Friday, April 18, 2008

Nirvana No

Sparked off by some of my recent posts on spirituality and quests for insight in relation to the work of Van Morrison and of the Beats, I have started thinking about some of the conundrums Western artists find themselves in when they become fascinated with Eastern belief systems.

Both Jack Kerouac and Van Morrison have frequently referenced Buddhism in their works (novels, poems, songs) In fact, Kerouac read widely in Buddhist texts over a period of several years, and eventually started composing his own sutras, or contemporary versions of sacred texts. Morrison has, of course, dropped references to both Kerouac's novels and to well-known Western popularizers of Buddhism in several of his songs... One key figure in this gamut is Alan Watts, who was English but lived the better part of his active life as a Buddhist popularizer in the USA (he died in 1973). The author of more than 25 books and avid lecturer and broadcaster, Watts' ideas are still being disseminated in today's media, via posthumous book publications, on discs, DVDs and on the Web... At some point Kerouac met and became friends with Watts, and he appears as a character in two of Kerouac's novel, Desolation Angels (as Alex Aums) and Big Sur (as Arthur Wayne). Morrison primarily glosses Watts' work in a song aptly named "Alan Watts Blues" (on Poetic Champions Compose) where the chorus is a rendition of the title of a Watts book: Cloud-hidden Whereabouts Unknown. The bridge lyrics go like this:

Sittin' up on the mountain-top in my solitude
Where the morning fog comes rollin' in
Just might do me some good.

Such sentiments echo very well with a Beat writer such as Gary Snyder, whose translations of Han Shan's Cold Mountain poems, for instance, sound very similar:

I settled at Cold Mountain long ago,
Already it seems like years and years.
Freely drifting, I prowl the woods and streams
And linger watching things themselves.
Men don't get this far into the mountains,
White clouds gather and billow.
Thin grass does for a mattress,
The blue sky makes a good quilt.
Happy with a stone under head
Let heaven and earth go about their changes.

Clambering up the Cold Mountain path,
The Cold Mountain trail goes on and on:
The long gorge choked with scree and boulders,
The wide creek, the mist blurred grass.
The moss is slippery, though there's been no rain
The pine sings, but there's no wind.
Who can leap the word's ties
And sit with me among the white clouds?

As a result of Watts' acquaintance with the Beats (he first knew Snyder, who was a serious Zen acolyte and also known to D.T. Suzuki, the first scholar to disseminate a knowledge of Buddhism in English) he wrote a fairly well-known essay titled "Beat Zen, Square Zen, and Zen", originally published as a pamphlet by City Lights Books in 1959, then collected and re-published in the Random House essay collection This Is It in 1962. Here are his definitions of the different mind sets to approaching Zen:

Square Zen is a quest for the right spiritual experience, for a satori which will receive the stamp (inka) of approval and established authority. There will even be certificates to hang on the wall. [Whereas f]or beat Zen there must be no effort, no discipline, no artificial striving to attain satori or to be anything but what one is. [He describes its self-defensive underside] But for square Zen there can be no true satori without years of meditation-practice under the stern supervision of a qualified master.

Not only did Watts identify the typical Western approaches to Zen as Beat or Square, respectively - pinpointing these approaches' short-comings (one is not serious enough and seeks instant gratification, the other is more philosophical than spiritual and caters to the intellect rather than the soul...), but in The Joyous Cosmology (1957) he had already offered a more history of ideas founded account of the difficulties of reception of Eastern religion for a Western mind-set:

The practical difficulty is that Taoism and Zen are so involved with the forms of Far Eastern culture that it is a major problem to adapt them to Western needs. For example, Eastern teachers work on the esoteric and aristocratic principle that the student must learn the hard way and find out almost everything for himself. Aside from occasional hints, the teacher merely accepts or rejects the student's attainments. But Western teachers work on the exoteric and democratic principle that everything possible must be done to inform and assist the student so as to make his mastery of the subject as easy as possible. Does the latter approach, as purists insist, merely vulgarize the discipline? The answer is that it depends upon the type of discipline. If everyone learns enough mathematics to master quadratic equations, the attainment will seem small in comparison with the much rarer comprehension of the theory of numbers. But the transformation of consciousness undertaken in Taoism and Zen is more like the correction of faulty perception or the curing of a disease. It is not an acquisitive process of learning more and more facts or greater and greater skills, but rather an unlearning of wrong habits and opinions. As Lao-tzu said, "The scholar gains every day, but the Taoist loses every day."

