Keats and Zen [*]
By Benton, Richard P.

Philosophy East and West
V. 16 No. 1/2 (1966)
pp. 33-47

Copyright 1966 by University of Hawaii Press
Hawaii, USA


 

 

p. 33

    Self-abandonment to something larger than one's self, whether to God or Nature, including a loss of self-identity, has been described by several writers as an important romantic characteristic. Indeed, taking his cue from Rousseau, L. A. Bisson proposes that this phenomenon is the fundamental romantic experience. [1] Ernest J. Lovell, Jr., believing Bisson's conclusion is justified, also stresses the importance of this phenomenon in romanticism. [2] And Hoxie Neale Fairchild further emphasizes the importance of this matter by an analysis that goes beyond Bisson's and Lovell's.

    Fairchild, however, does not believe that the major English poets achieved a true loss of self-identity. Although conceding that the experience of self-abandonment is a prominent feature of the imaginative life of Blake, Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Shelley, he contends that any consequent loss of self-identity in this experience is more apparent than real. In his view, self-annihilation for these romantics did not actually mean "the suppression of self, but the removal of all that hinders self." What they really aimed at was a "limitless expansion" of their egos. In other words, to Fairchild, the essential dualism of the ego versus the world was in fact maintained. He remarks of Blake that, although he preaches "the casting off of selfhood," he is "not only temperamentally but on principle, an egotist and a solipsist." [3] Fairchild also notes that Wordsworth "usually enlarges his personality by absorbing Nature into himself, while Shelley prefers to achieve the same end by projecting his mind outward into Nature in order to share, with enhancement rather than with loss of selfhood, the benign energy of west wind and skylark and cloud." [4] For Coleridge too, he observes, self-annihilation "is another way of saying 'boundless self-expansion.'" [5]


*. Editor's note: This article is not as technical as the usual article published in Philosophy East and West, but it will be of genuine interest to those interested in Zen as anticipated in Western literature.

1. "Rousseau and the Romantic Experience," Modern Language Review, XXVII (1942), p. 37.

2. Byron: The Record of a Quest (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1949), p. 120.

3. Religious Trends in English Poetry (New York: Columbia University Press, 1949), Vol. III, p. 132.

4. Ibid., p. 374.

5. Ibid., p. 279.

 

 

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    From Fairchild's point of view, only Byron and Keats do not fit well into his conception that "romantic self-annihilation, implying the removal of all boundaries and restriction, represents the extremest form of romantic self-expansion." [6] Byron's skepticism regarding "a mutual responsiveness between the spirit of man and the spiritual reality of the universe" prevented any "infinite expansion of selfhood" on his part. [7] As for Keats, his self-expansion took a special form, the Cockney poet never thinking "about beauty without thinking about fame." [8]

    Whatever the truth of Fairchild's thesis regarding self-abandonment in Blake, Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Shelley, his treatment of Keats is grossly inadequate. Keats did succeed in achieving a genuine loss of self-identity. He uncovered his universal Self or Buddha nature in a manner closely resembling Zen awakening, or satori. His conception of his experience closely parallels that of Zen Buddhism. Although I am aware that Keats's notions of the loss of self-identity and of the empathetic quality of the imagination were derived from well-known Western sources, especially from Hazlitt, his position in these matters can best be appreciated by drawing a parallel between it and that of Zen.

    Keats's metaphysical quest and his conception of it parallel Zen experience and thinking. His theory of knowledge, his idea of spiritual development by means of a "Pleasure Thermometer," and his view that the writing of poetry ought to be spontaneous and its effect natural -- all these views are consonant with Zen attitudes. His metaphysical quest was successful -- he achieved a genuine loss of self-identity and reached the ideal Zen state of being -- "transcendence of the dichotomy between the self and the not-self." Evidence of his successful quest is to be found in his letters and his poetry.

    Although Keats was not always steadfast in his conviction that true knowledge is obtained by "a wise passiveness" that allows the senses and the imagination free play, it is clear that he held this view, essentially. At the same time, he was aware that he occasionally fluctuated between this belief and belief "in the active pursuit of rational knowledge and philosophy." [9] In his stable periods he recognized that the real is discoverable in ourselves and is outside the boundary of memory, custom, and "any irritable reaching after fact & reason." [10] "Many have original Minds," Keats points out, "who


6. Ibid., p. 509.

7. Ibid., p. 416.

8. Ibid., p. 483.

9. Douglas Bush, "Keats and His Ideas," in English Romantic Poets: Modern Essays in Criticism, M. H. Abrams, ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1960), p. 332.

