Wednesday, July 18, 2012
"So too with art: it does not follow that judgments, standards, or ranking artwork are impossible, as Huston Smith so grandly points out. As Shakespeare said, therein lies the rub: postmodern critics fail to see that just being ironic and having impact isn't enough to make something art. To use only the postmodern criteria for art creates a flatland, where there is no way to deem anything “better than” anything else — everything is left in an egalitarian swamp where everyone gets a gold star for trying to be an artist, and everyone can be an artist if they want. Using irony just means you're on the “in” — you “get it”, which does, in fact, make your work a little better than grandma's painting of ducks in winter."
Sunday, January 22, 2012
Wednesday, October 26, 2011
By Chiaki Ajioka
The Mingci movement, which began in Japan in the "I 920s and continues today, has
almost always been discllssed as onc which revolved entirely around Yanagi Soctsu
(1889-1961), a religious philosopher and the apparent founder of the movement.:!
The movement. and Yanagi's theory on the beauty of folk crafts, have been known
to the West particularly after World \'(far 11 through a number of publications in
English, the most famous being The Unknown Craftsman, adapted by Bcrnard Leach
and first published in 1972.3 Nlore recendy, two rouringexhibitions based on Yanagi's
collection at the Japan Folkcrafr Museum (Mingeikan), have been organised in the
West: Mingei: The Living Tradition in Japanese Arts (Glasgow, Sunderland and
London, 1991-92) and Two Centuries of Japanese Folk Art (Massachusetts,
Nebraska, Cal;fornia and Texas, 1995-97).
Yanagi presented his craft aesthetic in a series of articles published in 1927. It
consisted of a number of principles: first, that the purest beauty of craft is found
among ordinary objects; second, that the essence of the beauty of ordinary crafts is
their simplicity of shape, warmth of character and spirit of service (i.e. case of use);
third, that their beauty springs nor from the creativity of the individual producers
hut from the concerted efforts of the multitudes over generations; fourth, that their
beauty is thus free from the individualism which has caused the degradation of art
and crah, and is therefore superior to works of art bearing individual names; fifth,
that the characteristics of their beauty come from the fact that they are made in large
quantities so the economy of the production process drives individual fancy out of
the objects· the producers, therefore, were not conscious of the beauty they create;
and sixth, that because it is impossible to return to the unconscious past in this age
of consciousness, the future of the crafts can only rest on individual producers. To
achieve the purest beauty of craft, however, the individual craft artist muSt strive to
erase his or her individuality and surrender to the power from without.
Curiously, until recently there had been few critical studiesofYanagi and the Mingei
movement in either Japan or the \Vest. For most people, Japanese or non-japanese,
Yanagi's vast knowledge of \'V'estern philosophy and religion, and of numerous
difficult Buddhist texts, perhaps seemed too daunting to allow them to criticise him.
In addition, rhe body of his writings includes his answers to, and counter attacks
against, criticisms made during his lifetime. There are questions, however, which have
been repeatedly asked but remain unans\\'cred - such as rhe vexing problem of the
position of individual craft artists (such as Hamada Sh6ji, Kawai Kanjiro, Serizawa
Keisuke and Munakata Shiko) wirhin a movement which considered the beauty of
folk crafts superior to works by individual craft arrists.4
However, when one steps back from Yanagi's actions and writings, and places the
Mingei movement in rhe contexr of the wider contemporary development of the crafts
in japan, one begins to sce a different picture in which most of these important
quesrions are answered. In most publications on the Mingei movement, its hisrory is
described as commencing with Yanagi when he, together with Hamada Sh6ji and
Kawai Kanjir6, coined the word mingei (craft with the characteristics of common
people). However, this narrative ignores the significance of the earlier development
from which the notion of mingei sprang. Why this is so will become clearer later in
The origin of what we caB the Mingei movement can be traced back to the time
when Bernard Leach took up pottery, which was early in the 19105.5 Around this
time Tomimoto Kenkichi, a progressive student of architecture and design, acted as
an interpreter for Leach and his teacher Kcnzan, and then began making pottery
himself.6 The style of this pottery was derived from old English folk art and other
Western and Middle-Eastern traditions. Tomimoto became acquainted with these
traditions at the Sourh Kensington Museum (now the V & A), and while travelling
;n the M;ddle East between 1908 and 1910.
Leach and Tomimoto not only experimented in pottery but in prints and other
crafts, and designed exhibitions in an unconventional manner. Their works and
activities were innovatory, and as such had an extremely strong and lasting impact
on many youngJapanese artists and craftsmen. For some time, this younger generation
of artists had been seeking new kinds of expression that would reflect their recently
established, largely \Vesternised, urban life. Their works struck a sympathetic chord
in a new consciousness among the artistic community. This new consciousness, which
one may call a modern culture, emerged among the urban intellectuals from the
beginning of the century. One important clement of this new culture may be seen as
exoticism. Living in a now fully developed urban society in which information about
Western cultures and art movements was readily available, these intellectuals began
to see not only foreign cultures bur also their own past, their rural culture, as exotic.
In this context, one must poinr out the effect of Japan's colonisation of Taiwan in
1905 and annexation of Korea in 1910. A strong sense of cultural superiority often
accompanied this taste for exoticism; for example, Masaki Naohiko, the president
of the Tokyo School of Fine Arts, spoke thus of 'native crafts' in 1913:
Recently, natives' art has become fashionable. As our culture becomes more
advanced, people begin to prefer objects which represent the opposite. As
everythlllg from the social structure to our everyday life is becoming more and
more complicated and sophisticated, and so is our work, it is natural that we seek
our repose in simpler objects.?
Masaki illustrated this with pictures from his collection - mostly from the South
Pacific, North America and the Middle East.
One of the artists on whom Leach and Tomimoto had a strong impact was Hamada
Sh6ji (1894-1978). Hamada went to a technical school to study ceramics, but was
determined to make pottery in the style developed by Leach and Tomimoto rather
than in the highly tefined and skill-oriented styles of traditional Japanese cetamics.
