Who’s on the toilet?: A family of Zen poets (re)digested through Žižek

by Adam Halbur

As a poet, I have been attracted by Zen, and yet something about this eastern philosophy has kept me at a distance. Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek addressed my concerns in his October 16, 2012 lecture at the University of Vermont using as an example the best known haiku by the best known Zen poet, Matsuo Bashō (1644-1694):

[Nirvana] is something that what Gilles Deleuze in his best book, maybe The Logic of Sense, describes as the pure momentary event of sense. You know, how reality loses its substantial weight and becomes just like a momentary lightning phenomenon which stands for eternity, the void, and so on. This is why the poetic form of Buddhism, especially Zen, we all know is the Japanese haiku—Matsuo Bashō. You know the best known one...Old pond / a frog jumps in / splash! First you have the situation, material, old pond. Then you have the act, a frog jumps in. And then you have what the poem is about, this pure effect as Deleuze would have said referring to Stoics, incorporeal, a bodiless pure phenomenon. The problem I claim...if you are truly Buddhist, you shouldn’t cheat, and by cheating I mean always taking these innocent noble cases—you know, water, a pond, splash. First, a vulgar way, what about: Toilet bowl with stale water / I sit on it / splash!—my shit. Sorry, if you are seriously Buddhist, you should say, I have no right to cheat and say this is not authentic. Why not? Your shit, it drops, it splash [sic], it can also be a pure phenomenon. Now let’s go even further. Let’s say you are a murderer, a person is hanging on a rope in front of you and in a moment of wisdom, you compose this haiku: Fat body wiggling in front of me / the swing of my sword / splash!—his blood. You have to go to the end here. If you humanize it—It should be ethically good, blah blah blah—it’s not Buddhism 1

In other words, Zen encourages a constant withdrawal or distance from our actions, allowing for atrocities such as those by the Japanese during World War II 2 and by corporations as enlightened as Apple, Inc. in China today. 3 Žižek calls into question the west’s tendency to blindly romanticize Buddhism, and as such, I am moved to (re)read the Zen poetry that has influenced me.

Žižek is right in pointing out that Zen Buddhism goes to the end; however, he need not transpose the Bashō poem for vulgarity and depravity, present both in classical and modern Zen poetry. Take for example this, also from Bashō May 15, 1689 on a famous journey that took him through present day Fukushima Prefecture: “what with fleas and lice / the horses having a piss / right at the pillow.” 4 Or how about this toilet humor by predecessor Sōchō (1448-1532): “Falling from horse, I crippled my hand and cannot write. What’s more, how will I hold chopsticks and wipe my ass?” 5 Even seemingly beautiful Zen poems are vulgar in the sense that nature is nothing but vulgar in itself, such as in this haiku also from Sōchō: “Pine crickets— / deep within the mugwort, / voices of autumn.” 6 Etymologically, mugwort is derived from words for “marsh” and “root.” Nothing is muckier, yuckier. And the poem takes on a depraved quality today when one knows that Chernobyl, or Chornobyl in Ukrainian, is “the place where the mugwort grows,” and that in Fukushima, the new Chernobyl, Japanese mugwort (yomogiヨモギ) is cuisine. Already insinuating the seasonal death of winter, the “voices of autumn” suddenly fall silent as all places once inhabited become abandoned, and now, rather than purely paint a pretty picture of natural compost, the poem shrouds pastoral beauty in industrial radioactive decay.

Sōchō speaks to us retroactively of nuclear fallout, but Shinkichi Takahashi (1901-1987), an admirer of Bashō and who was himself the greatest Zen poet of the 20th century, speaks to us directly in greater length on the issue:

I’m an unthinking dog,
a good-for-nothing cat,
a fog over gutter,
a blossom-swiping rain.

I close my eyes, breathe—
radioactive air! A billion years
and I’ll be shrunk to half,
pollution strikes my marrow.

So what—I’ll whoop at what
remains. Yet scant blood left,
reduced to emptiness by nuclear
fission, I’m running very fast.7

Here, Takahashi makes little of himself in the first stanza, reducing himself to dog and cat and fog and rain, and in the second stanza, radiation reduces him further—to a half-life. As Takahashi diminishes, in the third stanza he stands his ground, asserts his remains as if in protest, and gathers strength from what strikes him down: “I’m running very fast.” Takahashi fully recognizes reality, neither satisfied with ignoring it nor with whining in self-pity. He takes on the phenomenon of the world as his own, and reminds me of residents that have refused to leave the evacuation zones of Chernobyl and Fukushima or people back in Wisconsin knowingly fishing rivers and lakes polluted with mercury and PCBs. In a sense, it is their right to do this, to set the self on fire with that through which society minimalizes existence. Nevertheless, at the same time, Takahashi with his “So what” foregoes any responsibility; his relation to radioactive pollution is the same as a mindless subatomic particle.

