More notes on my earlier post, “The Robin Hood of Peace and Writing”…
“…But still we know that all Kings and Emperors and Presidents and Prime Ministers and Heads of Universities and Companies and Popes and bishops and priests and even editors are liars and hypocrites and robbers, and, as Christ said, not one of these “rich” men shall set a foot into Heaven — so why feel miserable? You may say, “They all stand (or fall) together, so why should not we?” That’s just the point, and just the difference between us and them. We stand each many by himself, in the style of Thoreau.”
—R.H. Blyth (1898-1964), English-born scholar, author of Zen In English Literature. Last letter, September 1964, to American poet James W. Hackett
Some notes about R.H. Blyth (1898–1964)
Blyth once filled out a publisher’s form for an author profile, and for the question, “what is your religion?” Blyth wrote, “vegetarian.”
A native-born Englishman, at 17 he was imprisoned in England at the height of World War One as a conscientious objector. After being released, he worked for the Home Office, learned numerous languages, and took an honours degree in literature from the University of London and later also a graduate teaching certificate.
He then spent the remainder of his life in Asia writing, and teaching English and comparative literature. At first he taught in colonial India but left in disgust with British rule which he regarded as violently racist and oppressive. He then taught in Japanese colonial Korea, where he studied Zen with a Japanese master, and finally settled permanently in Japan.
In Japan he became a celebrated university professor of comparative literature and an expert on Zen and Japanese culture. He married a Japanese with whom he had two daughters, and though he applied for citizenship, he was refused. Following Japan’s attack on Hawai’i, he was interned by the Japanese authorities in Tokyo as an enemy alien. While imprisoned, Allied bombing raids destroyed his house and his extensive library. Also while interned, he wrote his first book, Zen and English Literature. It was immediately published in Japan (in English) by an old friend, who owned a publishing house. It gradually became regarded as a classic and remains his best-selling work.
At the end of hostilities, Blyth acted as special diplomatic envoy between the Japanese Imperial Household and the Supreme Allied Command. He was instrumental in brokering the terms of Japan’s surrender and peace treaty, successfully urging that the Emperor not be forced to renounce his personal religion of Shinto, as the Allied command was insisting, even if the Emperor was willing to retire from his ceremonial role as hereditary chief priest of the nation’s ancient indigenous religion. Blyth succeeded in convincing both parties to agree to terms by which the Emperor would retain his personal religion as well as the ceremonial office of constitutional monarch for life, so long as he issued live public broadcasts and printed news bulletins declaring that he was only a human and not a divine being.
Following the peace negotiations, Blyth accepted the position of royal tutor to the crown prince (later Emperor) Akihito. Blyth was eventually decorated with national honors, being made a member of the Japanese Imperial Order of Merit, and awarded an honorary doctorate from Japan’s premier university. He was also selected to be decorated by the British Imperial Monarch, but refused bestowal of this honour by Queen Elizabeth, citing his unjust and inhumane imprisonment as a conscientious objector during World War I, and the extensive abuses of the British Empire which he had later observed and been expected to support during his time teaching in colonial India.
Blyth’s many book titles have remained continuously in print since their publication in the 1940s and 50s. He regarded Henry David Thoreau as the greatest American.