Hamada visited Leach and offered help in setting up a kiln at St Ives in Cornwall.
Here Hamada - who grew up in Tokyo and worked in Kyoto - met British artists and
intellectuals, such as Eric Gill, who chose to live the simple life in the country.s They
served their guests not with Doulton or Wedgwood ware but with locally produced
slipware plates and bowls which were in perfect harmony with their surroundings.
This was the direction in which Hamada was determined to proceed. On his return
to Japan in 1924, Hamada began foraging in antique shops and markets in Kyoto
for pieces to his taste and for his creative use.9 In other ~words, his experience in the
West opened his eyes to objects which were otherwise taken for granted in Japan.
Hamada's behaviour at first puzzled his friend Kawai Kanjiro, who had e::stablished
himself as an extremely skilled cera mist yet was not satisfied with his work and was
searching for a new direction. Yanagi Soetsu was also living in Kyoro at the time.
The three men quickly discovered their shared interest in simple folk crafts, and a
strong friendship was formed. It was during this period that Yanagi developed his
It is important to note, however, that Hamada Shoji had doubts about Yanagi's
Mingei theory being used as a formula for appreciating all art and craft. lo Yanagi's
theory was a synthesis of his previous spiritual journey in search of truth through
religion, science and psychology. When he 'discovered' the beauty of folk crahs, he
identified his aesthetic with spiritual truth. The notion that ordinary crafts made by
ordinary artisans for use in everyday life could have a supreme beauty was a kind of
enlightenment for those who read Yanagi's passionate writings. The lack of logic in
some of his arguments was overlooked. His was a revolutionary theory which
completely overturned the conventional artistic hierarchy.
The similarities bctween Morris's writings and Yanagi's Mingei theory are
unmistakable. Yanagi, however, insisted on the originality of his ideas, declaring that
he had not known of Morris's or Ruskin's ideas before he formulated his own theory.
Most of Yanagi's followers do not question the validity of this daim. l1 Western
scholars, on the other hand, have tended rosee a strong influence of Morris on Yanagi.
Brian l\1oeran has been the most persistent advocate of this view. 12 Elizabeth Frolet,
a French artist and scholar, is another who considers that Yanagi's inspiration came
largely from Morris.1.l
My view is that the circumstances in which Yanagi's theory was formed suggest
that he could not have been unaware of Morris and his ideas. However, I also believe
that there are too many other Eastern and Western ideas which certainly influenced
Yanagi to say that Morris's was the main influence on him. For example, thete is a
striking resemblance between Emile M5.le's representation of the Gothic craftsmen
faithfully following the rules of image production· in his book The Gothic Image:
Religious Art ju France in the Thirteenth Cel1tury (1902) - and Yanagi's description
of the selfless artisan who unconsciously created beauty. This has somehow escaped
the notice ofMingei hisrorians. although they know that Yanagi read and wrote about
Male's book some years before forming his Mingei theory.
Some people, including Bernard Leach, but particularly Japanese scholars such as
Mizuo Hiroshi and Jugaku Bunsho. hold that Yanagi actually surpassed Morris in
that Yanagi 'raised' the aesthetic appreciation of folk crafts to a spirituallevel. 14 For
those who believe that spiritual discourse has a higher value than artistic discourse,
it may be so. One may argue, however, that by presenting a personal aesthetic as
universal truth, Yanagi created confusion. Firstly. he completely cur off his aesthetic
frolll history and made it a kind of gospel which claimed that once your eyes were
opened to this truth. you were ablc to understand beauty. This was precisely what
Hamada feared and warned against. To the extent that Yanagi's writings opened up
new possibilities of seeing beauty in objects that had never been considered beautiful.
this provided the freedom of a modern sensibility. Yer, at the same time as Yanagi
did so, he shackled his readers to his formula - a pre-set value which determined what
was beautiful and what was not.
Another serious problem with Yanagi's theory, which Hamada pointed out, was
that when Yanagi illustrared his argument with examples of folk craftworks, he did
nor fully explain why he selected them our of rhe rens of thousands of other objects
of similar kinds which would also apparently satisfy his criteria for beautiful objects.
The fact that they were selected by Yanagi with his celebrated connoisseurship was
not mentioned, as Yanagi wanted to generalise from the objects' beauty rather than
to draw attention to his own good taste.
Hamada's criticisms were very important as they anticipated the direction in which
Mingei theory would develop. By the time he voiced his concern in 1931, a new
movemenr was emerging, in Tottori, a coastal ciry on the Sea of Japan, led by Yoshida
Sh6ya, an ear, nose and throat doctor and ardent admirer of Yanagi. Yoshida
interpreted Yanagi's theory as a practical manual for appreciating and creating beauty;
he and others like him believing that if the older artisans produced beautiful objects
through repetition of the same shapes and patterns, properly guided artisans would
also be able to produce beautiful objects even in the modern age. These were the
people who eventually overwhelmed the more cautious readers of Yanagi's writings
and became the mainstream Mingei movement, particularly after the war. For them,
the movement started when Yanagi first perceived the beauty of folk crafts.
The earlier group, Leach, TomimotO, Hamada, Kawai and Yanagi, shared their
love and admiration of folk crafts. The individualistic pursuits of craft artisans (as
most of them were) happily coexisted with their admiration for extraordinary pieces
of old folk ware. Yoshida Sh6ya and others who became the mainstream Mingei
movement, however, held that one should despise individualistic crafts, because
Yanagi despised them. Ironically, it was the high profile of the artists under its wing,
like Hamada and others, and later, Munakata Shik6 or Serizawa Keisuke, that
promoted the Mingei movement as a whole. How, then, did these artists and craft
artists reconcile their position in a movement which, as a principle, condemned
individualism? The answer was that they did not take Yanagi's theory at its face value
and, contrary to popular belief, did not let his theory guide their work. As to Hamada
and Kawai, for example, they simply shared Yanagi's taste for 'extraordinary mingei'.
