Wednesday, March 14, 2007

The 23rd Day of Lent, 2007

I've been re-reading Thomas Merton's Zen and the Birds of Appetite, the core experience from which I coined the word logorrhea several decades ago — you need not believe me, but it's true.

Merton is the grand old puppet master whose repertory of the Fathers of the Church includes an amusing caricature of D. T. Suzuki, by far the most approachable image we have of the old boy. I confess, though, I can't read Merton for very long before an inexplicable black rage rises up behind my eyes and I feel required, no, impelled to hurl his book against the nearest wall. Like Ayn Rand, whose every book I've burned, a few minutes with Merton asymptotically approaches Eternity.

Kurt Gödel explained this to my satisfaction in Douglas Hofstadter's book, Gödel, Escher, Bach some years ago: Systems of thought lie atop each other like immiscible fluids, precisely because they are inconsistent with themselves. Merton's Christianity is fundamentally not like D. T. Suzuki's Buddhism. D. T. Suzuki's Buddhism is not like anything but itself. Dominicans and Jesuits take Truth where they find it. Leave it to a Trappist monk, bound by implacable vows to Silence, to transmute the consolations of philosophy into clanging alchemy.

For his part, Suzuki is a fabulous old exile from a small pond, a peregrine frog at large. I'm not sure of his dates, although he survived well into Showa. He attempted to present Zen to the West. Strange concept, that, as though Zen had some western aspect congruent with pre-beatnik sensibility, leaving aside Akira Kurosawa's take on samurai westerns! No, Suzuki is incomprehensible. I should know, I've flogged my eyeballs with his translation of the Lankavatara Sutra, and struggled to find meaning in his Studies of the same work. No, Suzuki, transporting Buddhism to the West, requires Western coolies to pull his riksha into the Atomic Age: Alan Watts, Gary Snyder, Thomas Merton, among others.

Aside from muddying a few oddly still waters, like a giant goldfish whirling at the bottom of long-settled pools, I'm not sure Suzuki accomplished much. But he cracked open doors no one knew were doors, and so these days we have Dalai Lamas and Thich Nhat Hans gallivanting about, and Ecology and Darwinism and DNA where previously all we heard was D. T. Suzuki's odd neologism, "suchness," which, as any Logical Positivist will happily reveal to you, means absolutely nothing at all.

I confessed all my own ordinary sins last Saturday, part of my rite of passage into Catholicism. Today I confess my amphibian participation in a few extraordinary ones. Om, Sweet Om, my friends. Kawazu tobikomu.

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