Thursday, March 1, 2007

The Unfettered Mind, Takuan Soho

The Unfettered Mind
Takuan Soho

In this review I am likely to write things considered crass and/or culturally insensitive by many. It is possible I will offend you, along with the rest of the the planet. If so, I apologize, but such is life. Nothing I say here is meant to be taken personally by anyone.

I was given The Unfettered Mind as a gift over the recent holidays. The givers know me as a fencer, and thus thought I might be interested in this volume. The subtitle of the book is "Writings of the Zen Master to the Sword Master," and it contains translations of three letters by Soho, all relating to Zen and the martial arts in some way. It seemed like a good bet.

And in truth I've always had a soft spot in my mind for Japanese culture and Zen. I've never felt any interest in learning Zen - for reasons that will probably become obvious below - but the "idea of learning Zen" has always appealed to me in some way, though definitely not as an actual thing to do. Those who know me probably cannot imagine me trying to follow Zen Buddhism in any way, shape, or form. Truth be told, I can't imagine me doing it either. But the idea has appeal regardless, much like the idea of becoming an astronaut has appeal. At my age I should know enough to discard these fantasies, but I'm weak, just like everyone else.

So I cracked open this small (101 page, including end notes) tome with the hope that I'd learn something about Zen and/or Japanese sword fighting.


Let me repeat that, just to be clear: Feh.

It took me well over a week to slog through this thing, and I came out the other end knowing basically nothing new. But thanks to the experience even the idea of learning Zen is no longer interesting.

Before I review the book in more depth, though, I want to give you a tiny bit of background about me, so that at least some of my reaction will make more sense. Call it a "coming out" of sorts.

I became an atheist when I was young. Grade school age. Still in cub scouts. Standing there, reciting the infamous "under god" line in the pledge of allegiance got me thinking that religion was a pretty silly concept. (Yes, we said the pledge every morning in school as well, but for some reason my memory says my lack of religious belief crystallized at a cub scout meeting.) Ever after - whenever forced to recite the pledge - I'd mumble over those words, rather than say them, because saying them felt - and still feels - dishonest.

As I got older, I learned more about religion in various ways, but never did I come to believe any of it. It didn't matter which faith was under consideration, they all looked equally bad to me. But if there was a weakness in my armor, it was going to be for something like Zen. Something that was highly introspective, as opposed to the extravagantly obvious, organized religions that generally flourish in the US.

As I say, this book killed that last bit of religious potential in me. I'm not sorry. In fact, I'm happy about it. But that doesn't mean it was fun reading. What we have here is 101 pages of - and I'm sorry to say it so bluntly - tripe. Maybe if I were to spend thirty or more years learning Zen from the beginning I'd have a clue about what this muck means, but I doubt it. Now that I've been exposed to a tiny bit more of it, Zen - at least as espoused by Takuan Soho - is obviously composed of the same gobbledygook that makes up every other religion I've seen.

First off, what is presented here is religion as a way to control others. I long ago come to the conclusion that was one of the major reasons - if not the single most important reason - religion came into existence in the first place. A society where people feel bound together by some set of beliefs and are led by a charismatic individual is probably more likely to survive and reproduce than one that is leaderless, particularly after evolution had brought some level of consciousness into the picture. I'm far from an expert, but it seems that anyone who's thought anarchy through to its actual conclusion will feel similarly. Religion filled a particular niche in the earliest societies - forming a long time ago on the plains of what is now Africa or elsewhere - and that niche was control.

And as if to confirm that, the first letter in this book contains - among other things - a long diatribe about the relationship between the servant and his lord. I found it flatly offensive, but it drove home the point that even Zen embodies (and probably springs from) the same need to control the population as other religions. But despite that bit of new knowledge, it was still unpleasant reading, and only the fact that the author was born in 1573 - and thus a product of a much differently organized culture than my own - kept me reading at all.

The rest of the book is mystical claptrap, often structured as a relatively simple statement, followed by a restatement or an explanation of that same item. However, the explanations never - and I mean never - actually explain anything, and the underlying concepts and principles on which Soho bases his arguments are entirely unjustified. There may be texts out there that explain things like "the Five Roots" or "Latent Cause" or "the Five Skanhas" (and many similar phrases) in other ways, but thanks to The Unfettered Mind I know I won't be reading them.

Wrapped among those statements of "fact" (that aren't actually fact at all) are too many metaphors to count. Often these are quite pretty, but they don't illuminate anything. Regularly there will be some statement of "fact" and then a metaphor to make it clear. Picking a page entirely at random:
As a rule, a thing born cannot be without Form, so we speak of the Essential Quality of Form. Although Form may change in multitudinous ways, as Form it is the same. When Form changes, even the sound of its song will change: the cuckoo sings the song of the cuckoo, the nightingale sings the song of the nightingale.
Boy I sure am glad I read that. I know so much more about Form now. And that isn't even a slightly remarkable or unusual passage from the book.

Amusingly, I found myself reminded of Dungeons and Dragons. The author discusses the various "levels" that people advance through, and how most of us - me in particular, no doubt - are stuck at the lowest level. But between the lines, the arrogance of the author screams at the reader: "I'm on my way to being a Buddha while you are nothing!" And, of course, the recipients of these letters aren't a peasants either. Nope. They're highly regarded swordsmen, also clearly on their own path to Enlightenment. This book almost reads like a joke. One can almost imagine the author himself saying...
Hmmm, how can I put one over on these swordsmen and keep my standing high? After all, I've still gotta eat. Enlightenment hasn't fixed that little problem yet.

<gentle, "enlightened" laughter>

I know. I'll talk about the Fourteen Donkeys of Freedom. No. Wait. That won't do. How about I go grab some books of old poetry, find a few references to things no one is ever going to get, and make up some words that make it sound like I understand it all. Yeah. That's the ticket. And maybe I can work in the Fourteen Donkeys of Freedom while I'm at it. After all, there are fourteen days in a fortnight. That'll bamboozle 'em.

<more gentle, "enlightened" laughter>
A literal reading of this book - even knowingly discounting the metaphors - would lead you to believe you can do anything you want, and know anything there is to know. With training, you can defeat an army of hundreds of thousands single handed. You can probably fly too. The level of mysticism in here is amazing.

Most of us have probably encountered someone spouting stuff like this at some point in our lives. On a street corner perhaps, or on the grounds of a university. Maybe on the subway. In any event you've encountered someone, somewhere who has a mystical answer for everything right at hand. They've been "Touched by God" (tm) and they know "The Truth." Most of us edge away from those people when we see them. Sometimes out of fear. Sometimes out of disinterest. For my part I give them a wide berth because I don't want to draw attention to them. They don't deserve it.

Soho comes across to me just like that guy. He may not foam at the mouth the way Max did on the quad, but he's got that old time religion, the mystical answers, and a willingness to believe that he's special - much more special than nearly everyone else on the planet. If I met him today and realized what he was about, I'd cross the street to keep away. I do not willingly encourage this kind of fuzzy thinking.