Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Dinty Moore's "The Accidental Buddhist": Book Review

The author spends a year pondering the shift to Buddhism among a few fellow Americans. He goes on retreat at a strict Zen monastery and a loose Therevada center. He interviews experts, visits a pair of struggling cushion makers, gets to ask the Dalai Lama a question at a talk at Indiana U., and intersperses a bit of his own personal quest for meaning after the God of his youth fades, but not the nagging sense of suffering.

I'd known of this book for a while, but the title and the author's name (beef stew?) made me think it was a quick send-up of facile gurus and silly posers. But a friend who shares my ethnic and religious background (also the same as the author as it happens) and my half-skeptical, half-intrigued approach to Buddhism as adapted by earnest Westerners recommended it. Often, it's been checked out from my library, so I had to wait. Thirteen years after it appeared, I finally got around to reading it.

It proved a worthwhile, often modestly told exploration--not so much about the factual basis for an Americanizing Buddhism (I'd been learning this the past few years), but of one man's middle-aged quest. It tends towards the under-promoted, less visible side of how Buddhism's filtering into American life, and this model for Moore fits better than the dramatic, shaved-head and mantra-chanting, incense-wreathed scenarios most Westerners associate with dharma. Moore looks for what can replace his lapsed childhood faith-- as guidance towards confronting and enduring the big questions that haunt many of us, dissatisfied and wandering.

My favorite chapters are the sixth, "Catholic Boy Zen," and the ninth, "The Plain-Spoken Theravadan." He talks to Fr Robert Jinsen Kennedy, a Jersey Jesuit, who combines Zen with Catholicism. Their conversation intelligently addresses the lack of maturity in much of the way Catholicism had been presented to those of Moore's generation, about the last to get a pre-Vatican II version of a negative "thou shalt not" mindset combined with a simplified version of God and Jesus manufactured for easy transmission to a billion followers. Moore acknowledges his current attraction for Buddhism may be an over-reaction to his childhood Catholicism, and even the Dalai Lama's own caution for Westerners not to over-romanticize Buddhism as opposed to their "Judeo-Christian" mentality hits a nerve inside Moore as he listens to the Tibetan leader respond to his own question in Indiana.

Chapter nine reveals a growing comfort with dharma. Moore takes pains not to glamorize those who adapt Buddhism. He's well-read in the field, but his sources remain largely invisible, as he aims for an accessible, jargon-free presentation that any reader can understand. (A glossary of a few terms is appended.) He concentrates on overcoming his "rock" within, his resistance and his angst, his entrapment in the cycle of suffering, of keeping anger in, familiar to many Irish Catholic males of at least a certain age and upbringing.

His life has compelled him to look for what is missing, what has led him to find out more about Buddhism. He attempts to get over the "if only" postponement of happiness that permeates our mental habits. He compares this to rushing down a hiking trail eager to finish while missing the sights and sounds; he drives down the interstate and thinks of how its engineering detracts from distractions, but also blurs any sense of the journey's own beauties and discoveries. He fears he will zip past forty-five years of work and worry the twenty years of retirement over lost opportunities. This challenges him to slow down, to appreciate wisdom.

He tries as any meditator to silence the restless "monkey man" inside, before calming down: "Maybe enlightenment is when the monkey just sees the sunset, and then, when the sunset ends, the monkey just looks at the stars." He knows full well a few hours at practicing Buddhism over a year will not bring about dazzling illumination. But, after a successful second Zen retreat, he glimpses more than he'd started with. "You can't slow the brain down with a few brief attempts any more easily than you can stop a speeding freight train with a white picket fence." However, he adapts well to sitting still, to his astonishment. While no dramatic changes occur in his life, he grows calmer, more equitable, and perhaps happier.

This is a quiet, rather than self-promoting, journey towards insight. Perhaps too low-key for eager inquirers, but I found this at the right time and if in the right mood, this should satisfy the patient, quiet seeker. Moore concludes that, concerning God's existence, he's not going to worry. "If there is a God, I should live my life according to principles of kindness, compassion, and awareness, and if there is no God," the same principles apply, his summation of an intimate Buddhist perspective. (Posted to Amazon US & Lunch.com 10-10-10)

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