Tuesday, July 7, 2009

David Fontana's "Discover Zen": Book Review

This is the first book I read entirely on Zen; spareness and simple presentation of profound complexity characterize such introductions. The book at first glance looks too brief, but Nelly Dimitranova's illustrations enhance this entry in the Chronicle Books series geared, admittedly, at a New Age or spirituality centered readership. David Fontana, however, transcends the limitations of 160 pages with abundant pictures and short text to give a solid, thoughtful, and encouraging overview of this often misunderstood concept, in definition and practice.

Previous Amazon reviewers have been kind but often generalized in their responses. (See my comments appended to the leading review by "a customer" to correct the reviewer's interpretation of how Fontana regards "progress" and the story of the Bodhidharma staring at the wall for nine years.) So, a fuller review's necessary.

Chapter One gives "the Nature of Zen." The immediacy of experience through exercises (29 appear) throughout the text gradually emerges as one progresses. I was a skeptic, but after about six weeks spent slowly trying out many of these, and reading a few pages at a time, often over and over spread out over a few days, the points sink in subtly when put to use. A psychologist, Dr. Fontana tells that "we develop a sense of recognition, of familiarity, as if we are being reminded of something we have always known, but have long forgotten." As with "a wise and compassionate friend," Zen brings us to meet "none other than our own true nature" as that friend. (13) This may terrify or confuse or dishearten us at first.

Therefore, the exercises and commentaries draw us away from our ego to move beyond what might be caricatured as navel-gazing. Chapter Two gets one looking at the "Zen Vision" in nature and actions before Chapter Three, which by "Entering the Path" starts to illustrate formal meditation by "Entering the Path." Mindfulness, and meeting one's own mind, begin to be explained. While the posture information remained rather unclear in specifics, such guidance can be easily found elsewhere.

"Walking On," as Chapter Four, delves into "form is emptiness, emptiness is form," and how monks employ paradox and the koan. Although this book may be more from the Soto tradition in its "zazen" sitting emphasis, plenty of Rinzai-influenced koans can be found here and in Chapter Five, "Completing the Circle," to keep one thinking or not-thinking for plenty of lifetimes. The ten drawings from twelfth-century Chinese master Kakuan, on ox-herding, complete the book with a handsome pairing of text and illustrations that dramatize the journey to find one's purpose in life.

Fontana throughout, as with the best Zen teachers, keeps a calm, slightly wry or insistent, tone that stays free of jargon; the few terms can be found in the glossary along with a short reading list. "Remember that Zen is 'your ordinary, everyday life' lived reflectively: there are no schedules or timetables, and the way forward is simply to look around you, see where you are, and move on." (97) This remains a serene, but not naive or simple-minded, introduction.

Anybody, Fontana shows, can benefit from this non-theistic discipline. It's not based on salvation, but liberation "from our misguided way of seeing the world," so by accepting impermanence we can understand how "our natural state is free from suffering." He cautions: "This is not a woolly claim that everything will be fine if only we can convince ourselves so; it is an invitation to look and decide for ourselves." (130) Both the Buddha's invitation to test the message he preached before accepting it, and Christ's "the truth shall make you free" cited by Fontana apply well here to the quest of learning to listen to one's informed and composed self in seeking peace and sharing wisdom. This is a long process, not a quick fix.

Fontana, in such lessons, widens the appeal for this book to Christians and those who may hesitate to take on its philosophy. He sums it up as resolving our greatest "koan": that of the meaning of our own life. "Life itself is the ultimate koan." (130) We might not reach enlightenment in this life, but this "is less important than the fact the human mind is not only capable of attaining it, but also able to recognize this state as its natural way of being." (153)

In the end, practice makes perhaps not rapid perfection, but a realization that we can help others get calmer only after starting to calm ourselves. So, by sitting steadily and practicing diligently, "we can come closer to what life, in its fullness and completeness, its difficulties and obstacles, is trying to tell us." (134) And we hear this clearest in daily silence. (Posted to Amazon US and my blog 7-4-2009)

No comments: