Friday, March 21, 2014

Lawrence Shainberg's "Ambivalent Zen": Book Review

This memoir spans forty years of a smart man's attempt to shake off an authority figure. That figure may be his father, Alan Watts, Krishnamurti, a series of Japanese Zen masters, a psychoanalyst, a martial arts instructor, an aeronautical engineer turned real estate investor determined to remake monasticism in the leafy New York suburbs, his own addiction to zazen, or his self, struggling against its own annihilation as meditation demands Shainberg examine himself. The question remains, as a fellow practitioner who winds up under psychiatric care puts it, whether one "trapped within his own thoughts" can free himself from the discipline that promises such reflection. It reveals a mirror facing another mirror, and no image in between but emptiness.

Previous {Amazon} reviews focused on the author and the general topic, but Shainberg's structure for his chapters and his phrasing of the dharma both merit attention. The chapters divide along 1) his earlier years, 2) his relationship, admiring and resentful in turn with a more recent Zen teacher full of "crazy wisdom" and fractured, pithy Japanese-English pronouncements, 3) and past teachers, his former wife, fellow seekers, and figures with whom Shainberg from the 1950s onward tries to tackle the challenges of self-awareness bent on understanding the ego in therapy or undermining it in Zen.

This conflict is more tangential than central, but as Shainberg alludes to early in the book (29), D.T. Suzuki's version of Zen promoted for psychiatrists in postwar America and their patients a guru-student relationship ironically built on stronger rather than suspect examinations of the ego. This exacerbated the power of a teacher over a novice, whether on the cushion or on the couch. The manner by which he relates his life's ambition to know himself better by attacking the notion of a self may fit his book's complicated structure, which does not follow an easy-to-follow chronology but which leaps ahead and doubles back.

Shainberg breaks up his version of the dharma too, so it comes bit by bit, as he tells his tale in the triple form I've noted. The Buddha's Middle Way of moderation offers a problem for the ego. It demands its own dissolution. (36) The Way "attacks" our "need within the rational mind to make the obvious inaccessible and mysterious." We carry our own solution, but "the target towards which he directs their consciousness is the one which, above all others, consciousness abhors." (37)

In his late teens, a child with a well-connected father whose own existential search compels his own life of inquiry, the two meet Alan Watts over vodka in a Chinese restaurant. Watts quotes a Zen master's analogy that "clinging to yourself is like having a thorn in the skin and that Buddhism is a second thorn to get rid of the first." When one thorn takes out the other, both can be discarded. Watts warns about grasping even Buddha's teachings as a sure-fire remedy: "The medicine is another disease!" (48) Yet, Shainberg as with his father and more and more of his peers will search for cures.

The First Noble Truth, for Shainberg, rejects future-oriented thinking which turns the wheel of hope, "of birth and death." Caught in the web of the self, "there is nothing more certain to make you feel worse than the dream of feeling better," (54) So, is freedom found within self-annihilation?

Maybe, he wonders after decades of pursuing therapy and Zen, "Zen is nothing more than a means by which self-consciousness is exacerbated until finally unbearable, it obliterates itself." (156) Little wonder at one point he retreats to his brother's isolated cabin, where for months he meditates longer and longer, on a scanty diet, driving himself by reading Samuel Beckett's prose trilogy and later asking that author about his affinities, supposed by more than one critic, with Zen. There aren't any
["Exorcising Beckett" in The Paris Review 104 (1987) reproduces and expands material in this book] but Shainberg lets us see why so many like himself imagine this connection.

Irony sustains Shainberg. Hosting a visiting master from Japan on the roof of Shainberg's apartment, the master tries to bite the moon and wants Shainberg to follow suit. "Why is my mind in two pieces while his is so clearly in one?" (170) Self-conscious, wishing he could abandon himself to the dissolution of satellite object and human subject, he reflects that he mentally observes the scene, taking notes for the book on Zen he's never writing. Until, of course, he does for us. 

He learns it's easier to write about Zen than to practice it, but he tries both and finds his breakthrough. His profile on Bernie Glassman, engineer-turned-Zen convert full of schemes revealing "management by meandering" brings him into the chosen circle near power--how an American adaptation of coed and non-celibate monasticism and utopian communal ideals pursued through endless committees, ecumenical reading lists, delegation of tasks, and frenetic fundraising transpires in Greystone, a mansion in upscale New York suburbia. This proves the most engaging part of this 1995 memoir. However, Glassman's scattered energy and grand visions remain ambiguous in the telling of his trusted advisor, apprentice monk, and resident author Shainberg. 

For, not only at Greystone, this transformational campaign feels hermetic. Its outreach to soup kitchens gets one aside. The impact of those following Zen beyond the zendo for the betterment of those not in the know remains blurred. This choice appears intentional, but it hovers: what does Shainberg do all day? Inherited wealth presumably affords him as he notes in an aside the leisure and income to take off with others in similar circumstances not burdened by children, families, or limited vacation time for a week's retreat, for example, in a manner those outside the professional classes find difficult. His occupation seems to be trying to write a novel, and moving about in search of a master he can believe in as he immerses himself in a series of personal commitments to get in shape and repeated attempts to join communal regimens. This quest, going as far as Jerusalem, becomes his life's insistent pursuit. Given his own marital failure even as he and his wife devoted themselves to Zen and physical betterment, one ponders Shainberg's terse admission that the best "catalysts for practice" come from the lonely and despairing, often from the "recently divorced." (244) 

Perhaps this reticence despite so much disclosure for Shainberg fits his intent. He offers an honest and more in-depth account of Zen's elusive message and those who appear to accept it more easily than he often does. His periods of exertion may stimulate an eagerness for more discipline, or they can plunge him into more doubt. Neither period appears to last for long--a moral in itself, although it may not please the unwary reader seeking an "inspirational" account full of platitudes or affirmations.

In diligently attempting to demonstrate the struggle of the mind (and the put-upon body, as considerable pain comes to many from sittings, not to mention the dubious ministrations to his eye from his martial arts teacher) which envelops the Zen practitioner, he shows the results on the ego. It's a memoir that attempts to examine what may be inexplicable in words. For, up until nearly this book's end, Shainberg squares off against himself--as that self reflects the teachings of non-self. (Amazon US 6-13-13)

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