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Book Title: Zen in English Literature & Oriental Classics|
The author of the book: R.H. Blyth
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Edition: Heian International
Date of issue: June 28th 1942
ISBN 13: 9780893460020
Format files: PDF
The size of the: 371 KB
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Given the fact that R. H. Blyth was a friend and disciple of D. T. Suzuki, one might expect Zen in English Literature to be an apology for Zen Buddhism, using quotations from Western classics to make Buddhist philosophy palatable to an educated Anglophone audience. While Blyth indeed achieves this, the reader quickly becomes aware that he is up to something more. Not only does his book explore Buddhism; it also sheds new light on the classic works of the English language.
One example of this double-edged sword is his use of Shakespeare, who seems to make an appearance on every other page of Zen in English Literature. Blyth places Shakespeare at the outset of his work next to a Zen classic, invoking the two as his highest authorities:
Throughout this book and throughout life itself, one thing must never be forgotten: "In the three worlds, everything depends on the mind" [from the Hojoki], that is, "Nothing is either good or bad, but thinking makes it so."
This quotation from Hamlet becomes a refrain that shows up at key moments in the book, a kind of epigraph that, as it is continually developed, becomes the summary of the truth of Zen and Shakespeare. For, as Blyth explains, the bard's greatness is that he "looks steadily at the object," which is also the ultimate goal that Zen hopes to achieve:
These thoughts about things, this colouring of things by the emotions, that is, the desires and antipathies of the mind, – this is what Zen wishes us, above all things, to do away with.
Although it is practically a truism that Shakespeare's allusiveness, his ability to put on the cloak of any of his characters and speak genuinely as him or her, is precisely his genius, Blyth goes one step further and argues that this is also the essence of Zen, that is, Truth. From this perspective, Shakespeare's works becomes the paragon of religious poetry.
Shakespeare is just one author whose work takes on deeper meaning after Blyth's treatment of it. Cervantes' Don Quixote, for example, becomes "Zen incarnate," a character who "surpasses Hakuin, Rinzai, Enô, Daruma and Shakamuni [the Buddha] himself" in his embodiment of Zen ideals. Rather than following the traditional interpretation that Don Quixote is a fool, Blyth invites the reader to see him as "the vision of Truth" inadequately put into practice, whose story illuminates "the underlying sense of shame that our lives are directed to the acquisition of all the things Don Quixote so rightly despised." Other authors Blyth treats at length include Dickens, Stevenson, Wordsworth, and Keats, in each case compelling the reader to view their works anew.
The force of Zen in English Literature is that it touches upon as many literary heroes as possible, demonstrating how pervasive is the truth he espouses. But this is also the book's weakness. It serves as an introduction rather than an in-depth criticism, and, like any introduction, risks skimming on the surface of the topics he brings up. For example, in his chapter on "Figures of Speech," Blyth introduces the idea that "figures of speech are jumps, jumps out of appearance into reality, a return to the Unity of things, to the ever-blessed One," rather than just interesting ways of describing the mundane. He even goes so far as to condone one of my favorite pastimes, saying, "The mixing of metaphors... far from being a vice, is the highest of virtues, if you can do it properly." Though the author begins to describe how different kinds of figures of speech (simile, metaphor, metonymy, etc.) relate to his mystical monism, he fails to offer anything more than a brief sketch.
Yet literary criticism, on the whole, has focused too exclusively on the minutiae for too long. A change is due. The breadth Blyth displays in Zen in English Literature and the Oriental Classics is increasingly becoming a necessity as globalization continues to thrust disparate cultures into one another's arms. The ability to communicate with each other is now a necessity, not a luxury. Blyth, however, anticipated the coming interconnection of East and West and set up a dialogue between the classics of both worlds, fostering mutual understanding, that the Orient and the Occident may be less (forgive the pun) Zenophobic.
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Read information about the authorReginald Horace Blyth was an English author, interpreter, translator, devotee of Japanese culture and English Professor, having lived in Japan for eighteen years.
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