Zen in the Art of Underlining

April 17, 2010

My father, were he alive, would have turned 67 this week. He died in 1999 from non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. One of the treasures he left behind, or rather, collection of treasures, were his books. I just finished one of these books, called Zen in the Art of Archery.

There’s a pleasure in reading books my father read, not least because he inked up his books; there are copious underlined passages and the occasional cryptic reference. (My favorite in this book is the underlined “The Master, long accustomed to my tiresome questions, shook his head” which is accompanied by a note in the margins: cf. Don Juan and Carlos, which I can only assume points here.) To track his notes is to follow his unfolding thoughts on this book and on whatever he was thinking at the time; it is to look through time to a moment when a man who would become a master teacher was my age, and when his ideas about teaching, the career to which he would devote his life, began to take shape.

Before he died, my dad wrote the excellent Teaching With Your Mouth Shut. What’s astonishing about the book is that it is written to be experienced rather than read: in exploring forms of teaching besides lecture, it actually invites the reader to become more than a passive “listener” to the thesis of the book. It’s a phenomenally cunning trick, actually, and I’m always impressed when I return to the book.

And here I am with a book he read, reading now to myself the underlined words: “You are under an illusion… if you imagine that even a rough understanding of these dark connections would help you.” My father believed in a vision of teaching that was less about transmitting facts and more about transformation, a kind of change that can be invited but not forced. You lead someone to a contradiction and let them struggle with it; you discover a paradox together and search for the extra dimension that resolves it.

I see my dad now as someone who was just like me: a human being who loved struggling with great questions. I love to follow the signs of his struggle in the books he read, as if I were tracking someone’s path through the wilderness.

“He is a living example of the inner work, and he convinces by his mere presence.”

Only the last clause is underlined here. I imagine my dad found the danger of the convincing presence, whether he was a living example of the inner work or not, the central point in his own reckoning. A teacher can inspire in positive and negative directions, and in a democracy we need students who are skeptical, even of the most convincing presences. On the other hand, he may have been thinking something else entirely. This is followed by:

How far the pupil will go is not the concern of the teacher and Master. Hardly has he shown him the right way when he must let him go on alone.”

Apt indeed. I’ll never know my father’s thoughts completely,
but tracing their wake helps me better know my own.

Happy birthday to you, Dad, the master teacher and perpetual student.
May we all learn to play as seriously as you did.

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