May 31, 2004

Good news! My Brazil project is back on track! We’re hoping to finish translating my book of aphorisms in the summer, then try to find a publisher in Brazil. Since the translator has relationships with Brazilian publishers, we’re optimistic about finding a Brazilian publisher who will publish my book. My book of aphorisms was called Decadence and Renaissance until a friend, who was a marketing expert, suggested changing the title; we decided to call it Conversations With Great Thinkers: The Classics For People Too Busy To Read Them. Now we’re going to go back to Decadence and Renaissance. I suppose it needs a subtitle, but I haven’t thought of one yet.

I continue to revise my book, chapter by chapter. In this issue of Phlit, I’d like to show you the latest version of Chapter 4, “Ethics.” Since it’s quite a long chapter, I’ve divided it in two; Part I is in this issue, Part II next issue.

1. Ethics, Part I

A. Four Ideals The four most attractive ideals in our time are

  1. the Zen ideal: stillness, awareness of the present moment, meditation, yoga;
  2. the Thoreau ideal: love of nature, love of the earth, the attempt to save the earth from pollution and other dangers;
  3. the Jung ideal: communion with the unconscious, listening to one’s dreams and feelings, finding a midpoint between consciousness and the unconscious; and
  4. the Nietzsche ideal: the classical Western ideal, which has its roots on the Acropolis; the full development of the individual, inspired by heroic ethics and by culture.

The Zen and Thoreau ideals are the most practical, they can be applied most readily in our daily life. The Zen and Thoreau ideals overlap: Zen encourages the love of nature, and Thoreau encourages awareness of the present moment. The Jung ideal lies between Zen and Nietzsche, it builds a bridge between East and West. The Nietzsche ideal appeals strongly to young intellectuals, especially young philosophers, because it addresses itself to such individuals, it describes the situation of such individuals.

B. Jungian Ethics Here’s an example of how listening to our unconscious can shape our actions, our decisions, our daily life: when Jung was in his eighties, someone suggested that he write a book suitable for a wide audience. Jung thought about it for a while, and finally decided not to. Then he had a dream in which he was speaking to a crowd of people, and they understood what he was saying. As a result of the dream, Jung reversed his decision, and wrote (with the help of some disciples) Man and His Symbols.

The case of Macbeth exemplifies the problems that can arise if we ignore our unconscious, ignore our feelings and hunches. Macbeth murders Duncan in defiance of his feelings; Macbeth allows the prophecies of the witches, and the arguments of his wife, to overcome the “still small voice” of his unconscious. “Macbeth’s better nature,” wrote A. C. Bradley, “incorporates itself in images which alarm and horrify. His imagination is thus the best of him, something usually deeper and higher than his conscious thoughts; and if he had obeyed it he would have been safe.”1

C. Bildung “Self-culture,” said Oscar Wilde, “is the true ideal of man.”2 The ideal of self-culture, self-development, Bildung has long been important in Western culture, but it’s on the wane in our time. Is it inconsistent with the other ideals mentioned above — the Thoreau ideal, the Zen ideal, and the Jung ideal? No, actually it fuses these three ideals together, since each of these ideals can play a role in self-development; self-development involves listening to the unconscious (the Jung ideal), being aware of the present moment (the Zen ideal), and appreciating nature (the Thoreau ideal).

Why, then, is the old ideal of self-culture fading away? The ideal of self-culture is in collision with the ideal of service to society, which is a popular ideal in our time. The most talented and ambitious college students want to start their own philanthropic organization, or join someone else’s. People think that they should feel guilty if they study the humanities, and follow the way of Zen. People think that they should “get involved,” help the needy, be politically active, have a social conscience, “give something back to society,” etc.

The inner life is neglected, the life of the mind is never mentioned, the search for truth is unfashionable, the love of culture is considered elitist. In 2002, Columbia University inaugurated a new president. At the ceremony, the guests of honor were the Mayor of New York, and the Secretary-General of the U.N. The theme of the new president’s speech was “get involved” — get involved with the city, get involved with the world.

