One of my gentle readers, currently hiking in the Faroe Islands, writes in defence of Zen masters. He comments on my Idlepost of 2nd October, and the broad topic of Attention, which is necessary for any kind of human renewal. He says,

“It is exactly this that the Zen master aims to teach to his adepts. Zen parables, when read with attention, should make the reader laugh. Their aim is to make us appreciate irony (in the English conception of that word) and to appreciate how serious the world is even when at play. The Zen master’s reproach to the struggling adept is to whack him hard across the brow with a stick, in the hope of that way bringing him to attention. … It seems Western man as much as his Eastern counterpart needs a big stick across the brow, to at least momentarily bring him to attention.”

Well put. I am fingering my lathi as I write. Actually it is a cricket bat, which I hesitate to use, lest I put the struggling adept in hospital. I don’t know what the laws are in Japan, but in Canada we are obliged to treat struggling adepts gently. Certainly this is the rule at the seminary where I (arguably) teach. I fall back on rhetorical overkill instead.

Homo Ludens — the extraordinary masterpiece by Johan Huizinga from the 1930s — was a stick that hit me in my adolescence. This study of “the play element of human culture” strikes me still today as the place to start when it comes to Attention. It still whacks me hard.

Play is what men do best; and women, too, if we let them. It is the formator of rules, and their strict enforcer. It is thus the purest expression of freedom. There is nothing ordinary about it, nor any overlap with “real life.” Nothing in it stinks of profit or gain. When applied to love or war it is above such considerations, for it can be accepted as divination. The result of each contest is out of our hands. We will see who wins.

Well: there is a start. Our modern minds are trapped in slavery to false forms of Reason with no access to Faith. We have developed an allergy to poetry; like the allergy to peanuts, but often worse. Take allegory, for instance. In the modern mind, it can induce a stroke. Most of the Bible, to say nothing of other significant literary works, has become unreadable or incomprehensible to us, because we cannot take “play” seriously. Yet play is deadly serious at all times. It requires all of our Attention. We pretend to have no time for that.

Travel, even in the Faroes, should be without purpose. This is something that no tourist will ever understand, though every genuine traveller will. The tourist always has a purpose, some “vacation” to perform, if not something sillier should he also be “on business.” Whereas, the true traveller is a pilgrim. My understanding of travel, when footloose and young and under the influence of Huizinga, was the opposite of touring. Let us hit the open road — and see what we find there.

This attitude, I realize looking back, was thoroughly unmodern; and wonderfully unscientific. The scientist sets out to confirm his theory. As a young Frenchman once explained to me, sneering, “Every American east of Istanbul is an anthropologist.” But not that young Frenchman (Patrick, of beloved memory, son of a Paris gendarme or “aubergine”). He had gone to Asia to learn and not to teach. He refused to teach, except by example. For him, all life was play, and the “game” would require his complete Attention. You could see it in his eyes.

An unusual hippie: he refused to take drugs. He knew that would be cheating. He would not even take aspirin. “It would put me off my game.”

This is a very important topic. I try to return to it, again and again.