The younger craft artists of the movement, on the other hand, were fostered by
Yanagi's discernment and encouragement, as well as the brotherhood-like support
within rhe group. In this light, it is significant that Kuro da Tatsuaki, a woodwork
artist who set up a cooperative (under Yanagi's suggestion) in 1927, claimed that it
was Shoya, rather than Yanagi, who popularised the word mingei. 15
To conclude the first point: once the self-contradictory nature of Yanagi's Mingei
theory and the different degrees of his influence (or non-influence) on the members
of the movement are acknowledged, it follows that a discussion of Morris's influence
on Yanagi and the Mingei movement now needs to be more specific as to how the
influence was effected and to what degree.
Yanagi and his Mingei theory were not the major recipient of Morris's influence
in terms of the development of modern Japanese crafts. A more significant and farreaching
influence of Morris's ideas and practice can be observed in Tomimoto
Kenkichi, a student of architecture and design who became a potter. Inui Yoshiaki
wrote of Tomimoro in 1986:
The core task in modernising ceramics, that is, to break through rhe practice of
copying traditional styles, and to establish the concept of originality, was first
achieved by Tomimoro, and he did it in a most spectacular manner. 16
Tomimoto is usually considered to be the one who bridged the gap between Morris
and Yanagi by introducing Morris's ideas to him. Tomimoto wrote a two-part article
on .Morris which was publjshed in 1912 in a very influential an magazine called
Bijutsu Shi"po. There is a general unwillingness to acknowledge Morris's influence
on Tomimoto himself, however. The single ground for this unwillingness, it seems,
is the fact that Tomimoro once wrote that he had been disappointed to find no
originality in Morris's workY
Tomimoto was the champion of originality in craft design. He is famous for
his aphorism 'never make patterns from patterns', and. faithful to this motto, he
took pride in drawing from nature to create all the patterns for his craft. Because
of his commitment to originality, his above comment on Morris has been taken
out of conrext, and as a consequence his repeated praise of Morris and
acknowledgment of his debt to Morris have been all but ignored. One can fairly
argue that Tornimoto was an independent craft artist, and his debt to Morris in
his practice as 3 craft artist lay deeper than his introduction in print of Nlorris's
ideas to the Japanese public. My intention here is to highlight Morris's influence
on Tomimoto as he interpreted Morris, rather than to examine whether his
interpretation was valid. Tomirnoto was by no means a scholar of Morris, and
one must nO[ overestimate his competence in the English language as well as the
research opportunities during his limited sojourn in Britain (twelve months from
December 1908 and less than a month in April 1910 before returned to Japan).
Let us look at twO aspects of Morris's influence on Tomimoto here. The first is
Morris's approach to crafrmaking in which he mastered various skills while
always keeping them under the control of his aesthetic. In the 19105, craft
production in Japan was strongly dominated by the convenrional idea that skill
was the most essential value in crafrwork. When Tomimoto adopted Morris's
attitude, it became the fundamental power in breaking through this concept of
craft production in Japan.
I found [Morris's wallpaper designsj very interesting when I first saw them. As I
became familiar with them, I came to be fascinated with them. The noble taste of
the serious and gentlemanly artist deeply impressed me. 1S
When I think of the time and effort Morris had taken, without help or teaching
from others, in dissecting the details [of old carpets} and in carrying out many trials
until he could weave them on his own, my respect for this man seems to acquire
even more lustre. 19
In faCI, on returning to Japan, Tomimoto took out his great-grandmother's old loom
from storage and himself began weaving.
IMorrisl overcame great difficulties in having various products made in the way
he wanted them. The works which he himself patterned - in various materials such
as silk, carron, linen or wool - show me, apart from their noble artistic value, that
Morris trusted himself and was faithful to himself.l°
A revelation came to Tomimoto when he saw chintz and paintings hung side by side
at the South Kensington Museum. The display struck home the idea that art and craft
have the same value. Tomimoto concluded:
'The appeal of the individualiry of the artist' or 'things that are infinitely
beautiful' must be recognised not only in paintings and sculpture bur also in
weaving, metalwork and all other craftwork. Morris was a forerunner like no
other in perceiving this, and J feel that he showed us the way through his own
Tomimoto thus learned from Morris his 'let's see what can be done' attitude, that
is, to believe only in one's own taste when creating objects and follow it through. In
Japan, this was a radical departure from the long-established craft-making practice,
and Tomimoto immediately met strong resistance from the craft community. In fact,
when Tomimoto devised a vase without a neck, other potters sneered at him, saying
that he had only done so because he was not skilled enough to make the neck. On
the other hand, his unconventional experiments and his numerous thought-provoking
essays liberated many young craft artists from conventional ideas and practices. He
was not alone in claiming that artists should follow their own taste and not any
prescribed rules. But he was the first and certainly the most influential one in the field
of the crafts. There were a number of craft movementS developing during the 19105
and 1920s, and those who initiated these movements were often influenced by
Tomimow's progressive ideas and sensitivity.
As well as his commitment to the originality and integrity of the artist, social
conscience was also fundamental to Tomimoto's life and work. He was deeply
interested in Morris's socialist activities and conducted research into this aspect of
his work while in London. Until after the war, however, he was not prepared to
publicly admit this, nor publish his research, as this would certainly have meant
imprisonment.22 One suspects that Tomimoro read Morris's lectures on art and
society, and wished to contribute to Morris's cause in his individual capacity. This
led him to turn to the possibility of mass-producing his designs so that people who
could not afford his expensive pots could still enjoy his work. As early as 1917 he
This year, I began to desire to make craft which can be used by anyone for everyday
life, at the lowest price possible. This is a very important matter for me, and I think
it will have an important role in the direction I will proceed in. 2J
He also wrote to Leach in ] 918:
Since last year, I have been thinking about this: decorative arts must not be separate
from everyday life. If people create decorative arts without thinking about everyday
life, the work will be mere toys for grown-ups... I want to make cheap objects particularly
tableware. And I want to provide people'\vith as much of it as I can.
