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Buddhadharma : Winter 2014
74 buddhadharma: the Practitioner’s quarterly winter 2014 that there has so far been no “thorough investigation of the parallels with Zen philosophy that exist in Moby-Dick,” Herman endeavors to fill that gap by examining the principal characters, scenes, and themes of Moby-Dick through the lens of Zen teachings. Focusing first on the biographical and historical contexts of the novel and subsequently on the text itself, Herman calls attention to thematic elements that resonate with Zen teachings, among them the “groundlessness” of the nar- rator Ishmael, the grasping, narcis- sistic psyche of Captain Ahab, and the metaphysical dimension of Moby Dick, who for Herman represents the “ungraspable ungraspable”: absolute reality embodied in the whiteness of the whale. Along the way, Herman also provides concise explanations of cen- tral Buddhist themes such as imperma- nence, interdependence, and dependent co-origination, integrating these themes concretely with scenes and situations from the novel. What Melville might have known of Zen before, during, and after the writing of Moby-Dick is an open and probably unanswerable question. Although, in Herman’s words, “Mel- ville almost certainly never in his life heard the word ‘Zen,’” general infor- mation about Buddhism, however scant or erroneous, was beginning to appear in America in the 1840s. Herman cites some of the available sources that Mel- ville may have been exposed to and also notes that the Reverend John Freeman Clarke, author of The Ten Great Reli- gions (1871) and an enthusiastic stu- dent of Buddhism in the 1840s, was a friend of Melville’s and served as offi- ciant at his wedding in 1847. It is not unlikely that Melville, who in later life owned a figurine of the laughing bud- dha Hotei, learned about Buddhism in conversations with his friend. To be sure, this evidence is slim and circumstantial. Melville may or may not have consulted, much less incor- porated, any of the existing sources on Buddhism. Herman concedes as much, and he modestly acknowledges that his perception of a Buddhist influence in Moby-Dick could be “an illusion of interpretation on the part of this reader.” On balance, however, his pri- mary concern seems less with proving that Melville was influenced by Bud- dhist teachings than with demonstrat- ing how Buddhist teachings in general, and Soto Zen teachings in particular, might enhance our understanding of Moby-Dick, which Herman views as a “profound representation” of Buddhist thought. Central to that demonstration is Herman’s analysis of what he terms “Ishmael’s Way-seeking mind.” Trou- bled and aggressive while on land, that mind becomes calm and inquisitive at sea. “Grounding himself in ground- lessness,” as Herman puts it, Ishmael embraces the inherent instability of the ocean as his natural and spiritual habi- tat. Uncommonly open to multiple per- spectives and unfamiliar situations, this schoolteacher turned seaman “holds belief systems lightly,” exemplifying what the Diamond Sutra calls “the mind that alights nowhere.” At the same time, Ishmael looks ever more deeply into himself and the nature of reality, and by stages he liberates him- self from the notions of a separate self with a fixed identity. Over the course of the voyage, through observation and deep reflection, he disposes of any and all attachments to identity and ideol- ogy. At the end of the novel, having survived the sinking of the Pequod, he floats alone on the Pacific on the har- pooner Queequeg’s “coffin life-buoy,” resting in a state of tranquil awareness. In contrast to Ishmael’s achieved serenity, Captain Ahab dwells in a con- dition of deluded torment. In a more conventional reading of Moby-Dick, Ahab might be cast as an heroic sea captain, braving the high seas in pursuit of a noble goal. In Herman’s reading, however, Captain Ahab is the embodi- ment of a fundamental ignorance of reality—and a foil to the increasingly enlightened Ishmael. Where Ishmael abides with equanimity in a state of “not-knowing,” Ahab must know, grasp, and destroy the object of his obsession. Even as Ishmael sheds the illusion of a separate self, Ahab clings to that illusion, alienating himself from himself, his crew, and his idea of God. And where Ishmael learns non- attachment to ideas and beliefs, Ahab struggles desperately to prove what he believes, driving himself from delusion into madness. As a direct consequence, he propels the Pequod and everyone but Ishmael into the vortex and the depths of the sea. And Moby Dick himself? Over the years, most critics have viewed the white whale as some kind of symbol, but what this mighty creature might symbolize remains a crux of interpre- tation. For Herman, Moby Dick is “the floating apparition of ultimate reality.” As such, he is “ungraspable,” which is to say, unknowable; he can be mea- sured, dissected, and otherwise studied, revieWs Zen and the White Whale a buddhist rendering of moby-dick by daniel herman lehigh university Press, 2014 214 pages; $70