A while back someone posted a link to a list of The 16 Best Dystopian Books of All Time.  Naturally the list didn’t suit everyone and comments ensued about how wrong the post writer was and about how everyone else’s choices were so much better. Let’s call that blog Dystopia.

Dystopian fiction is a major genre of political fiction that has in turn influenced many other sub-genres such as science fiction, cyberpunk, magic realism, dark fantasy, crime, mystery, horror, alternate history, psychological thrillers, adventure and action. At times a dystopian tone has also influenced literary fiction particularly when the author writes about life in restrictive regimes. An example would be some of the places visited in Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels. And non-fiction in terms of diaries, journals or other self-reflective writings can contain elements from real dystopias in which the authors live to personal psychological dystopias which we can all relate to.

Dystopia is:

A dystopia (from the Ancient Greek δυσ-: bad-, ill- and τόπος: place, landscape) (alternatively, cacotopia,[1], or anti-utopia) is a vision, of an often futuristic society, which has developed into a negative version of Utopia.

and is characterized by some or all of the following:

    • an authoritarian or totalitarian form of government. It often features different kinds of repressive social control systems, a lack or total absence of individual freedoms and expressions and a state of constant warfare or violence.
    • a utopian society with at least one fatal flaw,
    • fears of the ugly consequences of present-day behavior
    • pressure to conform in terms of the requirement to not excel
    • represses the intellectuals with particular force
    • the concept of religion may be under attack
    • the family has been eradicated and continuing efforts are deployed to keep it from reestablishing itself as a social institution
    • isolate their characters from all contact with the natural world
    • advanced technology is controlled exclusively by the group in power
    • populations serve some “higher” purpose than their own
    • the governing class as hedonistic and shallow [or] rulers are brutal and dedicated to the point of fanaticism
    • the state is in control of the economy [or] big businesses often have far more control over the populace than any kind of government
    • (adapted and condensed from Wikipedia)

    Dystopias generally emphasize conformity, control, enforced extreme ideals, lack of freedom and contain psychological elements that lead to a sense of claustrophobia, fear and a sense of unreality or disassociation.

    There is a long history of dystopian elements in human cultural productions. Many ancient mythologies particularly of a religious nature carry with them lessons that evoke the same sense of fear one realizes when reading a modern dystopian novel. Threats of dystopian punishment landscapes-Hell, Lower Realms such as Avici, or Hades-manage to pique the imaginations of many followers enough that the social controls within religious mythology can be maintained by internal pressure rather than by external forces a lot of the time.

    Fairy tales and legends also invoke this response. Yet we seem to be driven to come back to examine dystopian possibilities both in fiction and in real life. Grimm’s Fairy Tales was grim but safely exciting for many children. Kim Jong-il‘s North Korea maybe not so much.

    In the non-fiction world [and I may be using that term ironically] there have been and are currently many writers attempting to convey their artistic vision in difficult and even dystopian circumstances. [Check PEN International for more on that]


    In the last blog post I wrote about a really interesting “zenlike” book I just finished reading and I said I’d make a review of it. That book ties into the topic of this post so here’s something about it.

    Today I Wrote Nothing by Daniil Kharms (1905-1942) is a selection of the author’s writings. He was a Russian who grew up amidst the Bolshevik revolution. After Stalin came to power art became a state concern and Kharms and his fellow artists endured exile and persecution of the most violent types.

    Here’s some more background on the author and his milieu:

    Kharms—whose real name was Daniil Yuvachev… died of starvation in a lunatic asylum…Kharms’s Russia is cruelty’s utopia, which explains why the Soviets found his work to be intolerable, and why they had him institutionalized. (source)

    Daniil Kharms has long been heralded as one of the most iconoclastic writers of the Soviet era…

    A master of formally inventive poetry and what today would be called “micro-fiction,” Kharms built off the legacy of Russian Futurist writers to create a uniquely deadpan style written out of–and in spite of–the absurdities of life in Stalinist Russia. (from the publisher’s blurb on Amazon)

    Publishers Weekly wrote:

    In this surprising new collection of Soviet writer Kharms’s short pieces, including poetry and journal entries… readers will find echoes of Beckett, Ionesco and Kafka, among others. Indeed, Kharms (1905–1942) was part the OBERIU (Association of Real Art), a Soviet artists’ collective often described as Absurdist in orientation. A self-proclaimed member of the avant-garde, Kharms made often violent nonsense out of everyday life. In 1931, he was briefly exiled because his work did not promote Socialist Realism, as Yankelovich explains in an informative introduction. Kharms’s life suffered a complete reversal after his return, a fact that shows in his writing.

