The Importance of Being Wanted
-- The Buddha, The Dhammapada, Canto XXII, Verse 316
Oscar Wilde and J.K. Huysmans have each left us, by the curious conjugation of their art and the opposed responses to their literary success, testaments to the importance of making right decisions when a life filled with wrongs demands action and change. Francis Thompson, a contemporary of theirs, also contributes, as a kind of amicus curiae, much to the case under consideration.
For most of us there comes a time in life when we realize we've reached the point of samsaric saturation and cannot process one more stressful datum. If we are to continue functioning, we must either increase capacity or shut the system down. The choice, then, is either of decadence - that wretched state in which more and more is required to achieve less and less, or of turning back, shunning the world and all its spurious enticements and - to use one of the loveliest expressions in our religion - to take refuge in the Buddha.
A clarification may be helpful: "Turning back and shunning the world" doesn't mean an automatic or immediate entry into sacred precincts; and decadence isn't mere decay, as if the organism is desiccating or being scavenged in an ashes to ashes, dust to dust process.
Fashion serves to illustrate the decadence we mean: back in the Sixties, for example, when bell-bottomed pants were introduced, the new style delivered a rush of pride to those privileged to wear it. Then, as the fashion became ubiquitous, the thrill declined; and those pants that widened gracefully at the ankle in the true uniform of sailors no longer supplied the same prideful pleasure. To reinvigorate the thrill, the following year's fashion had to have a wider bell; and the year after that it was necessary to insert a triangular section of fabric to widen the bell so much that it flared out from the knee; and then finally to have it look like the skirt of a flamenco dancer, one per leg. Not until width was maxed-out and pleasure exhausted did trouser leg fashion became straight again. The same was true of ladies' shoulder pads a few years ago. Large padding quickly became extra-large which became huge and not until a woman's head resembled a raisin sitting atop a loaf of bread did disgust let the shoulder pads shrink to realistic proportions.
It is this function of decay, this inverse relationship - increasing stimulus and decreasing reward - that is the driving force of corruption. The risks must be greater, the pain more intense, the action more outrageous, the drug stronger, the subjugation more abject - all to offset a diminishing satisfaction.
And when stress is caused not by immorality but rather by burgeoning social, family or professional difficulties, we may likewise find our ability to cope severely compromised.
If we increase our tolerance by chemical means, we discover that tranquilizers- taken even in quantities sufficient to induce suspended animation - can take us just so far. Even zombies, we realize, have limits on what they reasonably can be expected to endure.
Or, if we increase capacity by using more efficient machinery, we feel collared by electronic gadgetry and leashed, shorter and tighter, to the Devil of Accessibility. Justifiably we wonder if Heaven is defined as that place which cannot be scanned by satellite.
In any case, we continue spiraling downwards until death or infirmity ends the decline or until some spiritual counterforce intervenes, causing us to become aware of our situation and to recoil from it so completely that we reverse our course. The journey back, however, is not guaranteed to be quick. Months or years may pass in which we plod along, existing with vague feelings of anxiety and guilt. We feel displaced, haunted, hunted. We are spiritual fugitives who seem to have "Se Busca" written above our face. "Wanted." We need a new identity, an alias. Some of us will come to Zen to get it.
Huysmans, Wilde and Thompson lived almost entirely within the second half of the nineteenth century. And if they were not giants in literature, they surely were men of considerable stature. They were all products of the dotage of Naturalism, that literary period in which human beings were depicted as they supposedly really were, unvarnished by manners, unencumbered by titles, ordinary folks who lived ordinary lives while sinning and suffering in terribly ordinary ways. The genre had gone through its own decadent phase and the unnatural or artificial had become the fashion of the day. Nature had to be improved upon. Bookshelves could no longer hold the depressing number of people who were forced into prostitution, dying of tuberculosis, being shipwrecked or committing suicide; and the reading public wanted a tad more in the way of hedonism: no drunks, just wine and roses.
