Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Lawrence Sutin's "All is Change": Book Review.

Having enjoyed Sutin's "Divine Invasion," his biography of Philip K. Dick, and learning from the blurb that he's also published on Aleister Crowley and two memoirs about his Holocaust survivor parents, I figured this new book would be equally eclectic. You sense from Sutin's previous works the range of his interests, where personalities intersect with ideas under the force of historical moments of change. This book starts off very slowly, nonetheless. The sections on the earliest contacts of what the subtitle calls "the Two-Thousand-Year Journey of Buddhism to the West" passed with all the verve of a solidly prepared but stolidly produced term paper. Still, when the Jesuits (it figures) entered, the pace picked up and the rest of this narrative raced by- sometimes too much so-- with ease.

Don't start here if you know nothing about Buddhism. Sutin warns right away that many authors tell its teachings and background well, while he seeks to chart the places where the twain meet, East and West. He's done his research. The "Works Consulted" lists 24 pages in small type of his sources, and this exceeds many dissertations, I bet, in its scope. While I'm no expert in his use of these scholars, for a popular audience, Sutin succeeds in portraying the little-known encounters with Buddha's dharma by curious Westerners over (more than) two millennia.

It's intriguing to learn that noble Japanese converts to Catholicism brought to Europe around the 1550s were not told about the Reformation or that a condition less than "unbroken peace" had reigned in Christendom since the Prince of Peace. Or, that the idea of religion as opiate, long before Hegel and Marx, originated with Diderot, who sensibly wondered what Timothy Leary would two centuries later: can chemical intoxication be a shortcut to the enlightenment sought by fasting, self-denying practitioners?

Sutin shines when discussing not only famous figures such as Sir William "Asiatic" Jones and the polymath Fr Matteo Ricci, but obscure scholars and missionaries deserving notice. Guillaume Postel, an ex-Jesuit, in the mid-16th century insisted that religions shared the same ideals. For this he was interned in a monastery as mentally ill. Fabian Fucan in Japan renounced Buddhist monasticism and entered the Society of Jesus, only to leave the Church and preach against the latter faith with the same vehemence he had earlier given in writing to the dharma. Another Jesuit Ippolito Desideri entered Tibet, while the Hungarian adventurer Csoma de Koros finally arrived there after years of study on its frontiers.

We learn that Buddhism as a word only entered the language through French in 1820. It took until 1880 before Madame Blavatsky and Colonel Orcutt took vows as the first recorded Westerners to become Buddhists, and it's telling that the first American to convert in the U.S. was a New Yorker of Jewish descent. Sutin, a secular Jew, notes briefly but accurately, I think, the attraction of Buddhism for many American Jews.
One-third of Western Buddhist leaders and three-quarters of the Western students at Dharmasala, the Dalai Lama's court in exile, come from Jewish backgrounds. Sutin suggests that it's a "clean" alternative to Islam or Christianity for those seeking wisdom, and that while converting to the other monotheistic faiths might represent "the embrace of which would damn their heritage and shock their families," Buddhism offers an ethical, less-theistic, and spiritually enriching alternative. (278)

Sutin offers provocative observations. As a spectator outside of the contest, so to speak, his lack of bias helps him ask questions that academics, practitioners, or missionaries might not contemplate. Explaining how the 19th c. philosophers tended to
"project on [Buddhism] their own unacknowledged fears of a void, nihilistic universe," Sutin compares this unease to our current perspective. Now, "one might posit a Western tendency to demand of Buddhism an increasing emphasis on the healing of the worst of the neuroses of samsaric life, with a latent accompanying fear that the ultimate goal of nirvana might-- for all our supposed sophisticated understanding of it-- be no more than a mirage. By the standards of the famous wager of Pascal-- believe in the Christian God in case there is indeed a heaven and a hell-- Buddhism makes a very nice side bet, for its teachings on daily compassion and patience can ease your mind even if you retain your samsaric personal self until a death without rebirth." (130-31)

This comes up again near the end. (I'd recommend as a follow-up the parallel history of 19th/20th c. Western incorporation of Buddhism Rick Fields' "How the Swans Came to the Lake.") After a superb, and all-too-brief, series of chapters on the last century's encounters with such efflorescences as "Beat Zen & Crazy Wisdom;" "Forbidden Tibet;" Jung, Evans-Wentz, and the redoubtable pose of "self-convinced" T. Lobsang Rampa (Sutin, after analyzing Crowley and Dick, proves admirably suited to discuss such a figure!); the Dalai Lama; a very balanced treatment of the "inner circle secrecy" of Chogyam Trungpa; "Engaged Buddhism" with Thich Nhat Hanh; ecumenical efforts; and the formation of a Western Buddhism on its own terms, the author considers Stephen Batchelor's book "Buddhism Without Beliefs."

In this 1997 text, Batchelor proposes an "impassioned agnosticism" rather than a religious organization as the heart of the dharma. Sutin counters on "strong evidence" that the Buddha "himself believed that he was founding a religion, albeit of a nontheistic nature, as he authorized the establishment of monastic orders." Batchelor places personal experience as primary, and holds that practitioners have been left "free to decide for themselves on questions of practice-- or even to acknowledge that they simply don't know." (336-37)

Such an unblinking honesty, as Sutin finds with Jack Kerouac late in his life, can be daunting for those raised with more comforting, or at least more coddling, faith. Kerouac after "The Dharma Bums" and his advocacy of Beat Zen turned, Sutin shows, away from the teachings he popularized. He cites a letter written after Kerouac had become a father:
"Can't see the purpose of human or terrestrial or any kinda life without heaven to reward the poor suffering fucks. The Buddhist notion that Ignorance caused the world leaves me cold now, because I feel the presence of angels. Maybe rebirth is simply HAVING KIDS." (qtd. 304)

This aligns with Batchelor, and perhaps Sutin, tangentially. There's an undercurrent in these pages that tugs at the challenge that Buddhism offers Westerners used to eternal reward. If, as its adherents proclaim in the West, it's not a religion per se, can the dharma survive as an ethical, "secular path of compassion and commitment" as Chogyam Trungpa and the Dalai Lama both suggested? Sutin raises the fate of two 19c "impassioned life philosophies," utilitarianism and transcendentalism: "now mere trickles of cultural influence." (337) Batchelor accepts that even if the other side of death offers "a big, blank void it wouldn't make the slightest bit of difference to my commitment to the practice now." In such a realization, he claims, the "turning point" arrived for his truest understanding.

In closing, the phrase of Nyogen Sensaki, who founded in Los Angeles its first Zen Center after emigrating to San Francisco, can sum up the trajectory of this study. He wrote in a poem from Wyoming: "The current of Buddhist thought always runs eastward." (236) He'd been placed as a Japanese citizen in a camp at Heart Mountain there during WWII. Ironically, and somewhat wryly, Sensaki's Zen-like response sums up much about Sutin's complicated tangle of Eastern ideals, Western fears, and the mutual struggle of what happens when East and West do meet within our unpredictable lives.

(Posted to Amazon US today.)

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