10. The Letters of John Keats, 1814-1821, Hyder Edward Rollins, ed. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1958), Vol. I, pp. 193, 231. Hereafter referred to as Letters.

 

 

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do not think it -- they are led away by Custom" and confuse memory with true knowledge. The fact is "almost any Man may like a Spider spin from his own inwards his own airy Citadel." Knowledge really is contingent on a few simple principles. Man should be content to hang "the fine Webb of his Soul" on a "few points" and thereupon "weave a tapestry empyrean -- full of Symbols for his spiritual eye." Man's thinking is generally too complex and too diverse. Indulging in "consequitive reasoning," he wastes himself in assertion and disputation. Consequently, there is little communication, little sympathy, and little unselfish love among mankind. [11]

    Hence Keats desires "a Life of Sensations rather than of Thoughts," because the truth is to be acquired, not by "consequitive reasoning," but by an imagination responsive to sensation and feeling. [12] Identifying beauty with truth and truth with beauty in his famous Ode on a Grecian Urn, Keats also holds that our feelings are "creative of essential Beauty." [13] In other words, the truth is discoverable through imaginative feeling -- that is, intuition. Keats views "the "manifold world of facts and events" we live in as an illusion veiling the beauty and truth it conceals. Without the aid of imaginative feeling, we remain blind to their brilliance.

    Our task, then, according to Keats, is to refine our sensations and to cultivate our feelings to the point where we can rise imaginatively to the level of consciousness that is necessary for us to perceive that the many are actually one. Keats's idea that the process leading to this illumination is a gradual one is expressed in his conception which he himself labels the "Pleasure Thermometer." He expresses this conception in his early poem Endymion:

Wherein lies happiness? In that which becks
Our ready minds to fellowship divine,
A fellowship with essence; till we shine
Full alchemiz'd, and free of space. Behold
The clear religion of heaven! Fold
A rose leaf round thy finger's taperness,
And soothe thy lips: hist, when the airy stress
Of music's kiss impregnates the free winds,
And with a sympathetic touch unbinds
Aeolian magic from their lucid wombs...
Feel we these things? -- that moment have we stept
Into a sort of oneness, and our state
Is like a floating spirit's. But there are
Richer entanglements, enthralments far


11. Ibid., pp. 231-232.

12. Ibid., p. 185.

13. Ibid.

 

 

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More self-destroying, leading, by degrees,
To the chief intensity: the crown of these
Is made of love and friendship, and sits high
Upon the forehead of humanity.
All its more ponderous and bulky worth
Is friendship, whence there ever issues forth
A steady splendour; but at the tip-top,
There hangs by unseen film, an orbed drop
Of light, and that is love: its influence,
Thrown in our eyes, genders a novel sense,
At which we start and fret; till in the end,
Melting into its radiance, we blend,
Mingle, and so become a part of it... [14]

In a letter to John Taylor, dated 30 January 1818, Keats refers to the process described above as the "Pleasure Thermometer." He comments, "The whole thing must I think have appeared to you, who are a consequitive Man, a thing almost of mere words -- but I assure you that when I wrote it, it was a regular stepping of the Imagination towards a Truth." [15] Hence he declares, "I am certain of nothing but the holiness of the Heart's affections and the Truth of the Imagination -- what the imagination seizes as Beauty must be truth." [16]

    Men are normally dogmatic in their judgments. But Keats rejects dogmatism as an obstacle to the proper development of the mind. "The only means of strengthening one's intellect," he asserts, "is to make up one's mind about nothing -- to let the mind be a thoroughfare for all thoughts." "Stubborn arguers," he maintains, are all of "the same brood. They never begin a subject they have not preresolved on. They want to hammer their nail into you and if you turn the point, still they think you wrong." [17] According to Keats, the genuine truth seeker is a man "capable of being in uncertainties. Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason." He defines such a human quality as "Negative Capability." [18] This quality also involves the loss of self-identity and the submitting of oneself to things.

