Hold It All

Category: Classics

“If Not You, Who?”

Having recently read Cal Newport’s Digital Minimalism and Deep Work, I thought of Marcel Proust’s Time Regained, volume 7 in his In Search of Lost Time.

1.

As for the inner book of unknown symbols… if I tried to read them no one could help me with any rules, for to read them was an act of creation in which no one can do our work for us or even collaborate with us.  How many for this reason turn aside from writing!  What tasks do men not take upon themselves in order to evade this task!  Every public event, be it the Dreyfus case, be it the war, furnishes the writer with a fresh excuse for not attempting to decipher this book:  he wants to insure the triumph of justice, he wants to restore the moral unity of the nation, he has no time to think of literature.  But these are mere excuses, the truth being that he has not or no longer has genius, that is to say instinct.  For instinct dictates our duty and the intellect supplies us with  pretexts for evading it. But excuses have no place in art and intentions count for nothing:  at every moment the artist has to listen to his instinct, and it is this that makes art the most real of all things, the most austere school of life, the true last judgment.

2.

So that the essential, the only true book, though in the ordinary sense of the word it does not have to be ‘“invented” by a great writer — for it exists already in each one of us — has to be translated by him.  The function and the task of a writer are those of a translator.

3.

The artist who gives up an hour of work for an hour of conversation with a friend knows that he is sacrificing a reality for something which does not exist (our friends being friends only  in the light of an agreeable folly which travels with us through life and to which we readily accommodate ourselves, but which at the bottom of our hearts we know to be no more reasonable than the delusion of the man who talks to the furniture because he believes that it is alive)…   Read the rest of this entry »

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Finding One’s Lost Mind

Julia Ching, The Philosophical Letters of Wang Yang-ming
University of South Carolina Press, 1972

I previously studied with delight Julia Ching’s To Acquire Wisdom: The Way of Wang Yang-ming. Wang was the towering philosophical figure in the Ming Dynasty, one whose teachings and poems I took to heart. In this collection of letters, I am reminded of the simplicity of his way—the “extension of liang-zhi.”

Useful Phrases
“our firm determination to become sages” 6-7

having a single purpose, being undivided 41

recover your original determination 43

Mean: Keep always to the Mean; practice discernment and single-mindedness. 49

“the stimulation of the mind, the strengthening of human nature, the practice of polishing and perfecting oneself” 51

“to have a humble mind and to maintain a constant sagacity” 60

“conquer yourself and recover propriety [li]” 74

Confucius recommended, “learning with constant perseverance and application” 89 Analects 1:1

“unfolding, energetic, firm, and enduring” —Doctrine of the Mean 31, 110

 

Major Themes
Learning: the gentleman can find himself in no situation in which he is not himself, since whatever he does is, for him, learning. 105

Liang-chi: To develop the innate moral knowledge in the mind is, for WYM, the only thing necessary in the pursuit of sagehood, while Chu Hsi and said that one ought to investigate the principles of all things. 31

Liang-chi: l-c contains all truth 48

Liang-chi: All [people] have this moral ability to judge between right and wrong. This is what we call l-c. 68

Liang-chi: True spontaneity refers to the substance of mind not being hindered by unruly desire, so that she finds herself in no situation in which she is not herself. 79

Liang-chi: For this l-c, to eliminate carelessness and pride is to investigate things. The extension of this knowledge is the secret transmission of the ancient learning of the school of sages. 83

Liang-chi: l-c is mindfulness 88

Liang-chi: The only effort required is to learn constantly, and the essential of learning constantly is to watch over ourselves when we are alone, and this vigilance in solitude is precisely the extension of l-c, while l-c is nothing other than joy-in-itself. 90

Liang-chi: A scholar who has already determined to become a sage in order to gain insight needs merely to extend his l-c, in its intelligent and conscious aspects, to the uttermost, proceeding gradually and naturally day by day. 94

Liang-chi: To accumulate righteousness is only to extend the l-c. 96

Liang-chi: When l-c awakens, it is as though the bright sun has arisen, and ghosts and spirits naturally disperse. 117

Mindfulness: If we only guard this mind and not allow it to become dispersed, the principles of reason will mature themselves. 8

Mindfulness: Mengzi said, ‘There is naught else in learning outside of finding one’s lost mind.’ 87. Mencius, 6A:11

Mindfulness: sweep your hearts clean of the bandits inside .. and restore inner clarity and peace and calm 45

