Zen and American Philosophy (1)

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American interest in Zen Buddhism is growing. This response to an Oriental outlook must answer to a need. Some people seem to feel that here is the whole answer to what ails the West. There is no hiding the fact that Western civilization, and the United States in particular, confronts not only problems which its science can cope with but also troubles for which more than science is required. There is "more" in the traditional religion and philosophy of the West, but this heritage must be reinterpreted to be adequate now. Wisdom cannot be simply hoarded and inherited. It must ever be sought afresh, with new impetus. Today wise men of the East are stimulating the Western mind, apparently by infusing it with something foreign, but perhaps more by awakening it to resources of its own.


The unwary, the unwilling to think for themselves, may embrace an Eastern teaching as if nothing like it could be had at home, as if the West had gone astray for two thousand years, and should declare itself culturally bankrupt. But, swallowed whole, an exotic view is hard to digest. If it is to be assimilated it must be domesticated and tried out, to see what can be worked into the familiar fare, even as the Chinese arrived at Ch'an or Zen in the first place, by making their own use of Indian Buddhism. Since people must rely upon their understanding they will inevitably translate what is alien into their idiom, or employ outlandish expressions merely as emphatic equivalents for things that could have been said in household words. When, after all, what is offered from afar adds something the American had not been able to say or even to think, then he should welcome it and value it for its actual difference.


So he should see, as clearly as possible, what Zen has in comparison with American thought. Zen would not be the first import into the American thought stream; and it may be that, more than almost any other influence, Zen has affinity with the most American thinkers.



What John Dewey said of Emerson would apply to Zen: "His ideas are not fixed upon any Reality that is beyond or behind or in any way apart, and hence they do not have to be bent. They are versions of the Here and the Now, and flow freely. The reputed transcendental worth of an overweening Beyond and Away, Emerson, jealous for spiritual democracy, finds to be the possession of the unquestionable present."[1] Dewey linked Emerson and William James as "the prophetic forerunners," saying of James: "I love, indeed, to think that there is something profoundly American in his union of philosophy with life."[2] Dewey himself felt that the pursuit of ideals must begin with what is essentially Zen's appreciation of the happy aspects which actual experience happens to have. But, to See that these aspects are meager, precarious, or not sufficiently available to many people, meant to him that more should be done, that the old chores honored by Zen, even most new jobs, are not enough.



They are too hard, too slow, too enslaving, in view of what could be accomplished with the power of the sign process in science now. Emerson was stirred by the possibilities in this direction even in his day. He saw the climb from worm to man before Darwin showed it to the world, and would have been delighted with James's realization that intelligence is biological as Dewey was to be. Dewey began to move when he left Hegel for James, in seeing that intelligence basically is the way animals use energy and patience, alertness, caution, quickness to catch their prey and avoid being caught. Intelligence, then, is not just another part or capacity of the organism, but is its vital functioning as a whole. It follows that the criterion of mentality is the choice of means in the struggle for ends. When ends can be entertained and conduct governed by them, as well as by previous conditioning, there is not simply the clash of animals or armies in the night of necessity. There is the dawning of a new day when activity is not merely the result of the past but can also be guided by anticipation of the future. Thus freedom is introduced and increased, which brings impatience with old ways of doing, even though the goal is only to secure and extend the timeless joy of life cherished by Zen.


The best is given to begin with, in the riches of what James calls "pure experience." Strenuous as he and Dewey are, they join Zen in appreciation of this fact. To get back to the joy of the present moment, and enable more people to enjoy it, is their motivation. No more than Zen do they draw line between doing and enjoying. The moment need not be otiose to be precious. This is no less true of Zen than of American thought. Means and ends flow together for both. But the American thinkers are for renewing the means, to enhance their continuity with ends. Zen stresses the value of doing what has always been done and still needs doing. Without in the least denying this value, the men of the West would add that of doing better. Yet, it is still true for them that nothing is better than for men to do the best they can, and make the most of what they have, in the moment as it passes.


Though man thrives on striving, Dewey thinks of all his effort as taking off from and taken up into appreciation of the present. When we are happy we are housed in the here and now. We leave it only to restore it or to enrich it with more variety, also with more reassuring continuity. Dewey likes Emerson's saying: "If man is sick, is unable, is mean-spirited and odious, it is because there is so much of his nature which is unlawfully withholden from him." Dewey agrees that what is most needful is "the possession of the unquestionable Present." When it can be had in joy and peace, it not only passes man's understanding but takes the place of the high-flown ideas of the transcendentalists, and "removes him from their remoteness."[3] Then man can enjoy the moment no end. To live in the moment is to have sheer immediacy, without beginning or stopping, without thought of yesterday or tomorrow except as belonging to the eternal now.