    Keats's epistemology is very like that of Zen. [18a] According to Zen, the real is within us, so that "we lack nothing." No deliberate effort on our part to discover the real within us is required. In fact, deliberate effort is an ob-


14. Canto I, lines 777-807. All quotations of Keats's poetry have been taken from The Poems, John Keats, E. De Sélincourt, ed. (London: Methuen & Co., 1951).

15. Letters, Vol. I, p. 218.

16. Ibid., p. 184.

17. Ibid., p. 213.

18. Ibid., p. 193.

18a. I have reduced what I had originally written about Zen, because the readers of this Journal are quite knowledgeable about the subject.

 

 

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stacle, since it involves an act of personal will and thus perpetuates the I-process -- which is exactly what must be eliminated if the real is to be apprehended. It is therefore essential that the Zen seeker after truth become inwardly passive and receptive to the living presence of the cosmic mind. This condition depends on one's escaping from the tyranny of memory and on one's forgetting everything acquired by habit. The key to this inner passivity and receptivity is shown in the Chinese Taoist expression "wei wu wei," which means "to do without acting." [19]

    Therefore, paradoxically, "the best method of cultivation for achieving Buddhahood is not to practice any cultivation." To cultivate oneself by deliberate effort is to fall into the trap of yu wei or "having action." The Zen method of passivity and receptivity is well illustrated by Chao-pien's poem, in which he describes how he acquired sudden insight into the character of the real, an experience the Zenists call satori:

Devoid of thought, I sat quietly by the desk in my official room,
With my fountain-mind undisturbed, as serene as water;
A sudden clash of thunder, the mind-doors burst open,
And lo, there sitteth the old man in all his loneliness. [20]

    If deliberate effort is an obstacle to the experiencing of satori, so is reasoning. As Daisetz T. Suzuki says, "Satori is not a conclusion to be reached by reasoning, and defies all intellectual determination." [21] Scientific analysis, in particular, is unproductive in this respect. It leaves "no mystery unveiled" and allows "no room for suggestion"; it exposes everything in its severe light. "Where science rules," Suzuki comments, "the imagination beats a retreat." [22] Suzuki's attitude reminds us that Keats asks in Lamia, "Do not all charms fly / At the mere touch of cold philosophy?" At any rate, the satori of Zen depends on intuitive insight, not on any power of reasoning.

    Although the achievement of satori is unaccompanied by any deliberate striving, there are antecedent stages in the process of arriving at it. "The quest is attended by an intense feeling of uneasiness, or one may say that the feeling is intellectually interpreted as a quest." [23] The questor has a sense of unrest, and his mind searches for something upon which to rest. Its failure


19. Robert Linssen, Living Zen, Diana Abrahams-Curiel, trans. (London: George Allen & Unwin Ltd., 1958), pp. 282 ff.

20. Quoted by Daisetz T. Suzuki in The Essentials of Zen Buddhism, Selected from the Writings of Daisetz T. Suzuki, Bernard Phillips, ed. (New York: E. P. Dutton & Co., Inc., 1962), p. 167.

21. Ibid., p. 163.

22. Ibid., p. 424.

23. Ibid., p. 186.

 

 

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to achieve contentment vexes it until "it is brought up to an apex," at which point it "breaks" or "explodes," "the whole structure of consciousness" assuming "an entirely different aspect." [24] The whole process of Zen experience therefore involves, at least according to one school of Zen thought, the stages of quest, search, ripening, and explosion, the last stage providing us with insight into the real. [25] The restlessness of the quest stage corresponds closely to the mental condition of Keats's man of negative capability when his mind is in a state of uncertainty, mystery, and doubt without being irritated by facts and reasoning. The explosive stage of the Zen process, on the other hand, appears to resemble closely Keats's "chief intensity," the point at which his man of negative capability effects "a fellowship with essence." Thus Keats's stage of "chief intensity" would be equivalent to Zen satori.

