Wednesday, May 01, 2013

More zenned against than zenning?

I made this flower in class today. It was the second of our two sessions on Zen Buddhism in "Exploring Religious Ethics," and I tried something new. Last class I started by saying that it was kind of ridiculous to be trying to talk through Zen, but let's try anyway. The reading was from Tom Kasulis' Zen Action / Zen Person, a phenomenological account of Zen ethics, which goes almost word-by-word through some important lines of the 13th century Japanese Dôgen 道元, suggesting how we can only stop "producing evil" if we stop "producing" distinctions like good/evil. I also gave the class two comics from Tsai Chih Chung's Zen Speaks: Shouts of Nothingness (Anchor, 1994). Here's one of them:
So things were all set for me, today, to write our class timetable on the board and say "I'd like to teach you about Zen but right now I need to go relieve myself." I didn't actually leave the room, but the message was clear. They were on their own! And I set to my origami, an homage to the origin myth of the Zen tradition - the Buddha's disciples sat around waiting for a sermon more and more impatiently but he just held up a flower; only Kasyapa understood, and so he received the wordless transmission. My only other intervention, 35 minutes in, was quietly to call up a brief nature video (title blanked out and sound muted, projected in a rather ghostly way directly on our blackboard), which someone eventually thought it might be helpful to watch.

The reason for that was that today's reading was about the Zen of samurai warriors, a most troubling turn of events for Buddhist ethics. Suddenly the non-duality which we had thought made people more attentive to and compassionate toward others was showing up in explanation of beautifully lethal swordsmanship - the enlightened swordsman merely acts, his weapon a "sword that gives life," the enemy killing himself on it. Is Zen the poised perfection of human ethics or its nihilistic nadir? The egret filmlet was because we again spent time last class analyzing a poem by Dôgen:






To what might it be compared?
Dwelling in the dewdrop
Fallen from a waterfowl's beak,
The image of the moon.

The scenes we had imagined - I invited students to draw them on the board - were romantic and calm, focusing on the evanescent image of the moon. The dewdrop was certainly not falling from a beak which had just taken life! The class took the bait. Was the enlightened samurai's prereflective spontaneity not like this egret's expert movement? After some discussion about whether animals think, etc., they came just short of the discovery that the egret, too, has the Buddha nature, and that the moon might dwell in the drop from a samurai's katana as well. Although it had fits and starts and awkward pauses, their discussion didn't need me at all! I kept waiting for someone to ask me to join the conversation, with words or a look; no such luck. Or: so much luck! Did we get somewhere? Who knows! I leave you with our other Zen comic.

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