The quality of my vessels will certainly suffer, but to combat ordinary wares,l must
have low prices as the weapon.H
Tomirnoto attempted mass production in different ways - from drawing designs
himself 011 large quantities of bases made by others, to providing originals to have
them reproduced. His efforts during the greater parr of the 1920s were focused on
devising patterns which were easy ro copy. In 1929, as his first large-scale experiment,
he went to Shigaraki, one of the old pottery regions, and drew iron-glaze patterns on
thrown plates. Tomimoto was living in Tokyo around this time. and it became an
annual event for him to leave Tokyo's cold winter for warmer pottery-producing
regions and draw designs on a large number of bases made by skilled artisans.
Tomimoto encountered many difficulties, however, and envied Morris for what he
thought was lacking in himself: 'What 1 admire most about William Morris is his
power to unite and ability to lead'.H Bur the real cause of his frustration was the fact
that he was ahead of his time. After the war, in 1947. he recalled:
Abour thirty years ago I made medium-size plates for use in the kitchen in ceramicproducing
areas like Seto and sold them at around fifty sen each. The next year,
however, those plates were sold as a kind of antique ware, at forty or fifty yen each
"approximately 100 times the valueJ. I was saddened that things had gone in a
completely different direction.26
Yet he continued to persist with his experiments with mass production. In 1957, he
created a brand called Tomisen under which his original works were mass-produced
and distributed through a large craft company. Unfortunately, production ceased in
the mid 1960s, soon after Tomimoto's death. Today, a brand called Tomihana,
ceramics with copies of Tomimoto's patterns, is sold by the same company (Japan
Tomimoto was not the only artist who learned from Morris. But it was through
this remarkable individual that Morris's ideas were made relevant for Japan, at a time
when the modern Japanese spirit was ready to absorb them.
I This article is an edited version of the paper of the same title presented atthe Morris
Centenary Conference at Oxford in June 1996. All Japanese names in the main
text appear surname followed by given name.
2 This is true in both Japanese and Western literature.
J Published by Kodansha International, Tokyo.
4 This problem caused the split in the movement in 1953 when Miyakc Tadaichi, a
dedicated Mingei activist. left Yanagi'sJapan Folk Craft Association and established
a museum in which he displayed only folk crafts made by anonymous artisans.
, Bernard Leach (1887-1979) arrived in Japan in 1909 after his encounter wirh
Takamura Koraro, arguably the most significant artist in modern Japanese art
6 For a brief introduction of Tomimoto and his ideas, see Yuko Kikuchi, 'Tomimmo
Kenkichi', Crafts, no.148, 1997, pp. 22-23.
7 Bijutsu Shimpo, vo!. 12,00.6, p. 7.
8 Bernard Leach, Hamada: Pofter, (TokyolNew York: Kodansha Inrcrnarional1990
[firsr edition 1975]), pp. 131-32.
9 Ibid., p. 149.
10 Ibid., p. 168. Also see K6gei, no. 1 (Tokyo: Rakuy6d61931), p. 29.
11 I am aware that Yuko Kikuchi has challenged this common Japanese view in her
recent publications: see for example, 'A Japanese William l\1orris: Yanagi S6etsu
and Mingei Theory' in The journal of the \,(!illiam Morris Society, XII, 2 (Spring
1997), pp. 39-45.
Il For example, see 'Yanagi, Morris and Popular Art', Ceramic Review, no. 66, 1980,
pp. 25-26; 'Bernard Leach and the Japanese Folk Craft Movement: the Formative
Years' ,journal ofDesign History, vcl. 2, nos. 2&3, '1989, pp. 141-42; 'Oriemalism
and the Debris of Western Civilisation: Popular Art Movements in Britain and
Japan', Europe & the Orient, D. Gerstle and A. Miller (eds.), (Canberra: The
Humanities Research Centre (994), pp. 36-37.
13 'Mingei: The Word and the Movement', Mingei; The Living Traditiol1 ifJjapanese
Arts [exhibirion caralogue], (Tokyo! New York: Kodansha Inrernational 1991), p.
14 The comment by Leach was made during an interview with Professor Masaaki
Maeda, on the latter's visit to St Ives in 1973. I discussed this point with Professor
Maeda twice in 1992; Jugaku Bunsho, 'Uiriamu Morisu to Yanagi Saersu', Kogei,
no. 100,1939, pp. 27-30.
15 Kuroda Tarsuaki interview, recorded at Asahi Hall, Kyoto, 1976. A copy of this
tape was kindly provided by Kuroda's son Kenkichi.
16 Inui Yoshiaki, Tomimoto Kenkichi, [exhibition catalogue], (Asahi Shinbunsha
1986), p. 17l.
17 •Autobiography' in Jroe-jiki; Tomomoto Kenkichi, (Tokyo: Japan Agency for
Culrural Affairs 1969), p. 72.
Ig Tsujimoro Isamu (cd.), Tomil1loto Kenkichi Chosakusha, (Kyoto: Satsuki Shoho
1981), p. 423.
19 Ibid., p. 439.
'0 Ibid., p. 436.
'1 Ibid., pp. 445-6.
Z1'Autob'lography', op. C.lr., p. 72.
Z3 Ibid., p. 515.
24 From an unpublished Ietrer, courresy of Tomimow Kenkichi Memorial Museum,
2S Tomimoto Kenkichi Chosakushu, op. cic., p. 526.
" Ibid., p. 614..
Saturday, September 3, 2011
How would you describe the current climate of ceramic arts in the Twin Cities and in Minnesota?
