Appreciating the divide between us and the ancient texts Barry Magid April 25th 2015

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In this dharma talk Barry mentions a play by Tony Harrison, called "The Trackers of Oxyrhincus" which captures how capricious, powerful, and dangerous the Greeks saw their gods as. Here is a video of the playwright talking about his love of the classics and reading an except from the play where Marsyas is flayed by Apollo for playing the flute.

The other day someone was complaining to me about the difficulty they were having understanding some passages in the Shobogenzo, and what's remarkable to me is that when they assume they ought to be able to understand this book, from 13th century Japan, it's remarkable you can get anything out of it at all. In some ways it's analogous to your going out and picking up a copy of Summa Theologica by Thomas Aquinas -- he was Dogen's almost exact contemporary -- yet the idea that you might pick up that book of medieval theology and just dip into it and immediately understand what's going on is pretty ludicrous.

Yet Zen has a myth of transparency, that says, in effect, that when your dharma eye is open, the words of the old masters will immediately be clear, whether it's in the old koans or the works of Dogen. And there's a way in which that's true, when you can suddenly grasp the point of some old story, but there's another way in which it's ahistorical nonsense and mystification, and keeps us in a state of feeling like if we don't immediately understand -- magically -- all these strange illusions and references, it must mean that our enlightenment is not very thorough. Really, it's quite silly. If you want to understand an old text from another culture, you really have to do a lot of background work, without even talking about the work of reading it in the original. If you read it in translation, you need a shelf of secondary sources in order to get your bearings, and that's just the fact of the matter. Do not expect to open up a book like that and just have the meaning jump out at you.

This was brought home to me in another context. I’ve probably spent as much time studying the literature of classical Greece as I have of Buddhist literature, and I recently came across a wonderful play by a contemporary British playwright, Tony Harrison, who is unfortunately not really known at all in this country as far as I can tell -- at least I can't find anybody else who's heard of him unless I've given the book to him. But he wrote a magnificent play called The Trackers of Oxyrhynchus. Oxyrhynchus was the name of a town in Egypt with an enormous garbage dump in the middle of the desert, and because it was in the middle of the desert, their garbage, including tons of papyrus, has been preserved for thousands of years. Archaeologists since the beginning of the 20th century -- for over a hundred years now -- have been digging through the garbage, pulling out scraps of papyrus, taking them back to the British Museum or wherever, and very slowly deciphering these things. All sorts of stuff comes out. Mostly it's laundry lists and bills of sale for a couple of old sheep, but it's also yielded up unknown poems by Sappho and a previously unknown satyr play by Sophocles.

What is very interesting about the satyr plays -- satyr, S-A-T-Y-R -- they were an enormous part of the work of the playwrights that we think of as tragedians, Aeschylus and Sophocles and Euripides. We think of them as the writers of intense solemn works, but the fact is that these plays were all performed, as we know, at the festival of Dionysus, and they were performed three at a time, three tragedies were performed at once, and they were always followed by a comedy, a satyr play. So after you watched Oedipus put out his eyes, you would then end the day with a quite ribald, quite extravagantly low humored comedy, as a kind of pallet cleanser. Only one actually survived, until this one was discovered.

They were always an enormous embarrassment to classicists, and particularly to Christian classicists, who didn't much like the atmosphere that they conveyed, because they showed the Greeks to have this entire other side to them, other than the austere, solemn, intellectual side that the Victorians wanted to revere. It's very similar to our relationship to the Greek ruins and sculpture. They come down to us as these austere, pristine white sculptures and buildings, and only recently have we really gotten used to the idea that all these things were lavishly painted. The Greeks liked color, and the statues were all painted in flesh tones, and they had gold and silver and costumes put on them, and all sorts of things. Of course, they all wore away after 2000 years. We don't see them, but we think they were all made pure white, but they weren't.

For 2500 years, the Parthenon on the Acropolis has been one of the world's most famous buildings. It has an elaborate frieze under the roof with this complicated story line and picture, and no one has any idea what it means. There's no record whatsoever of an ancient writer describing what's on there and what it's about, and scholars are still arguing over "What's the story? Why did they put that up there?" Nobody has any idea. And yet everybody's been looking at it for a couple millennia thinking it's the most familiar site in the world.

The satyr plays are performed by costumed figures, but instead of when we think of the Greek chorus, we have all these pictures of masks that the chorus wore, that look very solemn. In the satyr plays the actors got dressed up, too, but they wore giant strap-on phalluses and they pranced around waving these big dildos at the audience. It's not really exactly the picture the victorians wanted to have of the Greeks.

Tony Harrison's play begins with a description of these two British archaeologists sifting through the papyri in the dump at Oxyrhynchus, and discovering this play, The Trackers, which the modern day action, gradually, in a strange kind of way, begins to morph into -- so the characters and the present are taken over by the characters in the Sophocles play. All the Egyptian laborers who are working with the British archaeologists in particular turn into the satyrs of the play.

And it's basically a story about how the young god, Hermes, stole the sacred cattle of Apollo, ran off with them, and had himself a lovely barbeque, while inventing the lyre -- the first musical instrument -- and strumming away having a good old time. Apollo is royally pissed off and sent a band of satyrs after him -- they were the trackers of the title of the play. In one of the implications of satyrs going off to recapture a music instrument, there's a famous story of the satyr Marsyas -- I believe his name was -- who heard Apollo playing the flute and was so taken by it, that he decided to play the flute himself. When Apollo saw the satyr playing his flute, he had him flayed alive. The Greeks did not have a picture of the gods the way we do. Their gods were not nice. Their gods were not divided into good and bad, the way we think of gods and devils. Their gods were very powerful, very capricious, and very dangerous. They never forgot about the dual nature of their gods.

So in any case, Harrison tells this story, full of pantomime and dirty jokes, and he does it all in rhymed couplets. It's an incredible tour de force, one of the most brilliant things I've read. The play was performed once. It was staged by his theater company in the amphitheater in the ruins of Delphi, in one of these old amphitheater centers. It was quite a remarkable bit of theater.

This may seem like a long way around from Dogen -- I do tend to wander, I know -- but the idea is that we should not lose the sense of strangeness when we read these old texts. We can find ourselves getting very comfortable with them, as if we have some idea of who Dogen was and what life was like then. But it's a lot stranger, a lot more alien, than we are probably able to imagine. We can create a kind of abstraction of what's in the Shobogenzo and put it to our current use.

I tried to do that in Nothing is Hidden, in the chapter on “Uselessness: The Koan of Just Sitting.” It's probably all a modern Zen student needs to read to get the gist of a practical way of "How do I orient myself to this tradition?" The same way, if you really want to understand Summa Theologica, Chesterton wrote a very nice little biography of Aquinas called The Dumb Ox. I recommend it. It'll give you probably all you’ll ever want to know about Aquinas in a couple hundred pages. We're very much in a similar position with Dogen, and we should be honest about that. That world is very, very different from ours. There are ways we can take aspects of it and put it to use, but the idea that we're going to authentically reproduce it, or somehow totally enter into the mind of those people, that in itself is a strange kind of cultural fiction that Zen likes to perpetrate. But we're not going to be medieval Japanese any more than we're going to be ancient Greeks, even though we can enjoy the works of both.

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