    Zen also takes much the same attitude toward dogmatism that Keats does, being very independent and admitting "the possibility of a fundamental freedom and a non-conditionment of the mind." [26] The Zen patriarch Seng Ts'an advised, "Cease to cherish opinions." [27] Robert Linssen contends that "attachment to any ideas is contrary to freedom," for such attachment necessarily "conditions, the mind." Indeed, he says, "the simple preference for one idea rather than another, for one value rather than another equally enslaves the mind." Therefore, Zenists look askance at polemists, who are people who actively defend particular ideas and beliefs. Zenists, on the contrary, avoid disputation because they "are not fighting anything." [28] Certainly Keats would have agreed with this attitude.

    Keats's man of negative capability has qualities other than the restlessness and doubt he feels during his intellectual quest for enlightenment. These other qualities include his ability to lose his self-identity, his "imaginative identification" with and submission to things, and his power to achieve a unity with life. When he achieves this unity, the friendship and love he has known become spiritualized, his intellect becomes purified, his moral sense undergoes an elevation above good and evil, and he experiences a calm and a contentment he has never known before.


24. Ibid.

25. The history of Zen in China, where it was called Ch'an, discloses that this form of Buddhism split into two schools in the seventh century on the question whether satori was to be accomplished by "an instantaneous flash of intuition," which was the opinion of the Southern school, or whether it was to be achieved by "the gradual development of the mind, a slower process involving more methodical and intellectual advice," which was the view of the Northern school. Both methods were based on the La^nkaavataara-suutra which indicated that some men would arrive at satori in the one way and some in the other. See Osvald Siren, The Chinese on the Art of Painting (Peiping: Henri Vetch, 1936), p. 103.

26. Linssen, op. cit., p. 56.

27. Quoted by Linssen, ibid., p. 55.

28. Ibid., p. 56.

 

 

p. 39

    In Keats's view, the genuine poet is a man of a non-egotistical type whose character is opposed to "the wordsworthian or egotistical sublime; which is a thing per se and stands alone." To Keats, Shakespeare was the exemplar of this non-egotistical type. The "poetical Character itself," he declares -- he means the genuine poetical character -- is "not itself -- it has no self -- it is every thing and nothing -- It has no character." In speaking of it as having "no character," he means that it has succeeded in extinguishing its own ego or self-identity. He tells about his experience in losing his own self-identity: "When I am in a room with People if I ever am free from speculating on creations of my own brain, then not myself goes home to myself: but the identity of every one in the room begins to to {sic} press upon me, that I am in a very little time annihilated." [29] And in the passage on the "Pleasure Thermometer" in Endymion, Keats recognizes the "self-destroying" character of the "richer entanglements" and "enthralments" which the ego experiences during its gradual ascent toward the "chief intensity," the state that leads to the total extinction of the I-process and the discovery of the immortal Self.

    In Keats's Ode to a Nightingale, the nightingale itself appears to be a symbol of the larger Self that is universal and eternal in us. In Stanza VI, Keats contrasts his mortal self with the immortal Self in which he sees he can rest. [30] He says:

Darkling I listen; and, for many a time
I have been half in love with easeful Death,
Call'd him soft names in many a mused rhyme,
To take into the air my quiet breath;
Now more than ever seems it rich to die,
To cease upon the midnight with no pain,
While thou art pouring forth thy soul abroad
In such an ecstacy!
Still wouldst thou sing, and I have ears in vain --
To thy high requiem become a sod.

And in the next stanza, Keats defines the exact character of the self in relation to the Self: The ego is particular and mortal; the Self is universal and eternal. [31] In his words:

Thou wast not born for death, immortal Bird!
No hungry generations tread thee down;


29. Letters, Vol. I, pp. 386-387.

30. Katherine M. Wilson makes much the same point, but from the standpoint of Jungian psychology. See The Nightingale and the Hawk, A Psychological Study of Keats's Ode (New York: Barnes and Noble, 1964), p. 133.

31. Cf. ibid., p. 134.

 

 

p. 40

The voice I hear this passing night was heard
In ancient days by emperor and clown;
Perhaps the self-same song that found a path
Through the sad heart of Ruth, when, sick for home,
She stood in tears amid the alien corn;
The same that oft-times hath
Charm'd magic casements, opening on the foam
Of perilous seas, in faery lands forlorn.

