On Theft, Death, and the Moon

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Ryokan, Japanese Zen monk

René Descartes, Discourse- Part II on Method and Part IV on God and the Human Soul

Rest in Peace to a fallen friend

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My friend was recently robbed. It made me sad and reminded me of a story about Ryokan.* The Zen monk lived in a hut on Mount Kugami. When a burglar broke in, the monk welcomed him but had nothing of any value. So, he removed his tattered robe and offered it. The stunned robber slipped away. Looking up at the night sky, the monk wrote this.

The Zen Fool Ryokan, Kodama and Yanagishima (1st Ed. 1999)

Thinking as Ryokan might, I reframed the story about the monk and by extension, about my friend. René Descartes came up in my book on classic prose. His discourse on the method of rightly conducting the reason, and seeking truth in the sciences was notable for his maxim, Cogito ergo sum. I am thinking, therefore I exist. More commonly known as, I think therefore I am. In this treatise, a profound sense of humility comes across in his decision to shed all that he learned from institutions and scholars. In so doing, he deduces his now renowned method.*** It is surprisingly short and straightforward. Here are excerpts of the four rules he outlines in Part II.

  1. The first was never to accept anything for true which I did not clearly know to be such; that is to say, carefully to avoid precipitancy and prejudice. . .
  2. The second, to divide each of the difficulties under examination into as many parts as possible, and as might be necessary for its adequate solution.
  3. The third, to conduct my thoughts in such order that, by commencing with objects the simplest and easiest to know, I might ascend little by little, and, as it were, step by step, to the knowledge of the more complex. . .
  4. The last, in every case to make enumerations so complete, and reviews so general, that I might be assured that nothing was omitted.

The “robbery” then at its most elemental, its first truth, is about one person taking from another. The parts, divided as far as possible, involve a man entering without permission, likely wanting items of value, discovering the monk. The monk offers the clothes he is wearing. He sits naked and writes of the moon, how the thief left it behind.

Perhaps it is not a robbery and the man is not a thief. Instead the monk sees a visitor and offers the robe off his back, since he has nothing else. No one would expect to find much in the hermit’s hut half-way up the mountain slope, since monks as monastics are beggars. So, Ryokan welcomes the intruder, wishing he had stayed to enjoy the moon.

Here’s another translation, more literal, of the haiku Nusuoito ni / torinokosareshi / mado no tsuki:

left behind
by the thief:
the moon in my window

*

Ryokan is no longer with us, though his words remain. The pressing part of these lines is the abandonment of the moon, the lost chance to see beauty. Distracted by desire, the thief misses what is there. I think about Ryokan therefore he is real to me. He is, or his thoughts are, with me a century later.

*

My daughter’s friend died on the first of August in a training accident in Germany. She was 24 years old. Death robbed her.

“. . . She was as good an officer as there was in the Army. Professional, proficient, and personable, she not only cared for the people she served with, but she loved them. She also loved life and all its facets…. books, art, sports, travel, history, nature, and music. She put effort into living life and experiencing all the beauty that life has to offer. She could find good in the worst situation.”

Excerpt from the Obituary for Hailey E. Hodsden, Scout Platoon Leader in the 2nd U.S. Cavalry Regiment

*

Perhaps it is not a robbery and Death is not a thief. The young friend who was loved IS loved. We do not steal away from her death. We do not hold hard to desire. We stop to see the life she lived, to see how she lived, to see her. She is the moon at the window.

*

FOOTNOTES

*Ryokan was a Japanese Zen monk known for his poetry and calligraphy. Born in 1858, died in 1931. Zen Fool Ryokan 1999 translation

**Jon Muth is the author of the picture book, Zen Shorts, with Stillwater, a Panda. I first encountered this story about Ryokan in his skillful illustration and retelling.

**In Part IV, Descartes establishes the existence of God and the human soul. Cogito ergo sum ‘was so certain and of such evidence’ that he accepts it as the first principle. Rene Descartes’ Discourse on Method (translsation by John Veitch, 1995) is available free online at Projectgutenberg. First paragraphs of Part IV: the reasonings by which he establishes the existence of God and of the Human Soul, which are foundations of his metaphysic:

Part IV, Descartes Discourse on Method, translation John Veitch, 1995

PART IV

I am in doubt as to the propriety of making my first meditations in the
place above mentioned matter of discourse; for these are so
metaphysical, and so uncommon, as not, perhaps, to be acceptable to
every one. And yet, that it may be determined whether the foundations
that I have laid are sufficiently secure, I find myself in a measure
constrained to advert to them. I had long before remarked that, in
relation to practice, it is sometimes necessary to adopt, as if above
doubt, opinions which we discern to be highly uncertain, as has been
already said; but as I then desired to give my attention solely to the
search after truth, I thought that a procedure exactly the opposite was
called for, and that I ought to reject as absolutely false all opinions
in regard to which I could suppose the least ground for doubt, in order
to ascertain whether after that there remained aught in my belief that
was wholly indubitable. Accordingly, seeing that our senses sometimes
deceive us, I was willing to suppose that there existed nothing really
such as they presented to us; and because some men err in reasoning,
and fall into paralogisms, even on the simplest matters of geometry, I,
convinced that I was as open to error as any other, rejected as false
all the reasonings I had hitherto taken for demonstrations; and
finally, when I considered that the very same thoughts (presentations)
which we experience when awake may also be experienced when we are
asleep, while there is at that time not one of them true, I supposed
that all the objects (presentations) that had ever entered into my mind
when awake, had in them no more truth than the illusions of my dreams.
But immediately upon this I observed that, whilst I thus wished to
think that all was false, it was absolutely necessary that I, who thus
thought, should be somewhat; and as I observed that this truth, I
think, therefore I am (COGITO ERGO SUM), was so certain and of such
evidence that no ground of doubt, however extravagant, could be alleged
by the sceptics capable of shaking it, I concluded that I might,
without scruple, accept it as the first principle of the philosophy of
which I was in search.
In the next place, I attentively examined what I was and as I observed
that I could suppose that I had no body, and that there was no world
nor any place in which I might be; but that I could not therefore
suppose that I was not; and that, on the contrary, from the very
circumstance that I thought to doubt of the truth of other things, it
most clearly and certainly followed that I was; while, on the other
hand, if I had only ceased to think, although all the other objects
which I had ever imagined had been in reality existent, I would have
had no reason to believe that I existed; I thence concluded that I was
a substance whose whole essence or nature consists only in thinking,
and which, that it may exist, has need of no place, nor is dependent on
any material thing; so that “I,” that is to say, the mind by which I am
what I am, is wholly distinct from the body, and is even more easily
known than the latter, and is such, that although the latter were not,
it would still continue to be all that it is.
After this I inquired in general into what is essential to the truth
and certainty of a proposition; for since I had discovered one which I
knew to be true, I thought that I must likewise be able to discover the
ground of this certitude. And as I observed that in the words I think,
therefore I am, there is nothing at all which gives me assurance of
their truth beyond this, that I see very clearly that in order to think
it is necessary to exist, I concluded that I might take, as a general
rule, the principle, that all the things which we very clearly and
distinctly conceive are true, only observing, however, that there is
some difficulty in rightly determining the objects which we distinctly
conceive.
In the next place, from reflecting on the circumstance that I doubted,
and that consequently my being was not wholly perfect (for I clearly
saw that it was a greater perfection to know than to doubt), I was led
to inquire whence I had learned to think of something more perfect than
myself; and I clearly recognized that I must hold this notion from some
nature which in reality was more perfect. As for the thoughts of many
other objects external to me, as of the sky, the earth, light, heat,
and a thousand more, I was less at a loss to know whence these came;
for since I remarked in them nothing which seemed to render them
superior to myself, I could believe that, if these were true, they were
dependencies on my own nature, in so far as it possessed a certain
perfection, and, if they were false, that I held them from nothing,
that is to say, that they were in me because of a certain imperfection
of my nature. But this could not be the case with-the idea of a nature
more perfect than myself; for to receive it from nothing was a thing
manifestly impossible; and, because it is not less repugnant that the
more perfect should be an effect of, and dependence on the less
perfect, than that something should proceed from nothing, it was
equally impossible that I could hold it from myself: accordingly, it
but remained that it had been placed in me by a nature which was in
reality more perfect than mine, and which even possessed within itself
all the perfections of which I could form any idea; that is to say, in
a single word, which was God. And to this I added that, since I knew
some perfections which I did not possess, I was not the only being in
existence (I will here, with your permission, freely use the terms of
the schools); but, on the contrary, that there was of necessity some
other more perfect Being upon whom I was dependent, and from whom I had
received all that I possessed; for if I had existed alone, and
independently of every other being, so as to have had from myself all
the perfection, however little, which I actually possessed, I should
have been able, for the same reason, to have had from myself the whole
remainder of perfection, of the want of which I was conscious, and thus
could of myself have become infinite, eternal, immutable, omniscient,
all-powerful, and, in fine, have possessed all the perfections which I
could recognize in God. For in order to know the nature of God (whose
existence has been established by the preceding reasonings), as far as
my own nature permitted, I had only to consider in reference to all the
properties of which I found in my mind some idea, whether their
possession was a mark of perfection; and I was assured that no one
which indicated any imperfection was in him, and that none of the rest
was awanting. Thus I perceived that doubt, inconstancy, sadness, and
such like, could not be found in God, since I myself would have been
happy to be free from them. Besides, I had ideas of many sensible and
corporeal things; for although I might suppose that I was dreaming, and
that all which I saw or imagined was false, I could not, nevertheless,
deny that the ideas were in reality in my thoughts. But, because I had
already very clearly recognized in myself that the intelligent nature
is distinct from the corporeal, and as I observed that all composition
is an evidence of dependency, and that a state of dependency is
manifestly a state of imperfection, I therefore determined that it
could not be a perfection in God to be compounded of these two natures
and that consequently he was not so compounded; but that if there were
any bodies in the world, or even any intelligences, or other natures
that were not wholly perfect, their existence depended on his power in
such a way that they could not subsist without him for a single moment.
Part IV, Descartes Discourse on Method, translation John Veitch, 1995

Aug 13, 2023

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About the Author

Mylinh Shattan is a writer who has lived on three continents, served in the Army, worked in corporate America, and taught in college. She loves adventures, in the world and in the mind. Literature is relevant and learning is a lifelong pursuit, so you might as well have a bit of fun along the way.

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