By Mankh (Walter E. Harris III). Axis of Logic
I am not from the East or the West...
I belong to the beloved, have seen the two worlds as one...
I remember my first wild strawberry... so tiny... but the flavor was magnified, as compared with the large, store-bought kind that my city-upbringing taste buds were accustomed to. Amounts can be deceptive. If "less is more," then what is the experience of "more" that we seek via "less"? With the strawberry it became "more" flavor from "less" size. With Eastern mysticism and philosophy, "less is more" typically has less sensory associations, but can be as rewarding.
In Japanese culture, for example, the "less is more" is reflected in the arts and various traditions. Haiku, the shortest poetic form, is meant to paint a big picture using only a few words. Zen rock gardens are typically visually simple, composed of sand or gravel and a few rocks (quite the opposite of a lush English garden), yet much care goes into procuring JUST the right stones. The tea ceremony or Way of Tea has elaborate guidelines, all for the serving of a simple cup.
Though the times they are a changin' again, the East can be associated with "less," and the West "more." In this essay the West refers predominantly to the USA, or USE (United States of Empire), which, according to the following 2006-07 statistics, USEs "more" than other countries by consuming "30 percent of the world's resources despite making up only 5 percent of the world's population. It also produces 30 percent of the world's waste."2
Eastern traditions also tend to encourage the diminishing of ego-based motivations; therein is one of the key differences. USE number-one psychology is, to this observer, most notably reflected in competitive sports, reality TV shows, and the posturing as a "super-power," which has, by the way, 700+ military bases worldwide.
So, again the question: what is the "more" sought via "less"?
One of my answers is that focusing on the inner realms via meditation, dreams, and so on, can help you find out "more" about yourself so that you feel "less" troubled, and thus better able to help others "more." To answer the question from a wider angle, however, will take a bit of cultural exploration, along the lines of East and West, more or less.
SOME EAST WENT WEST
In varying phases, since pre-dominantly the 1950s, Eastern practices and philosophies have made their way West. Nowadays it is commonplace to find in cities, suburbs, and rural areas a variety of yoga and meditation centers, Zen and Buddhist centers, acupuncturists, Reiki healers, and the like. "Interest in Asian religions was beginning to stir among young spiritual seekers in the early '60s, and new ashrams began to show up. ... 1965 was a turning point for Asian religions in the United States. Changes in immigration laws in that year meant that Asian spiritual teachers could come to the U.S. much more easily than previously."3 This was a result of The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, which became law in 1968.4
The Western literary and philosophical worlds have been infused with the works of a variety of cross-cultural ambassador-translators.
D. T. Suzuki "wrote some of the most celebrated introductions and overall examinations of Buddhism, and particularly of the Zen school. He went on a lecture tour of American universities in 1951, and taught at Columbia University from 1952 to 1957."5 Beat poet Allen Ginsberg was one of his students.
Suzuki was also a big influence on Alan Watts who is perhaps the best-known Westerner to masterfully convey Eastern ways to the West. Among Watts' many wonderful books and talks, The Way of Zen gives a good overview of the Tao, Buddishm, Zen and related arts.
Translating the original Chinese meaning of "Tao," Watts references, in his book, Tao: The Watercourse Way, that it has to do with "going and pausing" on a path,6 which is akin to "go with the flow." This ancient Eastern mode of traveling through life is quite different from the on-the-go fast paced society of the West. In a nutshell, whereas the East encourages us to "go and pause," the West virtually demands that we "go and go," like the Energizer bunny, (no offense to the quality of batteries!).
Another difference between East and West is the approach toward action or doing. The Tao encourages 'not doing,' and instead tuning in to 'what needs done.' In other words, instead of saying "I want to do THIS," a Taoist would simply notice that "the dishes need washed." It is the task getting "done" that is emphasized, and not the "doer," which may sound odd to the Western "I did it!" accomplishment-obsessed mentality. According to the Tao, by trying to do "less," one can actually accomplish "more"… but the proof is in the pudding.
Shunryu Suzuki, was a Soto Zen Roshi (Master), nicknamed "Crooked Cucumber for his forgetful and unpredictable nature."7 His biggest influence on this writer comes from the title of his 1970 book, Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind; to quote Suzuki, "In the beginner's mind there are many possibilities, in the expert's mind there are few." In other words, one is advised to constantly pay attention like a beginner, no matter how much one has already learned or experienced.