Monday, August 22, 2011
The Burden of the Gospels
by Wendell Berry
Wendell Berry is the author of more than 40 books of fiction, poetry and essays. This essay is excerpted from the The Way of Ignorance and Other Essays, by Wendell Berry, to be published in November by Shoemaker & Hoard. © Wendell Berry, 2005. Reprinted by permission of Shoemaker & Hoard Publishers (an Avalon Publishing Group imprint). This article appeared in The Christian Century, September 20, 2005, pp.22-27. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscriptions information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.
Anybody half awake these days will be aware that there are many Christians who are exceedingly confident in their understanding of the Gospels, and who are exceedingly self-confident in their understanding of themselves in their faith. They appear to know precisely the purposes of God, and they appear to be perfectly assured that they are now doing, and in every circumstance will continue to do, precisely God’s will as it applies specifically to themselves. They are confident, moreover, that God hates people whose faith differs from their own, and they are happy to concur in that hatred.
Having been invited to speak to a convocation of Christian seminarians, I at first felt that I should say nothing until I confessed that I do not have any such confidence. And then I understood that this would have to be my subject. I would have to speak of the meaning, as I understand it, of my lack of confidence, which I think is not at all the same as a lack of faith.
It is a fact that I have spent my life, for the most part willingly, under the influence of the Bible, particularly the Gospels, and of the Christian tradition in literature and the other arts. As a child, sometimes unwillingly, I learned many of the Bible’s stories and teachings, and was affected more than I knew by the language of the King James Version, which is the translation I still prefer. For most of my adult life I have been an urgently interested and frequently uneasy reader of the Bible, particularly of the Gospels. At the same time I have tried to be a worthy reader of Dante, Milton, Herbert, Blake, Eliot and other poets of the Christian tradition. As a result of this reading and of my experience, I am by principle and often spontaneously, as if by nature, a man of faith. But my reading of the Gospels, comforting and clarifying and instructive as they frequently are, deeply moving or exhilarating as they frequently are, has caused me to understand them also as a burden, sometimes raising the hardest of personal questions, sometimes bewildering, sometimes contradictory, sometimes apparently outrageous in their demands. This is the confession of an unconfident reader.
I will begin by dealing with the embarrassing questions that the Gospels impose, I imagine, upon any serious reader. There are two of these, and the first is this: If you bad been living in Jesus’ time and had heard him teaching, would you have been one of his followers?
To be an honest taker of this test, I think you have to try to forget that you have read the Gospels and that Jesus has been a "big name" for 2,000 years. You have to imagine instead that you are walking past the local courthouse and you come upon a crowd listening to a man named Joe Green or Green Joe, depending on judgments whispered among the listeners on the fringe. You too stop to listen, and you soon realize that Joe Green is saying something utterly scandalous, utterly unexpectable from the premises of modern society. He is saying:
"Don’t resist evil. If somebody slaps your right cheek, let him slap your left cheek too. Love your enemies. When people curse you, you must bless them. When people hate you, you must treat them kindly. When people mistrust you, you must pray for them. This is the way you must act if you want to be children of God." Well, you know how happily that would be received, not only in the White House and the Capitol, but among most of your neighbors. And then suppose this Joe Green looks at you over the heads of the crowd, calls you by name and says, I want to come to dinner at your house.
I suppose that you, like me, hope very much that you would say, "Come ahead." But I suppose also that you, like me, had better not be too sure. You will remember that in Jesus’ lifetime even his most intimate friends could hardly be described as overconfident.
The second question is this -- it comes right after the verse in which Jesus says, "If you love me, keep my commandments." Can you be sure that you would keep his commandments if it became excruciatingly painful to do so? And here I need to tell another story, this time one that actually happened.
In 1569 in Holland, a Mennonite named Dirk Willems, under capital sentence as a heretic, was fleeing from arrest, pursued by a "thief-catcher." As they ran across a frozen body of water, the thief-catcher broke through the ice. Without help, he would have drowned. What did Dirk Willems do then?
Was the thief-catcher an enemy merely to be hated, or was he a neighbor to be loved as one loves oneself? Was he an enemy whom one must love in order to be a child of God? Was he "one of the least of these my brethren"?
What Dirk Willems did was turn back, put out his hands to his pursuer and save his life. The thief-catcher, who then of course wanted to let his rescuer go, was forced to arrest him. Dirk Willems was brought to trial, sentenced and burned to death by a "lingering fire."
I, and I suppose you, would like to be a child of God even at the cost of so much pain. But would we, in similar circumstances, turn back to offer the charity of Christ to an enemy? Again, I don’t think we ought to be too sure. We should remember that "Christian" generals and heads of state have routinely thanked God for the deaths of their enemies, and that the persecutors of 1569 undoubtedly thanked God for the capture and death of the "heretic" Dirk Willems.
Those are peculiar questions. I don’t think we can escape them, if we are honest. And if we are honest, I don’t think we can answer them. We humans, as we well know, have repeatedly been surprised by what we will or won’t do under pressure. A person may come to be, as many have been, heroically faithful in great adversity, but as long as that person is alive we can only say that he or she did well but remains under the requirement to do well. As long as we are alive, there is always a next time, and so the questions remain. These are questions we must live with, regarding them as unanswerable and yet profoundly influential.
The other burdening problems of the Gospels that I want to talk about are like those questions in that they are not solvable but can only be lived with as a sort of continuing education. These problems, however, are not so personal or dramatic but are merely issues of reading and making sense.
As a reader, I am unavoidably a writer. Many years of trying to write what I have perceived to be true have taught me that there are limits to what a human mind can know, and limits to what a human language can say. One may believe, as I do, in inspiration, but one must believe knowing that even the most inspired are limited in what they can tell of what they know. We humans write and read, teach and learn, at the inevitable cost of falling short. The language that reveals also obscures. And these qualifications that bear on any writing must bear of course on the Gospels.