Eric Hoffer perceived that the ideal of service to society was replacing the ideal of self-development; Hoffer said, “How much easier is self-sacrifice than self-realization!”3 Goethe, the greatest champion of Bildung, said he feared that “the world will turn into a vast hospital in which everyone will be the devoted nurse of everyone else.”4

D. Eastern Wisdom is becoming increasingly popular in the West. Schopenhauer was one of the first Western philosophers to admire Eastern philosophy; Schopenhauer rejected Christianity, and embraced Indian philosophy. In the nineteenth century, many Western intellectuals were losing faith in monotheistic religions like Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Schopenhauer was an atheist, hence he was attracted to Eastern belief-systems that lacked a Western-style God — lacked a God who created the universe, ruled the universe, wrote books, etc. Oriental thinkers believed that the world had grown up spontaneously, like a plant; they didn’t view the world as a system that was designed and built by an omnipotent being. The Oriental view is consistent with modern science.

Nietzsche wasn’t as impressed by Eastern ideas as Schopenhauer was. But some of Nietzsche’s aphorisms remind one of Eastern practices, such as meditation; “Lying still and thinking little,” Nietzsche wrote, “is the cheapest medicine for all sicknesses of the soul and, if persisted with, grows more pleasant hour by hour.”5 “Thinking little” isn’t as easy as it sounds. The mind wanders; it likes to occupy itself with something. India and China have developed a variety of techniques for calming the mind: meditation, yoga, tai chi, etc. These techniques direct the mind onto something simple and relaxing, such as breathing, walking, repeating the same word over and over, or slowly stretching and exercising the body. These techniques are becoming increasingly popular in the West due to their beneficial effect on both body and mind.

Eastern techniques and ideas are compatible with Western thought, and will surely play a role in the future of Western religion and philosophy. It’s unlikely, however, that they’ll enjoy wide popularity in the near future. They appeal to an educated minority, not to the majority. In India, Buddhist meditation is far less popular than Hindu polytheism.

E. Meditation is sitting still — a stillness of the body, a stillness of the mind and a stillness of the will. Meditation is non-doing, and non-doing reduces stress. On the other hand, stress builds up if one does much, thinks much and desires much. Meditation can be defined as sitting still in an erect posture, concentrating on one’s breathing. Nietzsche’s prescription — “lying still and thinking little” — could also be considered meditation; indeed, almost anything can be considered meditation if one concentrates on what one is doing. Listening to music, for example, can be considered meditation if one concentrates on the music. Often, however, people listen to music while doing something else — while driving, while eating, while looking at a magazine, etc.

We frequently burden our mind with worries about the future and regrets about the past. Meditation unburdens the mind by concentrating on the present moment. By concentrating and strengthening the mind, meditation helps us cope with pain. Meditation techniques are often taught to pregnant women, in order to help them cope with the pain of childbirth. Meditation techniques are also taught to people who suffer from chronic back pain and other forms of pain.

Meditation can help us cope with temptation as well as pain. Temptation dominates many people’s lives, and causes health problems related to eating, drinking, smoking, etc. If one represses temptation, it becomes stronger; repression doesn’t solve the problem of temptation. Meditation and other stress-reduction techniques are the best ways of coping with temptation. People often eat, drink and smoke when they have nothing to do, or when they feel stress. By helping people cope with idleness and stress, meditation removes temptations.

Meditation requires no particular personality type, no special intellectual abilities. However, meditation techniques are of no avail if they’re done with the wrong attitude; attitude is as important as technique. One should have an attitude of non-striving, of accepting things as they are. Anyone who adopts this attitude, and who makes meditation a priority in their life, can benefit from meditation.