In this ode, then, Keats's theme is that the loss of personal identity is a kind of dying, but it is a dying into life when we discover the immortal Self within us. This view is neither Christian nor Platonic. Our immortality does not consist in our retention of personal identity but in the loss of such identity altogether. Such a view fully conforms to that of Zen.

    One of the factors involved in the loss of self-identity on the part of Keats's man of negative capability is his "imaginative identification" with and submission to things. Like the typical Chinese artist with Taoist or Buddhist training, he seeks "harmony with the universe by communion with all things." [32] Keats himself underwent such an experience on more than one occasion, as he tells us in two of his letters. In a letter to Benjamin Bailey, dated 22 November 1817, he discloses that he has come to submit himself to things to the extent that "if a Sparrow comes before my Window I take part in its existence and pick about the Gravel." [33] And in a letter to George Keats, dated 24 October 1818, he reveals that his sense of communion with things extends even to those which are imaginary:

I feel more and more every day, as my imagination strengthens, that I do not live in the world alone but in a thousand worlds -- No sooner am I alone than shapes of epic greatness are stationed around me, and serve my Spirit the office <of> which is equivalent to a king's body guard -- then "Tragedy, with scepter'd pall, comes sweeping by" [sic] According to my state of mind I am with Achilles shouting in the Trenches or with Theocritus in the Vales of Sicily. Or I throw <ugh> my whole being into Triolus [Troilus] and repeating those lines, "I wander, like a lost soul upon the stygian Banks staying for waftage," I melt into the air with a voluptuousness so delicate that I am content to be alone... [34]

Also, a few days later in a letter to Richard Woodhouse, Keats describes the true poet as one who "has no Identity" and "is continually in for -- and filling some other Body -- The Sun, the Moon, the Sea..." [35] W. Jackson


32. George Rowley, Principles of Chinese Painting (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1947), p. 5.

33. Letters, Vol. I, p. 186.

34. Ibid., pp. 403-404.

35. Ibid., p. 387.

 

 

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Bate observes that Keats's poetry is replete with the imagery of "imaginative identification," "ranging from 'The Hare lim'p trembling through the frozen grass' to the agonies of the huge figures in Hyperion: 'horrors, portion'd to a giant nerve, / Oft made Hyperion ache.'" [36]

    Keats's man of negative capability eventually achieves union with the cosmic mind. In this state he realizes "the highest peaks of love and pure intelligence," is indifferent to the demotic as well as the apocalyptic, rises to a moral position above good and evil, i.e., to a condition of perfect righteousness, and altogether enjoys an existence of detachment, calm, and contentment. When Endymion achieves his union with life he melts into the radiance of the "orbed drop / Of light" "that is love." Porphyro melts into Madeline's dream in The Eve of St. Agnes "as the rose / Blendeth its odour with the violet." He thus becomes a part of the chaste immutability that Madeline has become. The two lovers are now freed from passionate attachment, their formerly sensuous love now being spiritualized. The most complete description of the Keatsian nirvana, however, is given to us in the cave of quietude passage in Endymion:

There lies a den,
Beyond the seeming confines of the space
Made for the soul to wander in and trace
Its own existence, of remotest glooms.
Dark regions are around it, where the tombs
Of buried griefs the spirit sees, but scarce
One hour doth linger weeping, for the pierce
Of new-born woe it feels more inly smart:
And in these regions many a venom'd dart
At random flies: they are the proper home
Of every ill: the man is yet to come
Who hath not journeyed in this native hell.
But few have ever felt how calm and well
Sleep may be had in that deep den of all.
There anguish does not sting; nor pleasure pall:
Woe-hurricanes beat ever at the gate,
Yet all is still within and desolate.
Beset with painful gusts, within ye hear
No sound so loud as when on curtain'd bier
The death-watch tick is stifled. Enter none
Who strive therefore: on the sudden it is won.
Just when the sufferer begins to burn,


36. "Keats's Style: Evolution toward Qualities of Permanent Value," in English Romantic Poets: Modern Essays in Criticism, M. H. Abrams, ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1960), p. 344.

