The Poetry of Saying (1)


The Tao Te Ching, a core  text  of  ancient  Chinese  Taoism, opens with  a  famous admonition:


                                        The way that can be spoken

                                         is not the constant way.


Lao Tzu, the legendary author of this text and a regular traveller through Quadrant V, nevertheless chose to formulate his realisation of the Way in language. Furthermore, the equally Eastern Chandogya Upanishad, a scripture of ancient Hindu tradition, teaches that

                                        The essence of humanity is speech


It goes on to say that

                                        the essence of speech is sacred poetry

                                        the essence of sacred poetry is music


In poetry, language aspires to the condition of music, which is a Gift of the Muses: of in-spiration as we have been saying throughout. This is a long way from parasitism.

Martin Heidegger (1889-1976) was a German philosopher whose work focused specifically on the relationship of language to Being. He also saw poetry as being of great importance in this relation. His writings have been a source of particular inspiration in my efforts to reconcile seemingly contradictory legacies of Eastern and Western psychology regarding questions of intention and attention. Heidegger distinguishes several types of language in his best-known book, Being and Time, which was first published in 1927.

Language as assertion refers to a functional reduction of language within formal Western philosophy, where it is viewed as a system of propositions which serve to classify and represent the world. Against this, echoing Lao Tzu, Heidegger notes that Being has never been present to anybody such that s/he can have the option of re-presenting it in language for purposes of rational comprehension. We cannot use language to think Being in this way. Our every effort leaves us clutching a fragment and missing the whole, not to mention sheer wonder that there is a whole, or anything at all for that matter. Only by attending to the revelatory aspect of language, which is its true essence, can we come into right relationship with it.

Language as discourse involves a more primary mode of communication than language as assertion. It is open-ended and evolves by means of the collectively negotiated interpretations of community life. ‘Idle talk’ is a degraded form of language as discourse. This arises whenever we cease to respond authentically to others but slip into an anonymous register where our speech is no longer our own, becoming instead an empty, habit-governed, cliché-ridden performance. We utter pre-scripted lines and fail to hold ourselves responsible for language or to it.

Language as saying, by contrast, is authentic. Here we are attentive and responsible to language. Poetry is its most striking manifestation, opening us to new ways of seeing and saying. This overcomes our tendencies toward premature definition of What Is. The rule of Ego is eclipsed when we serve as conduits or channels. Language speaks through us under this condition and so facilitates the presencing of Being – i.e., the process whereby Being becomes manifest to and conscious of itself. This exemplifies Heidegger’s conception of truth as alethia, a Greek word which he renders as ‘unconcealedness’. The self-unconcealment of Being depends on our allowing it to reveal itself and ‘speak’, rather than assimilating it to systems of categories and inferences which govern the routine operations of calculative thinking. We restore the experience of Being/What Is through letting be, not by showing how clever we are at explaining and anticipation. Examples help to make the import of this clearer. Thus we shall go East again to re-establish a connection with the themes of our last chapter.

D. T. Suzuki was the first Japanese master of zen to communicate his teachings directly to a Western audience. The passages which follow occur near the start of his ‘Lectures on Zen Buddhism.’

‘Basho (1644-1694), a great Japanese poet of the seventeenth century, once composed a seventeen syllable poem known as a haiku or hokku. It runs, when translated into English, something like this:


                          When I look carefully

                            I see the nazuna blooming

                            by the hedge!     


It is likely that Basho was walking along a country road when he noticed something rather neglected by the hedge. He then approached closer, took a good look at it, and found it was no less than a wild plant, rather insignificant and generally unnoticed by passers-by…


This is the East. Let me see what the West has to offer in a similar situation. I select Tennyson. He may not be the typical Western poet to be singled out for comparison with the Far Eastern one. But his short poem here quoted has something very closely related to Basho’s. The verse is as follows:


                                        Flower in the crannied wall,

                            I pluck you out of the crannies; -

                            Hold you here, root and all, in my hand,

                            Little flower – but if I could understand

                            What you are, root and all, and all in all,

                            I should know what God and man is.


There are two points I like to notice in these lines:


1. Tennyson’s plucking the flower and holding it in his hand, ‘root and all,’ and looking at it, perhaps intently. It is very likely that he had a feeling somewhat akin to that of Basho … But the difference between the two poets is: Basho does not pluck the flower. He just looks at it. He is absorbed in thought. He feels something in his mind, but he does not express it. He lets an exclamation mark say everything he wishes to say. For he has no words to utter; his feeling is too full, too deep, and he has no desire to conceptualize it.


As to Tennyson, he is active and analytical. He first plucks the flower from the place where it grows. He separates it from the ground where it belongs … He must tear it away from the crannied wall, ‘root and all,’ which means the plant must die. He does not, apparently, care for its destiny. As some medical scientists do, he would vivisect the flower. Basho does not even touch the nazuna, he just looks at it, he ‘carefully’ looks at it – that is all he does. He is altogether inactive …


2. What does Tennyson do next? Looking at the plucked flower, which in all likelihood is beginning to wither, he proposes the question within himself ‘Do I understand you?’ Basho is not inquisitive at all. He feels all the mystery as revealed in his humble nazuna – the mystery that goes deep into the source of all existence. He is intoxicated with this feeling and exclaims in an unutterable, inaudible cry.


