Charles Dodgson, better known today as Lewis Carrol, was a math tutor, lecturer, clergyman and author of one of the most highly regarded children’s books ever. Dodgson is never associated with Eastern Philosophy but, upon recently reading Alice’s encounter with the Caterpillar, it occurs to me to recognize him as such. Alice’s conversation with the Caterpillar reminded me of the lessons of the Zen Buddhists. Often, in these lessons, students’ questions will not be answered directly. The Zen Master’s answer may be a question or an abstract or seemingly illogical response.
Here is an excerpt of Alice’s conversation with the Caterpillar, for example;
“Who are you?” said the Caterpillar.
This was not an encouraging opening for a conversation. Alice replied, rather shyly, “I-I hardly know, Sir…
“What do you mean by that?” said the Caterpillar, sternly. “Explain yourself!”
“I can’t explain myself, I’m afraid, Sir,” said Alice…
“I don’t see,” said the Caterpillar…
…”You!” said the Caterpillar contemptuously. “Who are you?”
…”I think you ought to tell me who you are, first.” (Alice)
“Why?” said the Caterpillar.
Here was another puzzling question; and the Caterpillar seemed to be in a very unpleasant state of mind, she turned away.
“Come back!” the Caterpillar called… “I’ve something important to say!”
This sounded promising… Alice turned and came back again.
“Keep your temper,” said the Caterpillar. (Alice’s Adventure in Wonderland; Second Norton Critical Edition, pp. 35 & 36.)
This exchange is typical of the nonsense which Dodgson has used to weave his tale of the Adventures in Wonderland. I would like to suggest, in all respect, that it is also typical of the nonsense used in some Zen lessons. I present the following passages of Zen lessons as examples of my argument.
A monk in all seriousness asked Joshu : “Has a dog Buddha nature or not?” Joshu retorted “Mu!”(Kapleau, P, The Three Pillars of Zen; p 76.)
Roshi: (master) Is there anything you want to ask?
Student: Yes, I have several questions. The first is: Why did you have a sign put above my place saying I should not be struck with the kyosaku? Is it because you feel I am hopeless?
Roshi: … I thought if you were struck it might interfere with your zazen. You don’t mind being hit?(Kapleau, p 104.)
Student: I have been working by myself on the koan “What was the face you had before you were born?” I believe I have the answer… I have dwelt… on what I was like… and what my parents were like… In fact, in my imagination I have already buried my ashes in a favorite spot. Have I been working on this koan correctly?
Roshi: No, you have not.(Kapleau, p 105 & 106.)
I have, admittedly, paraphrased these passages from The Three Pillars of Zen in order to support my point. Alice’s conversation with the Caterpillar reminds me of Zen lessons of this type. There was a very Zen moment as I was writing this article. My 19-month-old granddaughter came into the room and I asked, “They can’t keep you entertained in there?” She immediately responded, “No.” Or course, for a 19-month-old, “no” is the standard response about 50% of the time, or the very Zen of “no.”
While I’m quoting professional writers to color my life I’d like to barrow a quote from Charles Papazian. I’ve mentioned the final beer I had for the beer challenge, Monk’s Café, and provided my opinion of it. Charles Papazian created a description for Wisconsin Belgian Red from New Glarus Brewing Co. which I’d like to borrow to describe Monk’s Café.
Fortunately it has a malt foundation, without which I fear the sourness and sweetness might otherwise escape to the outward reaches of the solar system.
Finally, as the blogosphere is as unpredictable as winter holidays are static, I’ll take this opportunity to wish you all a “Happy New Year!”