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Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Yoda, Zen, and Bushido

When the news broke about the 'atomic samurais' in Japan (see previous post)--and especially, all the talk about how those men embodied the samurai ethos of bushido--I was reminded of some of the stuff I had read about the connections between Zen and bushido. I was also reminded of Yoda, in particular, that famous line, 'Do or do not, there is no try'. In the unlikely event that you're not familiar with Star Wars, this is the scene:

It should be quite obvious how the Jedis are based on samurais. George Lucas was greatly inspired by the jidaigeki (period films) of Akira Kurosawa (I'm a fan too), and it is widely assumed that the term 'Jedi' was inspired by this Japanese phrase. The Jedis (especially Yoda) are also very Zen-like in their wisdom. Insofar as 'do or do not' is a statement about the non-duality of subject and object, between the doer and the deed, it is reminiscent of certain Zen ideals. The Vietnamese Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh, for instance, has said 'if we continue in our mindful observation there will no longer be a duality between observer and observed.' D.T. Suzuki, arguably the most influential figure in the development of 'Zen' in the twentieth century, has also said the same thing. In relation to the Zen notion of 'forgetting the self' or 'no-mind', he said: 'The seeing is not reflecting on an object as if the seer had nothing to do with it. The seeing, on the contrary, brings the seer and the object seen together, not in mere identification but the becoming conscious of itself, or rather of its working.'

It can be said that the 'atomic samurais' embody this wisdom: in giving themselves over fully to the task at hand, they 'forget the self'; there is only the doing, and no separation between the doer and the task. Such an attitude is also found in the samurai ethos of bushido, which has certain historical links with Zen. This what I want to reflect on: how Suzuki interweaved Zen with bushido and the wider implications of this interpretation, which Suzuki positioned as quintessentially Japanese.

In Zen and Japanese Culture, Suzuki identifies Zen ideals in Japanese arts like the tea ceremony and swordsmanship. He mentions a Adachi Masahiro of Kyoto, who penned the 'Essentials of Swordsmanship' in 1790, published in a collection in the 'thirty-eighth year of Meiji (1905)--this reference to the Meiji era is significant; I'll return to this. Suzuki writes:
Adachi Masahiro emphasizes the importance of psychic [Suzuki stresses that this is not to be understood solely in psychological terms; rather it has connotations of heart-mind-soul-spirit] training. The physical training and the mastery of technique are no doubt essential, but he who lacks psychic training is sure to be defeated. While being trained in the art, the pupil is to be active and dynamic in every way. But in actual combat, his mind must be calm and not at all disturbed. He must feel as if nothing critical is happening. When he advances, his steps are securely on the ground, and his eyes are not glaringly fixed on the enemy as those of an insane man might be. His behavior is not in any way different from his everyday behavior. No change is taking place in his expression. Nothing betrays the fact that he is now engaged in a mortal fight.
We find this 'psychic training' in Star Wars; this is what Luke Skywalker was doing with Yoda: i.e. confronting his fears, clearing his mind, learning to be at one with the Force, so that he may become a true Jedi knight. The advice given here is applicable to other artforms, and there is something admirable about this insofar as it is about giving oneself over fully to one's craft, about clearing the mental clutter (fear, anxiety, doubt, etc) that we bring to the things we do. It is, in other words, about being 'spiritually' attuned to one's craft. Suzuki thus writes, 'When spirituality is attained, myō (miao) [explicated in a footnote as 'something original and creative growing out of one's own unconscious] is manifested, wherein we observe that swordplay is not just an art but has something of original creativity.' 

Suzuki continues:
Spiritual attainment may not be expected of every swordsman, however well disciplined in the technique, but when he fully makes up his mind not to come out alive from the combat, he may prove himself to be a formidable opponent even for a highly trained swordsman. Fear of death or attachment of any kind is liable to affect the movement of the sword, and the enemy is sure to make use of the opportunity to his advantage. 
What distinguishes the art of swordsmanship most characteristically from any other branch of art, as we now clearly see, is that it is most intimately connected with the ultimate problem of life and death. And it is here that swordsmanship has taken itself to be a close ally to the study of Zen and even to aspire to a spiritual attainment of high degree.
We can see here why those men in Japan were called the 'atomic samurais'--like the consummate swordsman they appear to have relinquished the fear of death. I do not think there is anything inherently wrong with this ideal or with using the art of swordsmanship as a form of spiritual practice. In fact, based on what Suzuki has written, swordsmanship does appear to fit well with certain Zen ideals. However, what I wish to draw attention to is the historical and political context in which such an interpretation of Zen with bushido was foregrounded emphatically.