In 1949, Soen Nakagawa made "his first trip to the United States to meet with Nyogen Senzaki."8 Zen Master Soen was "a notoriously eccentric teacher who, for example, was known to conduct 'tea ceremonies' using instant coffee and Styrofoam cups."9
What might be considered sacrilegious in Western traditions, and was even an eyebrow-raiser to some traditional Zen folk, Soen's 'tea ceremonies' transcended form, also showing that "less" rote ritual can make for "more" spontaneous and real experiences. Soen also wrote some wonderful haiku and haibun.
Much of the Eastern holistic impetus has to do with slowing down, relaxing, tuning in, and connecting with the various parts of what is called "the self" -- all ways of "less" making for "more."
EAST AND WEST MEET
R.H. Blyth went East during WW II and brought poetry back to the West. His 4-volume Haiku has helped make the tiny Japanese poem a worldwide phenomenon and is cited by many writers as their introduction to the literary form. Although Blyth favors the male Japanese poets while neglecting the females, his work is a wonderful collection and reference. The first volume, "Eastern Culture," gives the nod to Buddhism, Zen, the Tao, Confucianism, Shinto, and various art forms as the "spiritual origins" of haiku. The rest of the volumes have haiku poems with comments, all arranged by the four seasons.
Haiku’s popularity outside of Japan is a kind of gift that resulted from WW II, for it was while R.H. Blyth (tutor to Crown Prince Akihito), Harold G. Henderson, and Faubion Bowers were stationed in Japan that they learned of haiku in great depth. Kenneth Yasuda (Shôson), an American of Japanese descent, is also an influential haiku figure. Encouraging cultural exchanges might actually help to prevent wars.
On the musical side, Ravi Shankar got together with Yehdui Menuhin, in 1967, and made the album "West Meets East: The Historic Shankar/ Menuhin Sessions." In 1990, Shankar collaborated with composer Philip Glass for an album called Passages, and the world-renowned, sitar-playing Shankar was also a big influence on George Harrison.
"Donovan developed a strong interest in eastern mysticism and claims to have played a significant role in awakening the interest of The Beatles in transcendental meditation. In early 1968 he was part of the group that travelled to India to spend several weeks at the ashram of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi in Rishikesh."10
There is also John McLaughlin aka Mahavishnu, a guitarist from England. "First, there was McLaughlin's initial interest in Eastern philosophy and religion, which led to his becoming a member of the English Theosophical Society in the '60s. In the spring of 1970, he became a disciple of the guru Sri Chinmoy."11
"In 1973, McLaughlin collaborated with Carlos Santana, also a disciple of Sri Chinmoy, on an album of devotional songs, Love Devotion Surrender..." McLaughlin has also made several albums with a group of East Indians musicians called Shakti.12
Teacher and author Gangaji "travels the world speaking to seekers from all walks of life. Born in Texas in 1942, Gangaji grew up in Mississippi. After graduating from the University of Mississippi in 1964, she married and had a daughter. In 1972, she moved to San Francisco where she began exploring deeper levels of her being. She took Bodhisattva vows, practiced Zen and Vipassana meditation, helped run a Tibetan Buddhist Meditation Center, and had a career as an acupuncturist in the San Francisco Bay area." But she still felt unsatisfied... until going to India where she met what would become her teacher, Sri H.W.L. Poonja, also known as Papaji; his teacher was Sri Ramana Maharshi. Thus, a lineage from India to the world was forged, via a woman who traveled East, then West.13
Probably the most well-known and liked figure from the East is His Holiness the Dalai Lama, who "is both the head of state and the spiritual leader of Tibet."14 Due to the Chinese government’s brutal hostilities, the Dalai Lama escaped from Tibet in 1959 and fled to India, still his home today. His teachings and presentations, along with many other Tibetans, have been embraced in the West, and elsewhere.
BEAT MEETS EAST, AFFECTS WEST
One of the biggest influences of Eastern ways on Western culture en masse comes via the Beat Movement or Generation that began in the 1950s. To this writer, the Beats provide a well-rounded artistic example, balancing ethereal Eastern experiences with Earthy sensuality and grassroots respect. Much of Beat writings portray day-to-day practicality blended with spiritual perspectives, activism with meditation, common sense with compassion.