F. Non-doing revolutionizes ethics, just as the invention of zero revolutionized mathematics.

G. Zen Meditation plays an important role in Zen Buddhism. In fact, if one traces the word “Zen” from Japanese back to Chinese, and from Chinese back to the dialects of India, one finds that “Zen” means meditation. While Zen may have originated in India, it developed in China, where it was influenced by Chinese Taoism, and by the philosophies of Lao Zi and Zhuang Zi. Although Zen left a deep mark on Chinese culture, it achieved its widest application in Japan, where it shaped haiku poetry, the tea ceremony, and many other facets of Japanese life.

Most religions distinguish between the holy and the unholy, but Zen respects and values everything equally. Western religion tends to regard the everyday world as unholy. The Latin word for “world” is mundus, which evolved into the English word “mundane,” meaning low, unspiritual. But Zen doesn’t view the world as unholy or dirty, Zen values the everyday world because it isn’t preoccupied with The Other World, the Afterlife, Heaven. Zen can appreciate the present moment because it isn’t preoccupied with Eternity.

Haiku poetry celebrates the ordinary, everyday world.
The melons look cool,
Flecked with mud
From the morning dew.
This is by Basho, the most famous haiku poet. Here’s another haiku by Basho:
You light the fire
I’ll show you something nice —
A great ball of snow!
Zen is aware of the present moment, aware of the sights and sounds, the smells and tastes, that one is experiencing right now. People usually eat hurriedly, with their mind on something else; an American meditation teacher begins his class by giving each person a raisin, and asking them to eat it slowly, mindfully.

Zen lives directly, spontaneously, without excessive reflection. One writer on Zen calls Hamlet “the Zen-less man”6 because Hamlet is reflective. An ancient Buddhist maxim tells us to “awaken the mind without fixing it anywhere.”

Zen is devoid of doctrines and theories. A 12th-century Zen master, Tai-E, burned the chief Zen text because he didn’t want Zen to become bookish, dusty and intellectual.7 Zen masters often taught without words — by pointing, gesturing, etc.
When the Governor of Lang asked Yao-shan, ‘What is the Tao?’ the master pointed upwards to the sky and downwards to a water jug beside him. Asked for an explanation, he replied: ‘A cloud in the sky and water in the jug.’8
Just as Zen lacks a Western-style God, so too it lacks a Western-style morality. Zen doesn’t preach, it has no moral law, no “categorical imperative.” There are many similarities between Zen and Nietzsche. Nietzsche rejected traditional, Western religion and morality; Nietzsche’s philosophy is godless, amoral, beyond good and evil. Like Nietzsche, Zen isn’t pessimistic or nihilistic, it accepts the world as it is, and celebrates reality. As Nietzsche represents an advanced stage of Western philosophy, so Zen represents an advanced stage of Eastern wisdom. The philosophers of our time will draw upon both Nietzsche and Zen.

H. Man Becoming God While there are similarities between Nietzsche and Zen, there are also differences, one of which is that Nietzsche represents ego inflation, while Zen represents ego deflation. In general, Western culture emphasizes the ego far more than Eastern culture. Western painters like Rembrandt were preoccupied with the self-portrait, while Eastern painters concentrated on landscape. What a contrast between Michelangelo’s heroic figures and a Japanese rock garden! The West divides the self from the world, while the East merges the self with the world.

While many Western writers have had a high opinion of their own work, ego inflation reached an unprecedented level with Nietzsche. “Since the old God is abolished, I am prepared to rule the world,” wrote Nietzsche, in a discarded draft of his autobiography, Ecce Homo.9 Nietzsche’s ego inflation was a consequence of his atheism. As long as Western man worshipped God, his ego was kept within bounds; Christianity was a school of humility. Loss of faith led to ego inflation. Dostoyevsky perceived that atheism would lead to ego inflation; “If there is no God, then I am God,” says one of Dostoyevsky’s atheists.10

Zen is an antidote to ego inflation; like Christianity, Zen is a school of humility. Meditation is humbling because no one is “good” at meditation, and no one becomes “better” at meditation by doing it.