An aesthetic mode seized the imagination, a mode that revived ancient Greek culture. And in this mode, a style of life had prevailed - a style on which even Plato seemed to put his imprimatur - where quasi or more than quasi-homosexual, mentor/pupil male relationships were de rigueur, the unqualified norm among the educated leisure class, a class in which women were brood-mares, consigned to women's quarters whenever philosophy - a subject which then included all science and art - was being discussed by men. Lysistrata said it all: a woman's leverage for making a political point depended entirely on the fulcrum of a bed.
And in this peculiar "man's world" decadence, Huysmans, in l884, wrote a book which became the movement's manifesto: A Rebours (Against the Grain), an account of the sensual adventures of a fictional French nobleman, Jean Des Esseintes, a fellow who definitely had style. As an example of his ability to vivify ennui, Des Esseintes, when failing once to perform sexually, commemorates the event by hosting a great funeral banquet so that society could properly mourn even the temporary death of his virility. But after many such puerile extravaganzas, he finds that his emotional stamina has become as dangerously depleted as his purse. Verging on nervous collapse, he realizes that a time of decision has come. He has always been fascinated by religion, but even at this critical time he cannot seriously consider it as a solution. Instead, he chooses to continue the way of decadence and repairs to a country house in which he embarks upon a domestic odyssey that will have him visit every sense's port of call.
Since he rises at 5PM and most of his day is spent at night, he decorates his house in bizarre colors in order to accommodate those colors as they are seen by candlelight. When he has created the perfect spectral display, he decides that it requires a certain unifying 'touch' of movement, and he therefore purchases a large tortoise and encrusts its carapace with jewels. But the tortoise is an aesthetic ingrate and promptly dies from the enrichment.
He fills his hothouse with exotic plants, many obscene in appearance and carnivorous in taste, which require environmental conditions that he cannot duplicate; and one by one the plants wither and die.
He builds a perfume organ by which device he can open stoppers and smell a variety of fragrances: a field of lavender, a bower of jasmine; but the accumulating stench carries such an olfactory jolt that he is left hanging out the window for less labored air.
His bedroom also reflects the deliberate artificiality that he prefers to vulgar reality. To create the austere peace of a monk's cell and attain the desired look of untended age, he covers the walls in expensive ochre silk and has a fine rug specially made to look old - with white fibers inserted to simulate the threadbare places of pacing monkish feet. He reads ancient Christian and Roman texts that have been exquisitely bound, but too tightly apparently to release any of their wisdom or spirituality to him.
Sexually, he is still libertine. He finds his pleasure in the association of men and also succumbs to the need to be dominated by a woman. He engages a muscular trapeze artist who proves in bed to be much less bold than she is on the high wire. He rejects her in favor of a talented ventriloquist whom he orders to 'throw' her voice to the door and utter the threats of an outraged husband. The artificial danger excites him far more than a real - but easily disposed of threat - ever could.
He continues in such decadent enterprise until he once again suffers nervous exhaustion. He has circumnavigated a sensory ocean only to have arrived, in worse condition, at the place from which he started.
In the year Huysmans published A Rebours, 1884, Oscar Wilde married and proceeded, in due course, to become the father of two sons. He had already established himself as a vain, eccentric "aesthete", a lover of beautiful objects. "Ah," he once said in total seriousness, "if only I could live up to my blue China!" To achieve the virtue of crockery seemed the very zenith of goodness. He also chose as his particular emblem the white Annunciation lily. Later, after he had 'arrived', he switched to the green carnation.
He had been born an Irish Protestant; but the pomp and ceremony of Roman Catholicism appealed more to his sense of pageantry and drama; and when he contracted syphilis and was much depressed, he was moved to consider conversion to that religion. Saint Sebastian had always been a favorite saint of his - Wilde worshipped a painting of the young martyr whose naked body was pierced with arrows - and there happened to be in London a priest named Sabastien Bowden who enjoyed a reputation for saving the souls of the fashionable rich. Wilde, his teeth blackening from the mercury he took to cure his disease, went to the priest to receive such consolation as the Church could offer.
