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Becoming Bamboozled

Chris Arthur reviews Robert E. Carter’s Becoming Bamboo: Western and Eastern Explorations of the Meaning of Life.

“Western philosophy”, writes Ninian Smart in his foreword to Becoming Bamboo, “remains particularly tribal in its interests” (p.ix). By this he means that philosophy as it is conducted in Europe and America has been, and to a large extent still is, ignorant of the rich philosophical traditions of the East. Most philosophers engage in their discipline as if India, China and Japan did not exist. Robert Carter’s book, says Smart, is a piece of creative cross-cultural thinking which expresses “with poetry and good sense a way in which Eastern and Western philosophy can grow together” (p.xiii). Ninian Smart’s contribution to an increased awareness of ‘other’ religions and philosophies is enormous. In addition to books like Doctrine and Argument in Indian Philosophy (1964) which swims against precisely that current of tribalism which he still sees in the ascendant some three decades later, Smart’s more popular studies of world religions (The Religious Experience of Mankind (1969) and The World’s Religions (1989), for example) have done a great deal to bring Eastern religio-philosophical ideas onto the agenda of the Western mind. Having the imprimatur of this much respected guru of religious studies stamped firmly on the foreword of a book is a potent recommendation for reading it. Becoming Bamboo also comes bearing praise from the deep ecologist Arne Naess, who describes it as an important and “truly graceful” book. Several other professorial endorsements of its worth are likewise forthcoming. Such cover quotes tell us that it is “exceptionally well written”, and a “masterful accomplishment” of East/West dialogue. One hesitates to disagree with such a glittering weight of celebrity opinion but, in the end, I suspect that Becoming Bamboo underlines the correctness of that ancient axiom of literary commonsense: “You can’t (or shouldn’t) judge a book by its cover”. To which I would add the rider, “or by its foreword”.

There is much to admire in what Carter is attempting. He is interested in a revisioning of value and meaning in the light of a cross-pollination of ideas from Eastern and Western sources. In particular, he seeks to explore “what has been lost by the commodification of existence, and what might be done either to recover or reinvent a sense of worth of the world and of ourselves” (p.12). The sources which he draws on in seeking to implement such recovery/reinvention are wide-ranging, sometimes unexpected, occasionally inspiring. But if “the task is to keep the question of the meaning of life in question, and to find it an unerring source of joy and possibility, even in the darkest of times” (p.187), one wonders if Becoming Bamboo offers any substantial illumination. Becoming bamboo is one thing. Could one also become Belsen or Buchenwald and still retain the sense of “connection with the cosmos” which Carter says has enthralled him in the writing of this book (p.8)?

Like most cultural critics, he is more adept at identifying problems than at providing solutions, something which is hardly surprising given the scale of the problems which concern him. In a world which has very largely embraced an economic stance which reduces everything – people, dolphins, rainforests – to commodity status, what he describes as “aesthetic and metaphysical caring” (p.110) is now not just some rarefied intellectual concern but a necessary condition for human survival. Alas, its necessity makes it no easier to achieve.

He worries (not unreasonably) that “we spend enormous amounts of time improving our reasoning and intellectual skills and virtually none improving our feeling capacity” (p.24). Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the book is the way in which he draws on the work of Victor Frankl, Lawrence Kohlberg, James Fowler, Carol Gilligan and others to suggest some strategies for redress. Indeed at one point he identifies “training in sensuality” as “the actual theme of this entire book” (p.26). But is this theme one that is substantially informed by the insights of Eastern philosophy? It is easy enough to accept Carter’s contention that “comparative encounter” occasions “self-scrutiny, and even radical doubt about the adequacy of your own horizon of understanding” (p.124), and that far from being a merely destructive phenomenon this can lead to the emergence of new thought-models. It is not difficult to show that “enhanced meaning and value satisfaction arises from taking a wider rather than a narrower view of our place in the world” (p.156) and that such a wider viewpoint will be facilitated by an encounter with the philosophical traditions of other cultures. Diversity, in short, can be seen as a good thing in philosophy as in genetics. But Carter seems more to state this (fairly obvious) point rather than to make use of it. One’s ideas may indeed be “brought into sharper focus through cross-cultural comparison” (p.7), but it is far from easy to allow ‘foreign’ ways of thinking actually to shape the lens through which one views the world. Interesting, even touching, though some of his Japanese reflections may be, it is a shame that so much of the cross-cultural side of things is presented in anecdotal fashion, detached from the substance of his thinking. Carter points to the huge contribution which Japanese culture, particularly in terms of Zen, makes to the philosophical gene pool, but there is little evidence that he really draws on this material in formulating his own ideas.

