Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Ben Howard's "The Backward Look": Book Review

For a couple of years, I'd drive on my way to work past a yellow sign hanging from a concrete slab building facing the freeway: "First Time Ever, Last Time Ever." I suppose it referred to some never-ending sale, but I liked to think of it in terms of a daily reminder of impermanence. (Recently, of course, it disappeared.) In poet-critic Ben Howard's successor to his first collection of essays "Entering Zen," (2011; see my reviews on Amazon US and this blog), he advances along the path of awareness of this fundamental Zen truth, addressing in these fifty entries from his columns for "One Time, One Meeting" that titular acknowledgment, of the fleeting encounters we too enter into.

Out of these, Howard creates short essays, grounded in everyday life. The first five exemplify their range. A poem by Billy Collins about shoveling snow with the Buddha, a lament by a Washington Redskins player about injuries, a 1948 Japanese novel about Burma, a slip on the ice tied into the difference between mishap and mistake, and the rest-stroke, free-stroke on guitar (Howard also plays): these demonstrate the characteristic concerns which he channels into his practice for us to see.

I use that verb for we witness Howard in modest, reflective manner, as a presence who steps up and then sidles away, allowing us to glimpse the meaning as he does, but also to sense the mystery. The title of this book comes from a Dogen quote: "Take the backward step and turn the light inward." By doing "just this," that Zen master promises our "original face" will appear; this also reminds me of one of the last remarks attributed to the Buddha urging his followers to "be a lamp unto yourselves." Howard interprets Dogen's stance as a shift away from "ego-centered thinking" to "other-centered awareness." This reorientation directs the practitioner to not a blissed-out state of detachment, but a sense of the balance between conditions of heightened sensitivity and informed action. Such an even-handed approach, as in meditation and thinking, speaking and doing, shows Howard's practice.

He's also practiced at writing, and I recommend his collected essays on Irish literature, "The Pressed Melodeon" as well. He keeps to a steady format, less than ten paragraphs usually. He offers wise tips about writing as a craft, and he applies them in unassuming but diligent fashion. As he cites Hemingway's advice, he prefers brevity and being "positive" in the sense of concentrating the body and the mind upon the moment, whether pleasant or not, to find it "empty of a separate self" in Zen.

Meanwhile, other poets enrich these pages. Seamus Heaney, Jonathan Swift, Dennis O'Driscoll (a less heralded talent worth your seeking out), Louis MacNeice, Patrick Kavanaugh from Ireland enter, but so do Basho, Philip Larkin, and even Bob Marley. From such sages, Howard accumulates their reflections on how to ease up, and to let go. One gain here I sense, teaching myself in an ever-increasing course load with higher enrollments but shorter turnaround times online for grading, emerges from Howard's slower pace. He advises us to limit our consumption of information, to let some comments stand as superfluous rather than as imperative. Never advocating ignorance, he instead encourages us to contemplate the wisdom of "not-knowing." From this humility, a term I reckon we hear much less nowadays, Zen cuts down pride and arrogance.

One of my favorite concepts is dependent origination, and Howard brings this lofty teaching down to his dinner table. There, he points to various loaves of bread from local bakeries, to illustrate this basic Buddhist insistence that "this ceases to be, because that ceases to be." Reading this when I'd received earlier that day bad news, I took heart in the repetition of this most fundamental of life's truths here.

As these essays progress, their tone sustains a firmly held if gently revealed insistence on the necessity of stepping back from our routine. Carrots, Yiddishisms, construction noise: all generate insights into the "imperfect life we are now living." Enhanced by Howard's teaching, his Iowa youth, his Irish stays, whatever he's read, seen, and discussed, his experiences seep into these essays. At his practice group on Sunday's summer evenings, impermanence becomes understood "not as a concept or a Zen tenet but as an experiential fact, as palpably real as the darkness gathering around us." He regards such a moment as welcome and as inevitable as any other in his encounters, shared with us. (Amazon US 4-22-14)

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