The connection between Zen and bushido was a recurring theme in Suzuki's work. In his first English writing on Zen entitled ‘The Zen Sect of Buddhism’ (1906), he wrote, ‘The Lebensanschauung of Bushido is no more or no less than that of Zen.' While it is certainly the case that certain highly accomplished swordsmen in Japan were accomplished Zen practitioners as well, this emphatic interpretation of Zen has to be situated within its context. Suzuki, along with his predecessor Soen Shaku, were Buddhist reformers of the Meiji period. Without going into details, this is the period where Japan emerged as a global power, embracing rapid economic growth and militarisation. 

The emphatic reading of Zen with bushido (and the notion that their coupling captured 'true Japanese-ness') was prompted by, and in turn reinforced, certain imperialist-nationalist agendas. It has been observed that the reformation of Buddhism during this period was aimed at the elite class of the new Japan and ‘bound to concepts of Japanese racial superiority and Japan’s late nineteenth-century bid for world-power status’ (Presenting Japanese Buddhism to the West, p. 201). The political implications of the linking of Zen with bushido and Suzuki's interpretation of Zen have been noted in several studies. See for example, Zen at War by Brian Victoria. David Loy also touches on this in a chapter in The Great Awakening: A Buddhist Social Theory.

To be clear: I am not trivialising the sacrifice of the 'atomic samurais' nor am I demonising Suzuki, whose work is in many ways insightful. But in light of the above, it should be evident how the same samurai spirit which the global media proudly attribute to these men was, under different conditions, the same one rousing kamikaze pilots and soldiers who (according to my father and relatives who lived through WWII under Japanese occupation) did not hesitate to bayonet babies in honour of their cause.

My point here is to highlight how, as a discursive formation, 'Buddhism' is always already constituted by wider historical, social, cultural, economic, and political conditions. These conditions form the network of power relations in which 'Buddhism' must inevitably negotiate. In contemporary contexts, what are some of the power relations circumscribing the development of 'Buddhism'? More importantly, how do the ways in which we speak about and enact Buddhism reproduce these power relations?


Anyway, I am a HUGE fan of Toshiro Mifune, who acted in many Kurosawa films, including Yojimbo, the film which Sergio Leone remade almost scene for scene as Fistful of Dollars. Needless to say, I like Yojimbo, but I also really like the sequel Sanjuro, which to me is a more playful film. Here is a scene from Sanjuro where Mifune's character displays the 'badass mofo-ness' of the samurai described above. 

WARNING: This is a scene from the end of the film. Don't click if you plan to watch the film! The following quote by Suzuki is very fitting:
The perfect swordsman avoids quarreling or fighting. Fighting means killing. How can one human being bring himself to kill a fellow being? We are all meant to love one another and not to kill. It is abhorrent that one should be thinking all the time of fighting and coming out victorious. We are moral beings, we are not to lower ourselves to the status of animality. What is the use of becoming a fine swordsman if he loses his human dignity? The best thing is to be a victor without fighting.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Fukushima 50: aporia, responsibility and the sacrifice of the other others

As you will probably have heard by now, 'Fukushima 50' is the name given by the global media to the group of people at the Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant who have decided to remain onsite to contain the damage sustained by the reactors in the wake of the recent earthquake in Japan. Before I go on, I feel obliged to point out that in many instances the media coverage of the event outside Japan has been somewhat sensationalised, bordering on a kind of exploitation of the tragedy. See for instance: (Thanks to my cousin for posting this on Facebook).

What I wish to do here is not to talk about what has happened in Japan as such. Rather, I want to use the example of the decision made by the Fukushima 50 to share some of the ideas about ethics, decision, responsibility, and sacrifice which I have been reading in Derrida's The Gift of Death (quoted in the previous post). I cannot say I've understood him--not in the sense of I 'know' what he means--but I do feel a certain affective resonance with what I've read. There's something about what he says that moves me, quite deeply. So rather than attempt to systematically explicate what I've felt (because I can't) I will simply quote excerpts from texts. The following might come across as somewhat 'vague' and 'airy', but I'm writing this in the hope that it will resonate with you, that 'you'--the unknown, unknowable reader; the other of this text--may derive some understanding from it, whatever that may be. 

