Monday, March 31, 2014


Published when its author was interned (in 1942 Japan) as an enemy alien, R.H. Blyth's 'Zen in English Literature and Oriental Classics' is an eccentric masterpiece. It sees 'Zen' not as a religious tradition but as a way of seeing, of concretely beholding the real, and traces this way through not only classics of Oriental literature, many directly inspired by the tradition of Zen but, more compellingly, through threads of English literature.

The book not only wants to reveal such threads but to use them as a criteria of criticism. Poetry (and prose) are more effective and exalted the closer they reveal 'Zen'.

I read the book first when I was at university, finding a copy in our library, and re-reading it now, after a hiatus of nearly three decades, I am struck by how influential it proved to be. An influence I would be incapable of acknowledging, indeed recognising, until now.

For here, I first encountered a critique of 'symbolism' - that one sign stands as the revealing presence of a reality - that, for example, 'water' is symbolic of the renewal of baptism. What is important here is the baptism of which the water is a convenient symbol. It may have been otherwise. There is another world to which this stands proximate witness.

I always felt that this was deeply mistaken! It was here, in this text, that I think I first found this mistake voiced (and critiqued). The world simply is a full expression of reality. Everything, seen aright, is both utterly itself and utterly holy. Differentiating 'holy symbols', heightening this over that, is only a concession to our weakness. It may be necessary but it is a concession nonetheless.

Later I discovered the same attitude in Orthodoxy. It is of the very nature of water to be baptismal (as it is to drink or to wash clothes). The sacred permeates all. An icon is not symbolising a saint, it is the real presence of the saint.

It was there in Buber too. Hallowed everything becomes presence, present. There is nowhere into which God cannot be let in. Nothing is especially sacred because everything is.

This brings us, naturally, back to Zen.

Gazing at the flowers
         Of the morning glory
                   I eat my breakfast

to quote Basho.

Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow

to quote Jesus

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