Thursday, 21 September 2017

Good Book: Two Shores of Zen - An American Monk's Japan

I hold the word on my tongue, bullshit, so he'll know that I'm serious about this. I'm not just complaining. He needs to meet me, to understand that I'm tired of this American Buddhist 'Upper Middle Way'. I'm tired of the sexual dramas, the talk of 'income streams' and 'personnel costs'. […] It is not that I'm averse to problems; I understand that they are the stones that lay the path. I am tired, though, of these corporate problems, 'Are we making enough?' and these hippie commune problems, 'Who's fucking who?'
Jiryu Mark Rutschman-Byler is nose to nose with his teacher. He's done with the nonsense. He's determined to pursue the Way. The true Way. The authentic Way, goddamit!

The fact that he stalks off in precisely the opposite direction from mine only intensifies my sense of kinship with him.

Two Shores of Zen: An American Monk's Japan chronicles one seeker's attempt to resolve the central contradiction of our religion: a philosophy of transcendence, patrolled in two disparate cultures by a careerist administration.

In young Jiryu's case, he's fed up with the mealy-mouthed doubletalk of Western Zen. His California sangha is flabby, bohemian, materialistic. "When are we going to get around to seeking enlightenment?" he wonders. "Are we going to get around to seeking enlightenment?"

The twentysomething monastic longs to live those legends, breathlessly recounted in the West, of merciless sitting schedules, brain-bending mental training, and utter obedience to a deific master. In his view the Ancestors' instructions have been inverted in transmission, to the point that following them is heresy. "How," he protests, "did we make the original Middle Way into an extreme to be avoided?"

Certain the hallowed Japanese couldn't be so glib, he jumps on a plane and jets off to get him some of that pure Asian practice.

We know what has to happen next. But Jiryu's account of it is fresh and honest, and his courage in telling a tale that doesn't always show his younger self to be the Stone Buddha he takes himself for inspires trust.

Certainly, the antics of a living oxymoron – a rebel cœnobite – make engaging reading. At one point the eager young pilgrim even considers cutting off a finger as a gesture of gratitude to his teacher; fortunately, common sense reins in this particular manifestation of his crush on Japan. (For their part, the Japanese would recoil in horror from such an act; most today regard monasticism itself as abusive and atavistic.)

Jiryu gamely owns a few other delusions as well – including, o shame of counter-California revolution, sexual ones – and documents the uncorrected worldliness of his peers as all swim in the obsessive patriarchy of Japanese practice. (Eremitical Perspective Break: from where I'm sitting – so to speak – both the Eastern and Western schools are culture-over-dharma models.) But the writer's Augustinian confessions are compelling and endearing, precisely because he's so gung-ho. Absent that, his openings couldn't be as revelatory, his witness as eloquent, or his trajectory as utterly human.

In short, Two Shores is the Empty Mirror of our time, enhanced and upgraded by a later generation's relative suspicion of exoticism. Which makes the fact that it was rejected by traditional publishing all the more frustrating. It's hard to avoid the conclusion that the Buddhist press has largely become irrelevant. Yes, its stable of conservative celebrity teacher-authors reaches a well-monied market. But we practicing Buddhists outside that market are quickly becoming the demographic majority. Jiryu himself calls out the self-help and "lifestyle" mill that passes for our media. The fact that he was ultimately obliged to self-publish Two Shores – a foundational text Zenners should read – is a bitter irony.

Not that the book doesn't suffer a few foibles of its own. A sea of typos – typical failing of self-published titles – distracts the reader and weakens the prestige of the work. Also, were I the editor Jiryu tried so hard to secure, I'd've ordered a short epilogue, closing storylines left open, catching us up on his life and practice (he's on the pastoral staff at Green Gulch, a fact that brings his lessons full-circle) and offering considered insight into his Asian interlude, now that several years have passed. (It's worth mentioning that publisher-released books often share this deficiency, professional oversight be damned.)

But these are minor details. I'm heartily grateful that Jiryu has made his work available at personal expense, as few POD authors recoup costs, let alone profit.

I recommend that anyone who's troubled by our all-too-mortal Zen establishment; suffers from Real Zen Disorder; is interested in Japanese practice models; or just likes a good Zen yarn, do all sentient beings a favour and buy Two Shores of Zen.

Then maybe convince someone else to do as well.
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