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"Blyth" Spirit

"Hail to thee, blithe Spirit!

Bird thou never wert,

That from heaven, or near it,

Pourest thy full heart

In profuse strains of unpremeditated art . . .

Teach me half the gladness

That thy brain must know,

Such harmonious madness

From my lips would flow

The world should listen then,

as I am listening now!" [1]

With great joy, I've journeyed twice through a recently-completed biography of a notable Catholic Priest who was also a significant American Zen Buddhist Master. Its author is an old friend. Unfortunately, the book, Across an Empty Sky: A Biography of Patrick Hawk, Catholic Priest, and Zen Master is not yet publicly available, but I hope it soon will be.

If the biography appears publicly, it will appeal to those interested in the development of American Zen Buddhism, particularly from the mid-20th Century to the present. However, I would caution those less interested in the subject that the book may be more than one might wish to take on. The story surrounding Father/Roshi Hawk is very "inside American Zen baseball."

I met Fr. Hawk once, very briefly. He was my friend's spiritual mentor. However, I know a few folks who appear in his story. Others I've met a time or two. Still others I've read and studied over many years. For me, part of his biography was a tale of old haunts, old friends, and acquaintances.

As a Roshi (an honorific for an authorized senior teacher of Japanese Zen Buddhism), Hawk continued the Harada-Yasutani-Aitken Rinzai/Soto Zen lineage. Symbolically, Buddhist lineages go back a couple of millennia to the historical Buddha. Many Zen temples ritually chant their lineage from the Buddha to their Roshi, most recently passed.

So in that lineal custom, Roshis Daiun Sogaku Harada (1871-1961), Hakuun Yasutani (1885-1973), Robert Aitken (1917-2010), and our friend Pat Hawk (1943-2012) are 20th to 21st-century spiritual relatives deserving significant credit for seeding and nurturing a fair bit of the growth of Zen Buddhism in the west.

As I read it, the book is structured in three parts. First is the genesis of Father Pat, a Redemptorist priest. Rapt, I followed him from birth to adolescence. At 12 or 13, he embarks on seminary training and education, which proceeds into his early 30s. I was not aware of the length and the rigor of that labor. Just the educational elements alone resulted in three college degrees!

The third part is my friend recounting her labors, her efforts, and her involvement with her teacher as she strived to illuminate, to flesh out, his life. Her endeavors are engaging as they are challenging. Fr. Hawk was known for his taciturnity. It's tough to biograph a "biographee" who may not wish to be biographed. My friend labored at the task for several years.

The 2nd or middle part of Fr./Master Hawk's story was a chronicle of aspiring spiritual teachers, masters aspiring to designate [anoint] descendant teachers, and a spiritual hierarchy desiring to assert its authority across an ocean and ensure the quality of teachers and its own control over their historical lineage. Foreigners [hereditary Japanese Zen Masters] over American Zen practitioners, wishing to determine who will be "downline."

In short, the middle chunk of the book is about rank and robes, symbols, and costumes. There are desires for titles [Jikijitsu, Jisha, Roshi, Sensei, Shoshike, ad infinitum], certificates, and ceremonies. Here and there, some seek these distinctions to enhance resumes and attract followers and publishers. Please forgive me if some of my biases poke through. While power hierarchies can have some practical use, one must embrace them cautiously. This part of my friend's book was uncomfortably familiar to me.

The biography's relevance to what I write here is the spark it ignited in me to retrace some steps in my own spiritual education. Indeed it was a trip down memory lane.

As I noted, Hawk's Zen lineage includes Robert Aitken Roshi, his teacher. While in a Japanese internment camp in World War II, a Japanese Military guard loaned Aitken a book. Aitken became utterly absorbed in it, so deeply, that he read it multiple times. Finally, the guard requested the book's return and presented Aitken with a copy as a gift. Aitken credited the book with launching him into a lifelong Zen Buddhist journey, subsequently founding his significant branch of the western Zen lineage.