Beat poet Allen Ginsberg met a "Tibetan Buddhist meditation master" who became "his friend and life-long teacher. Ginsberg was also involved with Krishnaism."15
From Ginsberg's poem "Sunflower Sutra," published in 1955:
--We're not our skin of grime, we're not our dread
bleak dusty imageless locomotive, we're all
beautiful golden sunflowers inside, we're blessed
by our own seed & golden hairy naked
A wonderful book on the topic is, The Beat Face of God: The Beat Generation Writers as Spirit Guides by Stephen D. Edington with a wonderful Foreword by David Amram; the cover has a picture of a sunflower emerging from the debris described in Ginsberg’s poem.
Lawrence Ferlinghetti's poem "A Buddha in the Woodpile," was written in response to the 1993 Waco siege at the Branch Davidian complex in Texas. Here's a section:
If there had been just one
majority of one
in the lotus position
in the inner sanctum
who bowed his shaved head to the
Chief of All Police
and raised his hands in a mudra
and chanted the Great Paramita Sutra
the Diamond Sutra
the Lotus Sutra...
Donovan’s 1996 album, Sutras, includes a song, "High Your Love," that mentions Sai Baba, a popular Indian holy man and humanitarian. "Sathya Sai Baba and his organizations support a variety of free educational institutions, hospitals, and other charitable works in India and abroad."16
One of the main characters in Kerouac's novel, The Dharma Bums, is modeled after Gary Snyder who was part of Keoruac's introduction to Buddhism; the book got a mix of comments as to its portrayal of Zen and Buddhist consciousness.
Gary Snyder, a poet, essayist, and environmental activist, studied Rinzai Zen Buddhism. "By 1954 Snyder was well into his Zen Buddhist studies and practiced in earnest at the University of California at Berkeley. All the while he continued to write his poems, many of which celebrated our earthly creature qualities. From 1956 to 1968 he alternated between living on the West Coast and in Japan, with much of his time in Japan spent at a Zen temple in Kyoto."17
Snyder's Pulitzer-Prize-winning book of poems and essays "Turtle Island: with Four Changes," with its recognition of the American Indian creation-story, emphasizes working together as a whole on the planet. Not only does this transcend East and West, it also helps show how they can be compatible: Eastern airy-ness with Western earthy-ness, which may well provide some answers to many of the current global crises. "Phil Whalen, who, like Snyder, worked for several summers as a fire lookout in the Northwest Cascades, also became a serious student and practitioner of Zen Buddhism. Whalen was eventually ordained as a Zen monk, and in 1991 became an abbot at the Hartford Zen Center in San Francisco."18
Though not as widely known, many women are connected with the Beat Generation, including Diane di Prima and Janine Pommy Vega.
SOME WEST WENT EAST
Perhaps the biggest positive influence going the other direction has been due to the simple, monk-like behavior of Massachusetts woodsman, Henry David Thoreau, whose time in a cabin at Walden Pond, plus his night in prison for not paying taxes because they might have been used to support the Mexican-American war, helped spawn "civil disobedience."
Thoreau was a big influence on Gandhi whose use of civil disobedience helped to overthrow the British Empire's grip on India. Martin Luther King, Jr. also cited Thoreau as a major influence, proving once again that 'good stuff' transcends locale. Thoreau is often categorized as an American Transcendentalist, along with Ralph Waldo Emerson, Margaret Fuller, Walt Whitman, and others.
Associated with the West, the Transcendentalists had a variety of influences including, Hindu and Buddhist philosophies (what goes around comes around), German Idealism, and English Romanticism.19
Born in Quebec City in 1958, Nadaka, explains his musical journey East. "It was through the Beatles that I first heard the twangs of a Sitar, which opened a small window onto India. Soon after, Eastern philosophies and esoteric thoughts captivated me. It was at the age of fifteen, when my dream of joining the music conservatory came to naught, that a yearning for a deeper meaning in my life led to my decision to travel alone and experience the world." The bio adds, "Dedicated to the ideals of India's great revolutionary yogi, Sri Aurobindo, he [Nadaka] has been living in the international settlement of Auroville, in South India, since 1974. His love of Indian culture and passion for Indian music led him to study a number of traditional music styles, both on Indian stringed instruments and vocally."20
The movie From Mao to Mozart: Isaac Stern in China depicts the violin player's 1979 visit. "It portrays the famous violinist and music teacher Isaac Stern as the first American musician to collaborate with the China Central Symphony Society (Now China National Symphony Orchestra)."21
WEST EATS MEAT AND BEYOND
The 1990 album, Tana Mana, by The Ravi Shankar Project, has an amusing song title, "West Eats Meat," with the song itself highlighting some whimsical vocals from Shankar.