    There’s a youthful showiness to the earliest work that is replaced by a more fierce desperation in the later years, when Kharms often went hungry and knew his work would not be published. The book’s wonderfully contradictory title, is in unexpected contrast to the weary resignation of a journal entry: Today I wrote nothing. Doesn’t matter. Yankelovich, who provides the fine translations, makes much of the dramatic possibilities inherent in the work but almost combatively refuses to read any political meaning into his subject’s writings, which alternate between playfulness and a sense of futility. (from the Amazon site)

    One could read into the writing a lot of political implications. Kharms writes about hunger, violence and cruelty in a way as dispassionate as he writes about lovely country scenery, a hearty meal and a bottle of vodka.  Although he does write lovingly of the ladies. There is nothing in everyday life that escaped his attention and the direct spare writing brings it into sharp focus.

    The thing that really caught my attention was the philosophical perspective that came through the writing. In some respects it is a wonder that people in dire circumstances can consider producing art at all and when it comes out so remarkably lucid and poetic it’s an amazing statement both about the artist and about humanity.

    The translator, Natveu Yankelevich, in the introduction writes:

    Kharms makes us aware of our own mechanization, our own ruts, our weakness for unthinkingly, following predetermined patterns of action and perception that limit our confrontation with the world, blinding us to differences, to the “slight error”. (p,30)

    The author Graham Roberts has written a lengthy treatise on this particular art movement, OBERIU, in which Kharms was one of the prime movers. He gets into the philosophy of the group, particularly those who made up the Chinari sub-group which was particularly interested in the philosophy of the day. Roberts writes:

    In their regular conversations, they speculated, for example, on the nature of the present moment as the infinitely brief dividing-line between a non-existent past and an equally non-existent future. They believed that the present moment was that ‘point zero’ of existence, which, like the zero in the number series, was not nothing (since the continuity of the whole as a series of negative and positive values depended on it), and yet nothing real (since it was neither a negative nor a positive value itself). From this came the (pre-post-structuralist) contention that existence and non-existence are relative terms: ‘One should not say that a thing “exists” or “does not exist”, but rather one should say that it “exists in relation to this thing, and does not exist in relation to that thing”…

    (from The last Soviet avant-garde:OBERIU–fact, fiction, metafiction p.126)

    Sounds very familiar to anyone with knowledge of certain Buddhist principles. This got me wondering if there was any Buddhist influence in Kharms work or the works of those philosophers that were popular at the time. It turns out that Hegel, Nietzsche and many other European philosophers had examined what information was available on Buddhism at the time and a number of them had written about it. Nietzsche dismissed Buddhism “as yet another nihilism” but  Schopenhauer “even called himself a “Buddhist” “and was a definite influence on the OBERIU groups somewhat anti-Kantian viewpoints according to Roberts.

    Kharms was also familiar with Emerson and one of the pieces in the book is entitled “A Treatise More or Less Following Emersen”and indeed it does refer to the American Ralph Waldo Emerson.  The piece ends with the following:

    IV On Approaching Immortality

    Every person has a striving for pleasure, which always takes the form of either the satisfaction of sexual desire, or gastronomical satiation, or acquisition. But only that which does not lie on the path toward pleasure will lead us to immortality. Each and every system leading to immortality converges upon one rule: Do continually that which you don’t want to do, because every person wants continuously either to eat or to satisfy his sexual feelings or to acquire something, or all of these more or less at once.  It is interesting that immortality is always connected with mortality and is interpreted by various religious systems either as eternal pleasure or eternal suffering, or as eternal absence of pleasure and suffering.

    V On Immortality

    Righteous is he to whom God has given life as a perfect gift.


    One of the reasons the philosophy and influences angle came up for me was in Kharms work itself. Several times he mentions a place in St. Petersburg called the “Tibetan pavilion” as well as the structure and themes of many of the pieces.  For example The Connection,  a short story in the form of a letter, is an illustration of karmic action that could have been written by a Dharma teacher. One thing leads to another throughout until the last line “They ride along not knowing what connects them, and they will not know it until death.” (p.243)

    From the Scrapbook section (p 115-124) of Today I Wrote Nothing

    This is how hunger begins:
    In the morning you wake lively,
    Then weakness,
    Then boredom,
    Then comes the loss
    Of quick reason’s strength–
    Then comes calm,
    And then horror.
    Is it necessary to get out of equilibrium? (p.116) 

