In Asia, life, culture and society are changing at lightning and frenetic speed, while remaining anchored in ancient and transcendent roots. Amidst today’s hypermodern, high-tech metropolises that inspired literary visions of cyberpunk and humanity’s digital future, linger the legacies of Western-born individuals who contributed to the development of ” modernity” in Asia – if we define modernity as inspired by nation, technology and a permanent critique of the past. The echoes of these missionaries, businessmen, diplomats, soldiers and writers grow fainter as this particular period of the 1800s and 1900s fades from “modern” memory and history continues. Yet this class of Europeans and Americans still retains some of its charismatic mystique and colonial complexity, as they were both oppressors and sympathizers. They were a tiny minority that helped define an era, but they themselves were – and some were aware of it – only a small part of another era of Asian political reorganization and reconstitution.
It is certainly difficult to place a precise “origin” date for this class of Europeans: do we go back well before the 1800s, to the first Portuguese in contemporary Sri Lanka? Or the first Dutchman to set foot in the port of Yokohama or colonize Batavia? However, I believe that one can confidently place a terminus era on this class, a twilight that began with the end of World War II and the full blossoming of Asian independence – the beginning of “postcolonialism”, itself a contested and evolving concept today. . Between the Second World War and the dawn of the 20th century lived one member of this unique group of Western men (with some notable exceptions): the British-born poet, teacher and translator Reginald Horace Blyth (1898-1964). . Blyth’s writings, some previously unpublished, have been collected in this colorful and honest anthology, Poetry and Zen: Unpublished Letters and Writings of RH Blyth. Norman Waddell’s foreword describes Blyth as “a man whose books on Zen, Japanese culture, and Japanese verse forms of haiku and senryū (the satirical cousin of haiku) captured the imagination of many readers in the English-speaking world in the decades following World War II. (1)
Blyth was called by his contemporary Christmas Humphreys (1901-1983), founder of the London Buddhist Society and one of the best-known Buddhists of his time, “the most completely ‘zen’ man I have ever met. in a Western body.” Moreover, his public persona fits very well with the archetype of the adventurous Westerner who has made a distinct life and career in Asia, both enjoying and benefiting from his region of residence, by Japan: “As a foreign lecturer at Keijō University, chosen and invited by the Japanese government, he received a very generous salary, amounting to more than twice that of the president of the university. (16) Blyth has influenced many translators and authors, and his exegesis of haiku was particularly elegant and incisive, bringing his poetic principles to Western audiences in a language and discourse that placed him far above what that audience was accustomed to. He even adopted a student of Korean origin, Li Insoo. He returned the “Orient” to Asia and further brought the Orient into the world, reflected as it was through the universal language of English and the still significant soft power and residual prestige of the declining British Empire.
Yet the book takes on a personal dimension as revealed in its range of Blyth letters and various “uncollected” writings. They point to a more vulnerable, spontaneous and complex side, which is revealed quite early in the editor’s long introduction (1-55). After his introduction, Waddell divides the book into four main sections: Letters, Prefaces and Introductions, Book Reviews, and Articles and Essays. The second, third, and fourth sections testify to his immense talent, scholarship, and deep thought about his field and interests, and they still provide much insight into Japanese literature and poetry. However, Blyth’s letters are – perhaps inevitably – a rarer look at the man behind the words. Blyth’s various letters, in which he lets his guard down and gets really personal, betray some unsavory ideas and prejudices. Many ruminations were not meant to be public. Consider one of his many letters to Robert Aitken, in which he notes, perhaps with a dose of irony, his loneliness despite his marriage. The letter concludes with a long reflection on the meaning of love, gender relations and the role of poetry in heterosexual relationships – which he seems to want to emphasize:
Like you, I have always been alone, in the most intimate relationships, and Zen has not helped me in this respect, because as you know, I went to Zen to escape unrequited love ( of my current wife, always present). Thoreau says the only cure for love is to love more, but after all, you have to love your (more or less) equal, not the human baboon most people turn out to be. The theory of it is this: two people, preferably heterosexual (it’s rather Nature’s preference, and mine too, but . . . ) must have, or even better perhaps, will have, about to go have the same (right) feelings and (right) thoughts about everything in the world, including themselves and each other. To be more specific, two people must love Bach and Bashō and Hakurakuten [Po-chu-i], and Eckhart and Cervantes, in the same way; that’s the problem.
Blyth’s thoughts carry certain biases and assumptions that defined an early 20th century European man. There is the implication that his wife is not his equal, at least not on the level he would have preferred – of Bach and Basho, as he puts it. Yet it is his ignorance of Buddhism, incidental and perhaps without much significance, which nevertheless struck me. He confuses a basic Buddhist teaching: “But I myself struggle and agonize in ways that I have not explained to you because they are not intrinsic to the subject, but life is suffering and, as Buddha does not didn’t realize it, suffering is life”. (178) This misunderstanding suits not only someone otherwise educated in the Japanese literary tradition, but also someone who actually set the stage for the rapid and worldwide explosion of interest in Zen in through the internationalized verse forms of haiku.
The pain can be intrinsic to life, which is more exactly what the Buddha said. But maybe Blyth here is more about the Japanese idea of single unaware. It is a concept dear to poets. It is the pathos of impermanence, life and death, and the passing of the seasons – broadly defined as “the fleeting nature of beauty – the quietly elated and bittersweet feeling of having witnessed of life’s dazzling circus – knowing no one can last.(BBC News)To be fair to Blyth, he definitely got it single unaware, and actually seemed intensely aware of its vibe, aesthetic, and catharsis, even in discussions that had nothing to do with Japan. In fact, another facet of single unaware arises in the contemplation of winter, especially the English winter:
Winter . . . is not cruel, but severe: it teaches a man to “smile and bear it”. Nature is not generous, but consenting. . . . Winter means to the English gray skies, bare branches, umbrellas and heavy boots; it signifies the warmth and cheerfulness of the room lit by the fire, the cat with its paws on the wing, the kettle whistling on the hob. It is of such things that an Englishman is made, and in such things one can see his character. Perhaps its silence and reserve, “an absence of outline, a vagueness, a subtle diversity, a discreet kindness and tolerance” are not foreign to the English winter. Winter is not the death of the world, it is a sleep, and in the depths of winter we sense that there is life in the trees and the earth.
His mastery of the spirit of single unaware really shines in his essay, “Reflections on Haiku”, where in a subsection, “Haiku’s Worldview”, he notes that:
. . . the haiku spreads the beauty of the summer moon over all pain and failure. It is not throwing a veil over the imperfection and ugliness of reality. Indeed, the true beauty of the summer moon only emerges when one sees, at the same time, the ephemeral and tragic character of sublunar things.
It’s not hard to see the kind of magic that Blyth used in his communications, in his lectures, and in his general dealings with his Japanese peers and fellow Britons. He was an example of the integration, not only of cultures, but also of worldviews from disparate worlds of artistic expression, from Western classical music to English literature, from Homer and Goethe to senryu and haiku. He was a master of “poetic emotion”, and his effortless sincerity and ownership of his love for the spirit of haiku is reflected in his public writings and his private and posthumous correspondence. Waddell has curated a digestible yet sophisticated selection of the unknown Blyth, which now presents itself to us ready to be admired, or at least understood.
RH Blyth. 2022. (Norman Waddell, ed.) Poetry and Zen: Unpublished Letters and Writings of RH Blyth. Boulder, Colorado: Shambhala Publications.
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