That same book was part of my foundational reading and study of Zen Buddhism. The book: Zen in English Literature and Oriental Classics. Reginald Horace [R.H. Blyth](1898–1964) was the author.[2]

The remarkable coincidence is that Blyth, an Englishman living and teaching in Japan before the war, was interned as an enemy alien in the same camp as Aitken. As a result, Aitken and Blyth became friends.

Blyth was indeed a literary polymath. Initially, he was a scholar of English literature. Moreover, he had a broad knowledge of European literature and Greek and Roman classics.

Between 1923 and his death in 1964, Blyth taught English and Western literature in Korea and Japan. In Asia, he developed his interest and passion for Oriental cultures, particularly Japanese.

Blyth is most known for his writings on Japanese Zen Buddhist poetry and haiku. He studied Chinese, Korean, Japanese, and, as you'll see, much more. His extensive works influenced a lot of 20th Century Western Zen Buddhist practitioners, including myself.

Zen in English Literature and Oriental Classics is a marvelous journey through English, French, German, Spanish, Portuguese, Chinese, Korean, and Japanese literature and poetry. His goal was to demonstrate somehow the universality of expressions of the inexpressible experience of Zen-spiritually awakened perception.

When I first read the book forty years ago, I found it fascinating and daunting (It's a thick book, 446 pages in its original edition!). Frankly, I didn't understand much. While familiar with many of the Western references, I grasped little of the Zen in the Western or Eastern samples.

At this re-read, I was again charmed and awed by Blyth's lighthearted yet scholarly writing style and fantastic knowledge and grasp of a vast amount of source material. Also, I found I understood much more.

After 40 years of training and study, I conclude I might have just stuck with Blyth and maybe skipped many other readings. Because in this volume, Byth states, and beautifully so, the foundational intention of Cloudmeditation's perspective on enlightenment, awakening, realization, or spiritual revelation. Select your own term. On Zen, he reflects:

"'It flows on and on without ceasing day or night,' is quite plain, in fact too plain. People won't take just as it is. They don't like the penny plain; they want the twopence coloured. It's a wonder, when one comes to think of it, that Zen, which has no dogmas, no badges, no uniforms, no flags, nothing but an open secret to give away, should have continued to exist for more than a few score years... So with Christianity and Buddhism, Determinism and Free Will, Materialism, Spiritualism, Confucianism, Positivism, Taoism,

Communism and all the rest of the

-isms,--they are mutually destructive. 'But in the light of the pebble their beauty remained, only the pebble was most bright.' When we understand what Zen is, all those -isms become full of beauty and truth. Then Christianity, with all its unnecessary ornamentations, is enough; there is no need to know a syllable about Buddhism. The Analects of Confucius are enough, without the Bible or the Sutras [ancient Hindu, Buddhist, and Jain scriptures]. Or simple devotion to one's family, to one's country is enough, or the Origin of Species will provide us with all we need."

CloudMeditation asserts that spiritual realization transcends the framework. It's about the silent space within. "Suchness" is what it's about. "It is what it is." Gawd, I hate that phrase! But, from a spiritual perspective, what it is, is!

It's not about the sect or dogma. It's not about prayer or passion. It is where one sheds sect and dogma and rests. It's where the prayer leads us, the silent space, into the still communion we seek and sometimes experience. Note, "sometimes." That's why Buddhists call it practice!

Chanting is chanting. Singing is singing. Intoning is to intone. A prayer honors, wishes, and hopes. But, much of the artistry, beauty, subtlety, and significance of all these endeavors are the silences between the sounds, the stillness between our thoughts.

Catholic cleric Meister Eckhart:

"To the quiet mind, all things are possible."

And the historical Buddha:

"Silence is an empty space, space is the home of the awakened mind."

Matsuo Basho (1644-1694), Blyth's favorite Japanese poet, offers two perspectives:

"The desire to break the silence with constant human noise is, I believe, precisely an avoidance of the sacred terror of that divine encounter."


"Learn how to listen as things speak for themselves"[3]

We'll be revisiting Blyth's works over several postings.


[1] "To a Skylark" Percy Bysshe Shelley - 1792-1822. Full text here.

[3] Matsuo Basho (2006). “Narrow Road to the Interior”, p.17, Shambhala Publications

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