Thursday, March 27, 2014

Bill Porter's "Zen Baggage: A Pilgrimage to China": Book Review

A skilled translator under the name Red Pine, as Bill Porter, he wanders ten weeks in early 2006, with a bottle of port, Snickers fun bars, tea, and pumpkin cookies. He travels north to south, pursued by the yellow dust, into the world of "red dust," the real realm as opposed to that Zen monks pursue. That realm strives to plunge the practitioner into language so as "to make us let go of language." (16)

He makes a great analogy when he visits a Choukoutian site for "Peking Man." "Early humans lived in a sea of sound. It took a long time before language and music pulled us out of that ocean and we had to start using religion to find our way back to its shores." (26) There's not a lot of fancy prose here, but Porter's a patient guide.

He stresses Zen as "just a way of living" (182): the simple admonition reverberates in the monasteries trying to expand after being crushed by Mao and the Cultural Revolution. The monks stopped between 1960-1980; today, the monasteries fill, but you don't get much sense of how monks suffered or why Zen appeals to younger cadres today. People don't appear to open up much to Porter, or he chooses not to probe--it may be caution on both sides in what in a rare aside he notes is still a "brutalizing" regime.

Porter argues for a Zen model based in communal living and self-sufficient farming. Few monasteries can live like this now, but some try to return to this ideal. As for Zen's origins in China, he differs with the academic interpretation of Chinese Zen as a fusion of indigenous Daoism and Indian Buddhism, favoring Zen's persistence as an "invisible tradition" not recorded in orally-based India but which by private transmission emerged into China, "affecting everything from art to gardening." (308)

Porter writes genially. He hints at his past and these brief interludes prove intriguing. Avoiding being sent to Vietnam by going AWOL; studying Intensive Chinese under a "Dragon Lady" at Columbia; working as a Taiwan-based journalist; stumbling into a 1989 PRC pro-democracy rally; meeting a hobo with a tale to tell: Porter conveys these few paragraphs of each scenario with verve. Yet by comparison to his previous book "Road to Heaven," about Chinese hermits, "Zen" revealed more about Porter's colorful life.

As for his main tale, not much happens. Lots of names and dates pass, and while Porter meticulously transfers his journal notes (what he paid is related diligently for every taxi ride or dessert treat) and his dutiful itinerary, this content will slow the pace to that of Porter's own. His bad back gets massaged and he welcomes sweets. He records his every move south, and you do find yourself witnessing what he does, even if it's not that exciting. Which may be the quiet lesson: how to make your life useful, if not flashy. This version of a pilgrimage may offer verisimilitude, but you don't come away with as much of a vivid sense of what it's like to meditate as a Zen adept or dramatic insights into monastic life today; you do feel you are with Porter each step of his long, patient, subtle way, on the other hand. (Amazon US 6-7-13)

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