Showing posts with label Tao. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Tao. Show all posts

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Bill Porter's "Road to Heaven": Book Review

Porter, who translates Chinese poetry under the name of Red Pine, travels into the Chungnan range dividing the wheat from the rice, the north from the south. His visit is either well or badly timed, the late spring of 1989. He gets caught up in a pro-democracy demonstration, but departs for the hills in search of hermits before the Tiananmen Square crackdown in early June. He and his photographer partner decide to return that August. Perhaps the chill in the political air permeated those he meets, for there's less told here that delves into the fate of hermits under Mao and the PRC.

In a sort-of sequel to this account, "Zen Baggage" (reviewed 6/2013), Bill Porter relates this demonstration to a CIA operative, who wryly notes that the Agency noted Porter's spontaneous involvement. Like "Zen," "Road to Heaven" carries a wandering sensibility. Porter reveals less than in the other book about himself (not that he tells much) but lots about the dates, names, and history of the contexts for the shrines, temples, and hermitages he visits. While accessible to the non-specialist reader such as me, this material can slow the pace. Porter favors lots of detail and the result feels like a guidebook's commentary rather than a vividly conveyed, personal, rendering of sights.

However, he intersperses conversations, often terse, with often no-nonsense Taoist (and a few Buddhist, or hybrid) monks and nuns who've managed despite persecution during the Cultural Revolution to survive, on and off for some, steadily for a few, in the remote regions traditionally sought by those dropping out from the pressures of society to pursue the precepts of the Dao and the simple but demanding solitude that for them leads to wisdom, and if Taoists, to try to attain entry into immortality.

Like the Dao, this concept's pretty fuzzy even when hermits try to articulate this famously allusive ideal. I like Lao-Tzu's notebook remark, after he passed royal graves: "we can see the loss of desire/the cost of what we keep" (40). An abbot sums up the pursuit of Pure Land Buddhism or Zen as basically two paths to one goal. "Practice is like candy. People like different kinds. But it's just candy. The Dharma is empty." (96)

Not much happens during the travels Porter shares. He's off on less beaten paths, he does not have many extraordinary encounters to enliven these pages. Grounded more in historical narration and brief, sometimes stolid, interviews, there's far less of the itemized, step-by-step, price-by-price pace of his later travelogue from 2006 when he sought out Zen practitioners. But there's a similar reticence among those he talks to to reveal what life was like during their privations under Communism or during WWII. The recovery of the Zen monasteries after decades of persecution ties into the regime's wish to cash in on tourism. For Daoists, the same profit motive via the Party's control as a trade-off for monastic survival, as on fabled Huashan, appears to threaten the hard-kept and hard-won isolation that few monks or nuns can find today.

As Porter concludes after a visit to the splendid vistas of Taipaishan: "Those who follow the Tao cannot divorce themselves from others, yet to find the Tao they must retire from society, at least temporarily, to practice self-cultivation and concentration of mind." (199) Porter fittingly tries to capture what he knows he cannot, the message of the Tao that can be found by practice, and meditation, not by study or books. But, a few hermits try to explain; so must Porter. This little book may not succeed more than any other in that attempt, but it avoids the wry aphorisms or exotic packaging that commonly makes this challenging self-scrutiny too tidy for us. (6-16-13 Amazon US)

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Richard Hathaway's "Zen Explained"

In 128 Kindle pages, this aligns with its aim: demystification and clarity, rational presentation of what's often occluded. Richard Hathaway favors a scientifically and psychologically enriched introduction that rewards today's Westerner seeking a no-nonsense approach. He takes the novel cognate "eu zên" in Aristotle's "living well" virtue ethics and shows how it compares (harmony, satisfaction, idealization) and contrasts (impermanent, elusive, unstable) with the Zen meaning.

Early on, he investigates the "checksum" parallel of two-signal computing, and decision making based on neural chemistry that is pre-cognitive or before volition, despite our tendency for our brain to shout over our impulses. Thoughts themselves are shown to be all we are: "if there are thoughts and we are aware of these thoughts, then what we are is that which is aware of thoughts, You and I; we are consciousness." Read this section and this will make more "sense" than my concision may present this intricate but accessibly conveyed food for thought.