I need to say also that, as a reader, I am first of all a literalist, as I think every reader should be. This does not mean that I don’t appreciate Jesus’ occasional irony or sarcasm ("They have their reward"), or that I am against interpretation, or that I don’t believe in "higher levels of meaning." It certainly does not mean that I think every word of the Bible is equally true, or that literalist is a synonym for fundamentalist. I mean simply that I expect any writing to make literal sense before making sense of any other kind. Interpretation should not contradict or otherwise violate the literal meaning. To read the Gospels as a literalist is, to me, the way to take them as seriously as possible.
But to take the Gospels seriously, to assume that they say what they mean and mean what they say, is the beginning of troubles. Those would-be literalists who yet argue that the Bible is unerring and unquestionable have not dealt with its contradictions, which of course it does contain, and the Gospels are not exempt. Some of Jesus’ instructions are burdensome not because they involve contradiction, but merely because they are so demanding. The proposition that love, forgiveness and peaceableness are the only neighborly relationships that are acceptable to God is difficult for us weak and violent humans, but it is plain enough for any literalist. We must either accept it as an absolute or absolutely reject it. The same for the proposition that we are not permitted to choose our neighbors ahead of time or to limit neighborhood, as is plain from the parable of the Samaritan. The same for the requirement that we must be perfect, like God, which seems as outrageous as the Buddhist vow to "save all sentient beings," and perhaps is meant to measure and instruct us in the same way. It is, to say the least, unambiguous.
But what, for example, are we to make of Luke 14:26: "If any man come to me, and hate not his father, and mother, and wife, and children, and brethren, and sisters, yea, and his own also, he cannot be my disciple." This contradicts not only the fifth commandment but Jesus’ own instruction to "Love thy neighbor as thyself." It contradicts his obedience to his mother at the marriage in Cana of Galilee. It contradicts the concern he shows for the relatives of his friends and followers. But the word in the King James Version is "hate." If you go to the New English Bible or the New Revised Standard Version, looking for relief, the word still is "hate." This clearly is the sort of thing that leads to "biblical exegesis."
My own temptation is to become a literary critic, wag my head learnedly and say, "Well, this obviously is a bit of hyperbole -- the sort of exaggeration a teacher would use to shock his students awake." Maybe so, but it is not obviously so, and it comes perilously close to "He didn’t really mean it" -- always a risky assumption when reading, and especially dangerous when reading the Gospels. Another possibility, and I think a better one, is to accept our failure to understand, not as a misstatement or a textual flaw or as a problem to be solved, but as a question to live with and a burden to be borne.
We may say with some reason that such apparent difficulties might be resolved if we knew more, a further difficulty being that we don’t know more. The Gospels, like all other written works, impose on their readers the burden of their incompleteness. However partial we may be to the doctrine of the true account or "realism," we must concede at last that reality is inconceivably great and any representation of it necessarily incomplete.
St. John at the end of his Gospel, remembering perhaps the third verse of his first chapter, makes a charming acknowledgment of this necessary incompleteness: "And there are also many other things which Jesus did, the which, if they should be written everyone, I suppose that even the world itself could not contain the books that should be written." Our darkness, then, is not going to be completely lighted. Our ignorance finally is irremediable. We humans are never going to know everything, even assuming we have the capacity, because for reasons of the most insistent practicality we can’t be told everything. We need to remember here Jesus’ repeated admonitions to his disciples: You don’t know; you don’t understand; you’ve got it wrong.
The Gospels, then, stand at the opening of a mystery in which our lives are deeply, dangerously and inescapably involved. This is a mystery that the Gospels can only partially reveal, for it could be fully revealed only by more books than the world could contain. It is a mystery that we are condemned but also are highly privileged to live our way into, trusting properly that to our little knowledge greater knowledge may be revealed. It is this privilege that should make us wary of any attempt to reduce faith to a rigmarole of judgments and explanations, or to any sort of familiar talk about God. Reductive religion is just as objectionable as reductive science, and for the same reason: Reality is large, and our minds are small.
And so the issue of reality -- What is the scope of reality? What is real? -- emerges as the crisis of this discussion. Bight. at the heart of the religious impulse there seems to be a certain solicitude for reality: the fear of foreclosing it or of reducing it to some merely human estimate. Many of us are still refusing to trust Caesar, in any of his modern incarnations, with the power to define reality. Many of us are still refusing to entrust that power to science. As inhabitants of the modern world, we are religious now perhaps to the extent of our desire to crack open the coffin of materialism, and to give to reality a larger, freer definition than is allowed by the militant materialists of the corporate economy and their political servants, or by the mechanical paradigm of reductive science. Or perhaps I can make most plain what I’m trying to get at if I say that many of us are still withholding credence, just as properly and for the same reasons, from any person or institution claiming to have the definitive word on the purposes and the mind of God.
It seems to me that all the religions I know anything about emerge from an instinct to push against any merely human constraints on reality. In the Bible such constraints are conventionally attributed to "the world" in the pejorative sense of that term, which we may define as the world of the creation reduced by the purposes of any of the forms of selfishness. The contrary purpose, the purpose of freedom, is stated by Jesus in the fourth Gospel: "I am come that they might have life, and that they might have it more abundantly."
This astonishing statement can be thought about and understood endlessly, for it is endlessly meaningful, but I don’t think it calls for much in the way of interpretation. It does call for a very strict and careful reading of the word life.
To talk about or to desire more abundance of anything has probably always been dangerous, but it seems particularly dangerous now. In an age of materialist science, economics, art and politics, we ought not to be much shocked by the appearance of materialist religion. We know we don’t have to look far to find people who equate more abundant life with a bigger car, a bigger house, a bigger bank account and a bigger church. They are wrong, of course. If Jesus meant only that we should have more possessions or even more "life expectancy," then John 10:10 is no more remarkable than an advertisement for any commodity whatever. Abundance, in this verse, cannot refer to an abundance of material possessions, for life does not require a material abundance; it requires only a material sufficiency. That sufficiency granted, life itself, which is a membership in the living world, is already an abundance.