To begin, let me quote from an article about the 'atomic samurais' in a local paper, The Herald Sun (again, I feel obliged to point out that Rupert Murdoch's News Corp owns this paper; nuff said):
The families of these brave men may never see them again, but they are proud of their sacrifice... 
Another loved one says in an email: "My father is still working at the plant. He says he's accepted his fate, much like a death sentence."
It would seem that the Fukushima 50 are acting on their sense of duty, their ethical responsibility to the nation, to the 'greater good', the general 'others'. But this decision to act with responsibility is at the same time marked by a certain irresponsibility, namely, the suspension of their ethical responsibility to their loved ones: those other others. Derrida writes:
I cannot respond to the call, the request, the obligation, or even the love of another without sacrificing the other other, the other others. Every other (one) is every (bit) other [tout autre est tout autre], everyone else is completely or wholly other (p. 68).
In this essay, 'Derrida's (Ir)religion: A Theology (of Différance)', the author Ian Edwards adds this gloss to the above: 'Here Derrida agrees with what is most existential. An actualized possibility is always the death of some other possibility. Death is all around, sacrifices are constantly being made (p. 149).

Derrida continues:
As soon as I enter into a relation with the other, with the gaze, look, request, love, command, or call of the other, I know that I can respond only by sacrificing ethics, that is, by sacrificing whatever obliges me to also respond, in the same way, in the same instant, to all others. I offer a gift of death, I betray, I don't need to raise my knife over my son on Mount Moriah [i.e. Abraham] for that. Day and night, at every instant, on all Mount Moriahs of this world, I am doing that, raising my knife over what I love and must love, over those to whom I owe absolute fidelity, incommensurably
Let us not look for examples, there would be too many of them, at every step we took. By preferring my work, simply by giving it my time and attention, by preferring my activity as a citizen or as a professorial and professional philosopher, writing and speaking here in a public language, French in my case, I am perhaps fulfilling my duty. But I am sacrificing and betraying at every movement all my other obligations: my obligations to the other others whom I know or don't know, the billions of my fellows (without mentioning animals that are even more other others than my fellows), my fellows who are dying of starvation or sickness. I betray my fidelity or my obligations to other citizens, to those who don't speak my language and to whom I neither speak nor respond, to each of those who listen or read, and to whom I neither respond nor address myself in the proper manner, that is, in a singular manner (this for the so-called public space to which I sacrifice my so-called private space), thus also to those I love in private, my own, my family, my son, each of whom is the only son I sacrifice to the other, every one being sacrificed to every one else in this land of Moriah that is our habitat every second of every day (p. 68-9).
Responsibility always bears the trace of irresponsibility. Irresponsibility--which is the impossibility of full responsibility--is the condition of possibility for any act of responsibility. The possible-impossible aporia. 


Without equating them or reducing one to the other, I'd like to make a few comments about the above in relation to Buddhism. It seems to me that Buddhism recognises the possible-impossible aporia that 'comes before' (though not in any temporal sense) every decision we take. This is expressed quite overtly in the Mahayana tradition which is oriented by the Bodhisattva Ideal. I've not received guidance or instruction in Mahayana teachings and practice, so I confess that I am limited in my understanding of this ideal. Nevertheless, reading the different versions of the bodhisattva vow as they are, it seems to me that it expresses something quite similar: the impossibility of Awakening is at once the possibility. For instance:
However innumerable sentient beings are, I vow to save them.
However inexhaustible the defilements are, I vow to extinguish them.
However immeasurable the dharmas are, I vow to master them.
However incomparable enlightenment is, I vow to attain it.
Beings are numberless; I vow to awaken with them.
Delusions are inexhaustible; I vow to end them.
Dharma gates are boundless; I vow to enter them.
Buddha's way is unsurpassable; I vow to become it.
The passions of delusion are inexhaustible.
I vow to extinguish them all at once.
The number of beings is endless. I vow to help save them all.
The Truth cannot be told. I vow to tell it.
The Way which cannot be followed is unattainable. I vow to attain it.
To conclude, let me quote Derrida's koan-like musing on the question of the self:
The question of the self: "who am I?" not in the sense of "who am I" but "who is this 'I'" that can say "who"? What is the "I," and what becomes of responsibility once the identity of the "I" trembles in secret?

Sunday, March 13, 2011

The Secret of Secrecy: Who am I?

From this video, 'Jacques Derrida on Kierkegaardian 'Secrecy'.