In explaining how Buddhist philosophy calls for withdrawal and detachment, Žižek goes on to say

there are only two really serious ethics in the world, Buddhist and, properly reread, not the way it was done, Judeo-Christian ethics. The reason why I tend toward more Judeo-Christian ethics is...it’s an ethic of external traumatic encounter. Buddhism is like distance, don’t be too attached to objects, don’t fall. I think our ethics is precisely of the fall 8

Žižek surely defines the traditional concept of Buddhism, but he is also steering us toward the exception to the rule, one that spans the gap between the ethics of west and east.9 In moving toward this model, Takahashi, who had been a Dadaist before turning to Zen, experienced a period of antisocial behavior. “I was lost, didn’t care for anything or anyone. My troubles were small suicides.”10 Then after a nervous breakdown and convalescence following rigorous study under a Zen master, it was only in his (re)reading of Zen that he found a way to throw himself fully back into the world:

Dead man steps over sweaty sleepers
on the platform, in quest of peace.

Thunderously dawn lights earth.

Smashed by the train, head splattered
on the track—not a smudge of brain.

Nothing left: thought—smoke.
A moment—a billion years.

Don’t curl like orange peel, don’t ape
a mummified past. Uncage eternity.

When self’s let go, universe is all—
O for speed to get past time!11

In traditional Zen flair, Takahashi calls for us to get past the self and the time and space of our transitory reality, but while he gives up desire, I’m not sure he gives up the drive as Žižek defines in his book Less than Nothing.12 Takahashi confronts the trauma of the world, here namely suicide, which today results in 30,000 deaths in Japan annually. He then plays counselor, urging us to neither “curl like orange peel” nor “ape a mummified past”—to get past the narrow thoughts, “smoke,” the illusions that would pigeonhole us into jumping in front of a train in the first place. For Takahashi, the drive is to maintain and share what he discovered in satori (a moment of Nirvana-like enlightenment), which for him is very much a moving outward—through Tokyo, Korea, the Himalayas, Asia Minor, Mexico, Mars and so on toward greater speed with each encounter. But, still, the problem remains that this type of non-committal freedom in time and place, when one is active in the public sphere (whether wielding sword or pen), is what Žižek means most by constant withdrawal.

In further illustrating the difference between the Judeo-Christian ethic of the fall and the Buddhist ethic of distance, Žižek uses the example of falling in love:

Let’s take falling in love....What is love? You are in your ordinary shitty life. You might be very happy even, you know like one-night stands maybe here and there, drinking with friends, blah blah. Then you meet the one. Literally, I insist on this term, which works only in English and French—other languages as far as I know don’t use this term: fall, to fall in love, it’s a fall, you fall, you are attached. Love is a catastrophe in this sense. All your life turns around this traumatic encounter. Love is a good example of what Hegel calls this reversal of contingency into necessity13

While making his point, Žižek uncannily also describes the life of Zen monk and poet Ikkyū (1394–1481), famous for including visits to whorehouses as part of his Zen practice. This is not to say Ikkyū did not suffer, that he practiced promiscuity at a cool distance. Rather, he often suffered “self-doubt if not guilt”14 common of the best-educated Catholic and, perhaps with each encounter, sought a more binding relationship. Ikkyū writes in one poem: “sin like a madman until you can’t do anything else / no room for any more.”15 If this is not a philosophy of falling, I don’t know what is; the poem could not have come into being but out of a fall. Furthermore, Ikkyū finally did turn contingency into catastrophic necessity by falling in love (koi ni ochiru 恋に落ちる): “I love taking my new girl blind Mori on a spring picnic / I love seeing her exquisite free face its moist sexual heat / shine.”16 The poem, as Žižek would say, still adheres to pure effect, the “shine”; in other words, there is a sense of detached voyeurism as the now aged Zen monk takes relief in having a handsome girl at his side to take care of him, and yet the poet is consumed enough to exalt in the sight of his blind mistress.