I. Hume and Zen Zen dissolves the ego, dissolves the boundaries between you and the external world; Zen changes our conception of the word “I”. Zen makes it easier to endure suffering and death by teaching us that we aren’t separate beings, we’re part of the world.

Before Western philosophers became acquainted with Eastern thought, they had begun to question the ego, to dissolve the ego; this was Hume’s contribution. But before we discuss Hume, let’s look at Hume’s ancestors, Locke and Berkeley.

Locke said that objects have primary qualities, such as substance and extension, and secondary qualities, such as color and taste. According to Locke, secondary qualities are subjective; they depend on you and I the perceivers, and don’t exist in the object itself. Primary qualities, on the other hand, actually exist.

To illustrate Locke’s theory, let’s look at a rose. You and I see it as red. A bee, which sees a different spectrum of light than you and I, may see it as yellow. The color of the rose depends on who’s perceiving it. In Locke’s view, color is one of those secondary qualities that don’t actually exist, that are merely subjective. But Locke believed that primary qualities (substance and extension) actually exist, objectively, apart from any perceiver.

Berkeley went further than Locke, and argued that even Locke’s “primary qualities” can’t be proven to exist apart from a perceiver. According to Berkeley, to be is to be perceived; we can’t conceive of being apart from perceiving. Berkeley even rejected Newton’s doctrine of absolute space, time, and motion. The view that space and time are relative, subjective — a view that we associate with Kant and Einstein — can be traced to Berkeley. There was one thing, however, that Berkeley didn’t question: the mind, the ego.

Hume went further than Berkeley, and argued that the mind isn’t stable and enduring, it’s just a series of thoughts and feelings that fly through us intermittently. Because these thoughts come and go rapidly, we perceive them to be continuous, just as we perceive a movie, which is made up of discrete images, to be a continuous image.

Long before Hume, Buddha had reached the same conclusion; Buddhists compared the mind to a torch that is waved rapidly in a circle, and perceived to be a continuous circle of flame. In the West, this idea seemed to be abstract, remote from life, but in the East, this idea sank deep roots, and became “second nature,” became a feeling, and affected how people thought about that little word “I”, how people dealt with suffering and death. Zen dissolves the walls of the mind, dissolves the ego, and teaches us that we aren’t separate beings, we’re part of the world.

Indeed, Zen would argue that nothing is a “separate being,” everything is part of everything else. Stop reading and look out of the window. You see a tree and you think, “that’s a separate thing.” Now reflect: the tree grows leaves. Are the leaves part of the tree, or separate from the tree? Part of the tree, no doubt. But if the leaves die and fall to the ground, they appear to be separate from the tree. When they disintegrate, however, and provide nourishment to that same tree, they appear to be part of it, not separate from it. Like leaves, seeds may be seen as part of the tree, or separate from it. If a seed grows into another tree, should we call it separate? Isn’t the second tree of the same substance as the first? “Flesh of my flesh, bone of my bone.” And if the tree draws its life from sunlight, water and air, can we call it a separate thing? Is it not part of the sunlight, the water, the air? Is it not just another form of sunlight, another form of water and air? Could it be that everything is a form of everything else, everything is One?

And if that tree isn’t a separate thing, then you and I aren’t either, for the same reasons that the tree isn’t. Aren’t you and I forms of sunlight, water and air, forms of everything else? And if we have a child, is he not separate and yet the same, external yet internal? If an apple is in our ice box, it appears separate, but if it’s in our stomach, then what? If it becomes part of our brain, then what?

The boundaries that demarcate things are not as clear as common sense supposes. The boundaries that demarcate things gradually vanish when we look at them closely. We begin to see the world as one world, one process, one stream of change. We begin to see ourselves differently, and we begin to define that little word “I” differently.

J. Not Twice Zen often reminds one of Western mystics, like Meister Eckhart. Eckhart liked to tell of meeting a peasant on the road, saying “good morning,” and receiving the response, “every morning is a good morning.”