 

 

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Then it is free to him; and from an urn,
Still fed by melting ice, he takes a draught... [37]

    Keats continues to be concerned with this nirvaa.nic theme, directly or indirectly, in the great odes of his maturity -- the Ode to a Nightingale, the Ode on a Grecian Urn, the Ode on Melancholy, and the ode To Autumn. Anna Jean Mill has pointed out that, indirectly, in the Ode on a Grecian Urn and, directly, in the Ode on Melancholy and, especially, in the ode To Autumn, Keats is "haunted by that sense of the transcience of earthly beauty, by the perpetual process of ripening and decaying, unfolding and withering, by that ever-present concept of 'Beauty that must die.'" But unlike in the Ode on Melancholy, in To Autumn, she observes, Keats's "wakeful anguish of the soul" is "replaced by a calm acceptance of tragic destiny," an attitude he has described as characteristic of the man of negative capability. [38] In other words, in To Autumn Keats attains that condition he considers ideal -- "sombre but serene acceptance of life and death" [39] or freedom from the normal human condition. In the poem he calmly and contentedly views, from a vantage point where he seems to look down from above, the eternal cycle of the change of seasons, of growth and decline, of birth, mutability, and death. Even in his "last work of full and conscious power," the Fall of Hyperion -- a fragment and a failure because the Greek mythological machinery gets in the way of his ideas -- Keats symbolizes the state of nirvaa.nic selflessness and detachment in Moneta, whose "wan face, / Not pined by human sorrows, but bright-blanch'd / By an immortal sickness which kills not," was working "a constant change, which happy death / Can put no end to." [40] The poet-narrator (whom some critics mistakenly identify with Keats himself, for he views the poem from outside its confines)

... ached to see what things the hollow brain
Behind enwombed: what high tragedy
In the dark secret chambers of her skull
Was acting, that could give so dread a stress
To her cold lips, and fill with such a light
Her planetary eyes, and touch her voice
With such a sorrow... [41]


37. Canto IV, lines 513-535.

38. "Keats and Ourselves," [London] Times Literary Supplement (February 2, 1940), p. 55.

39. Ernest Bernbaum, ed., Anthology of Romanticism (New York: The Ronald Press Co., 1948), p. 1191, no. 830.

40. Canto I, lines 256-260.

41. Canto I, lines 276-282.

 

 

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Similar to Keats himself, then, Moneta, the mother of all poets, views the narrative of the wars from outside the story itself, looking down on it from her elevated post of her sense of "high tragedy." She views the affairs of the world in a spirit of detachment, serenity, and perfect wisdom.

    In short, although the person who achieves the Keatsian nirvaa.na may have demotic as well as apocalyptic visions, he is completely detached from his "illuminating consciousness; he is ... perfectly free." In his letter on the true poetical character, Keats explains that in its perfected state it is selfless, detached, free, bursting with life, and above common morality. He says:

... it has no self -- it is every thing and nothing -- It has no character -- it enjoys light and shade; it lives in gusto, be it foul or fair, high or low, rich or poor, mean or elevated -- It has as much delight in conceiving an Iago as an Imogen. What shocks the virtuous philosop[h]er, delights the camelion Poet. It does no harm from its relish of the dark side of things any more than from its taste for the bright one... [42]

These ideas of Keats are very close to those of Zen. Daisetz T. Suzuki writes that "Zen tells us: 'Find your Self and you will be free and safe.'" [43] The "Great Death," which Buddhists often speak about, refers to the process of "dying to the ordinary life, putting an end to the analyzing intellect" in order to get "beyond the world of distinctions." [44] When the self dies, it becomes the Self or the Void Mind. The Buddhist nirvaa.na is "not a supernatural or superhuman" state of being. It is a "normal state of mind which is rid of all its egoistic conditioning, of attachment, covetousness and ambition." It is a condition in which "we are simply revealed to ourselves in the plenitude of that which we are." [45]

    Incidentally, the Buddhist nirvaa.na is not to be confused with the "dualistic communion" of the Christian saint. During his mystic experience his I-process "remains aware of the distinction between itself and the object of its veneration." The experience of the Zen sage, on the other hand, "is a Monist integration, during which process identification with the personal consciousness is definitely extinguished." [46]

    Like the Keatsian view, "the Self according to Zen is a storehouse of creative possibilities where we find all stored: miracles and mysteries, natural and supernatural, ordinary and extraordinary, Almighty God and a good God, wolves and lambs, briars and roses." And the products of this cornucopia are


42. Letters, Vol. I, p. 387.

43. Suzuki, op. cit., p. 376.

44. Ibid., p. 389.

45. Linssen, op. cit., p. 138.

46. Ibid., p. 62.

 

 

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"eternally fresh." [47] Hence, Zen emphasizes the distinction between the self and the Self, insisting on the necessity of our getting rid of the former in order to discover our infinite possibilities in the latter.

