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Zen Meditation

By Ron Martin

Part 8

Efforts have been made by Christian theologians and others to circumvent some of the difficult problems posed by a theistic religion. On a different course Eckhart, through his mystical experiences, arrived at the extreme position, when he stated that Man “must seek nothing, not even God”. (No Zen Patriarch could have put it better). If this view were to become generally accepted then the gap between Christianity and Buddhism would be reduced to vanishing point.

There are, indeed, many instances in Western literature which point to an eventual synthesis along these lines. The works of T.S. Eliot are not widely regarded in this light yet, in his Four Quartets, we find this synthesis emerging. Perhaps his earlier commitment to traditional Christian belief blinded people to the trends that became evident in his later works. That he was greatly influenced by Buddhism and must have studied it in some depth was indicated when he equated the Buddha’s Fire Sermon with the Biblical Sermon on the Mount.

TheFour Quartets, first published as a linked group of poems in 1944, reveal a remarkable similarity to the philosophy of Buddhism. Because Eliot is such a giant among the poets of the 20th century this work deserves deep investigation.

We have seen how concepts not only give rise to false beliefs about experiences, but can falsify the experience itself — as when looking at a lawn our experience seems to be that of looking at grass that is intrinsically green, whereas the colour is actually a mental construction and does not have an objective existence. In the poem, East Coker, Eliot expresses a similar view, and then presents the Buddhist doctrine that the ego (the view of one’s self) arises from the pattern formed by concepts. Here, Eliot clearly uses the word ‘knowledge’ in the sense of conceptual knowledge and not insight:

In the knowledge derived from experience
The knowledge imposes a pattern and falsifies,
For the pattern is new in every moment
And every moment is a new and shocking
Valuation of all we have been.

The Buddha offered us a Path through conceptual thought, and although East Coker does not do this, Eliot warns us in this poem that we should “Wait without thought, for you are not ready for thought”. Thinking about experience obscures the source of true knowledge and leads to egotistical desires which, in turn, are the cause of unsatisfactoriness in our lives (Dukkha). The poem, Burnt Norton, has this to say about desire:

Desire itself is movement
Not in itself desirable;
Love is itself unmoving,
Only the cause and end of movement,
Timeless, and undesiring
Except in the aspect of time
Caught in the form of limitation
Between unbeing and being.

This introduces the aspect of timelessness (Timeless Reality) which is explored further in the same poem:

Time past and time future
Allow but a little consciousness
To be conscious is not to be in time
But only in time can the moment in the rose garden
The moment in the arbour where the rain beat,
The moment in the draughty church at smokefall
Be remembered; involved with past and future,
Only through time is time conquered.

Pure consciousness (awareness) is not in the dimension of time, and in meditation we experience the timeless quality of Reality, yet without the concept of time we would not seek to escape from it in this way; therefore, “Only through time is time conquered”. This points our minds to the Here and Now, which is always present:

Time present and time past
Are both present in time future
And time future contained in time past.
If all time is eternally present
All time is unredeemable.
What might have been is an abstraction
Remaining a perpetual possibility
Only in a world of speculation.
What might have been and what has been
Point to one end, which is always present.

Inheritance from previous lives (Karma) limits our awareness of Ultimate Reality and, in the poem The Dry Salvages, Eliot has this to say about such inheritance:

We had the experience but missed the meaning,
And approach to the meaning restores the experience
In a different form, beyond any meaning
We can assign to happiness. I have said before
That the past experience revived in the meaning
Is not the experience of one life only
But of many generations…

When Karma has been overcome we have reached the Buddha’s “onepointedness of mind”, which is still and unmoving. This centre point is the source from which all manifestations originate — it is the Mother of Existence, as expressed in the Tao Te Ching.

In Burnt Norton, Eliot approaches this centre point and, perhaps, goes as far as is possible within the limitations of language, even poetic language, to depict its actuality:

Except for the point, the still point
There would be no dance, and there is only the dance.
I can only say, there we have been; but cannot say where.
And I cannot say, how long, for that is to place it in time.
The inner freedom from the practical desire.
The release from action and suffering, release from the inner
And outer compulsion, yet surrounded
By a grace of sense, a white light still moving,
Erhebung without motion, concentration
Without elimination, both a new world
And the old made explicit, understood
In the completion of its partial ecstasy.

In the poem Little Gidding, Eliot expresses in his own inimitable way the sheer continuity of life, depicted in the Buddhist scriptures as the Wheel of Life and Death (Samsara):

What we call the beginning is often the end
And to make an end is to make a beginning.

And in the poem East Coker, he even reduces this to six words:

In my end is my beginning.

Finally, what is Enlightenment? Eliot must be allowed the last word on this, too, because in Little Gidding he says, beautifully, all that needs to be said on the matter:

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

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