One finds the same affirmative message in this Zen story:
A nobleman asked Takuan, a Zen teacher, to suggest how he might pass the time. He felt his days very long attending his office and sitting stiffly to receive the homage of others. Takuan wrote eight Chinese characters and gave them to the man:

Not twice this day.
Inch time foot gem.
(This day will not come again.
Each minute is worth a priceless gem.)11

K. What Zen Lacks Zen is a religion without superstition. It has

  1. no holy men
  2. no holy places
  3. no holy books
  4. no heaven and hell
  5. no commandments or laws
  6. no rites or ceremonies
  7. no miracles
  8. no prophecies (that is, no predictions of the coming of the holy man)

Compared to Zen, the three monotheistic religions — Christianity, Judaism and Islam — are all encrusted with superstition.

L. Thoreau is the most Zennish writer in Western literature. Like Zen, Thoreau focuses on the present moment:
In any weather, at any hour of the day or night, I have been anxious to improve the nick of time, and notch it on my stick too; to stand on the meeting of two eternities, the past and future, which is precisely the present moment; to toe that line.... We cannot afford not to live in the present. He is blessed over all mortals who loses no moment of the passing life in remembering the past.12
Thoreau wanted to be aware of the sights and sounds around him, but found that his mind was sometimes distracted:
I am alarmed when it happens that I have walked a mile into the woods bodily, without getting there in spirit. In my afternoon walk I would fain forget all my morning occupations and my obligations to society. But it sometimes happens that I cannot easily shake off the village. The thought of some work will run in my head and I am not where my body is — I am out of my senses. In my walks I would fain return to my senses. What business have I in the woods, if I am thinking of something out of the woods?13
Don’t be in a hurry, says Thoreau:
Nature never makes haste.... The bud swells imperceptibly, without hurry or confusion, as though the short spring days were an eternity.... Why, then, should man hasten as if anything less than eternity were allotted for the least deed? Let him consume never so many eons, so that he go about the meanest task well, though it be but the paring of his nails.... The wise man is restful, never restless or impatient. He each moment abides there where he is, as some walkers actually rest the whole body at each step, while others never relax the muscles of the leg till the accumulated fatigue obliges them to stop short.14
Thoreau’s attitude toward music was also Zennish: “Listen to music religiously, as if it were the last strain you might hear.”15

Like Zen, Thoreau is positive, affirmative, Yes-saying:
“[Compared to the New Testament, a cock’s crow is] a newer testament — the Gospel according to this moment.... to celebrate this last instant of time.... The merit of this bird’s strain is in its freedom from all plaintiveness. The singer can easily move us to tears or to laughter, but where is he who can excite in us a pure morning joy? When, in doleful dumps... I hear a cockerel crow far or near, I think to myself there is one of us well at any rate, and with a sudden gush return to my senses.”16
At age 45, when he was sick and near death, Thoreau’s positive attitude didn’t change at all, and in one of his last letters, he said, “I may add that I am enjoying existence as much as ever, and regret nothing.”17

2. By the Way

A. I recently saw an American movie called “A River Runs Through It.” It’s about two brothers growing up in Montana in the early 1900s. They learn fly-fishing from their father, a minister; much of the movie deals with fly-fishing. One might say that the star of the movie is Nature — the rivers and mountains of unspoiled Montana; in this respect, it reminded me of “Postmen in the Mountains” (the Chinese movie that I mentioned in a recent issue of Phlit), though it isn’t quite as good as “Postmen in the Mountains.” It seems that the Chinese are writing better stories, and making better movies, than Americans now are.

Like many American movies, “A River” is hyper-emotional, as if the director pressed the “Slow Motion” button whenever the scene contained some emotion; this is a vice of which Chinese movies are usually free. (I was once watching a sugary American movie with my 6-year-old daughter. The man gave the woman a long look, the woman gave the neighbor a long look, the neighbor gave the child a long look. Finally my daughter shouted, “C’mon, talk! Say something!”) Perhaps this hyper-emotional quality is due to arrogance, vanity, Hollywood’s infatuation with itself.

