Academic journal article PSYART

Happening to Oneself: Zen, Taoism, and Jungian Individuation as Paths to Spirituality in Edward Gorey's the Object Lesson and Shel Silverstein's the Missing Piece

Academic journal article PSYART

Happening to Oneself: Zen, Taoism, and Jungian Individuation as Paths to Spirituality in Edward Gorey's the Object Lesson and Shel Silverstein's the Missing Piece

Article excerpt

Carl Jung writes in Psychology and Religion: West and East that "It is not I who create myself, rather I happen to myself" (qtd. in Rosen 15). This surprisingly Taoist statement is perhaps a perfect way to define the separation between spirituality and religion in children's picture books. While religion is about imposing an outside system on a child through a story with an agenda, spirituality is something that happens all on its own through a child's own imagination, and while religious children's books can be easily identified and classified based on the religious system to which they ascribe, spirituality in children's picture books is much harder to pin down, and can be extended to any book that provides an imaginative mental playground with enough freedom to allow a child to "happen" to itself1. I propose that one path to the creation of this self-built spirituality is through a Taoist or Zen Buddhist reading of children's books, especially when related to Jung's theory of individuation as a moment of intense spiritual growth or enlightenment; when viewed through a Taoist lens, this process of attaining a higher knowledge of self and the universe can be useful and applicable to people of any faith system-or no faith system at all. This article seeks to further explicate Jung's theory of individuation using Taoism and Zen Buddhism as a way of understanding spirituality (as differentiated from religion) in children's literature with Edward Gorey's The Object Lesson and Shel Silverstein's The Missing Piece as exemplary texts for demonstrating this distinction.

To use Zen and Taoism as examples of spirituality as differentiated from religion might seem contradictory since Zen is technically classified as a form of Buddhism and the sayings of Lao-Tzu in the Tao-Te-Ching2 have been classified into a system of thought known as Taoism. However, several factors contribute to my alternate claim that Zen and Taoism can rise above religious sectarianism, especially as a lens for understanding individuation in children's literature. The first is D.T. Suzuki's3 explanation of Zen's essence:

When a Zen master was once asked what Zen was, he replied, "Your everyday thought." Is this not plain and most straightforward? It has nothing to do with any sectarian spirit. Christians as well as Buddhists can practice Zen just as big fish and small fish are both contentedly living in the same ocean. Zen is the ocean, Zen is the air, Zen is the mountain, Zen is thunder and lightning, the spring flower, summer heat, and winter snow; nay, more than that, Zen is the man (45).

Thus, as Suzuki sees it, and as we will discover more when we discuss the question of Zen in relation to individuation Zen is a way of understanding-or perhaps more accurately, a way of existing.

Taoism, similarly, rises above the easy classification as a religion which scholars tend to use for it. As the opening line of the Tao-Te-Ching informs us, "Tao called Tao is not Tao." Like Zen, Tao is un-categorical, and as soon as we think we have explained it, it is no longer there. As the following dialogue, quoted by Alan Watts, between two well-known Zen masters informs us, Tao, like Zen, is simply what is:

Chao-Chao asked, "What is the Tao?"

The master [Nan-ch'uan] replied, "Your ordinary consciousness is the Tao."

"How can one return into accord with it?"

"By intending to accord you immediately deviate."

"But without intention, how can one know the Tao?"

"The Tao," said the master, "belongs neither to knowing nor to not knowing. Knowing is false understanding; not knowing is blind ignorance. If you really understand the Tao beyond doubt, it's like the empty sky. Why drag in right and wrong?"(38).

Thus, both Suzuki and Watts explain Zen and Tao as "everyday thought" or "ordinary consciousness," and both also describe it as nature-simply what things are.

While Zen and Taoism are far from common as a theoretical framework for western literature, a few scholars have made the connection, usually, however, only in reference to poetry, as Claudia Milstead does in her 1998 dissertation, The Zen of Modern Poetry: Reading Eliot, Stevens, and Williams in a Zen Context. …

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