Ambivalent Zen

April 13, 2010

This is a delicious book with an oxymoron for a title. Title aside, Lawrence Shainberg paints a picture of his inner life that is vivid and true. One need only step a few pages into this book to be persuaded that the author is a waffling spirit.

He brilliantly paints a picture of growing up wealthy and ungrounded. Lacking an adequate grounding in himself, he easily gets pulled into the orbit of one strong personality after another: his wealthy self-made incorrigible father, his psychotherapist, Alan Watts, Krishnamurti, Eido Shimano Roshi, Soen Nakagawa Roshi, Bernie Glassman Roshi, Master Wei (Chang), Samuel Beckett, but mostly Kyudo Nakagawa Roshi.

Sadly, some of his tales about these spiritual headliners only served to confirm my own cynical expectations. Eastern mystics and gurus, just like their Western colleagues, turn out to be easily corrupted by the perils of spiritual leadership. Of course, this is easy for me to see 40 years later. Had I been in Shainberg’s shoes back in the 70’s, only my innate cynicism would have kept me from following the path that he pursued, and therein might lie the difference between us. Where he was willing to pursue self-knowledge even while doubting himself, his journey, and his guides, I would have only doubted.

Doubt can be a powerful tool for self-preservation. Page after page describes spiritual seekers who find that a pursuit of higher meaning has turned into a game of Spiritual Chutes and Ladders with a guru of questionable character rolling both dice. One moment the eager student is trying to prove himself worthy of the guru’s esteem. The next moment the student discovers the guru is a fraud, a womanizer, a substance abuser, trying to claim some part of a student’s fortune, or someone just wants to build up his own ego at the student’s expense. Shainberg has his doubts too, but he is conflicted.

If you have reservations about Zen and similar subjects, you will find plenty in this book to help you keep your distance. That said, this is not really a book about cynicism. The seekers who orbit various roshis are treated sympathetically. Even the ambivalent author. I found myself wincing more than once at the pain and poignancy of Shainberg’s experiences on, and off, the cushion. Ambivalence is part of life, but so is dedication, and after I had reached the last page, I turned back to re-read the book’s dedication: “For Kyudo Nakagawa Roshi with love and gratitude.” Well said.

Now let’s give Kyudo Roshi the last words:

  • “Just shitting, that’s my paradise! Great discovery! Must take care myself! Understand? Buddha not take care. God not take care.”
  • “Honest fart OK. What I not like is little poop, but honest – boom, boom, boom – that’s bravery gas!”
  • LS:I need to talk to you. I want to commit suicide.” KR: “Good idea! Right away! Don’t hesitate!”
  • LS:I tell him I want to ‘take my practice to a deeper level.’ KR: “Deeper level?” He laughs again. “What you mean ‘deeper’? Zen practice only one level. No deep, understand? No shallow.”
  • “Zen about bravery! Zazen mind bravery mind! Must bravery, Larry-san! Must sincere!”
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