Contrary to this, Tennyson goes on with his intellection: ‘If I could understand you, I should know what God and man is.’ His appeal to the understanding is characteristically Western. Basho accepts, Tennyson resists …


In Tennyson, as far as I can see, there is in the first place no depth of feeling; he is all intellect, typical of Western mentality. He is an advocate of the Logos doctrine. He must say something, he must abstract or intellectualize on his concrete experience. He must come out of the domain of feeling into that of intellect and subject living and feeling to a series of analyses to satisfy the Western spirit of inquisitiveness.’

Here, in Suzuki’s commentary, we find the Feeling-Understanding distinction and other points very similar to those made in earlier chapters. Basho lets the flower be. Tennyson doesn’t. He rushes in, armed with all the pieties of his will to understand, beating the world to the punch as Kelly says. The antagonism implicit in his stance is quite apparent. In objectifying the flower, he feigns dispassion. But ‘objectivity’ is purely virtual in Tennyson’s case, a product of the mindset within which he beholds the world. It actually hinders him from seeing, an outcome which Basho’s care-full looking and conscious reticence does more to foster. Remember the man who died of a heart attack brought on by seeing the rope as a snake, for whom perception was  ninety per cent projection and only ten information? We visit our fears and desires upon the world and see reflections of them everywhere. This recalls the prominence of ‘conceptually driven processing’ within the utilitarian framework of information processing psychology.

The same principle is more subtly enshrined in our governing cultural ideology. Consider again that quotation from Merleau-Ponty:

‘… (T)he life of consciousness – cognitive life, the life of desire or                                              perceptual life is subtended by an ‘intentional arc’ which projects round about us our past, our future, our human setting, our physical, ideological and moral situation … It is this intentional arc which brings about the unity of the senses, of intelligence,  sensibility and motility…’

Here ego psychology meets Star Wars:  we live in the bubble of a force-field which we project around ourselves, by virtue of which we are enabled to constitute meaning in the world. This schema has the advantage of qualifying facile assumptions of objectivity but it also insulates us from What Is. Merleau-Ponty’s evocation of an ‘intentional arc’, while I have no doubt that it offers an accurate reflection of the psychological culture within which it is described, is fundamentally at variance with Ikkyu’s stress on ‘Attention. Attention. Attention.’ It’s meant to be connective and relational but can only be so by urging the priority of human action as a precondition of meaning in the world.

But how can we exist in the present when we are busy projecting around us our future and our past? We can’t. Merleau-Ponty’s arc stands effectively as a barrier between us and the universe, a vehicle for whole streams of ‘conceptually driven processing,’ which proceed from the inside out. But if I am part of the universe, entirely integral to it, how can something be interposed between me and that of which I am unavoidably a part? Only virtually: it’s a question of attitude. Merleau-Ponty understands this perfectly. His mistake is to assert the primacy of this attitude as if it were independent of culturally-induced habits that conjure and sustain it. Within a Western frame, his arc celebrates the radical autonomy and distinctive nature of human subjectivity; for the East, it glorifies a deluded sense of  our true role and status in the world. As in the case of Basho, the East neither urges nor enacts notions of an ‘I’ as separate or set against. Zen aesthetics offers a more expansive articulation of this matter.

For Zen, art is never a re-presentation of nature but rather an expression, or making-present, of nature to itself. Thus Basho’s poem assists, relays and celebrates what the nazuna already ‘says’ perfectly in its own way. It represents a complementary response, evoked by the spontaneous self-expression of an unassuming flower. Unlike the flower, but like most humans, Basho is likely to have been conditioned to assume.  He responds as he does – co-responds – because his model of Enlightenment is very different from that which Tennyson acts out. Basho declines egocentrism. Tennyson pursues it to the end. Basho, having lost spontaneity in the course of learning to identify with Basho (1644 – ), regains it by learning to follow the Way (Tao) in his way, which is a poet’s way. The process of mastering technique perfects a form of cultured spontaneity which subsequently enables him to co-respond easily with the flow of life around him.

Such cultured spontaneity accrues as the result of following a particular way –   Japanese do: as in bushido, kendo, aikido – each of which offers a way on to the Way.  It hinges on the pursuit of a discipline which leads to freedoms that cannot otherwise be attained. Each way qualifies particular persons in certain respects to realize and express the condition of their participation in the Tao. Such ways include archery, dance, calligraphy,  poetry, painting,  swordplay, playwriting …  The key issue in all is the instrumentality of technique as a meditative means: in learning the finer points of an art or craft, the adept also learns to overcome effects of conditioned  identification with the ego-self. Purification of the mind and the acquisition of technical competence proceed in tandem, eliminating egotism with its attendant fears, anxieties, pretensions and desires. A functional ego is left intact, free(d) to attend to tasks in hand, without regard  for  antecedents, rewards, penalties or personalities; neither wishing to win nor  fearing to lose too much because the focus of  identity is now experienced in terms of  an endlessly ramifying Way of nature which flows and is expressed through every self.

