This book review covers five books which I’ve recently completed reading. At first, the common thread was unintentional. But after discovering that I was in the middle of reading three books by authors who are Buddhist, I added two more.
Just because they are Buddhist authors, that does not necessarily mean that the topics are Buddhist. But in this case, a couple of them are.
In 2013, my first Zen teacher, P’arang Geri Larkin, wrote Close to the Ground: Reflections on the Seven Factors of Enlightenment (Rodmell Press). Struggling with my commitment of spending Sundays in Detroit, either at Still Point Zen Buddhist Temple’s service, or providing service at Cass Park with Friends and the Forgotten Worker, a collection of many different circles of friends, groups, unions and political interests to feed and provide for the poor living in the Cass Corridor of Detroit, I chose to read this as a supplement. It came in quite handy.
Taking the seven factors of enlightenment from the Pali Canon, Larkin provides a chapter on each with a series of dharma talks which flow seamlessly together, providing a practical understanding of each. The seven factors are:
- Mindfulness: Attention to what is happening now.
- Investigation of phenomenon: Curiosity about ourselves and the world we live in.
- Energetic effort: Cultivating a high energy for life.
- Ease: Being free of resistance.
- Joy: The sweet feeling that everything is okay.
- Concentration: Mindfulness focused on a specific task.
- Equanimity: Calmness of mind and temper. Everything comes and goes in life.
For me, reading this book was a refreshing reminder of what works in my life. And the timing of some of it was incredible. I was reading the chapter on the investigation of phenomenon, questioning the source of my thoughts and beliefs as the chatter on Facebook focused on the United States Supreme Court decision in favor of gay marriage and of the nature and symbols of racism after a white gunman open fired in a black church in South Carolina, killing nine. I was reading the chapters on ease and joy when, for the first time since I’ve entered the Michigan Bar Journal Short Story Contest, my submission did not make the list of finalists. I was reading the chapter on concentration as I was revising a 13,640-word short story that is circulating amongst potential publishers. And I was reading equanimity after a shocking loss in a court room trial, which hurled me into a state of heavy self-criticism. Through all this, the right teacher was right there at the right time. A testament to how well this book applies to every day life.
The late John Daido Loori was one of my early influences into Buddhism. He founded the Zen Mountain Monastery in New York. I subscribed to the monastery’s quarterly journal – Mountain Record: The Zen Practitioner’s Journal – for a few years in the mid-1980’s. The Zen of Creativity: Cultivating Your Artistic Life (Ballantine Books, 2005) has been on my radar for a number of years. This spring, seeing it on the shelf at Still Point, I started thumbing through it again. It was there again the next week, and finally, the third week I decided it was time to purchase and read it.
The book is broken down into four sections. Part One is the story of Loori’s journey to Zen. Part Two presents the practices which guide the artist to a new way of seeing and creating. Part Three explains how the Zen aesthetic points to basic truths about how to live freely. The qualities of simplicity, mystery, spontaneity, and suchness, are embodied in both Zen and the arts. Part Four brings the book full circle reflecting Loori as an artist and spiritual seeker, and how the creative and spiritual journey never ends.
Photography was the strong artistic expression for Loori, so reading this both as a writer and a photographer kept me interested. Loori quoted his mentor, Minor White, about photography, which rang true to me. It is much the way I approach Detroit City FC games that I shoot.
The state of mind of the photographer while creating is blank…[but] It is a very active state of mind really, a very receptive state of mind, ready at an instant to grasp an image, yet with no image pre-formed in it at any time.
Throughout this book, there are nuggets of deep truths for artists. But it doesn’t feel like a self-help, positive-thinking, cheerleading book for writers like some I’ve encountered. The deliberate process which Loori presents holds meaning. For example, when he writes, “It is important to trust this and to trust the process. Trust yourself. Your way of experiencing the world is unique. And what you’re trying to do is give voice to this unique experience,” nothing about it feels like someone saying something nice out of obligation or in order to sell more books. Everything leading up to it adds to its credibility, giving one (at least me) a sense that, “Yeah, he really means this. I need to trust myself.”
This book doesn’t go back to the bookshelf of writing reference books near my desk, but rather on the small shelf above my desk, where it is easily accessible when I need the reminders and inspiration.
Like anything that one makes well with one’s own hands, writing good nonfiction prose can be profoundly satisfying. Yet after a day of arranging my research, my set of facts, I feel stale and drained, whereas I am energized by fiction. Deep in a novel, one scarcely knows what may surface next, let alone where it comes from. In abandoning oneself to the free creation of something never beheld on earth, one feels almost delirious with a strange joy. – Peter Matthiessen, The Paris Review No. 150, Spring, 1999.