Given the book’s title and the way in which the author keeps returning to his chosen totemic image as if it was a corrective touchstone against a Western tendency towards exaggerated distancing of subject and object, it is perhaps surprising that no mention is made of Matsuo Basho’s famous advice: “Go to the pine if you want to learn about the pine, go to the bamboo if you want to learn about the bamboo”. Basho (1644-94) was Japan’s great master of haiku, those arresting slivers of verse so reminiscent of Zen. (The spirit of Basho, according to D.T. Suzuki, is the spirit of Zen expressing itself in seventeen syllables.) Basho’s most famous haiku is quoted on page 125. The importance of silence in such poetry, its sense of everyday sacrality and reverence for nature, ties in well with much of what Carter argues for. But the implications of an in-depth encounter with the philosophy behind such minimalist expression are not spelled out. Zen’s austerity, its paring-to-the-bone approach, its ruthless deconstruction (via koans and other techniques) of ordinary thinking, has a definite appeal. But would the values implicit in writing a book survive the importation of its ideas into one’s thinking?

There are some fascinating observations scattered through this book. To describe a Buddha as “an incarnation of non-dual awareness” (p.117) is to catch a vital aspect of Buddhist thinking with admirable concision. The idea that kami (a Shinto concept analogous to the numinous) might offer a way of viewing the world in a manner which could stave off ecological disaster (p.135) suggests some fascinating possibilities for a kind of deliberate, rationalised animism. The comparison of interdependence in North American native and Japanese traditions (p.143) identifies a potentially fruitful contour for comparative study to explore in more detail. Watsuji Tetsuro’s analysis of social relatedness (p.101) could have important implications for the more individualistic notions of identity prevalent in the West. But the book as a whole lacks the underlying coherence to pull such disparate insights into a focused philosophy. It is a book of glimpses in need of a broader panorama to set them in context.

In I.A. Richards’ Mencius on the Mind (1932), a book which is still highly relevant to anyone attempting cross-cultural work, a question is posed which Robert Carter would have done well to have considered. In looking at another culture, Richards asked, can we ever hope to do more than read our own conceptions into it, rendering it a mirror of our minds? He likened the cross-cultural endeavour to trying to be on both sides of the looking glass at once and recognised the enormous difficulty of maintaining two systems of thinking in the mind and mediating between them. His idea of ‘multiple definitions’ as one step towards a possible solution is, perhaps, something which Carter might have tried.

Two comparisons come to mind on reading Becoming Bamboo. The first is Karlheinz Stockhausen’s essay on ‘world music’ (in Texte zur Musik: 1970-1977, Koln:1978, English translation in the Dalhousie Review Vol.69 no.3 1989). Given the fact that we are now aware of all the musical traditions of humankind in their astonishing diversity, Stockhausen suggests that the creative individual will henceforth want to “attempt to play in all registers”, the risk of discord notwithstanding. Robert Carter is certainly attempting to play in a quite different register from that which usually meets the ears when (Western) philosophers pick up their instruments, but this is very much a tentative picking out of some new notes rather than any kind of sustained or finished piece.

The second comparison occurs in Philosophy East and West, the (excellent) critical comparison of Indian, Chinese, Islamic and European philosophy edited by Ben-Ami Scharfstein (Oxford,1978). The contributors are unanimous in criticising the cultural myopia or personal ignorance which has confined Western philosophy to its accustomed narrow canon. And they express the hope that they are taking a step out of such provincialism and towards a world in which “different philosophical traditions exist as equals and together express the single humanity of them all”. Becoming Bamboo can be welcomed as a step in the right direction – so long as we do not rely on it to take us very far along the road to the ‘world philosophy’ which, according to Carter (p.190), is where ‘quality philosophising’ will increasingly and inevitably lead.

Becoming Bamboo; Western and Eastern Explorations of the Meaning of Life by Robert E. Carter. Published by McGill-Queen’s University Press. 224 pages. Price £22.95. ISBN 0-7735-0884-8

© Chris Arthur 1994

Chris Arthur lectures at the University of Wales, Lamp


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