Becoming Bamboo:
Western & Eastern Explorations of the Meaning of Life

by Robert E. Carter, Ninian Smart,
248 pages,
ISBN: 0773508848

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Freedom to Be, or Not to Be
by William Christian

IN THE 1950s beat poets declaimed their Zen-inspired poetry, and teenagers were moved by the novels of J. D. Salinger. When I went to university in the early '60s my best friend was already writing intense haikus, hordes of youngsters acquired saffron robes, and a United Church in Toronto became a Hare Krishna temple. In the '70s Robert Pirsig fine-tuned his motorcycle and set off on his picaresque Chautauqua in his search for value.

Now Robert Carter, a professor of philosophy at Trent University, invites us to "become bamboo," to forget our "noisy egos" and concentrate our awareness on a "here" crammed full of the ecstasy of living fully in the moment.

His aim, as he explains, is not to commend Zen Buddhism absolutely, but by taking cross-cultural perspectives to gain insight into the assumptions, habits, expectations, and values of our own. Becoming bamboo is a metaphor for reaching beyond our own psyche to embrace what we were previously unwilling, or unable, to encounter.

The book, like a human being, is constructed with a brain and a heart. The thinking part, which constitutes most of it, is an analysis of theorists such as Lawrence Kohlberg and Viktor Frankl, who have tried to understand the stages and nature of moral growth. Drawing on feminism, existentialism, and deconstruction, he urges us to respond to the Heraclitean view that all is flux by rejoicing playfully in the fluidity of being.

The heart of Becoming Bamboo, sometimes touching, often maudlin, but always sincere, is a series of short accounts interspersed throughout the text of the author's personal encounters with the Japanese and what he learned from them. I must confess to a little deconstruction of my own here. Carter makes sure we know that each of his hosts was eminent. One was as "an internationally famous Zen Buddhist scholar," another the CEO of a Japanese automobile company, a third the head priest of a major Buddhist sect.

This is a sort of name-dropping by proxy that comes unstuck when Carter gets to Hamada Shoji, "legendary potter," "the premier potter of this century, in the world." With such a build-up it is hard to take Shoji entirely at his self-effacing word when he says that all his pieces are unsigned because I will make things to be used without the question of who has made them." Everybody from the taxi driver to the packer at the institute for visiting scholars seems to know who Shoji is and what his "priceless" pots are worth, signed or not.

"Man's own self is but a small thing after all," this officially designated "Living National Treasure" told Carter, and the emptying, even annihilation of self, is one of the important lessons we are meant to learn from Zen. Yet here it is necessary to draw back. That is precisely what we cannot learn from any other culture, because we do not experience it as true.

Precisely at the centre of the Western understanding of Christianity is the notion of soul as a moral core that establishes our identity. Since the Reformation this freedom of the soul in its relation to God has been the central fact of our moral experience. No morality that denies or ignores the truth of self-conscious freedom can possibly strike us as authentic.

Carter is, quite rightly, worried about our stance toward nature, and he urges us to consider a "transpersonal ecology, of the cosmologically based sort" to give renewed meaning to our lives and new hope to our world.

But it is just in the name of human freedom that we cannot turn away from the science of mastery. Without modem science children would grow up blind, and women could not choose when to bear children. My openness to the interrelatedness of nature does not extend to joy at the death of a newborn baby who needs a heart operation. Traffic jams and penicillin are equally parts of the technological civilization that Japan has accepted. Buddhism, although a noble religion, has ultimately shown no more capacity to resist the civilization of western Europe than did North American animism 500 years ago.

We have much to learn from Zen Buddhism as a faith and an aesthetic. But it is not our way. When Carter was walking with Shoji, they passed a group of visitors, who "prostrated themselves on the ground before this gentle old man, indicating the reverence in which they held this treasure." Carter clearly thinks this appropriate behaviour. But could you behave in that way and not feel demeaned?


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