A free spirit, Ikkyū writes rebelliously of institutional Buddhism itself—“that stone Buddha deserves all the birdshit it gets / I wave my skinny arms like a tall flower in the wind”17 —which perhaps freed him to make insights beyond his professed order. Takahashi, a rebel also, was educated with easy access to western thought, writing in one poem, “A quail has seized God by the neck // With its black bill, because there is no / God greater than a quail. / (Peter, Christ, Judas: a quail.)” Takahashi sees God in all phenomena and “All the phenomena in the universe: myself.”18 Though freeing, such an approach is reductive in its formulaic nature, rather than accumulative toward deeper and deeper understanding—the difference perchance between a rolling stone and the snowball effect. Zen and the western ethic have also mixed in some of our greatest American poets, namely Jim Harrison19 , a follower of Ikkyū and Takahashi both20 who keeps close the vulgar and addresses the depraved realities of life. An illustrative example comes from his book After Ikkyū and Other Poems:

I went to Tucson and it gave
me a headache. I don’t know how.
Everyone’s a cousin in this world.
I drove down a road of enormous houses
that encompass many toilets. Down hallways,
leaping left or right, you can crap at will.
A mile away a dead Mexican child slept
out in the desert on the wrong side of a mattress.21

A true Zennist in that he believes he is a failed one, Harrison unlike Takahashi and Ikkyū approaches Žižek in acknowledging the vanity of forever being withdrawn from the world; first, he gets a headache, then reaches out with “Everyone’s a cousin in this world,” and finally speaks to the injustice he sees. Feeling in and thinking about the world is important, and Harrison says in another poem there is “no happiness outside consciousness.”22 Of course, regardless of whether a Zennist is a racist or a humanist, like Harrison, he is perhaps called first to act ethically without reason—to help the child “out in the desert on the wrong side of a mattress.” His own private moral argumentation—It’s just a Mexican kid and not my own or “Everyone’s a cousin in this world”—is irrelevant. The point is, however, that Harrison threw himself into the world first and experienced a falling before any attempt at withdrawal.

This brings us to Žižek’s point of the exceptional Zennist. He says his friend Kojin Karatani

found some minority of Buddhists, where they claim, the true Nirvana in the sense of getting over of your false self, it’s not withdrawing into you but it’s precisely to fall fully, that as far as we speak to our self, we are not ready fully to fall. So if you read Buddhism in this way, who knows, maybe something wonderful can happen23

Harrison, maybe more so than Ikkyū and Takashi in that the student proves master of his teachers, seems to come closest to fitting this minority. In one poem (partly quoted above), he stops speaking to himself as he addresses the gap within Zen that Žižek illustrates at the beginning, the gap between the detached Japanese soldier of World War II and the naïvely compassionate western Buddhist:

Once and for all there’s no genetic virtue.
Our cherubic baldy flounces around, fresh out of Boulder,
in black robes, Japanese words quick on his tongue.
World War II nearly destroyed my family, so I ask
him to learn Chinese. He understands I’m a fool.
Then over a gallon of wine we agree there’s no language
for such matters, no happiness outside consciousness. Drink.

Unequivocal, Harrison moves in his drive through Zen thought in an attempt not at “cherubic” aloofness but, as a gregarious fool with a gallon of wine, at getting beyond his own self-referential moralizing. “We are more than dying flies in a shithouse, though we are that, too,” Harrison says in explaining his practice of Zen meditation. “[W]e spin webs of deceit out of our big hanging asses, whether with Jesus or the Buddha. // But still practice is accretive.” 24 Though he glosses over the divide Žižek stresses between the ethics of west and east, Harrison refreshingly sees possible growth in Zen practice, a way not to maintain distance but to (re)commit to the world after each cumulative fall. The step left, then, as an inheritor of this Zen lineage may be, as I interpret Žižek, to meet Nirvana or satori around the other end and make the practice of meditation the practice of the fall—falling in love, assuming the mistake and going to the end, failing again and failing better. This is not to say that maintaining daily duties and habits like meditation cannot save us from being destroyed by great falls, but even withdrawal is self-consuming, and it is only in the fall that a void is created into which to withdraw, to (re)charge, and perhaps, for a poet, to (re)write poems or jot down a few lines in stride before something again dislocates us, which could be nonetheless poetry itself.


1 Slavoj Žižek, University of Vermont 16 October 2012, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gjhhHpCAXHM (last accessed 10 April 2013).

2 Indeed, even the Japanese poem (shi詩) and warrior (samurai侍) are closely related words, both containing the character for temple (tera寺). In addition, since Japanese society is so homogenous and closely knit, it functions like a very structured family in which one diligently carries out one’s duty regardless of one’s personal feelings. And the shame for failing in one’s duty is greater than in any other society.

3 In understanding Žižek’s argument, I also rely heavily on the following: Slavoj Žižek, “The Buddhist Ethic and the Spirit of Global Capitalism,” European Graduate School 10 October 2012, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qkTUQYxEUjs (last accessed 10 April 2013).