But Dewey was like a bodhisattva, a saint of Mahayana Buddhism, who would not enter nirvaa.na if he had to forget the need of other people to be helped toward it. So was James, in saying the millennium would not come as long as a single cockroach suffered an unrequited love. Yet, James and Dewey had the Zen secret that it is possible to be like a turtle on a log even on the go, as everyone can learn to relax on a train or plane, in a pause of business, or in the law's delays. The Zen men knew that the sure way of getting to the mountains was to have them in mind. If the Zen experience could be had while hewing wood or drawing water, so might it be had while doing whatever needed to be done. This is the gist of Dewey's aesthetics: that the enjoyment of art need not be apart from the usual interests and activities of life.



His practical attitude is paralleled by the Buddhist suutra of the Ga.n.davyuuha. Suzuki explains it as belonging to the Mahaayaana reaction against Buddhism which "lacks vitality and democratic usefulness when it is kept from coming in contact with the concrete affairs of life."[4] When Buddhism was brought to earth it was possible to enjoy the contrast between grand terminology and a plain meaning. Thus: "Samantabhadra's arms raised to save sentient beings become our own, which are now engaged in passing the salt to a friend at the table, and Maitreya's opening the Vairochana Tower for Sudhana is our ushering in a caller into the parlor for a friendly chat . . . we see both the Bodhisattvas and the Buddhas shining in the sweat of their foreheads, in the tears shed for the mother who lost a child, in the fury of passions burning against injustice in its multifarious forms -- in short, in their never-ending fight against all that goes under the name of evil."[5]


Here, in the East, is James's fight for ends and Dewey's devotion to good causes, for their human value. In the Ga.n.davyuuha Suzuki sees the transition from Buddhism as a "mysticism which keeps its votaries on the giddy height of unapproachable abstractions making them refuse to descend among earthly entanglements" to a kind of Buddhism which "now overlaps this earthly world." Now: "all the Bodhisattvas, including the Buddhas -- are ourselves, and their doings are our doings."[6] Suzuki uses this suutra to bring out that Zen carries the same transition further and more deliberately. Then, to ask, "Who is Buddha?" is really to ask, "Who are you?" The name "Buddha" is used "to help" us appreciate what it is to be human. "The constant advice given by the Zen master to his monks is not to cling to the letter."[7] Suzuki sums it up: "We can say that the Chinese practical genius has brought the Buddha down again on earth so that he can work among us with his back bare and his forehead streaked with sweat and covered with mud. Compared with the exalted figure at Jetavana surrounded and adored by the Bodhisattvas from the ten quarters of the world, what a caricature this old donkey-leading woman-Buddha of Shou-shan, or that robust sinewy bare-footed runner of Chih-men! But in this we see the spirit of the Ga.n.davyuuha perfectly acclimatized in the Far Eastern soil."[8]



Suzuki is not willing to accept Hu Shih's interpretation of Zen as "the revolt of Chinese psychology against abstruse Buddhist metaphysics." For Suzuki, Zen "is not a revolt but a deep appreciation" of Buddhism, expressed "in the Chinese way."[9] Whether we side with Suzuki or with Hu, the American question is where their controversy[10] leaves James and Dewey in comparison with Santayana. He might seem closer to Zen in cherishing immediate experience in the familiar pattern, without interest in reform. But the striving, fighting philosophy of James and Dewey is more in the spirit of Zen's rejection of quietism than is Santayana's unperspiring detachment from mud and struggle, his mocking of the runner's heat. He is, however, more like Zen in keeping a semblance of the supernatural to express the poetry of existence, using an otherworldly vocabulary to do justice to this world. James and Dewey also recognize that mortal man needs to build himself up; but they see him doing it through co-operation with other men, and with the rest of the setting. If James wavered about leaving out the supernatural or cleaving to it, he was most consistent in saying: "... though one part of our experience may lean upon another part to make it what it is ... experience as a whole is self-containing and leans on nothing."[11] Dewey would say the same.

(to be continued)

Van Meter Ames



1. John Dewey, Characters and Events (New York: Henry Holt & Co., 1929), Vol. I, p. 275.

2. Ibid., p. 117.

3. Ibid., p. 75.

4. D. T. Suzuki, Essays in Zen Buddhism, Third Series (London: Rider and Co., 1953), p. 78.

5. Ibid., p. 83.
6. Ibid., pp. 78, 83.
7. Ibid., pp. 99, 100.
8. Ibid., pp. 102.
9. Ibid., p. 74.
10. See Hu Shih, "Ch'an (Zen) Buddhism in China: Its History and Method," Philosophy East and West, III, No. 1 (April, 1953), 3-24; and D. T. Suzuki "Zen: A Reply to Hu Shih," ibid., 25-46.

11. William James, Essays in Radical Empiricism (New York: Longmans, Green and Co., 1947), p. 193.