I’ve often felt that as a writer and as a Zen Buddhist, I needed to read and like Peter Matthiessen’s work. Born in New York City in 1927, Matthiessen created The Paris Review in 1951, which has become my personal favorite literary journal. His life’s work included ten novels, the collection of short stories above, and over twenty works of nonfiction. He has won a National Book Award in both fiction (Shadow Country, 2008) and nonfiction (The Snow Leopard, 1980). His 1983 book, In the Spirit of Crazy Horse, about the American Indian Movement and the 1975 shoot-out at Pine Ridge in which two FBI agents and a young Indian were killed, brought litigation against him and Viking Press by FBI Agent David Price and South Dakota Governor, William Janklow, for libel. The book’s publication was halted until 1993 after both cases were dismissed and appeals were denied by the US Supreme Court and upheld by the South Dakota Supreme Court. Matthiessen became an ordained Zen Buddhist Priest in 1981 under Maezumi Roshi at the Greyston Center of the Zen Community of New York. He died in April, 2014.
I remember, back in the 1980’s, picking up Race Rock, Matthiessen’s first novel. For whatever reason, it did not draw me in. Hoping that my sensibilities had changed, I decided to return to Matthiessen’s work with this collection of short stories. On average, I liked the stories I read (I haven’t yet finished the final two stories). What I discovered about myself as a reader is that I am more interested in characters than environments. For example, my favorite story of the collection is Travelin’ Man, which was written in 1957 about Traver, a black man who escaped from prison and was running and hiding along the Carolina coast from his jailers who were hunting him. The language is harsh (as it is in the earlier stories, using the language of that time in the South, in particular the epithet for African Americans), and the situation and the character kept me in it. On the other hand, Matthiessen was also a wildlife writer and naturalist. On the River Styx – one of the two I had not read – opened with the following paragraph:
On the pale flats the lone trace of man was a leaning stake marking some lost channel that a storm or shift of current had filled in. On the end of the stake perched a ragged cormorant, its drying wings held wide in a black cross against the wind. The archaic bird, the rampant mangroves, the hidden underwater life raising ghostly puffs from the white marl dust of ages of dead creatures, deepened Burkett’s sense of solitude, of pointlessness. Earlier that day they had seen a silver horizon off the the west, where the Ten Thousand Islands opened out onto the Gulf, and this window of light, for a little while, had dissipated a vague dread that had been gathering for days.
This just doesn’t move me, I’m afraid, even though I think it’s supposed to.
I do have an interest in reading the Watson trilogy – probably as the revised, single edition Shadow Country, and In the Spirit of Crazy Horse.
Susan Dunlap has been a Zen Buddhist since the first time she walked into a zendo in the 1970’s. A founding board member of the Sisters in Crime, an organization dedicated to supporting women mystery writers, Dunlap has created four series characters and has written twenty-four novels in the genre.
This is the first in a series of three Veejay Haskell novels. At first blush, I thought the character was Indian. But Veejay is a nickname for Veronica. It is a cozy, in that Veejay is a meter reader for the electric company, and she has to solve the mystery of Frank Goulet’s death. Goulet was found shot dead in his bar, and Veejay was the last person to see him alive (or second to last, to be more accurate). With the sheriff suspecting her, she is incumbent upon unraveling the mystery before the cuffs are fastened to her wrists.
It was a quick read, a relative easy read, which the genre is apt to be. I liked the book enough to see my way through to the end. Though there are two more books in this series, I’m more interested in delving in the Darcy Lott series, which I understand is more openly Buddhist.
I read this book in the early 1990’s, then again sometime in the 2000’s. The beat-up, paperback edition had survived moves from Novi, St. Clair Shores, and Harrison Township. In November, 2012, I was in John King Books in Detroit, and came upon first editions of this, and David Guy’s earlier works; The Man Who Loved Dirty Books (New American Library, 1983) and Second Brother (New American Library, 1985). His fourth novel, Jake Fades was published by Trumpeter Books, an imprint of Shambhala Publications in 2007. I decided it was time to read it again.
I really should do a separate entry on him. Guy, a Buddhist and writing instructor at Duke University, is a writer I have enjoyed. At least three of his four novels I have. Second Brother I cannot say I enjoyed only because I have not yet read it.
The Autobiography of My Body (Dutton, 1991) is about Charles Bradford, a writer surviving a divorce, returning home to Pittsburgh because his father, whom he refers to as The Senator, is recovering from a recent heart attack. His mother, to whom he refers to as The Duchess, is concerned about her husband’s health, and links it to a situation at his firm – he is a prestigious Pittsburgh lawyer. Charles stays with his sister, Helen, a lesbian, who he is closer to than their younger brothers who followed the Senator into the practice of law.
The homecoming is a recollection of his sexual discovery, a compelling drive which defines his life’s compass. While in Pittsburgh, he connects with Andrea, a feminist and political activist from his past, who also experienced the end of her marriage. Passion, emotions, and family dynamics give Charles an opportunity to examine the autobiography of his body, and to recall and experience sexual encounters, some of which sway into the fetish realm.
This cluster of books I’ve recently read all resonated with me. Was it because they were all Buddhist writers? That could definitely be the case with Close to the Ground and The Zen of Creativity. But the other three did not express Buddhist locations or characters, or even indicate that the writers themselves were Buddhist. As Charles Johnson wrote in the foreword to the anthology of Buddhist short stories, Nixon Under the Bodhi Tree and Other Works of Buddhist Fiction (Wisdom Publications, 2004), “The Buddhist experience is simply, the human experience.”