Two Attitudes Toward Nature

"Our consciousness is nothing but an insignificant floating piece of island in the Oceanus encircling the earth. But it is through this little fragment of land that we can look out to the immense expanse of the unconscious itself; the feeling of it is all that we can have, but this feeling is not a small thing, because it is by means of this feeling that we can realize that our fragmentary existence gains its full significance, and thus that we can rest assured that we are not living in vain."

-- Erich Fromm, D.T. Suzuki, Richard Martino, Zen Buddhism And Psychoanalysis

Consider the manner in which two exceptional poets describe an ordinary flower. Here's the haiku of Basho, a Japanese scribe of the 17th century:

When I look carefully

I see the nazuna blooming

By the hedge!

Here are the words of Alfred, Lord Tennyson:

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.

Daisetz Suzuki, the venerated Zen sage and scholar, sees every difference in the world between the two experiences. "Basho does not pluck the flower," he writes in Zen Buddhism and Psychoanalysis. "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." Tennyson, by contrast, "is active and analytical. He first plucks the flower from the place where it grows. He separates it from the ground where it belongs. Quite differently from the Oriental poet, he does not leave the flower alone. 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; his curiosity must be satisifed."

Note that Basho, content merely to "look," reacts as though he has just learned the deep mystery of the flower, while Tennyson, grabbing, dissecting and scrutinizing it, is frustrated in his effort to understand -- frustrated all the more so, because he suspects the riddle of the universe might be disclosed to him at once if he could just make sense of the flower.

For Dr. Suzuki, the contrast in poetic feeling clearly points to irreconcilable mentalities: the western mind, he says, is "analytical, discriminative, differential, inductive, individualistic, intellectual, objective, scientific, generalizing, conceptual, schematic, impersonal, legalistic, organizing, power-wielding, self-assertive, disposed to impose its will upon others." He characterizes the eastern mindset as "synthetic, totalizing, integrative, nondiscriminative, deductive, nonsystematic, dogmatic, intuitive (rather, affective), nondiscursive, subjective, spiritually individualistic and socially group-minded."

This judgment might seem unduly pointed and preferential for a disinterested sage, but Suzuki is concerned chiefly to show that the heart of cosmic understanding can't be reached through the vein of conceptual analysis. "The Zen way preserves life as life," he says; "no surgical knife touches it. The Zen poet sings:

All is left to her natural beauty,

Her skin is intact,

Her bones are as they are:

There is no need for the paints, powders of any tint.

She is as she is, no more, no less.

How marvelous!"

I wonder if we haven't much to derive from the insight above -- "we" meaning "we who belong to the most scientifically and technologically advanced civilization in history," "we who can boast the loudest of having understood and mastered nature." A few comments, a few questions:

(i) Has western analytical intelligence evolved to the point where Tennyson's sentimentality might be said to be closer to Basho's than to our own? Tennyson at least gazed upon the flower with awe, and he was humble enough to admit that the little flower was an enigma to him. Today, with near certainty and considerably less humility, we can proclaim that we "know" what all organic life is: we know that its irreducible constituents are atoms; we know that it unfolds according to the self-transcribing ethos of the DNA molecule; we know we can manipulate any life form endlessly, whether in the manner of genetically modified organisms, fertility pharmaceuticals, cloning procedures, genomic sequencing, or other excogitations of biochemistry. Does such sophistication carry any sacrifices? What is lost in the way of naive wonderment at nature? What mystical insight is missed by the spirit which doesn't see anything fascinating or miraculous in mountain ranges, blue skies, old redwoods, fresh verdure?

(ii) If the consummation of discriminative intelligence leads to an indifference and an aloofness to nature, where does humanity go to sate its aesthetic and spiritual appetite? What happens to the appeal of myths, of allegories, of fables -- in other words, to all those sources of edification which lie outside the circumscribed boundaries of positivist science, technocentric industry?

(iii) To what extent might it be said that a naif like Basho is considerably happier than his mentally rugged counterpart -- that a Zen Buddhist like Suzuki, having remained leery of abstract, logocentric, conceptual thought, finds more joy in daily life than all the omniscient geniuses of the west put together? (Or is this question of the facile either-or variety?) Is it a coincidence or an irrelevant detail that the nation with the greatest R&D science budget, strongest military, most successful pharmaceutical companies, most developed media infrastructure also is the world's leading consumer of illicit drugs, the world's leading consumer of pornography, the world's leading gambler?

(iv) Doesn't the deepest intimation of the "why and wherefore" of life come from mystical experience, impassioned contemplation, reverent receptivity to nature, rather than from the stammerings of the workaday intellect?

( Tim Ruggiero, May 2, 2002)

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