The practice of Taoism or Zen in the Far East is therefore an undertaking in which the Westerner will find himself confronted with many barriers erected quite deliberately to discourage idle curiosity or to nullify wrong views by inciting the student to proceed systematically and consistently upon false assumptions to the reductio ad absurdum. My own main interest in the study of comparative mysticism has been to cut through these tangles and to identify the essential psychological processes underlying those alterations of perception which enable us to see ourselves and the world in their basic unity. I have perhaps had some small measure of success in trying, Western fashion, to make this type of experience more accessible.

To illustrate this difficulty I propose to briefly return to the work of first Kerouac, and then Morrison. A poem sequence such as the spontaneously composed Mexico City Blues by Kerouac illustrates the limitations. In this book Kerouac on several occasions riffs on key notions in Buddhist faith, such as Maya (the notion that all, including human suffering, is an illusion - a veil, hiding the true nature of things - namely that no thing exists). He also plays with the idea of Nirvana, a state of grace where the believer has understood that nothing is real, and that Nirvana is the cessation of existence in the world of illusion. In a previous paper I made reference to how a specific sequence of poems approaches Nirvana:

The most discussed and anthologised thematic chorus sequence in Mexico City Blues is the one eulogising Charlie Parker, which rolls from poem 239 through 242 of the collection, and thus forms the coda to the whole book. There are, however, numerous other such chains of choruses with identifiable thematic connections creating coherence across individual pages. A good example of such a chain are choruses 196 through 201, which arise out of a longer, more vaguely interconnected thematic meditation on Buddhist tenets to riff specifically on the notion of Nirvana, and the application of Nirvana as a shade of lipstick, called “Nirvana No”, to barroom girls disturbing or tempting the Buddhist sage in his meditations. Most of the Blues poems are self-contained units, ending as a page gets filled up with text. Poems can however run on, onto the next sheet(s) as illustrated by the identification of chains of choruses discussed above. On the other hand there are many examples of apparently prepared run-on lines ending one chorus, but not being picked up in the next. One good example is the last line in the Nirvana sequence which reads “And they claim”, but we never learn what it is they claim, as the next chorus seems a self-contained meta-poem starting: “A white poem, a white pure/spotless poem” (202). On the whole Mexico City Blues can be said to thematise the quest for purity of mind and belief in a world full of temptations of the flesh, a world where the speaking and writing subject suffers but seeks help and illumination from selected culture heroes, (Buddhist sages as well as Charlie Parker) and as such the collection takes its place naturally among Kerouac’s other confessional works.

One could of course argue that writing the ''white poem" is a means of getting to Nirvana, and that would be a Zen stance. However, the follow-up notion that such a poem has to be "spotless" contradicts the move towards Nirvana, by the poet's getting hung up on achieving perfection within Maya. I think the operation in Kerouac's mind is typical of the Western way of thinking within the box of attainment, quality, perfection. Nirvana is not perfection, but the cessation of the striving for perfection.

Van Morrison's tribute to Watts seems to imagine the trip to the mountain top as a small stay at the spa, a detox of the mind, after which the poet returns to the grind of everyday life and its temptations:

I'm waiting in the clearing with my motor on
it's time to get back to the town again
Where the air is sweet and fresh in the countryside
Well, it won't be long before I get back here again.

This again is similar to the way Kerouac ends his Desolation novels, Dharma Bums and Desolation Angels. The poet returns purified, but with the knowledge that this state will not last. In Kerouac's case the root to the flaw is already laid during the meditations on the mountain top where he has realized that all is illusion, but fails to take the final step of realizing that the suffering caused by this realization is also illusion. In Morrison's case one almost gets the feeling that the cleansing procedure is an established routine, not a one off extraordinary event that might lead to satori...

I end with a video of Watts' Conversation with Myself. There are 2 more parts easily available on YouTube...


Nimi said...

Wow great post! I really like how you tie together Van's music, with Kerouac's poetry and Watt's Buddhism. Enlightening!

Celestial Elf said...

Great Post, thank you!
Alan Watts is a serious inspiration, here's my animation of his' account of Nirvana as recorded in his Lectures on Buddhism: The Middle Way - Watts' Nirvana