As to our "apparently hard-wired propensity that people have to infer that entities with plans and intentions cause the things they observe around them," I needed more. Hathaway cites Stephen Pinker about this supposition that we create a "theory of mind" to attribute causality to someone (often a God to punish us), but this section was under-explained. He appropriately turns to Daniel Dennett regarding the ego as narrator, a character in our own work of fiction--we write not our autobiographies but our biographies, Hathaway avers. Our self-identity rests on our imagination.

Of improvement, no rational system can totally please the one looking for answers. Looking within ("know thyself" and the examined life) for answers may fool us. "We have made of ourselves the author, and the author knows if the story is over he or she is finished, out of a job. There must always be a new chapter to write." That impels us to strive for goals, progress, or achievement. What Zen counters: an end to such ideals. Instead, an acceptance of one's mortality, and the freedom from grasping to what will vanish or decay. "Unhappiness stems from not accepting life as it is and instead clinging on to an image of what we want it to be." Rather, Zen offers enlightenment from within, not from without "to walk a path of quite [sic] joy, of serenity and inner peace that is always underfoot, and, as walked in the present now, lasts and does not fade in the murk of the remembered past or anticipated future." This passage demonstrates the calm with which Hathaway conveys himself.

Despite this very Buddha-dharma perspective, the treatment's light on the message attributed to the Buddha. He keeps the Asian vocabulary to a minimum. Hathaway stresses rather Taoist influence in its depths as the teaching passed through China. He elides this (saying it can be looked up elsewhere), but emphasizes that "wu wei" or "do nothing/ going with the flow" fits better with the Dao's spirit than with its superficial gloss of dharma. Whatever its derivation, it's not a system but an attitude: Zen lets us let go of our own burden, as if waking from a nightmare to find we're safe in our own bed. Wu wei encourages us to act without will or intention, to kill the ego and to stop needless striving.

Yet, we cannot seek our own release. It's a Catch-22: we cannot aim for the target we want to hit. While his chapter "Not Catholicism" disappointed by its facile caricature of that faith as teaching that one can do whatever harm one wishes as long as confession absolves the sinner, and then it's back to dirty deeds, Hathaway tries to teach, if via that poorly chosen example, how Zen demands commitment without time off during the week: it's not as if one does one's duty once on Sunday.

Reading on, I understood slightly more why Hathaway may have stereotyped Catholicism: his passion, after a "kensho"-like experience that hit him one day in Portsmouth, England, changed him from a rational skeptic--apparently non-religious and very fact-oriented--to an advocate for Zen. That term's stripped here, notably, of "Buddhism" as common qualifier or accompaniment. "In Taoism, just as God is an invention we made up between ourselves to explain nature, so the SELF [he capitalizes this as EGO to show its dominance] is an illusion we have spun into existence to explain our inner nature to ourselves. Enlightenment is realising this is so."

While I would have liked more on Taoism's influence on a more purely anarchic (in the positive sense), liberating Zen, Hathaway reminds the reader to stop reading about it. "Don't believe in Zen. Don't intellectualise and rationalise it. That is anti-Zen. Experience Zen yourself, directly. Practise zazen. Be mindful. Just that. Only that." He goes on to observe how religions are "ex vivo" (out of the living") in that they affirm an afterlife or reincarnation; Zen remains "in vivo," tethered to the here and now, yet not bound by it within the ever-present, eternal moment. Out of its creative anarchy, its creative principle moves everything.

Tricky, as this expands into a challenging take on Zen's analogous affinity with quantum physics and our own creation of our own perceived universe. He lost me a bit with this partial koan: "the universe would exist only as a probability wave if there were not living beings around to make it real." I anticipated this might lead to Teilhard de Chardin's noosphere, and a few pages later, there it was. Later, Hathaway ties such a derivation to a link from ancient Greek for moral dimensions of Zen. This material proved rewarding, if for a small book too compressed at times to take in; with about a dozen typos, sometimes the casual style mixing with lofty concepts needed clarification and editing.

He concludes by encouraging us to take on Zen with the practical, experienced integration of it not as merely "dianoia" or book-learning, but "noesis." As a lived knowledge become understanding that goes beyond words, he promises that if we sit and we then practice mindfulness not as an activity but as within our spirit, the transformation will be telling, if beyond verbal expression: "Very soon all your questions will be answered." (Amazon US 1-23-13. I was provided a copy by the author; I found this a stimulating and provocative book worth reading.)