But the cultural tide has turned, and quite ominously, in this writer's opinion. One of my biggest global concerns is the side-effect of the Western-style USE-Capitalism that is being adopted in the East. With China and India combining for more than one-third of the world population, well, the math is scary. Recently I’ve read of the massive use of concrete for making "more" roads… for "more" oil-powered vehicles… for driving to "more" fast food restaurants...
The following is from a 2008 article: "Two decades ago, McDonald's was largely unknown here, except as a symbol of the decadent west. But a capitalist revolution has swept through the People's Republic. And today mainland China, still officially Communist, is home to 800 McDonald's restaurants — with 200 more in Hong Kong.
"Jeff Schwartz, CEO of McDonald's China, says that’s just the beginning.
" 'I just look at China's 1.3 billion population,' he said. "U.S. (population) 300 million, 13,000 restaurants. China (population) 1.3 billion and 800 restaurants. Easily we're talking 10,000 to 5,000 restaurants as it continues to develop. So the opportunity is endless...
"When McDonald’s first opened in China in 1990, these streets were clogged with bicycles. But prosperity has brought an explosion in car ownership."22
Coca-Cola has run into protests in India due to issues of water scarcity and pollution. East or West, precious resources are an issue.
As for the population boom (which also leads to using more and more of Earth's precious resources), for comic relief, I quote comedian Richard Pryor, who, in 1979 quipped, "There are two billion Chinese people livin' in China. That's how you know someone's doing some serious fucking." Pryor's stats may have been hyperbole for humor-- according to 2009 estimates, China is home to 1.3+ billion, and India 1.1+ billion (that's people, and not how many burgers served).
China is reportedly boosting green energy initiatives, but is it enough?!23
Also, Hollywood has morphed into Bollywood, though maybe the films are better (can’t say, haven't seen them).
WEST and WILD WEST
While various peoples around the globe who have "less" materially may have "more" mentally and spiritually, by the fact of living in human bodies there are basic needs: food, water, clothing, and shelter, for starters. The Indigenous guardians of the West are the Natives who have a culture rich with Earth-wisdom and spiritual knowledge; they were sustainable, green, recycle-friendly, and communal long before any of those became popular buzz-word phrases. But instead of the West staying West, it was run over by a Wild West mentality starting with Columbus. The true West WAS wild, but in the sense of wilderness.
Some might think of all this as just history, but it is far from it. While some Tribes and Indian Nations are prospering nowadays, many are not. On the poorest of the Lakota Reservations in South Dakota, Pine Ridge Oglala Lakota, for example, the unemployment rate is around 80-90%, the teenage suicide rate "is 150% higher than the U.S. national average for this age group, almost 50% of the adults on the Reservation over the age of 40 have diabetes, there is an estimated average of 17 people living in each family home (a home which may only have two to three rooms), and some larger homes, built for 6 to 8 people, have up to 30 people living in them," and the list of such statistics is sadly longer.24
According to Tiokasin Ghosthorse of the Cheyenne River Lakota, the Lakota people have much "less," because they have not sold out, that is, not cashed in on the vast riches beneath the land, aka Mother Earth, that they caretake. Some of that land has already been taken by the USE, and you can read the history to understand better; the discovery of gold in the 1870s is one reason for the many broken treaties.
Peabody Coal Company (now Peabody Energy Corporation) has, for many years, been using the "sacred water" of the Hopi and Navaho (Diné) to slurry coal to California, thus taking "more" from those who already have "less." In January of 2010 the mining was stopped.25 Also in that region, uranium mining has left much poverty and disease in its wake.
The Lakota word "wasicu" means: one who takes the fat or too much; "wasicun" is being greedy. The words are also used to refer to "non-Indians;" not that all are "wasicu," but the track record is bleak. Tecumseh (1768-1813), the Shawnee leader, probably best summed up the behaviors of "wasicu" -- "never contented but always encroaching." To find out ways to help stop the encroaching, give a listen to First Voices Indigenous Radio.26 Or, find out how the nearest Natives to you are faring; there are 565 federally recognized Tribes, plus about 240 NOT federally recognized.
Hurricane Katrina (and its after effects still being dealt with) provided a crack in the mainstream media-USE's ivory tower glass window, revealing but one example of the deliberate mistreatment of the nation’s African American people.