The whole process is basically meditative, moving from a phase of concentration (on the nuances of one’s art/craft)   into an expansive phase of clarity and renewal before the world. A mind so cleared, so clear, is primed to co-respond; to move with the flow of unpredicted circumstance without visiting projections of fear or desire upon it. Training lends ‘technique’ to this process, a specialised means of co-respondence that underpins prepared leaps of human creativity in the world. Thus a poet awaits the right words to voice a particular situation, having prepared herself to be receptive; thus an archer, like a flower opening, looses an arrow at exactly the right time, long training having stilled internal agitation that might have deflected from true aim; thus a calligrapher, moved by meditatively focused energy, performs the effortless execution of vibrant characters.  And so it goes, with each expression manifesting perfectly the clarity or otherwise of the disposition which relays it.

The important point is that the creative power of the human organism as integral is in its way no less spontaneous than the form-ative activities of animals and plants. Poetry is originally as spontaneous as birdsong.  But which poetry? Tennyson’s or Basho’s? We know the answer, but what of a rationale to support it? Human creative power is integral when we act whole-heartedly, with full awareness in the present. This is precisely the attitude of cultured spontaneity. It rules out a distinctly entertained sense of purpose, whose pursuit from the past of its formation into the future of its fulfilment would distract us from being here now and disqualifies us as fit vehicles of what the universe in that moment calls us to express. (What if Basho had been looking for a nice rose?) As with snow tipping from a leaf, such matters are best left to themselves, assuming only a mastery of cultured spontaneity. Then we can paint and dance, speak or sing without conscious aspiration to ‘make’ beauty. Beauty grows, if we are prepared to let it, through the medium of our being.

This pursuit of disciplines which lead to freedoms that cannot be otherwise attained enables us to become artists of Being, both in regard to the cultivation of particular ways and more generally in regard to the aesth/ethical conduct of our lives. Hence Basho’s contribution to the ambient symphony of nature had to be a poem: poetry was his way. It might, for others, have been a song, dance or beautiful meal. Such art-full-ness restores a sense of innocence which is no longer naive. It accrues as a specifically human way of contributing our gifts of second-win(ge)d spontaneity to the world. Thus when a person is not only in the Tao (which is inevitable), but also at one with it (which is not, given our freedom to resist the inevitable), the patterns of their life and art reflect those of a nature which fosters both. Anyone who qualifies themselves to grow beauty contributes to this universal largesse of the Way and so facilitates the marvellous self-revelations of a world beyond meaning.

There is no scope for toil or conflict in this picture. Nothing overcomes or gets overcome because there is no sense of a distinct agency working on separate entities from outside, neither to transcend nature nor wrest order out of chaos. Rather we act, literally, in the spirit of nature – as in Zen gardening, which cultivates the ‘intentionless intentionality’ of natural forms.  The paradox here is superficial: it is in the nature of an acorn to become an oak, which it ‘in-tends’ without any need to deliberate or oversee this process. The same realisation allows us to overcome an earlier confusion regarding intentions. We too have an acorn-intention to become what we truly are. This is our destiny or purpose and is carried deep within our hearts, where it always strives to make its presence felt, even when it is repressed and buried under deep biographical roots. We also have ‘intentional intentions’ which represent projections of our mental set on to the world. Under the patterning influence of Western commonsense, these tend to keep us solidly pegged above the line – being intelligent, sensible and mobile in Quadrant I with the odd introspective foray across to Quadrant II. Here ‘intention’ does indeed constitute our experience and thus our world but it does so in ways which reflect our learned responses to imposed conditions of worth rather then the unforced influence of the unique genius for living which each of us brings into the world. Such intentions hold our experiences together, rather than letting them flow. And, as indicated, when we’re too strained to keep it all under control, our world implodes. This is not being one with the River.

Imagine, on the other hand, that you are pruning a young tree. First you empty your mind in order to co-respond with immediately experienced patterns of ‘the object’ – i.e., attune to its energy vibration, beyond all highways of conceptually driven processing. Once this happens, ‘the object’ dissolves as such. It is drawn into our field of concentration, much like a mandala in focused meditation. Thus the process becomes a meditation, in which the starting roles of experiencer and experienced fuse so that only experience is left. Intentionless intentions flow together, both integral aspects of One River of energy in motion. This brings an awareness in which distinctions between subject and object cannot hold,  as each is drawn into a singular trans-action in which nothing acts separately nor gets acted on. Rather all parties act together in the ‘mutual arising’ of the Tao; the blissful frenzy that is known as one hand clapping. Anyone can verify this if they will. All that is needed is courage and imagination to dance beyond the restraining influence of commonsense.  In any case, the way of a Zen gardener will have prepared her to assist, free and celebrate the patterns inherent in the dynamic process of a plant, just as a healer might release blockage in a client. Basho’s poem accomplishes something similar regarding the experience of the flower, which is neither Basho’s nor the flower’s.

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