But even life in this generous sense of membership in creation does not protect us, as we know, from the dangers of avarice, of selfishness, of the wrong kind of abundance. Those dangers can be overcome only by the realization that in speaking of more abundant life, Jesus is not proposing to free us by making us richer; he is proposing to set life free from precisely that sort of error. He is talking about life, which is only incidentally our life, as a limitless reality.
Now that I have come out against materialism, I fear that I will be expected to say something in favor of spirituality. But if I am going to go on in the direction of what Jesus meant by "life" and "more abundantly," then I have to avoid that duality of matter and spirit at all costs.
As every reader knows, the Gospels are overwhelmingly concerned with the conduct of human life, of life in the human commonwealth. In the Sermon on the Mount and in other places Jesus is asking his followers to see that the way to more abundant life is the way of love. We are to love one another, and this love is to be more comprehensive than our love for family and friends and tribe and nation. We are to love our neighbors though they may be strangers to us. We are to love our enemies. And this is to be a practical love; it is to be practiced, here and now. Love evidently is not just a feeling but is indistinguishable from the willingness to help, to be useful to one another. The way of love is indistinguishable, moreover, from the way of freedom. We don’t need much imagination to imagine that to be free of hatred, of enmity, of the endless and hopeless effort to oppose violence with violence, would be to have life more abundantly. To be free of indifference would be to have life more abundantly. To be free of the insane rationalizations for our urge to kill one another -- that surely would be to have life more abundantly.
And where more than in the Gospels’ teaching about love do we see that famously estranged pair, matter and spirit, melt and flow together? There was a Samaritan who came upon one of his enemies, a Jew, lying wounded beside the road. And the Samaritan had compassion on the Jew and bound up his wounds and took care of him. Was this help spiritual or material? Was the Samaritan’s compassion earthly or heavenly? If those questions confuse us, that is only because we have for so long allowed ourselves to believe, as if to divide reality impartially between science and religion, that material life and spiritual life, earthly life and heavenly life, are two different things.
To get unconfused, let us go to a further and even more interesting question about the parable of the Samaritan: Why? Why did the Samaritan reach out in love to his enemy, a Jew, who happened also to be his neighbor? Why was the unbounding of this love so important to Jesus?
We might reasonably answer, remembering Genesis 1:27, that all humans, friends and enemies alike, have the same dignity, deserve the same respect, and are worthy of the same compassion because they are, all alike, made in God’s image. That is enough of a mystery, and it implies enough obligation, to waylay us awhile. It is certainly something we need to bear amdously in mind. But it is also too human-centered, too potentially egotistical, to leave alone.
I think Jesus recommended the Samaritan’s loving-kindness, what certain older writers called "holy living," simply as a matter of propriety, for the Samaritan was living in what Jesus understood to be a holy world. The foreground of the Gospels is occupied by human beings and the issues of their connection to one another and to God. But there is a background, and the background more often than not is the world in the best sense of the word, the world as made, approved, loved, sustained and finally redeemable by God. Much of the action and the talk of the Gospels takes place outdoors: on mountainsides, lakeshores, riverbanks, in fields and pastures, places populated not only by humans but by animals and plants, both domestic and wild. And these nonhuman creatures, sheep and lilies and birds, are always represented as worthy of, or as flourishing within, the love and the care of God.
To know what to make of this, we need to look back to the Old Testament, to Genesis, to the Psalms, to the preoccupation with the relation of the Israelites to their land that runs through the whole lineage of the prophets. Through all this, much is implied or taken for granted. In only two places that I remember is the always implicit relation -- the practical or working relation -- of God to the creation plainly stated. Psalm 104:30, addressing God and speaking of the creatures, says, "Thou sendest forth thy spirit, they are created And, as if in response, Elihu says to Job (34:14-15) that if God "gather unto himself his spirit and his breath; All flesh shall perish together . . ." I have cut Elihu’s sentence a little short so as to leave the emphasis on the phrase "all flesh."
Those also are verses that don’t require interpretation, but I want to stretch them out in paraphrase just to make as plain as possible my reason for quoting them. They are saying that not just humans but all creatures live by participating in the life of God, by partaking of his Spirit and breathing his breath. And so the Samaritan reaches out in love to help his enemy, breaking all the customary boundaries, because he has clearly seen in his enemy not only a neighbor, not only a fellow human or a fellow creature, but a fellow sharer in the life of God.
When Jesus speaks of having life more abundantly, this, I think, is the life he means: a life that is not reducible by division, category or degree, but is one thing, heavenly and earthly, spiritual and material, divided only insofar as it is embodied in distinct creatures. He is talking about a finite world that is infinitely holy, a world of time that is filled with life that is eternal. His offer of more abundant life, then, is not an invitation to declare ourselves as certified "Christians," but rather to become conscious, consenting and responsible participants in the one great life, a fulfillment hardly institutional at all.
To be convinced of the sanctity of the world, .and to be mindful of a human vocation to responsible membership in such a world, must always have been a burden. But it is a burden that falls with greatest weight on us humans of the industrial age who have been and are, by any measure, the humans most guilty of desecrating the world and of destroying creation. And we ought to be a little terrified to realize that, for the most part and at least for the time being, we are helplessly guilty. It seems as though industrial humanity has brought about phase two of original sin. We all are now complicit in the murder of creation. We certainly do know how to apply better measures to our conduct and our work. We know how to do far better than we are doing. But we don’t know how to extricate ourselves from our complicity very surely or very soon. How could we live without degrading our soils, slaughtering our forests, polluting our streams, poisoning the air and the rain? How could we live without the ozone hole and the hypoxic zones? How could we live without endangering species, including our own? How could we live without the war economy and the holocaust of the fossil fuels? To the offer of more abundant life, we have responded with choosing the economics of extinction.
