I’ve been a fan of Peter Mathiessen’s since I discovered At Play in the Fields of the Lord in the 1970s. Unlike many of his admirers, though, I think I have liked his fiction better than his non-fiction. Maybe I just have a problem with “environmental writing” that spends most of its energy in describing the environment. I already know that the Himalayan wilderness is beautiful — I’m not sure what pasting words over it really accomplishes, except inviting a kind of smug moral complicity on the part of the reader. Well, that’s hyperbole, but I nevertheless prefer a writer like John McPhee, who tends to focus more on the human presence within the environment. Perhaps I am too on guard against sentimentality to appreciate real sentiment sufficiently.
In any event, Mathiessen’s book of Zen journals has several passages of very clear exposition of Zen principles, but much of this — as one would expect from a journal — emerges from very fine-grained and small scale descriptions of the writer’s interactions with his teachers and — especially in the third section of the book — his travels around Japan visiting various Soto temples. This final part contains some of the best “Zen writing” but also tends to get lost in paragraphs of landscape painting and descriptions of peripheral Soto places & personalities. My own preference is for Mathiessen’s historical anecdotes, as opposed to his contemporary accounts. For instance, in Chapter 11, visiting the Engaku-ji Temple in Kamakura, he relates the story of the 13th century nun Chiyono, who attained enlightenment while hauling water. Apparently, she had been studying a long time without experiencing kensho, but one evening her wooden bucket gave way & she “understood the great matter,” to paraphrase Master Dogen. To commemorate the event, she wrote a poem:
In this way and that I tried to save the old pail
Since the bamboo strip was weakening and about to break
Until at last the bottom fell out.
No more water in the pail!
No more moon in the water!
Buddhists sometimes bristle at the idea of meditation as therapy, though at the same time there is a thriving Buddhist therapy axis in American culture. And while I had been circling Buddhism for much of my adult life, I only came to it as a serious practice through “therapeutic” practice. I had come to a point in my life during my fifties when I was experiencing a great deal of anxiety & I found the guided meditation practices of Jon Kabat-Zinn extremely helpful in getting hold of my self. Kabat-Zinn’s techniques, of course, are basically desacralized Zen & after I had emerged from what was actually, I see now, a deep crisis of faith, I returned to some of my earlier reading about Buddhism in general and Zen in particular. That was a couple of years ago & I have been sitting zazen pretty much every day since then with only a couple of short breaks. Over the last six months I have been sitting twice a day.
I had lost my faith, in my mid-fifties, in the only religion I had ever believed in, the religion of poetry. But that’s really another story — I started out to write about happiness. As I began to sit more often & for longer periods, I noticed that I was not just calmer, but happier. A lot happier. And this worried me. As a new student of Zen, I was trying to be Very Serious. After all, the great Zen masters are always talking about “clarifying the essential point” & reminding one that “life and death are of supreme importance” & so on. And what about kensho & enlightenment & realizing one’s true nature? But then it occurred to me that maybe happiness — not frivolity, but happiness — is one’s true nature, or part of it at least. Why deny this aspect of reality?
One of the things I hated as a kid about going to church was the deadly grimness of it all. I didn’t sense any of that at the monastery last month. You can probably find grim zendos, but Zen, I think — much of Buddhism, actually — starts from the idea of an original freedom whereas Christianity starts with Original Sin. I’m not ecumenical about this: I think there is a fundamental difference, but that, too, is another story.
Master Dogen Zenji writes, in the Genjokoan, that many fully actualized Buddhas have no idea that they are Buddhas:
When buddhas are truly buddhas they do not necessarily notice that they are buddhas. However, they are actualized buddhas, who go on actualizing buddhas.
Rosanne Cash says she is not a Buddhist because she “kills ants and eats meat,” but what does she know? (Some of the most rigorous Buddhists I know eat meat from time to time.)
Having put together a couple of little grants & my annual travel money from my department, I’ll be going to Vietnam this summer for around six weeks, spending most of my time in Hanoi doing some editing at Th? Gi?i and working on a project to collect information about a handful of early Buddhist poets. I’ll probably go to Hué for a week to visit Pagodas with my friend Mai, too. If I could collect enough texts & biographical materials for a little anthology, that would be great, but working from the US all I have are tantalizing hints. Here is a picture of Hŕng Mă St. I took several years ago that suggested to me the idea of going places, but checking the Vietnamese spelling of Hŕng Mă just now, I discovered this amazing panoramic picture, which is the next best thing to being there. This will be my seventh trip to VN in fourteen years.
Steve wished me “bon voyage” in a comment to my last post & that wish must have done some good since the “voyage” part of my trip downstate did have some adventurous moments, but turned out well in the end. I had meant to post something about my experience at the Zen Mountain Monastery as soon as I returned, but the semester began, classes, heated up, meetings had to be attended & so I’m just getting a chance to makes some notes about the retreat now, almost two weeks after the event. There is also the fact that describing religious experience is extremely difficult — most such descriptions disintegrate into cliché or bathos. The writings of the great mystics — Western & Eastern — astonish us at least in part because they manage to communicate the ineffable in ordinary human language.
The most adventurous part of my adventure occurred before I ever got to the monastery, but I think that “bon voyage” must have helped, but the trip very nearly became the Zen Mountain Massacre. Fortunately, I was helped by a couple of bodhisattvas along the way and made it to the monastery in time to begin the retreat despite my GPS unit, usually very reliable, trying to take me down a road with a washed-out bridge. I had driven happily through the Adirondacks and down into the Catskills, avoiding the Northway (I-87), which would have been more direct. Around sundown I found myself in Lexington NY on a road that both the satellites and my new iPhone said would get me where I wanted to go. What neither of these smart devices knew was that floods last spring had washed out a bridge. The road ended in a barrier. As it turns out, Zen is all about barriers, but I’ll come to that later. Continue reading