    The idea of identification with and submission to things is Zenist. The Zen-inspired artist, in particular, recognizes "the kinship between his individual life and the life of things." Without falling into pantheism, he sees clearly that he is but "one of many forms participating in a great creative drama." And, in approaching his art, he keeps before him "such admonitions as 'become a bamboo ... become a crane.'" [48] Suzuki puts the matter in this way: "To become a bamboo and to forget that you are one with it while drawing it -- this is the Zen of the bamboo, this is the moving with the 'rhythmic movement of the spirit' which resides in the bamboo as well as in the artist himself." The artist is required to take "a firm hold on the spirit and yet not to be conscious of the fact." To be able to do this is difficult and requires much spiritual training. [49] However, it must be emphasized, this is not pantheism, which is foreign to Zen. It is "an expression of absolute praj~naa intuition and is not to be conceptually analyzed." [50] It is the case, then, that the Zen principle of identity is applied especially to artistic activity. The Zen-inspired artist becomes "the thing he visualizes or conceives, and if he possesses the proper means of exteriorization, he will transmit in symbols of shapes or signs something which contains a spark of that eternal stream of life or consciousness which abides when forms decay." [51]

    In his perfected state, Keats's man of negative capability rises above the common distinction between good and evil, adopting an apparently amoral view. This position closely parallels that taken by Zen. Zen "morality" transcends the dualism of the extremes of "rules and no rules." Suzuki explains, "For Zen, since the living truth is never to be found at either pole of any duality, there must be not one, but two equal and opposite ways of being immoral -- that is, untrue to life. One way is to try to subsume the infinite content of life under principles; the other is to do whatever you will whenever you will it." If the immoralists of the world commit the latter sin, then it is the moralists who commit the former. "There is only one way to be moral," according to Zen, says Suzuki, "and that is to have transcended the dualism of rules and no rules and to do the right thing at the right time in the right way, and this calls for an act of creation in the living context."


47. Suzuki, op. cit., p. 376.

48. Nancy Wilson Ross, ed., The World of Zen, An East-West Anthology (New York: Random House, 1960), pp. 89-90.

49. Ibid., pp. 434-435.

50. Ibid., p. 435.

51. Siren, The Chinese on the Art of Painting, p. 101.

 

 

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Moral action cannot be specified beforehand nor improvised. It is "beyond rules and no rules," and one begins to perform it only after one has resolved "the dualism of conformity vs. antinomianism" by entering into union with life instead of trying "to cope with life from outside." Then one "can say with Confucius: 'I can do whatever my heart desires without contravening principles.'" [52] This is the morality of the transcendental realm of the Absolute as opposed to the morality of the everyday realm of the relative, in which one is attached "to something good or something bad, something beautiful or something not so very beautiful"; but in the former realm "there is no attachment; there is no good, no evil, no guilt, or no ugliness." [53] One is high above them all and can contemplate all of them with detachment and a serene and contented smile.

    Finally, Keats emphasizes that both the creation of poetry and the effect that poetry ought to have on the reader should be natural. In a letter to his publisher, John Taylor, dated 22 February 1818, he adopts the axiom that "if Poetry comes not as naturally as the Leaves to a tree it had better not come at all." And in the same letter he declares that the "touches of Beauty" in poetry "should never be half way therby [sic] making the reader breathless instead of content: the rise, the progress, the setting of the imagery should like the Sun come natural too [sic] him -- shine over him and set soberly although in magnificence leaving him in the Luxury of twilight... [54]

    Keats's views here are very much like those of Zen, which also emphasizes effortlessness or nonaction (wu wei) in the doing of everything. Its slogan in this respect is "wei wu wei," which means "to do without doing." This means doing things naturally, freely, spontaneously, and with perfect control without consciousness of any control. Wu wei is action that avoids laboriousness, awkwardness, artificiality, and ugliness. It is action that is instinctive, sure, efficient, and beautiful.

