it will do no good. After a century of Japanese history, this doesn't just look flaky: its falseness has been demonstrated by events.
But it would be misleading to present Singleman's views as if they were straightforwardly those of Soseki, who later on exposes his Zen character to considerable mockery at the hands of Waverhouse. Waverhouse even claims that Singleman's Zen proselytizing has driven people insane. One man, he says, 'went to the Zen center at Kamakura [where my teacher David Weinstein studied] and there became a lunatic'. Another, with a tendency to gluttony, began mixing up his koans and his meals, and 'on one occasion, he informed me somewhat ponderously that beef cutlets might soon be coming to roost in my pine trees'. Some of Singleman's own statements don't even require outside ridicule: when asked how to practice Zen, he replies: 'There's really nothing to learn. Just concentrate, as all the Zen masters advise, on the pure, white cow which stands there in the alley.'
But however much institutionalized Zen is - quite rightly - pilloried in the novel, the cat often returns to the essential teachings. 'The proper study of mankind is self', he reflects at one point. 'The heavens, earth, the mountains and the rivers, sun and moon and stars - they are all no more than other names for the self. There is nothing a man can study which is not, in the end, the study of the self. If a man could jump out of his self that self would disappear at the moment of his jumping.' And he tells a story (if this isn't a koan, what is?) about how the playwright Aeschylus thought so much that his hair fell out, at which point he was killed by a passing eagle who decided to try to smash open a tortoise's shell by dropping it on the Greek's shiny pate, which it had mistaken for a stone. There is no finer use of the Classics than this little anecdote; and no finer admonition about the dangers of thinking too much.