4 Matsuo Bashō, Trans. Cid Corman, Back Roads to Far Towns: Bashō’s Travel Journal, (White Pine Press 2004), p. 39.

5 Saiokuken Sōchō was a companion of nobles and warlords, a student of the orthodox poetic neoclassicism of the renga master Sogi, and a devotee of the iconoclastic Zen prelate Ikkyū. He composed more than 600 verses that together illustrate most of the principal poetic genres of the time: renga, waka, choka, wakan, renku, and comic or unorthodox haikai verses. The Sōchō poem here I helped to translate for a private project. This is my edited version.

6 Sōchō, Trans. H. Mack Horton, The Journal of Sōchō (Stanford University Press 2002), p. 32.

7 Shinkichi Takahashi, Trans. Lucien Stryk, Triumph of the Sparrow: Zen Poems of Shinkichi Takahashi (Grove Press 1986), p. 153.

8 Slavoj Žižek, University of Vermont 16 October 2012, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gjhhHpCAXHM (last accessed 10 April 2013).

9 It is the exception that best [re]embodies the original concept because, as Žižek would say, it fails better at it.

10 Shinkichi Takahashi, quoted in Lucien Stryk interview, Triumph of the Sparrow (Grove Press 1986), p. 161.

11 Shinkichi Takahashi, Trans. Lucien Stryk, Triumph of the Sparrow: Zen Poems of Shinkichi Takahashi (Grove Press 1986), p. 145.

12 “...what Freud calls the ‘drive’ is not, as it may appear, the Buddhist Wheel of Life, the craving that enslaves us to the world of illusions. The drive, on the contrary, goes on even when the subject has ‘traversed the fantasy’ and broken out of its illusory craving for the (lost) object of desire. And therein lies the difference between Buddhism and psychoanalysis, reduced to its formal minimum: for Buddhism, after Enlightenment (or ‘traversing the fantasy’), the Wheel no longer turns, the subject de-subjectivizes itself and finds peace; for psychoanalysis, on the other hand, the wheel continues to turn, and this continued turning-of-the-wheel is the drive (as Lacan put it in the last pages of Seminar XI: after the subject traverses the fantasy, desire is transformed into drive),” Slavoj Žižek, Less than Nothing: Hegel and the Shadow of Dialectical Materialism (Verso 2012), p. 131.

13 Slavoj Žižek, University of Vermont 16 October 2012, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gjhhHpCAXHM (last accessed 10 April 2013).

14 Lucien Stryk, quoted in Stephen Berg, Crow With No Mouth: Ikkyū 15th Century Zen Master (Copper Canyon 1989), p. 10.

15 Ikkyū, Trans. Stephen Berg, Crow With No Mouth: Ikkyū 15th Century Zen Master (Copper Canyon 1989), p. 21.

16 Ibid., 10.

17 Shinkichi Takahashi, Trans. Lucien Stryk, Triumph of the Sparrow: Zen Poems of Shinkichi Takahashi (Grove Press 1986), p. 50.

18 Ibid., 54.

19 Harrison’s friend poet Gary Snyder is much more known for Zen poetry, but for me, Snyder, who studied Zen in Japan, has tended toward the tradition of maintaining distance from the world. Even Harrison’s shared fondness for nature is more participatory in that he hunts and fishes, pets bears in a drunken stupor, befriends ravens, and shoots the rattlesnakes outside his door with a pistol.

20 As a side note in relation to Žižek’s example about falling in love, Harrison seems to have taken after Ikkyū in promiscuity while at the same time after Takahashi in being married and having daughters. Love is a fickle thing. And love can be a source of satori as much as a destabilizer, as in this line from After Ikkyū and Other Poems on love of a father for his baby daughter: “Once I had a moment of absolute balance / while dancing with my sick infant daughter / to Merle Haggard,” The Shape of the Journey (Copper Canyon 1998), p. 365. However, the daughter is almost a terrible necessity and crutch for the father’s inner instability as the rest of the poem is about his blatant disregard for a pathetic blind boy freezing to death in a snowstorm—“For starters, the dickhead should get a life”—who could be the half-blind Harrison himself. In this sense, the “Once...” is telling in that the daughter doesn’t remain a little girl forever, which possibly breaks the father’s heart and kills the little boy in him.

21 Jim Harrison, The Shape of the Journey (Copper Canyon 1998), p. 367.

22 Ibid., 378.

23 Slavoj Žižek, University of Vermont 16 October 2012, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gjhhHpCAXHM (last accessed 10 April 2013).

24 Jim Harrison, The Shape of the Journey (Copper Canyon 1998), p. 361-2.