The Reverend Bowden could not possibly have known whether he was seeing remorse sufficient to reverse Wilde's plunge into decadence or whether his artfully dramatic guest was merely pausing to consider possibilities. In a kind and gentle pastoral letter, he followed up the interview with a note of encouragement adding that he looked forward to their next appointment. On the appointed day, however, Wilde sent in his stead a bouquet of his signature lilies. He had decided against spiritual solutions to worldly problems.
Wilde's fascination with the material presence of the Catholic Church (he had even previously met the Pope in the Vatican's splendid circumstance) is often the identical reason many of us approach Buddhism. We want to associate ourselves with something new or different or significant. We need to belong, to be entitled to use, as coveted passwords, the jargon, nomenclature and appellations peculiar to the faith. But taking refuge in Buddhism is not the same thing as taking refuge in the Buddha.
Turning towards anything in the material world, including congregational membership, invites us to pursue samsaric relationships: friends, intimacies, infrastructure groupings. These pursuits may be more wholesome than our previous activities, but they still engage the ego and shift our attention away from our reformation. We need to change internally, not to adapt externally, and it is always an illusion to suppose that membership in an organization will confer order upon an organism. Taxonomy does not alter the structure of anything it classifies, just as salvation does not lie in anything outside ourselves.
After his meeting with the Reverend Bowden, Wilde wrote The Picture of Dorian Gray, his own fictional account of a handsome young nobleman who falls victim to decadence. It is probably significant that at the time, 1890, Wilde had begun an affair with a gentleman named John Gray.
In the novel, while Dorian is having his portrait painted, a clever, aristocratic friend of the artist visits the studio, and Dorian is captivated by the guest's barraging epigrams. When the three men effusively praise the portrait, the young subject is moved to propose a Faustian bargain which an unseen Mephisto accepts: he will give his soul if only he can remain as young and handsome as he is in the portrait and that the portrait will change instead.
Dorian falls in love with a talented young actress who is so moved by his confession of genuine love that she - on that day at least - cannot inject meaning into the artificial words of scripted emotion. Unfortunately, it is on this very day that he has brought the artist and his urbane friend to witness her performance. Humiliated by her incompetence, Dorian harshly rejects her and her explanations. Upon returning home he is astonished to see that the portrait has altered: there are now cruel lines around its mouth. He pauses to reconsider his actions, and granting the logic and sincerity of her excuse, he desires to change his life and to resume their love affair.
But just as he is resolved to reform he learns that she has committed suicide; and while he ponders this discomfiting event, he receives a strange book: a book that, though unnamed, Wilde would later reveal in court was none other than Huysmans' A Rebours. Dorian cannot put down the 'poisonous book' which, though amusingly salutary to any modern reader, nevertheless proves toxic to him; and drugs, deviant sexuality, blackmail, and murder all become the spiraling facts of the ever-young nobleman's secret life. In society, however, he maintains sham civility and only occasional gossip suggests his other debauched existence. His day of reckoning with the portrait inexorably approaches.
Two kinds of people come to Zen searching for new life and spiritual solutions: the "self-defeated" and the "fate-defeated". It's usually easy to tell the difference between them.
The self-defeated speak tentatively, wondering if maybe Zen could help them. They're never quite sure how to phrase it - sometimes it sounds as if they're on some paleontological mission, one that will discover "the missing link" in the evolution of their lives. Where, they wonder, is the Way? They got off the track a long time ago, and they've been missing trains ever since. They whisper, mea culpa. I had this.. and I squandered it, or I had that.. and I destroyed it. People who loved me, I mistreated or ignored. And now, fool that I am, I don't know what to do or where to turn.
