Buddhist Meditations
Zen Lit
by Will Blythe
19/07/2010 19:33 (GMT+7)
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                                               Zen Lit

                                          by Will Blythe


                                  Vol. 125 No. 1  Jan.1996  P.28

                                     Copyright by Esquire

Back in the Protestant fifties, that crypto-Buddhist Jack Kerouac foresaw a
"rucksack revolution" in which "wandering Zen lunatics" would boxcar their
way across America, slipping Zen into the native environment in the same
way fluoride was being blended into the local water supplies. Well,
improbably enough, forty years later, those Zen Americans have
arrived--only they don't usually carry rucksacks (unless they're Prada),
they don't often wander (unless they're on vacation), and, poignantly--at
least to my rebellious heart-they're not lunatics at all! In fact, they're
the sober, industrious citizens of the upper-middle class, more intrigued
by real estate prices and school systems than lunacy of any stripe.
"The Middle Way [of Buddha]," writes Helen Tworkov, the editor of Tricycle,
the wonderful Buddhist quarterly, "became solidly middle class." She means
that in the last decade, the emphasis on sudden enlightenment that a
monastic regimen seeks gave way to a focus on ethics and daily behavior. It
amounts to a kind of spiritual gentrification, the gradual takeover by a
more prosperous class of a once-dicey neighborhood. This mainstreaming of
American Buddhism may prove a commercial boon to such publishers as
River-head, HarperCollins, and longtime purveyor of Buddhist lit Shambala.
They offer the chattering classes bodhisattvas in place of popes and
angels. Buddhism is inherently tasteful, the Ikea of religion.
That's all the more reason to take note of two extraordinary new Zen
narratives: Molly O'Halloran's Pure Heart, Enlightened Mind (Riverhead
Books) and Lawrence Shainberg's Ambivalent Zen (out next month from
Pantheon). They correct the middle-class notion of Zen as secular ethics,
as a nifty course in self-improvement, as-Buddha forbid!--therapy. Pure
Heart, O'Halloran's record of her stay in a Japanese Zen monastery, bubbles
over with a lovely, if tough-minded, effervescence. It's impossible to
resist an aspiring Zen master who likes to drink and sing "Auld Lang Syne"
to her colleagues on New Year's Eve, then chortles that "these little monks
know how to have fun." Shainberg's account of his life with Zen feels
pickled with a kind of antiauthoritarianism, a skepticism mixed with deep
yearning. His interest in Zen was occasioned by a desire to improve his
basketball skills.
Both books reveal that at the heart of Zen is a revolutionary experience of
nothingness that can't really be written or talked about, though,
fortunately, the impossibility didn't stop these two Zen aspirants from

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