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A Reader Comments

3-18-09 - Richard Baker (Dharma Sangha US and Germany) comments, referring to Ivan Illich, on Mark Bitner's question about Shunryu Suzuki commenting on Western Civilization (after DC commented).

Mark Bittner, author of Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill wrote:

I'm writing you because I have a Suzuki Roshi question. I'm working
on a new book, and I'm not sure how this comes into play yet, but
As they say: Any help would be much appreciated.
I remember reading something that Suzuki Roshi told Richard Baker--according to Baker--something like "Western Civilization went wrong at the time of the Renaissance" or something like that. I don't know if it was actually the Renaissance, though. Do you know this statement? I don't remember where I saw it.

DC responded: A pleasure hearing from you. What a quote. I'll email Baker Roshi and see what he says if you want but I bet he'd say he doesn't remember. It doesn't really sound like Suzuki to me. I can't remember him saying anything remotely like that or about Western history and I don't think he knew much about it. Sounds like something DT Suzuki would have said. DT much more had the idea that the West went wrong and the East went right and thought no one in the West ever understood anything he was saying. Shunryu Suzuki to me was more universal, thought that the West was more open to Buddhism than the East in many ways because we didn't have so many set ideas. Shunryu did admire much about Japanese and Chinese culture and did think that there was lots we could learn from it but he also thought there was lots they could learn from us.

Mark replied: I'm pretty clear on this. I know it wasn't D. T.

So I sent the question on to Richard Baker who responded:

Regarding Mark Bittner's question. Suzuki-roshi did think Western civilization went wrong at some point, but I don't remember him saying anything specific. He was very cautious about criticizing the West, especially because it would look like he was extolling Japan. He had an acute sociological eye, but his emphasis was always on the differences (usually only implied) between Western and Asian cultures, but not their rightness or wrongness. When he described a culture as 'wrong', it was usually modern Japanese culture. This was my experience of his views and teachings.

Ivan Illich was much more vocal and clear about the 'wrongness' of Western culture, and he thought the Catholic Church went 'wrong' in about the 12th c., and that is the early Renaissance, about the time of the change from Romanesque to Gothic architecture - and as Illich says, when Christ became a limp corpse on a Cross and no longer a bright-eyed, upright, Icon which you could see through to God.

In general, Ivan felt as the Catholic church goes, so goes most of Western culture, at least in its underlying assumptions. He wrote that the church carries, is "the repository of", the myth of Western culture, that the church also "institutionalizes the myth's contradictions", and the church ritualizes the "disparities between the myth and what we experience as 'reality'".

Ivan felt that the way the church did this was better before the 12th c. This job, this activity, was transferred to secular society and in particular "to the school system, especially the universities."

I agreed with him - to the extent that I understand the elements, and I often in lectures have quoted him to that effect. I don't remember quoting Suzuki-roshi to that effect, but Suzuki-roshi's sense of what made an apt and sensible (sensorial and sensible to live in) world were very similar to Ivan's. It is part of what made Ivan and I such good friends.

Pertaining to today's 'Global Ponzi Cave-in', Ivan might have this to say: "Neither ideological criticism nor social action can bring about a new society. Only disenchantment with and detachment from the central social ritual and reform of that ritual can bring about radical change." (Deschooling Society, p. 38)

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