In his 1992 work 'The Gift of Death' ('Donner la mort'), Derrida examines the ethical/religious writings of Czech philosopher Jan Patočka (1907-1977) as well as Kierkegaard's 'Fear and Tembling' ... in Part Four - 'Tout autre est tout autre' ('Every other [one] is every [bit] other') there is detailed discussion of Abraham's secret calling by God to sacrifice his son Isaac ... for Kierkegaard this marks absolute 'subjectivity', the incommunicable existential truth of one's being ... Abraham becomes a 'knight of faith' acting solely upon his belief in God's calling, suspending ethical injunction ... in terms of this radical interiority - a subjectivity that actually divests one of usual moral 'selfhood', Derrida writes (the clip's voiceover):
"How can another see into me, into my most secret self, without my being able to see in there myself and without my being able to see him in me? And if my secret self, that which can be revealed only to the other, to the wholly other, to God if you wish, is a secret that I will never reflect on, that I will never know or experience or possess as my own, then what sense is there in saying that it is "my" secret, or in saying more generally that a secret *belongs*, that it is proper to or belongs to some "one," or to some *other* who remains some*one*? It is perhaps there that we find the secret of secrecy, namely, that it is not a matter of knowing and that it is there for no-one. A secret doesn't belong, it can never be said to be at home or in its place.... The question of the self: "who am I?" not in the sense of "who am I" but "who is this 'I' that can say "who"? What is the "I," and what becomes of responsibility once the identity of the "I" trembles in secret?" ('Gift of Death,' p. 92)

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Waiting for nothing: extreme attentiveness

I've finished the draft of the paper on Vipassana and Foucault. In the paper I quote Foucault's musing about language in the essay 'Maurice Blanchot: The Thought from Outside'. I'm not familiar with Blanchot as such but reading the following quote as it is, I find it to be a fitting, poetic allegory for the Buddhist meditative stance:

Language in its every word, is indeed directed at contents that preexist it; but in its own being, provided that it holds as close to its being as possible, it only unfolds in the pureness of the wait. Waiting is directed at nothing: any object that could gratify it would only efface it. Still, it is not confined to one place, it is not a resigned immobility; it has the endurance of a movement that will never end and would never promise itself the reward of rest; it does not wrap itself in interiority; all of it falls irremediably outside. Waiting cannot wait for itself at the end of its own past, nor rejoice in its own practice, nor steel itself once and for all, for it was never lacking courage. What takes it up is not memory but forgetting. This forgetting… is extreme attentiveness.

I'll try to articulate why this struck a chord with me.

According to so-called 'poststructuralist' philosophy, language or conceptuality shape our subjectivity and is always on the slide, always differing and deferred. This is what Derrida expresses with the ideas of différance and 'traces of traces', but I am of course simplifying them greatly here. Any attempt to deny this nature of the thought process, of the processes constituting the 'self', would engender what Derrida calls the metaphysics of presence or ontotheology, a way of conceptualising reality that favours presence over absence (and by extension, self-sameness over other-difference). The poststructuralist understanding of language/conceptuality/thought seems to coincide with the Buddhist idea of papañca which means something like 'conceptual proliferation-objectification'. Interestingly, Bhikkhu Thanissaro notes here that the word 'offers some interesting parallels to the postmodern notion of logocentric thinking, but it's important to note that the Buddha's program of deconstructing this process differs sharply from that of postmodern thought.' 

Even though Derrida and Foucault reject the label 'postmodern', they have been lumped together under this category. In this instance Bhikkhu Thanissaro is clearly referring to them, well, certainly to Derrida whose deconstructive philosophy is aimed at undermining logocentrism. I agree with Bhikkhu Thanissaro that the Buddhist program is different because it is oriented by a different goal. Buddhism posits the possibility of an Unconditioned reality whereby our perceptions are no longer circumscribed by the workings of language/conceptuality/thought. While poststructuralist philosophy doesn't posit the Unconditioned as such (why should we expect it to?), it does acknowledge that there are limits to language/conceptuality/thought. Both Derrida and Foucault were working to bring language/conceptuality/thought to its limits, to explore the 'other' or 'outside' even if they do not posit what the 'other' or 'outside' might be.

To come back to Foucault's poetic musing about language. We can see that he alludes to the constant movement of language/conceptuality/thought. But at the same time, he is not simply saying that language/conceptuality/thought is all there is to reality. In fact, he appears to be suggesting that if there is an 'outside' to what our conventional perception tells us, what this 'outside' requires is a vigilant awareness of language/conceptuality/thought 'as it is': constantly on the move. What is required is a kind of waiting, but not directed at anything in particular for to harbour any preconceived notion of the 'outside' would be to circumscribe the 'outside' back within language/conceptuality/thought. Hence, 'the pureness of the wait'.