“A River Runs Through It” exemplifies two psychological laws:

  1. a minister’s son often becomes a hell-raiser, a law-breaker; as Jung would say, the minister represses his shadow, and his son lives the life that his father left unlived;
  2. the elder child is usually more self-disciplined than the younger child; the elder child is highly valued by his parents, and comes to see himself as valuable, hence he’s unlikely to “throw away his life” with wild behavior.18

I like the conclusion of the movie: the protagonist, now an old man, reflects on his life, and says, “in the end, everything merges into one, and a river runs through it.” The movie shows us natural beauty, and it also shows us a deep feeling for natural beauty. The movie is based on a memoir by an obscure writer, Norman Maclean; it seems to gain additional power by being a true story.

B. I also saw an Irish movie, “The Boxer.” It’s the story of a Catholic boxer in Northern Ireland who is released from prison after 14 years, and then tries to resume his old boxing career and his old romance. Emotions aren’t puffed up, drawn out, Slow Motion — as they are in many American movies. “The Boxer” deserves praise for giving the viewer an insight into the political situation in Northern Ireland. More generally, it gives the viewer an insight into how politics can consume a person’s life, consume a society. The only vices of the movie are excessive violence (a common vice among modern movies), and a plot that is a little too intricate, too contrived.

C. I recently saw an excellent documentary on public television about the history of Japan. It discussed the period when power was fragmented among numerous samurai. Then three samurai leaders tried to unify the country — Nobunaga, Hideyoshi, and Tokugawa. Nobunaga was known for his cruelty, Hideyoshi for his impetuosity, Tokugawa for his patience. A parable was told about these three leaders: there was a little bird who wouldn’t sing, and Nobunaga said, “little bird, if you won’t sing, I’ll kill you.” Hideyoshi said, “little bird, if you won’t sing, I’ll make you sing.” Tokugawa said, “little bird, if you won’t sing, I’ll wait for you to sing.” Tokugawa became shogun (leader of Japan) in 1603, and his dynasty ruled until 1867.

D. One of my favorite living writers, the diplomat and historian George Kennan, recently celebrated his 100th birthday. His biographer, Yale historian John Gaddis, recently appeared on Booknotes (a TV show). Gaddis is an “authorized biographer” — Kennan is cooperating with him, supplying him with materials, etc. Gaddis and Kennan agreed that Gaddis wouldn’t show a draft of his biography to Kennan, and wouldn’t publish it until Kennan had died. Gaddis says that Kennan often calls him on the phone, and apologizes for delaying his biography. Kennan wrote two superb volumes of memoirs, and two acclaimed books on Russia between 1917 and 1922. He also wrote about the diplomacy leading up to World War I (France’s alliance with Russia, etc.); he planned to write three volumes on this subject, but only completed two.

© L. James Hammond 2004
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1. Shakespearean Tragedy, “Macbeth” back
2. The Critic As Artist: A Dialogue back
3. Reflections on the Human Condition, #107 back
4. Goethe: The History of a Man, by Emil Ludwig, ch. 7 back
5. Assorted Opinions and Maxims, 361 back
6. R. H. Blyth, Zen in English Literature, ch. 10. Blyth translated the haiku poems quoted above. back
7. Ibid, ch. 4 back
8. quoted in The Way of Zen, by Alan Watts, II, 2 back
9. See the appendix to Walter Kaufmann’s translation of Ecce Homo. back
10. The Possessed, III, vi, 2 back
11. Zen Flesh, Zen Bones, “101 Zen Stories,” #32 back
12. see Walden, ch. 1, and the essay “Walking” back
13. “Walking” back
14. journal entry from 1840 back
15. journal entry from 1851 back
16. “Walking” back
17. The Days of Henry Thoreau, by W. Harding, ch. 20, 2 back
18. An example would be the Carter brothers, Jimmy and Billy. The elder brother, Jimmy, became President through his self-discipline and determination, while Billy was famous for his undisciplined behavior. back