Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Ben Howard's "Entering Zen": Book Review

Fixing a sewer pipe, buying paint, wielding a chainsaw, riding a motorcycle, and changing a diaper: Zen moments can arrive anytime. Poet and critic Ben Howard shows us, in seventy-five essays about a thousand words each, how to learn to perceive the passing moment as the immediate entry into deeper awareness. He eschews sentimentality, avoids bromides, and shares compassion. 

While never drifting into cliches or gliding into the ether, Howard's commonsense, steady, and alert gaze at what he sees from the vantage point of a retired professor of English in upstate New York reveals the insights he has gleaned from decades of "just sitting"-- and from moving about his neighborhood and writing for his small-town paper what he sees that can help readers learn more about Zen, and perhaps to take up some of its practices for themselves. With this collection, what first appeared in the local paper and on his "One Time, One Meeting" blog can be consulted easily, and returned to frequently for inspiration and stimulation. 

I first found out about his essays via a web search for images of a fountain pen to accompany a blog entry of my own. His piece, on how a fountain pen's disassembly taught one about the Heart Sutra teaching that "form and emptiness" define each other, stuck with me, as a lover of pens (mine was canary while his was plum, the same Sailor brand as it happened) and as someone starting to learn about Zen when I happened upon the website. Since then, for over two years, I've followed these pieces as they've appeared every other week. 

In each, he opens with an observation, on Alex Rodriguez, a poem by Jane Hirshfield or Seamus Heaney or Basho, the classified ads that nestle near the column itself in its first incarnation, a heard fragment of conversation, a scene from the news, or getting smacked by a Delaware wave, among dozens of possibilities in these pages. Then, he moves from its lesson to a parallel in Zen. He may cite a venerable Japanese teaching-- he is a longtime student in the Rinzai Zen tradition-- or a contemporary master. One citation that stuck? Charlotte Joko Beck's admonition to "give up hope," for a Zen practitioner does not sit or act in hopes of a goal, in search of equanimity let alone enlightenment. He or she takes up the discipline for its own sake.

Howard possesses empathy, and unlike some Zen expounders he does not berate or chide the reader for a lack of gumption. Instead, many of his pieces end by suggesting, more gently, to the reader to take up a simple meditation exercise and to try it out for a month or two to see if it makes a difference. This aligns for me with the Buddha's instruction to not accept any teaching unless it jibes with one's own understanding and makes sense for one's own outlook. 

In "Back to School," he tries to sum up Zen's reminder to shake us free from habit. Or, as Hirshfield defines it in seven words he cites of hers: "everything changes; everything is connected; pay attention." Howard explains: "To cultivate direct, intuitive perception is the real work of the Zen practitioner." He warns of too much book-learning without practical experience to temper words with action, or lack of action. "Practicing Zen is not a process of acquisition, nor is its aim the mastery of a body of knowledge. On the contrary, it is in large part a process of unlearning, of becoming aware of our layers of conditioning rather than adding another layer."

My favorite examples of Howard's guidance come from a few entries later in this collection, which begins the end of January 2008 and concludes two years later (but his blog continues at its usual rate of production since then). In "Children of the Sun," he takes up Irish poet Pearse Hutchinson's use of the Irish language to explore the meaning of the titular phrase in a poignant fashion. (I go on record that I favor but one of the two readings of a particular Gaelic phrase pondered therein, however!) 

"Pursuing the Real" tells how one Ginny Lou, an Aussie greyhound, took off from her track to pursue a real rabbit and not the mechanical one. This illustrates the steady nature of Zen, focused on the physical roots of our breathing self, from which we can never be sidetracked for long. "Leaning into the Curves" compares how to ride a motorcycle with how Pema Chodron advises to get unhooked from negativity. Finally, "Effortless Effort" neatly begins with the contemplation of an Aero Press coffee maker and segues into the President's reaction to the shootings in Tucson earlier this year. 

I have shared that last piece with my Technology, Culture & Society students; I have sent the helpful one on making green tea to my tea-drinking dharma friends; I have posted many more on Facebook or sent them to readers I sense may share my enthusiasm. Without any pretension, but with careful prose and a subtle poetic skill, Howard reminds me here of what I first encountered (years before) in his essays on Irish writing "The Pressed Melodeon" and more recently in his "Leaf, Sunlight, Asphalt" (2009; sample poem, info and part of my review here) verses: the calm, recollected power of tranquility amidst energy. 

(Posted to Amazon US & Lunch.com without these links, 5-23-11, I reviewed "Leaf" alongside Eamon Carr's complementary "The Origami Crow" in Estudios Irlandeses 5 [2009]). 

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