Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Mountain ranges

As we near the end of Buddhism and Modern Thought, we finally have a syllabus! Well, we've reached the point where no further updatings are necessary, because no more are possible. More than any other course I've taught, this class really has reshaped the course in its own image, with all the riddles about rivers and riverbeds applying.

Our program of readings ends with a bunch of readings on Zen, a little ironic since there is no tradition in Buddhism as suspicious of words. But it's (sorry Vajrayana) the Buddhist tradition to have engaged most interestingly with the unfolding of modern sensibilities and cultural production. That's why it was at the heart of our very first reading, which explored an elective affinity between modernity's claim to transcend history and similar aspirations in "Buddhism," both as western construct and as Asian tradition. Words beyond words: I'm hoping this will help us come to some useful insights about acts, contemplative as well as ethical as well as aesthetic: our readings are about the nexus of Zen (through the charismatic D. T. Suzuki) and modern arts: John Cage, and improvisational dance.

By way of preparation, we read some Suzuki today, too, along with part of David Loy's The Great Awakening: A Buddhist Social Theory, and building on Monday's discussion of Keiji Nishitani's "What is Religion?" It's a discussion of what he calls "Affirmation-in-Negation" (a translation of 即非, sokuhi) and argues is the central logic of Zen Buddhism - and what makes Zen masters sound so irrational. Drawing on examples from the Diamond Sutra Suzuki identifies the structure

For A to be affirmed as A, A has to be non-A; therefore it is A

and argues that this is the central insight of Zen and of Japanese spirituality and also - as these turn out to be in his generation's understanding of world history - of human nature at its truest.
We spent a large chunk of class trying to puzzle this out, much of it focused on mountains. In what way could it be true that "The mountain is not a mountain, therefore it is a mountain"? For Suzuki and the tradition he claims to speak for, this is not epistemology or psychology (though it might be those, too) but ontology. To accept the suchness of the mountain, we need to understand that it is not a mountain.
In effort to shed light on this I conjured up all sorts of mountains, from the mythical Mount Meru, so tall you cannot see it, to the Ochtruper Berg, the little bump celebrated as the closest thing to a mountain in the town where my mother grew up, from the ancient Alabama Hills subsiding near Mount Whitney to the perfect Mount Fuji I saw emerging one day on twenty student easels set up on the shore of Lake Hakone facing where, on a less foggy day, Fuji would have been seen. But I was really thinking of a line I fell in love with the year I studied phenomenological geography in Paris, and another I found once in a book of literary aphorisms. (I'm amazed neither has found its way into this blog before today.)

A l’esprit qui contemple la montagne pendant la durée des âges, elle apparait flottante, aussi incertaine que l’onde de la mer chassée par la tempète: c’est un flot, une vapeur; quand elle aura disparu, ce ne sera plus qu’un rève. 
Élisée Reclus, Histoire d’une montagne (1875-6)

All stones are broken stones.
James Richardson, Vectors: 47 Aphorisms and Ten-Second Essays (2004)

Students were better on the negation than the affirmation part - better at seeing how words come between us and the things whose nature they are thought to disclose, how they substitute abstractions and memories and projects for the thing there facing us - but that's par for the course. If there is anything to this form of non-thinking, it involves actual experiences of the irreducible thisness of every this, irreducible even though evanescent, suspended like Saint Francis' inverted Assisi but as real as real can be.

I'm not sure it helped when I suggested that a mountain, a contingent aggregation of stuff which rose and fell as all things do, was like our supposed "selves," too. When I asked, rhetorically, "Can you get from the acceptance of thisness to ethics? Isn't Buddhism supposed to be about compassion?" I had to answer myself, rhetorically, "Didn't you hear the compassion in my description of the arising and subsiding of the mountain?"

Perhaps this will put us in the right frame of mind to sit through Cage's 4' 33". It certainly puts me right in the zone of my Wider Moral Communities project. Agency is blown wide beyond the human, decoupled from the toxic fantasy of a self. But there are still things you have to be human to do, or to be engaging another person.


Inset quote from Suzuki Daisetz, "The Loic of Affirmation-in-Negation" (1940),
trans. in Japanese Philosophy: A Sourcebook, ed. James W. Heisig, Thomas P. Kasulis
and John C. Maraldo (Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press, 2012), 214-18, 217

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