If we take the Gospels seriously, we are left, in our dire predicament, facing an utterly humbling question: How must we live and work so as not to be estranged from God’s presence in his work and in all his creatures? The answer, we may say, is given in Jesus’ teaching about love. But that answer raises another question that plunges us into the abyss of our ignorance, which is both human and peculiarly modern: How are we to make of that love an economic practice?
That question calls for many answers, and we don’t know most of them. It is a question that those humans who want to answer it will be living and working with for a long time -- if they are allowed a longtime. Meanwhile, may heaven guard us from those who think they already have the answers.
Monday, June 20, 2011
by Eihei Dogen
The Way is basically perfect and all-pervading. How could it be contingent upon practice and realization? The Dharma-vehicle is free and untrammelled. What need is there for concentrated effort? Indeed, the whole body is far beyond the world's dust. Who could believe in a means to brush it clean? It is never apart from one, right where one is. What is the use of going off here and there to practice?
And yet, if there is the slightest discrepancy, the Way is as distant as heaven from earth. If the least like or dislike arises, the Mind is lost in confusion. Suppose one gains pride of understanding and inflates one's own enlightenment, glimpsing the wisdom that runs through all things, attaining the Way and clarifying the Mind, raising an aspiration to escalade the very sky. One is making the initial, partial excursions about the frontiers but is still somewhat deficient in the vital Way of total emancipation.
Need I mention the Buddha, who was possessed of inborn knowledge? The influence of his six years of upright sitting is noticeable still. Or Bodhidharma's transmission of the mind-seal?--the fame of his nine years of wall-sitting is celebrated to this day. Since this was the case with the saints of old, how can we today dispense with negotiation of the Way?
You should therefore cease from practice based on intellectual understanding, pursuing words and following after speech, and learn the backward step that turns your light inwardly to illuminate your self. Body and mind of themselves will drop away, and your original face will be manifest. If you want to attain suchness, you should practice suchness without delay.
For sanzen (zazen), a quiet room is suitable. Eat and drink moderately. Cast aside all involvements and cease all affairs. Do not think good or bad. Do not administer pros and cons. Cease all the movements of the conscious mind, the gauging of all thoughts and views. Have no designs on becoming a Buddha. Sanzen has nothing whatever to do with sitting or lying down.
At the site of your regular sitting, spread out thick matting and place a cushion above it. Sit either in the full-lotus or half-lotus position. In the full-lotus position, you first place your right foot on your left thigh and your left foot on your right thigh. In the half-lotus, you simply press your left foot against your right thigh. You should have your robes and belt loosely bound and arranged in order. Then place your right hand on your left leg and your left palm (facing upwards) on your right palm, thumb-tips touching. Thus sit upright in correct bodily posture, neither inclining to the left nor to the right, neither leaning forward nor backward. Be sure your ears are on a plane with your shoulders and your nose in line with your navel. Place your tongue against the front roof of your mouth, with teeth and lips both shut. Your eyes should always remain open, and you should breathe gently through your nose.
Once you have adjusted your posture, take a deep breath, inhale and exhale, rock your body right and left and settle into a steady, immobile sitting position. Think not-thinking. How do you think not-thinking? Non-thinking. This in itself is the essential art of zazen.
The zazen I speak of is not learning meditation. It is simply the Dharma gate of repose and bliss, the practice-realization of totally culminated enlightenment. It is the manifestation of ultimate reality. Traps and snares can never reach it. Once its heart is grasped, you are like the dragon when he gains the water, like the tiger when she enters the mountain. For you must know that just there (in zazen) the right Dharma is manifesting itself and that, from the first, dullness and distraction are struck aside.
When you arise from sitting, move slowly and quietly, calmly and deliberately. Do not rise suddenly or abruptly. In surveying the past, we find that transcendence of both unenlightenment and enlightenment, and dying while either sitting or standing, have all depended entirely on the strength (of zazen).
In addition, the bringing about of enlightenment by the opportunity provided by a finger, a banner, a needle, or a mallet, and the effecting of realization with the aid of a hossu, a fist, a staff, or a shout, cannot be fully understood by discriminative thinking. Indeed, it cannot be fully known by the practicing or realizing of supernatural powers, either. It must be deportment beyond hearing and seeing--is it not a principle that is prior to knowledge and perceptions?
This being the case, intelligence or lack of it does not matter: between the dull and the sharp-witted there is no distinction. If you concentrate your effort single-mindedly, that in itself is negotiating the Way. Practice-realization is naturally undefiled. Going forward (in practice) is a matter of everydayness.
In general, this world, and other worlds as well, both in India and China, equally hold the Buddha-seal, and over all prevails the character of this school, which is simply devotion to sitting, total engagement in immobile sitting. Although it is said that there are as many minds as there are persons, still they all negotiate the way solely in zazen. Why leave behind the seat that exists in your home and go aimlessly off to the dusty realms of other lands? If you make one misstep, you go astray from the Way directly before you.
You have gained the pivotal opportunity of human form. Do not use your time in vain. You are maintaining the essential working of the Buddha-Way. Who would take wasteful delight in the spark from the flintstone? Besides, form and substance are like the dew on the grass, destiny like the dart of lightning--emptied in an instant, vanished in a flash.
Please, honored followers of Zen, long accustomed to groping for the elephant, do not be suspicious of the true dragon. Devote your energies to a way that directly indicates the absolute. Revere the person of complete attainment who is beyond all human agency. Gain accord with the enlightenment of the buddhas; succeed to the legitimate lineage of the ancestors' samadhi. Constantly perform in such a manner and you are assured of being a person such as they. Your treasure-store will open of itself, and you will use it at will.
Last revised September 7, 2000. Copyright 2000 Berkeley Zen Center
Monday, March 14, 2011