    Wu wei was the kind of action the Zen painter sought to acquire. Sumi (a special kind of ink) painting particularly demanded "a sureness of technique, an exactness of brush stroke comparable to .the psycho-physical skills necessary for judo or swordsmanship." For, once he took up his brush, "the artist using sumi ink on silk or paper could not put it down until he had finished, nor could he ever repaint. The material on which he worked was so absorbent that the flow of ink had to be free and continuous." Not only the Zen way of doing things effortlessly, but also the technical demands of his medium required that the sumi painter achieve "an expression of controlled


52. Suzuki, op. cit., pp. xxviii-xxix.

53. Suzuki, in Ross, op. cit., p. 255.

54. Letters, Vol. I, pp. 238-239.

 

 

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spontaneity -- spontaneity without caprice," and his movements "came to be compared to those of the dance." [55] Altogether, therefore, the Zen ideal of action that is prominently displayed in sumi painting resembles closely Keats's views on the ideal condition of poetic production and effect.

    In sum, it appears that on the whole Keats's experience and ideas bear a close resemblance to those of Zen Buddhism. Furthermore, if Fairchild's thesis about typical romantic self-abandonment is true, then Keats clearly ought to be regarded as an exception to this rule. His particular kind of self-annihilation was not egotistic and solipsistic and an excuse for "the extremest form of romantic self-expansion." His self-annihilation did not result in the inflation of his personal ego, but in a genuine loss of self-identity and in a discovery of his True Self.

    At the same time, no claims whatever are made here for Blake, Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Shelley in respect to elements in their thinking and experience which bear some resemblance to aspects of Zen. However, it would not be unfair to say that the relation of these romantics to reality was usually deistic or pantheistic when it was not Platonic or Christian. Keats's approach to reality was creative and active; it attempted to get at things through imaginative feeling or intuition rather than through the intellect, even though he sometimes was impelled to try the latter. Indeed, it was his failure to solve problems intellectually that caused him to conclude that Endymion was a failure. The central problem of the poem is the identification of Cynthia, the moon goddess, with the Indian maid. This identification implies that our salvation is bound up with the natural world rather than with the supernatural world we hypothesize as a result of our speculations. Keats solved this problem satisfactorily through imaginative feeling; later, when he could not solve it rationally, he grew dissatisfied.

    But when Keats was not troubled intellectually, he operated naturally in a Zenist fashion. What he achieved is very well outlined by Ruth Fuller Sasaki in her summary of the aim and result of Zen experience. She writes, "The aim of Zen is first of all, awakening, awakening to our true self. With this awakening to our true self comes emancipation from our small self or personal ego." This does not mean, however, that our individual ego is completely extinguished. As long as we remain in the flesh we maintain our individual existence; we continue to "exist as one manifested form in the world of forms." But it means that our personal ego is no longer in control, "with its likes and dislikes, its characteristics and its foibles." In other words, "the True Self, which from the beginning we have always been, has at last


55. Ross, op. cit., p. 90.

 

 

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become the master. Freely the True Self uses this individual form and this individual ego as it will," without restriction, "in all the activities of everyday life." [56] This is what Keats means when he says that the man of negative capability has "no character." He has "no character" because he has "no self" in the sense of a personal ego that is in control.

    In Keats's own experience the control of the personal ego fluctuated with that of the True Self. Hence, the Keatsian nirvaa.na was an ephemeral state. In Endymion he writes, "And thoughts of self came on, how crude, and sore / The journey homeward to habitual self." Madeline and Porphyro in The Eve of St. Agnes descend from the bliss of their nirvaa.na to be buffeted by the stormy night. In Ode to the Nightingale Keats exclaims, "Forlorn! the very word is like a bell / To toll me back from thee to my sole self." He knew "the Burden of the Mystery." At times he doubted his ability to lose his self-identity, confessing in a letter to Benjamin Bailey, dated 10 June 1818, "Yet I am not old enough or magnanimous enough to annihilate self." [57] That he did succeed, however, we have seen.


56. Ibid., p. 29.

57. Letters, Vol. I, p. 292.