The fate-defeated usually speak smoothly, eloquent in their lamentations. They whisper, "Why me?" Oh, they rail against heaven, I believed, but I was deceived; I was loyal, but I was betrayed. My father abused me; my son dishonored me; my employer exploited me. Even my old church let me down when I finally saw what a nest of hypocrites and vipers it was. Why do people have to be so hateful and duplicitous and greedy?
Both seekers are unhappy with their present lives but only the self-defeated will easily attain the sanctuarial goal. Only they feel guilty enough to fear judgment - and defeated enough to accept it. It's as if nobody can be admitted to that inner sanctum without going through this guilty stage, this feeling of being "wanted" and of suspecting that the price he feels that is 'on his head' is the price of admission. The self-defeated come, pre-qualified. Point them in the right direction, and they're 'off and running'.
The other type, the fate-defeated, haven't reached this stage. No, they don't see decadence as an answer; but when they explain the cause of their quest, we get the feeling that they're relating some interesting history and gauging our response to it. The interview seems to have a purpose beyond its apparent one.
The standard pastoral response is to coddle the lost lamb, to let it know that it is safe and to reassure it that if it has gotten lost, it is not to blame. The self-defeated look forward to the shepherd's crook; but the fate-defeated understand this solicitude as an acknowledgment that they are blameless, that their problems are the fault of all those other sheep and all those other shepherds who failed in their responsibilities to them. A Zen teacher errs if he encourages such an interpretation. There can be no rescue unless a person needs rescuing. It's rather like forgiving someone who doesn't think he's done anything wrong.
There are other signs: people who want salvation, do as they're told. Those who don't find a flaw in the regimen or a glitch in their schedule, something that prevents them from working towards the goal. They are not fugitives. As they see their dilemma they are souls who need to get beyond the pain that others have inflicted - they don't need forgiveness, they need to forgive. Correcting this misconception is a Zen teacher's most difficult task.
The Picture of Dorian Gray had become as popular as A Rebours. Huysmans had followed his success with a novel that dealt with Satanism and Wilde would follow his with four hit comedies (Lady Windermere's Fan, A Woman of No Importance, An Ideal Husband, and The Importance of Being Ernest.)
But it was 1891 that proved to be a critical year for both authors. Huysmans prayed for the first time and Wilde met beautiful Lord Alfred Douglas.
For nearly five years after the publication of A Rebours, Huysmans had enjoyed the sensual life of a scandalously celebrated author. Throughout his life he had never had any religious inclinations, but while doing research for his books he studied many spiritual texts; and these loving testimonies haunted him, seeming as they did so sincere, especially when compared to the vapid praises repeated endlessly in Parisian salons.
And then the differences between the profound assertions of saints and the superficial analyses of critics - only one, he said, really understood his work - became unbearable to him. He avoided society and withdrew more into himself; and then a vague uneasiness gripped him, and he began to feel unworthy, a man in need of forgiveness. He felt lost in familiar surroundings, alone among his closest friends, a refugee in his own home. For three years he endured such furtive alienation. And then one day his knees bent and he found himself praying.
Years later Huysmans described this fugitive state: "..While certifying that the will is intact, we must nevertheless allow that the Saviour has much to do in the matter, that he harasses the sinner, tracks him down, shadows him, to use a forcible phrase of the police; but I say again, one can, at one's own risk and peril, reject his offices."
In l892, eight years after A Rebours had caused such a sensation, Huysmans quietly entered a Trappist monastery.
That same year, Oscar Wilde's turn came to be the darling of the aesthetic rich. Lady Windermere's Fan was a great success. Immediately he began another play.
But in the leisure class vernacular, yet another testament to the inexplicable tenacity of divine pursuit found expression: In l893 Francis Thompson published The Hound of Heaven, called by G.K. Chesterton, "The greatest religious poem of modern times and one of the greatest of all times." Thompson, too, knew that strange fugitive state which only the self-defeated endure. He writes:
I fled Him, down the arches of the years;
I fled Him, down the labyrinthine ways
Of my own mind; and in the mist of tears
I hid from Him, and under running laughter.