For me, this is similar to the Buddhist meditative stance. While we may take up an object of meditation--e.g the breath or sensations or whatever--we are not concerned with the object in and of itself. The object of meditation merely serves as a vehicle for attention so that we could observe the ceaseless movement of mental and physical processes. In meditation, the aim is not to control thought-feeling but to cultivate a different relationship to thought-feeling. It is a process of watching thoughts-feelings, of letting thoughts-feelings arise and pass away without identifying with them or seeking to pin them down. It is a process of recognising papañca 'as it is'. The aim of Awakening, it can be said, is to free ourselves from the self-incarcerating process of conceptuality. But it is not to surpress it as such. While papañca might encourage the objectification of thoughts--and particularly a mistaken sense of an enduring 'self'--without this movement of thought, without conceptuality we are bereft of the 'ingredients', so to speak, for Awakening. How are we to study and reflect on Buddhism, how are we to negotiate everyday reality if not for this movement of thought? 

Of course, it is important not to wrongly identify with thought or conceptuality, for this would only trap us in dukkha. While it is said that the movement of papañca would lose its hold on us with Awakening, to harbour any preconceived notion of how this would be like is to slip back into the workings of papañca, because Awakening/the Unconditioned is beyond conceptuality. Hence, what is needed is a vigilant awareness akin to waiting, a pure waitingAll we can do is start again and again ('never promise itself the reward of rest') with the breath or whatever the chosen object of meditation is. This is a waiting for the 'outside' of conceptuality: the Unconditioned, Awakening. And to this extent, the waiting has to be directed at 'nothing', for 'any object that could gratify it would only efface it'.

Interestingly, Foucault likens waiting to 'forgetting'. This would appear to contradict the Buddhist principle of mindfulness or sati, which has connotations of recollection. True. But my aim here is not to equate Foucauldian thought with Buddhist principles. Rather, it is to use the language of one to express allegorically my understanding of the other. I am not proposing a perfect fit between them. In any case, Foucault also says that this forgetting is a kind of 'extreme attentiveness'. I'd suggest that this is not incompatible with Buddhist ideals insofar as what is required in Buddhism is a certain forgetting of the self. This is expressed in Zen by Dogen, 'To study the self is to forget the self.' What this forgetting requires is indeed a kind of extreme attentiveness, so that the mind does not absentmindedly 'wrap itself in the interiority' of what language/conceptuality/thought offers in the guise of the 'I', 'me', 'mine'. Such a waiting, I would suggest, involves a kind of faith in the face of the unknown, of the unknowable. Derrida, who was also influenced by Blachot's work, offers the following image in his discussion of faith (I've posted about this previously) which I think coincides with Foucault's notion of 'pure waiting':

an abyss... a desert in a desert, there where one neither can nor should see coming what ought or could--perhaps--be yet to come.

The pureness of the wait, waiting for nothing, extreme attentiveness: this is what the ceaseless movement of anicca (impermanence or change), the 'not' of anatta (not-self)--the 'outside' of this moment--demands of us, now

All this talk about waiting reminds me of a song by the Lightning Seeds, 'Waiting for Today to Happen', which I like a lot; as the title indicates it expresses very poignantly the kind of immobility that results when waiting is wrongly directed or when it is caught up in expectations and projections: when it is wrapped up in its own interiority, waiting for itself at the end of its own past. The record company has removed the videos and/or disallowed embedding (for my location anyway). I can only find this one in memory of a deceased pet. I'm a cat owner myself so I fully sympathise with this person's lost. Check out the song if you like.


Waiting for Today to Happen
Lightning Seeds

The usual dreams, the usual schemes

Same lost feelings, same bad day dreams

Only unreal and delirious,

Out of breath and out of luck

[Sometimes] when I wake up slowly

[Paralysed] by the fears within me

Waiting for today to happen

Waiting for a vague impression

Waiting for today to happen

Waiting here with nothing but disaster

[Nailed tight] in his bed forever

[Turn out the lights] tomorrow, whatever

I'm so hung over with sleep

All I want to do is dream and dream and dream

Just lie down and never leave

Put myself here at your knees

[Sometimes], when I wake up slowly

[Paralysed] by the fears within me

Waiting for today to happen

Waiting for a vague impression

Waiting for today to happen

Waiting here with nothing but disaster

[Nailed tight] in his bed forever

[Turn out the lights] tomorrow, whatever