A documentary or program (of which I don't remember the title) about home- and other forms of schooling, portrays a young woman spending her first year lounged on a couch, doing virtually nothing. At any other school she would have been 're-arranged.' In her second year, however, she 'found her calling.' This is a wonderful example of how 'doing nothing' can be 'doing something,' especially taking into account the long-haul; this is akin to the Way of the Tao, aforementioned.
Many such ways of being are universal, transcending directions. The Chinese have a word for "heart-mind," a process akin to the Lakota 'thinking' process because the Lakota have no word for "brain." In Eastern metaphysics, the seven energy-centers of the body, called chakras, are considered the complete "brain."
"If you went straight through the Hopi Reservation to the other side of the world, you would come out in Tibet. The Tibetan word for 'sun' is the Hopi word for 'moon,' and the Hopi word for 'sun' is the Tibetan word for 'moon.' "27
While the use of sand, artistically and otherwise, can be found in various cultures, perhaps the most well-known are Navaho sand-paintings and Tibetan sand-mandalas, both used for healing purposes, among others. This makes for another interesting East-West parallel, the Hopi lands being inside the Navaho lands.
Yet another significant East-West parallel, going back B.C.E., reveals the comparable mystical movements and practices of the Essenes of Israel and the Hsien Taoists of China.28
Recently, there is frequent mention in the news of various governmental "austerity measures." Now, in the context of unadorned simplicity, austerity measures are akin to Taoist and similar lifestyles, yet in the sense of harshness and governmental control, these austerity measures take on a different context.
Outwardly, we need more holistic and sustainability consciousness put into action. "More" balancing of the rich/poor, over-fed/starving scales, making for "less" physical hardship and mental anguish. In his book, Stuffed & Starved: The Hidden Battle for the World System, Raj Patel identifies Global North and Global South as the main dividing division between rich and poor, the well-fed/obese and the starving. (Perhaps a follow-up essay to this one, but I've only just started reading the book.)
Inwardly, we can learn to balance ourselves. Carl Johan Calleman, Ph.D, a Swedish biologist, "posits that brain lateralization, the right/left hemisphere divide, relates to the geographical energy structures of the earth. The "midline" of the earth represents the trunk of the World Tree and divides east from west on the planet. This energetic divide on the earth parallels the way the human brain works with left, rational analytical and right, intuitive spatial. The west tends to also be more action oriented, while the east tends toward more meditative and intuitive. Calleman believes that our two brain hemispheres, right/left, have different functions because they are "microcosmic reflections of the eastern and western hemispheres of the planet."29
Mankh (Walter E. Harris III) is a frequent guest poet and essayist on Axis of Logic. He is a writer, small press publisher, and Turtle Islander. You can contact him via his literary website.
READ MORE OF MANKH'S POEMS
AND ESSAYS ON AXIS OF LOGIC
- The Essential Rumi, trans. by Coleman Barks, (Castle Books, 1995), p, 32.
- Vision: Modern Utopias
- Asian Nation
- D. T. Suzuki
- Tao: The Watercourse Way, Alan Watts with Al Chung-Liang Huang, (Pantheon Books, NY, 1975), p.39.
- Shunryu Suzuki
- Timeline of Zen Buddhism in the US
- Endless Vow: The Zen Path of Soen Nakagawa, (Shambala, Boston and London, 1996), back cover.
- Donovan & Maharishi Mahesh Yogi
- Liner notes by John Ephland, album "Shakti with John McLaughlin" (1976).
- John McLaughlin
- Dalai Lama
- Allen Ginsberg
- Sai Baba
- The Beat Face of God: The Beat Generation Writers as Spirit Guides, Stephen D. Edington, (Trafford Publishing, 2005), p.61.
- Ibid, p. 65.
- From Mao to Mozart
- McDonald's has a big appetite for China
- Obama admin takes aim at China's renewable-energy subsidies
- Lakota – Link Center Foundation; Matador Network
- Hopi and Navajo Residents Stop Peabody's Coal Mine
- First Voices Indigenous Radio
- 1986 Continental Indigenous Council – Lee Brown
- Westward-Singing Bird
- The World Tree and Brain Lateralization by Theresa C. Dintino &
The Mayan Calendar and the Transformation of Consciousness, Carl Johan Calleman, (Rochester VT: Bear & Co., 2004), P.50.
Painting: A still life of Tapestry as a form of textile art. Original Oil painting by StudioAK.