The stanza ends, "All things betray thee, who betrayest Me."
Wilde never saw himself as a creature in need of sanctuarial obscurity. In his vanity, he was the Master of the Hunt and no one would ever say his fox had "gone to earth" by way of escape.
He found wit in inversion, glibly parrying the thrust of the Lord's Prayer, "Lead us not into temptation" with "The only way to conquer temptation is to yield to it." To him, only by committing the sin could a man become sufficiently bored with it to avoid it. This is cynical, antinomian depravity, a turning upside-down of hallowed rules.
He believed in the supremacy of art and in the elite corps of artists who were its potentates. But it was Wilde who determined rank in this oligarchy. Poetry, flattered to be called mediocre, was praised if it dribbled from the pens of his favorites; and the favored of the favorites, the man whom Wilde unabashedly adored, was of course Lord Alfred Douglas, the handsome, blond son of the Marquess of Queensberry, that same pugilistic gentleman who brought law and order to the gentlemanly sport of boxing. In Wilde's mind, Douglas' role was to play Ganymede to his Zeus or Antinous to his Hadrian; but Ganymede never bankrupted Zeus, and Antinous was nothing if not slavish towards his master. Douglas was nobody's libation-bearer and self-sacrifice was not a concept he understood. He demanded and received every luxury. He was beautiful and beautiful things are expensive.
Because his plays were so favorably reviewed, Wilde assumed that his personal life would be equally above criticism; and in this he was as wrong as he was reckless. He consorted with male prostitutes, even those he knew were blackmailers; and then at the height of his literary success and his completely open homosexuality, the Marquess of Queensberry, frantic about his son's 'homosexual corruption', dared to accuse Wilde of what Wilde literally bragged about being.
Douglas, despising his father more than he loved Wilde, insisted that Wilde file a slander suit. And Wilde, anxious to champion his beloved boy against so brutish a father, complied, thinking, apparently, that the trial would be a great drama, a "star vehicle," one which he could write, himself. An accomplished conversationalist, he thought he would go to court and engage Queensberry's attorney in clever repartee, annihilating him with his wit. How could he have known so little of jurisprudence?
His own hand-written documents were submitted in evidence against him. Servants and hotel employees, workers who had seemed invisible to him before, now materialized to testify to what they had seen. Men whose bodies he had once rented, supposing perhaps that he had leased them for life, came forward to reveal that their agreement with him had ceased when the transaction was complete. Confronted by such lurid testimony, Wilde withdrew the suit. Queensberry had won.
Inevitably, the evidence adduced during the civil suit against Queensberry became, ironically, the basis of criminal charges against Wilde.
His friends and his wife begged him - for the sake of his children - to go to France to escape trial and certain conviction; but he refused to be a fugitive.
He was convicted and sentenced to two years in prison. His beloved Douglas, who had promised to defray the costs of the civil trial, cavalierly reneged. With no income, huge legal expenses, old debts and new borrowings, Wilde was bankrupt.
He had not expected prison to be so terrible. But still he could not see himself as being in any way the author of his own tragedy. He wrote De Profundis, a litany of charges against Douglas for having incited him to file the suit in the first place and then for having abandoned him to such misery. Fate-defeated, he found the cause of his grief everywhere but in himself.
His final literary effort was a maudlin poem, The Ballad of Reading Gaol, 109 stanzas inspired by an inmate who had been executed for murdering his wife. All of Wilde's sympathies rest with murderer and, as usual, he alters reality until it resembles something he can be clever about. Invoking the name of Christ some eighteen times, he writes of the executed man, "The Chaplain would not kneel to pray by his dishonoured grave: Nor mark it with that blessed Cross That Christ for sinners gave.." Yet when Wilde, himself, was particularly distressed and that chaplain came to comfort him, he called the man a fool and ordered him out of the cell.
No matter how auspicious a beginning, no matter how seemingly contrite a fate-defeated seeker is, all too frequently this haughty contempt soon shows itself behind the sorrowful facade.
