Essay by Paulo Leminski, published in 1989 in Folha de Londrina, months before his death.
Body not mind
When Francis Xavier, the Jesuit missionary, landed in Japan, at the height of navigation, his catechesis produced thousands of conversions and Catholicism began to spread across the country.
In the letters he wrote to his superiors in Rome, Xavier describes with joy the progress of the apostolate in the Land of the Rising Sun. In the same letters, however, he complains against the adherents of a sect called Zen (it must be the first mention of Zen in Europe). I can't convert any of that sect's adherents, Xavier confesses. They show no respect for sacred things, they laugh at everything and make fun of the symbols of our religion, he continues.
The secret reason for Xavier's failure with Zen practitioners lies in the radical difference between body/mind (or body/soul) relationships in Catholicism and Zen. All Zen practices (Zen is – above all – a practice) aim to reach the body/mind fusion point, that alpha place where this distinction (seen as error and illusion) is no longer possible. They would aim, in a way, at a spiritualization of the body and an embodiment of the mind and spirit.
This is very visible in martial arts, judo, kendo, karate, aikido, all soaked in zen. Those who practice martial arts soon learn that the body is not a machine governed by a brilliant commander called the mind. When applying a blow, it is clearly felt that the body is thinking. It is impossible not to see the parallels between this experience and the experience of sex which, to be fully realized, requires a moment of total fusion between a body that feels and a mind that directs. You can't get an erection or an orgasm thinking about tax reform…
When trying to convert superiors of the Zen sect, with the basic phrase “save your soul”, Xavier ran into an insurmountable obstacle: the Zen monks could not conceive that the soul was something that people possessed and could have a different destiny from the body, its adventures, miseries and splendours. The art of a judoka or a karateka is not “una cosa mentale”, as Leonardo said of painting. It is essentially unitary, before or after the body/mind dichotomy that surreptitiously pervades all Western thought from Descartes onwards.
The origins of this divorce from the indissociable are, of course, religious in nature: the mind of Western rationalism is the lay child of the salvageable soul of Christianity. No right to beyond the grave, however. But don't think that something so serious had only philosophical roots in the mind of some isolated thinker. The urban-industrial society, through the work methods it imposed, promotes the body/mind dissociation more than any metaphysical treatise.
It is a disintegrating, detribalizing, atomizing force. There is no place for the body in the big factory, except as a work unit, never as a place of pleasure and sensory satisfaction. And the soul takes on the new names of “professional qualification”, “specialized training”, abstractions within that immense abstraction that is the anonymous industrial-urban society.
I command, you obey
Slaves and masters. Nobles and servants. Bosses and employees. Technicians and workers. Nothing distinguishes man from animals more than the division of labor, our great strength and also the source of our weaknesses.
It was through the division of labor that man multiplied his powers over nature at a fantastic speed: just 30,000 years ago all we had to face the hostility of the environment were weapons made of wood, stone and bone and clothing made from animal skins. In this biologically short period of time, we jumped from the wooden spear to the computer, electricity, genetic engineering and nuclear energy. This was only possible because man, in all latitudes, specialized certain groups of society in specific tasks. Any tiger knows how to do everything any tiger can do, and nothing more. Every tiger is a whole. We are fragmented. Some plant, others sell. Some command, others obey. Some celebrate ceremonies to the gods, others carry stones to build pyramids, temples and cathedrals.
Who doesn't see that the mind/body dichotomy is a projection and a consequence of the division of labor, the division internalized in us? The mind is a metaphor for the ruling class served by the body.
The division of labor is the true Original Sin, the one that expels us from paradise and launches us into the great adventure of life and the world. The serpent suggests, Eve picks the forbidden fruit, Adam eats it… To integrate mind and body is to return to the paradise that we can only experience in privileged moments: for disintegrated people, paradise is also experienced in the form of a fragment.
One of the most radical moments in the division of labor is the separation between manual and intellectual work. This division begins in the religious world. Priests and farmers, monks and warriors, priests and faithful, are the remote model of the current division between technicians and theorists in the face of labor.
And certain religious practices such as fasting, chastity, silence and the pursuit of physical discomfort have powerfully contributed to accelerating the split between body and mind. It would not be an exaggeration to imagine that the notion of the “soul” was born from these practices where the body is treated as an enemy, a beast that must be tamed, humiliated and reduced to being a docile mount under the reins of the “Spirit”.
In the last century, when today's industrial rule begins, the figure of the “intellectual” appears, the man/mind par excellence, living only in the rarefied atmosphere of the “world of ideas”. With the intellectual, his affines, the technician, the specialist, the thinker…
Between a body and a mind, a thousand light years of emptiness where monsters and demons, goblins and neuroses are created. The demons were called Lucifer, Beelzebub, Asmodeus, Belial. Today they are called neurosis, paranoia, schizophrenia, mania, anxiety. It is dangerous to separate what is by nature one and whole.
Back to the unit
Return to lost paradise, the reunion of mind and body cannot even be dreamed of, in full terms. That strange entity that is the human being, that we are, is irremediably split.
The very exercise of what is called “reason” seems to be linked, flesh and nail, with the dissociation between a half that “thinks” and a body that obeys. We are condemned to reason. But it is this same dissociative ratio that can bring us closer, for enlightened moments, to the lost unity, at some light-year point in space/time.
We seek this unity in the ludic and erotic practices, in art, sports, love and sex. In these areas of the in-utensil, life beyond the tyranny of profit and utility. By enjoyment and playing, we are safe, free. And back.
For Zen, the secret is in everyday life itself. It is necessary to rescue the infinite grandeur of simple and “elementary” gestures. Take care of life. Enjoy the minutiae. Do your own laundry. The dishes. Tidy up the house. Make your food. Bathing like someone performing a sacred act. Recover the pleasure of the practice of primary acts. Knowing that being matter, cock and pussy, mouth and stomach, is a dignity and a splendor.
It takes work.
But to shine, the stars must burn, until the glorious end.
Towards the lushness
Disguise, there are people looking.
Some look up,
comets, moons, galaxies.
Others look sideways,
spyglasses, moonlights, syntaxes.
Forward or aside,
there are always people looking,
looking or being looked at.
Others look down,
looking for some trace
of the time we find,
in search of lost time.
Few look inside,
since there's nothing inside.
Just an immense weight,
the soul, this fairy tale.