Mindfulness: The mind’s substance is tranquility; the mind’s function is activity, 58

Path: “abandon the path of honors and reputation, purify your mind and your desires, concentrate on the learning of the sages” 65

Polishing: See Platform Sutra on polishing 10

Sages: [they need to ] have the sincere determination to becomes sages, and to devote themselves to being ‘discerning and single-minded’ 102

Sages: The l-c of hsin is sagehood. 113

 

Vocabulary
hsin = the heart of mind, the seat of consciousness

T’ien-li = heavenly reason, principle of Heaven

Ch’i = breath, ether, force, temperament

Liang-chi = knowing the good, knowledge of the good.

Jen = literally, kindness, benevolence, humanity, goodness, love

Shen-tu = watching over self when one is alone 121

Tao = the Way, for Confucians, virtue, authentic doctrine of the sages. 125

This Pilgrimage of the Heart

I first read the seven volumes of Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time spring through autumn of 1997.  A couple of years later, I read the collection of Proust’s essays in On Art & Literature: 1896-1919. Looking back over my notes on the text, I can see how significant Proust was for me in the two works (Mev, Layla)  that came after my Elie Wiesel book, on which I was  working at the time of this reading.  I was particularly drawn to Proust’s criticism of the French critic Sainte-Beuve.

Should I make it a novel, or a philosophical study — am I a novelist?

Every day I set less store on intellect.

And if intellect only ranks second in the hierarchy of virtues, intellect alone is able to proclaim that the first place must be given to instinct.

At the same time I put myself in tune with those other realities for which solitude whets the appetite, and whose possibility, whose reality, gives a value to life:  the women one does not know.

[Sainte-Beuve’s method] ignores what a very slight degree of self-acquaintance teaches us:  that a book is the product of  a different self from the self we manifest in our habits, in our social life, in our vices.  If we would try to understand that particular self, it is by searching  our own bosoms, and trying to reconstruct it there, that we may arrive at it.  Nothing can exempt us from this pilgrimage of the heart.

One regards oneself as no more than the trustee, who from one moment to the next may disappear, of an intellectual hoard which will disappear with him; and one would like to say check to one’s previous idleness or force of inertia by obeying that noble commandment of Christ’s in the Gospel of Saint John:  Work while ye have the light.” Read the rest of this entry »

Making It Be  Spring with Everything

Burton Watson, Chuang Tzu: Basic Writings, Columbia University Press, 1996

Once Chuang Chou dreamt he was a butterfly, a butterfly flitting and fluttering around, happy with himself and doing as he pleased. He didn’t know he was Chuang Chou. Suddenly he woke up and there he was, solid and unmistakable Chuang Chou. But he didn’t know if he was Chuang Chou who had dreamt he was a butterfly, or a butterfly dreaming he was Chuang Chou. Between Chuang Chou and a butterfly there must be some distinction! This is called the Transformation of Things.

Do not be an embodier of fame; do not be a storehouse of schemes; do not be an undertaker of projects; do not be a proprietor of wisdom. Embody to the fullest what has no end and wander where there is no trail. Hold on to all that you have received from heaven but do not think you have gotten anything. Be empty, that is all. The Perfect Man uses his mind like a mirror—going after nothing, welcoming nothing, responding but not storing. Therefore he can win out over things and not hurt himself.

Artisan Ch’ui could draw as true as a compass or a T square because his fingers changed along with things and he didn’t let his mind get in the way. Therefore his Spirit Tower remained unified and unobstructed.  You forget your feet when the shoes are comfortable. You forget your waist when the belt is comfortable. Understanding forgets right and wrong when the mind is comfortable. There is no change in what is inside, no following what is outside, when the adjustment to events is comfortable. You begin with what is comfortable and never experience what is uncomfortable when you know the comfort of forgetting what is comfortable.