At the outset every spiritual counselor must assume that he is helping someone who wants help. He has no choice but to believe this. But when he discovers that the apparent font of grateful enthusiasm is merely an initial effervescent phase and that little flows beneath the froth, he must brace himself for the next stage: the seeker will begin to find fault in the teachings or the teacher.
The Buddha's Poisoned Arrow parable becomes a real-life drama in which the teacher finds himself interrogated about every detail of the program. Which bird supplied the feathers? Which animal supplied the sinew? Which tree the shaft? One less-than-perfect detail may be sufficient to reject the entire remedy. A teacher must be patient.
Why, in the first place, should there be such differences between the self-defeated and the fate-defeated?
Often we find that a person who has grown up in privileged circumstance, whose family has something other people want... money... fame... position... seldom has to accept responsibility for his errors because the people who "manage" him are employees and are therefore compromised, afraid to correct or accuse him of misconduct for fear of losing present or future benefits. They quickly furnish excuses for his bad behavior. If, as a child, he does something wrong they tell him, "Ah, I know you didn't mean to do it," or they shift the blame onto someone else, "Ah, if that sloppy cook hadn't left the knife on the sink, you wouldn't have stabbed the cat."
In both the Gospels of Matthew and Mark, Jesus acknowledges the problem: "It is easier to get a camel through the eye of a needle than to get a rich man into heaven." The difficulty arises not merely from the identifying association with power and the unbearable loss of pride which spiritual humility mandates, but also from this childhood template of non-responsibility which shapes the man to come.
Worse, if such a person knows fear at all, it is the same compromised fear that servants know. He knows that he must not incur the anger of his superior, i.e., the person in his environment who controls the money, fame, or power; and this results, too, in a certain character warping, an engendered duplicity, a cynical superiority.
We also see "blanket absolution" granted by incompetent parents who refuse to accept responsibility for their parental negligence. Their child is always innocent. No matter how heinous a crime the child commits, someone else - including the victim - is always to blame. If no other environmental factor can readily be faulted, CAT scans are taken to seek a cause of the "anomaly" or, as a last resort, Satan is charged with having caused him to commit crimes or other anti-social acts.
When we first talk to a fate-defeated seeker, we ask if he has ever done a wrong thing because he meant to do it. The indignant answer is usually, "I've never deliberately done anything to hurt anyone in my life." He has never lied. (He hates liars.) He has never stolen. (He hates thieves.) But if we persevere and get him to relax over tea, and ask him to reflect upon his childhood... on, say, his boyhood pranks, we may watch him start to stare into his teacup as if it were the pinhole of a camera obscura and he's watching the whole and lengthy eclipse of his life. As his history comes into focus through that tiny window, he may start a confession that lasts for hours. (This, to a teacher, is an absolutely exhilarating experience.)
But curiously, we sometimes find that he cannot grade his misdeeds and that he regards with equal regret truly troubling acts of, say, animal cruelty and such trivial acts as making nuisance phonecalls. It's as if the whole idea of confessing guilt is very new to him and he hasn't quite gotten the hang of it.
Whether or not the degree of regret is appropriate to the offense, everything depends upon this ability to acknowledge responsibility. Without this self-awareness there is simply no hope of his being admitted into the Buddha's Refuge. He can join ten Buddhist congregations, but he will not find sanctuary.
Released from prison, Oscar Wilde finally crossed the Channel. He needed money but only a few old friends contributed. Douglas had reconciled with his father and though he was now financially very secure, he refused to help, explaining that lower class persons simply had to understand the high cost of being an aristocrat.
Wilde's wife had begged him to allow their family to be reunited. She had inherited some money and agreed to support him providing that he end his affair with Douglas. Wilde declined the offer. He published The Ballad of Reading Goal and made some money, and Douglas reunited with him long enough to spend it. But with Douglas, as usual, poverty's entrance was his cue to exit. Wilde, abandoned again, blamed his loneliness and penury upon his wife's unreasonable demands.
