Academic journal article Flannery O'Connor Review

Shocking Grace, Sudden Enlightenment: O'Connor and the Koans of Zen Buddhism

Academic journal article Flannery O'Connor Review

Shocking Grace, Sudden Enlightenment: O'Connor and the Koans of Zen Buddhism

Article excerpt

In a letter to T. R. Spivey, Flannery O'Connor suggests that "If you took Christ, the Church, law and dogma out of Christianity, you would have something like Zen left" (21 June 1959, CW 1098-99). I do not know whether this is true of Christianity, but my thesis is that removing the same elements from many of O'Connor's short stories leaves behind something very much like Zen. Indeed, they use some of the same narrative techniques, and illustrate some of the same themes found in the koan stories of Zen Buddhism. Both sets of stories generally begin with protagonists in a state of egoistic attachment to some false ideal or value, the error of which is often not immediately apparent to either themselves or the readers. Often, the error is compounded or obscured by the protagonists' clever use of words to classify everything in their experience into a pre-ordained scheme, typically involving some kind of dualism. The protagonists then experience some kind of shock-sometimes involving physical violence, but always abruptly upsetting both their own and the readers' expectations. The shock simultaneously reveals the nature of their error, and (if they survive and attend to the lesson) may deliver them into a state of grace or enlightenment. But whether or not the protagonist is so delivered, there is hope that the reader-the ultimate target of the stories-might be. O'Connor and the Zen masters seem to agree that as our spiritual errors often arise through our attachment to dualisms embedded in linguistic habits, more words alone cannot break us of these. Hence our transcendence of illusion, and into reality, must occur through a spontaneous physical act, or as a response to a violent shock. The parallels between these two sets of stories are often so strong that it is surprising that they have never been discussed at length in the academic literature on O'Connor.1

O'Connor's thoughts about Zen were by no means uniformly sympathetic or ecumenical. In her 1959 book review of D. T. Suzuki's Zen and Japanese Culture, she observes that "Zen, although it teaches poverty and charity and ethically bears a superficial resemblance to Christianity, is non-conceptual, non-purposive, and nonhistorical, and therefore admirably suited to be exploited by the non-thinker and pseudo-artist" (PG 78). She further suggests that a classic image of the Buddha dying "asleep on his couch" contrasts starkly with the death of Christ, illustrating the different moods of the two traditions and revealing why Zen Buddhism can produce "delicate" but not "vigorous" forms of art. This hearty put-down is based on a sound contrast, although students of Zen could perhaps say that avoiding rigid conceptualization, egoistic purposiveness, the distractions of distant history from the here and now, and aggressive, controlling, or affected art is precisely the point (Watts 174ff).

Yet just a few years later and near the end of her life, her unpublished review of Dom Aelred Graham's 1963 Zen Catholicism showed no hostility to his view that ". . . the fundamental institutions of Zen are not unique . . . [and] are in fact found in Catholicism to a remarkable degree," especially in its mystical branches (PG 170). The marginal notes made in her copy of the book recorded her interest in the idea that "To dispose oneself to look directly at reality is, in fact, what Zen is all about" and that Zen agrees with many Christian mystics that ". . . to see things in their 'suchness'- above all, to bring the mind into contact with the ultimate Source of all things-one must keep one's own thoughts out of the way" (Kinney 81). And in one of her letters, O'Connor explicates the ending of her novel The Violent Bear It Away as suggesting that ". . . mercy burns up what we are attached to . . ." (Correspondence 93)-an idea we will see repeated below in her story "Revelation." This suggests that in some sense O'Connor's ultimate ethical vision is, like Zen, not so deeply rooted in the conceptual and historical as her professed religion very much is. …

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