___________________

What good medicine  Chuang Tzu is for me, with all my scheming,  planning, exerting, desiring and grasping after!  He’s the chill sage on the  Via Negativa: letting go and letting be, as in the following passages: Read the rest of this entry »

“My Library Is What Is in My Head”

Leland Poague, ed.Conversations with Susan Sontag
University Press of Mississippi, 1995

Sometimes I feel that, in the end, all I am really defending—but then I say all is everything—is the idea of seriousness, of true seriousness. What strikes me is how unambitious and superficial most American literature is. 245

I write to be part of literature, not for other people. 262

Reading these interviews, I was reminded how clueless I was as a Bellarmine graduate. It was my senior week, 1982, no classes, and I was sitting in the cafeteria waiting to lunch with James Petrick and Paul Fleitz, and prof and poet and Merton intimate Ron Seitz sat beside me and asked me what I wanted to do now.  I mumbled something to him, and he offered me a wry smile as he said, “So you want to be an intellectual, don’t you?”  Yes, Ron, I did, but had precious few models.

I became keenly interested in the work of Susan Sontag quite late, 2003, in fact, while reading her speech for an award in which she linked the witnesses of Oscar Romero and Rachel Corrie, the latter who had been bulldozed to death by an IDF soldier while serving as a volunteer wit the International Solidarity Movement. Later that year, I and friends from St. Louis went to Palestine and gave time with the same organization.  I read many of her essays which were posted at Znet in the following years.   A “gluttonous reader,” Sontag reminded me of Edward Said and George Steiner, whom I began reading in the 1990s.

The following excerpts spoke to me: first, what some of her interviewers made of Sontag, and, second, some of her reflections on themes important to me over the years….

_______________________

Bellamy: No one could have been more charming and cooperative. 35

Raddatz: If I had to apply the word “intellectual” to a single person, only she would come to mind. She has a lightening-like joy, an inexhaustible curiosity about events and processes even of the most remote type… 88

Lesser: Her own tone, however, is one of eminent rationality. If she is the modern version of the nineteenth-century sage, then she is certainly a toned-down Ruskin, a sane Nietzsche—and in fact a great part of her appeal as a stylist lies in that reasonable tone of certainty, that restrained assertiveness, that assurance of her own well-groundedness. 92 Read the rest of this entry »

Dharma Brother Wang Wei

Devoted Buddhist
Semi-recluse
Noticer of the minute particulars
Painter of vast emptiness
Appreciator of interbeing moment by moment
Befriender of sages, visitors and travelers moving in and out of the Ch’an world

His wife dead at thirty
He gravitates to Buddha,
The Dharma, the Sangha
And what better sangha
Than the 10,000 things
Which come and go?

See David Hinton, The Selected Poems of Wang Wei

Wang Wei

Training Everyday

For a true gentleman [junzi], learning is a matter of working on oneself. When slander and praise, glory and disgrace come, not only is his mind unmoved by such things, but he uses them as an occasion to refine and polish himself. Therefore, wherever a true gentleman goes, he is self-possessed, precisely because wherever he goes, he is learning.

–Wang Yang-Ming, in  J. C. Cleary’s Worldly Wisdom: Confucian Teachings of the Ming Dynasty

Sunday Afternoon

Sitting outside at Stella and Bella’s Cafe
The Presidential debate two hours away
Reading Su Tung-P’o’s bamboo poem
Will Clinton deliver the knock-out blow?
On my ballot, I’ll write in: Chuang Tzu

–from novel-in-progress, Our Heroic and Ceaseless 24/7 Struggle against Tsuris

 

Source: Burton Watson, Selected Poems of Su Tung-P’o, p. 114 (Copper Canyon Press, 1994).

 

 

Yoshida Kenkō, Tsurezuregusa

for Caroline

 

Going on a journey, whatever the destination, makes you feel suddenly awake and alive to everything.

There are so many new things to see in rustic places and country villages as you wander looking. It is also delightful to send word to those back home in the capital asking for news, and adding reminders to be sure and see to this or that matter.

In such places, you are particularly inclined to be attentive to all you see. You even notice the fine quality of things you’ve brought with you, and someone’s artistic talents or beauty will delight you more than they usually would.

Withdrawing to a retreat at a temple or shrine is also delightful.

 

–translated by Meredith McKinney

Reading Du Fu

Some friends and I are reading Du Fu in David Young’s translation. Here’s what Ye Xie (1627-1703) had to say about him– “Take any one of Du Fu’s poems, or even one line, and everywhere you will see his concern for his country and his love for his sovereign, his compassion for the times and his sadness over disorder, his refusal to compromise in adversity, his integrity in poverty, his way of expressing indignation and refining his nature by means of enjoying the landscape and drinking with friends, even though he had traveled through war-torn, bandit-infested terrain: this is Du Fu’s visage. Whenever I read him, it leaps before my eyes.”