There followed months of wretched exile. Whenever he found a willing ear, he pontificated, criticizing the morals and the art of others and comparing both unfavorably to his own. But his treasury of witty epigrams was empty and his remarks were merely bitter and sarcastic. When he encountered old acquaintances he pressed them for loans that he could never repay. Once, shabby and close to vagrancy, while sponging a meal from an acquaintance, he ordered cigarettes - but then insisted that the waiter return them and bring instead the gold tipped ones he preferred. In his mind he was still the Oscar of his glamorous youth, but to everyone else he was an aging and unkempt mass of sagging skin, a man of no importance, a man to be avoided.
An old ear infection recurred and spread fatally to his brain. As he lay moribund, somebody called a Catholic priest. He was received into the Church and given Last Rites - though it is by no means certain that he would have approved the sacraments had he been a bit more conscious than he was. The year was 1900, and he was 46.
We know him now for his clever plays and his prison Ballad which contains the catchy line: "All men kill the thing they love," a statement which is simply untrue. Some men die honorably in battle being killed for love of country; some men die working themselves to death for love of family; and some men die peacefully in bed loving those who survive them. And in case any doubt remains, few men ever loved as Wilde had loved Douglas... and Douglas? Well, he married a pretty girl and outlived Wilde by fifty years! So much for catchy phrases.
Francis Thompson had never known footlights, Annunciation lilies or cigarettes tipped in gold. His health had been ruined by the terrible poverty into which he was born. Yet, he blamed no one. Such pleasures as he was able to pursue, he tried to enjoy; and then, realizing how base these amusements were, he began to feel ashamed, a fugitive from honor. At last he reached the only conclusion possible to a moral man: he devoted his life to the service of others. He sought the priesthood, but the rigors of seminary life were too great. He withdrew and entered medical school; but again his health failed him. In constant pain and dependent upon medications, he still performed whatever service he could, editing copy and writing about his own devotions and the experiences that brought him to salvation. His spirit rewarded and his art expressed, he died the lingering death of tuberculosis. All who tended him remarked upon his kindness, his serene acceptance of his fate, and the gratitude he felt for having found spiritual refuge.
Huysmans never left the Trappist monastery, but for the rest of his life there he remained productive as a critic and commentator on literature and fine art. In the same year as Thompson, 1907, he died from cancer and, like Thompson, was regarded by all who encountered him during his long and painful illness as a man of uncommon courage and kindness. All were moved by the grace and dignity with which he conducted himself... never complaining... always striving to put his visitors at ease, a perfect example of faith and charity.
He had once written that only one critic had ever really understood A Rebours: That critic had said, "After such a book, it only remains for the author to choose between the muzzle of a gun or the foot of the Cross." Years later, from his monastery, Huysmans responded with graceful simplicity, "The choice has been made."
And it is a similar choice that confronts us when we decide to reverse the direction of our lives and turn towards Zen. We can go on, blaming others for our misfortunes, preventing ourselves from gaining sanctuary, or we can accept responsibility for all our past mistakes, "turn ourselves in" and throw ourselves on the mercy of the court.
Of course it seems risky to surrender and plead guilty. A seeker wants justice. He also wants assurances. There sits the Zen teacher saying, "Go ahead! Leap into absurdity! Let go of the Hundred Foot Pole and all those cherished illusions about yourself. Have faith in something else besides your own infallibility!" The seeker asks, "If I jump, will the Buddha give me a parachute?"
"Of course," says the teacher.
"Will I attain Enlightenment?' the student asks.
The teacher thinks a moment. "Well," he says, "maybe if, on your way down, before the chute opens, you realize that people are only human and that you, too, are only human... and that if you had to be judged comparatively, you're probably more worse than better, you'll at least have a soft Zen landing."
And that would be a very good start - the beginning of wisdom.
Last modified: July 11, 2004
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