    While traveling, do not give yourself over to daydreams, but fantasize and pay attention to everything, even the insignificant details. (p.117)

    Any old wisdom is good if somebody has understood it. A wisdom that hasn’t been understood may get covered in dust. (p.117)

    Today I wrote nothing. Doesn’t matter.  (p.120)

    Returning home after my walk,
    I suddenly exclaimed:Oh my God!
    I’ve been walking four days in a row!
    What will my family think of me now?  (p. 121)

    On the poetic side there are such gems as:

    Steam, or so-called smoke, poured out of the steam train’s pipe. And a festive bird, flying into this smoke, flew out of it all greasy and crumpled. (p.188)

    From the brief play entitled The Window, which is a dialogue between a teacher and student, the window itself has the last words:


    I opened suddenly.

    I’m a hole in the walls of buildings.

    The soul spills out through me.

    I’m the air-vent of enlightened minds.


    He is not without humor as the piece Anegdotes from the Life of Pushkin illustrates. Apparently Pushkin was not the idol to Kharms as he was to many in the rest of the country.

    4. When Pushkin broke his legs, he got around on wheels. His friends liked to tease Pushkin by grabbing at those wheels. Pushkin grew angry with his friends and wrote abusive poems about them. He called these poems “erpigarms” (p.82)

    This could just as well be Kharms and his “Anegdotes” which he deliberately mis-spelled.

    His humor is sometimes a little caustic, dare I say even snarky. Considering the extreme persecution of himself and many of his group that is not surprising. At the same time he hints at censorship and misanthropy he can still bring a laugh. This untitled piece dated late 1930’s is an example.

    I hate children, old men and old women, and reasonable older individuals.

    Poisoning children is cruel. But something has to be done about them!

    I respect only young, healthy, plump women. Other representatives of humanity I treat with suspicion.

    Old women who go around thinking sensible thoughts should really be apprehended with bear traps.

    Any face that is of reasonable fashion brings out in me the most unpleasant sensations.

    What all the fuss about flowers? It smells way better between a woman’s legs. That’s nature for you, and that’s why no one dares find my words distasteful.


    The critique of reason (or is it Reason) is evident throughout Kharms work. There is something very free and a little wild about his writing yet it is done in such a clear and direct manner. The balance is on a razor’s edge sometimes.

    He’s lived in the midst of one of the greatest dystopias of the 20th century (Stalinist Russia) and struggled daily to transcend that and create art and recognize the truth and beauty, sometimes a terrible, accidental and violent beauty, that the gift of life brings.

    So I found this book absolutely fascinating. And I am looking forward to getting the OBERIU anthology that is available as more of his work is in there along with that of his compatriots. (It’s on the wish list)

    I’d highly recommend reading this if you like good literature. I’d even like to know what some Zen folks would make of it. Should be available in some libraries (get it by inter-library loan if your local doesn’t have it).

    The Zen Portion of the Program

    Are you wondering how I am going to drag Buddhist thought into this topic?

    Psychological dystopia is in the realm of Buddhist practice. The dictatorship of the ego demands all kinds of things and exacts all kinds of punishments when demands are not met. This kind of psychological landscape has devastating results not only on individuals but on families, communities and on our planet.

    How often have we castigated ourselves for not measuring up in some situation? Does any of this sound familiar?

      • I should have said X instead of Y. I’m so stupid.
      • I shouldn’t have failed at that.
      • I’ll never be good enough.
      • I’m so ignorant.
      • I’m such a bad person.
      • I’ll never be smart/happy/loved.
      • Everybody hates me at work/home/school.
      • I’m such a loser.
      • I’m uncomfortable with myself in XYZ ways

      And further how often have we inflicted these kinds of statements onto others, particularly our children. And children learn what they live. So they internalize all this crap and after a while beat themselves up with it. And pass it on in many other situations.

      That’s the Dystopia of Ego.

      Here’s a video that’s part of an interview with Shodo Harada Roshi. Thanks to Jaye Seiho Morris, Curator of Digital Zendo for posting it.

        If you don’t have time to watch the video, here is a transcript I made of his words.

        sept 1991

        Shodo Harada Roshi talks about Heavy Ego


        This is something which everyone understands very easily. Everyone is capable of sensing the situation in the world today. There’s no one who cannot sense that very deep despair that everyone feels. But its not a question of only fixing what is external. It is a question also of going within and taking care of the egoistic source of these external problems.

        Today there are a lot of things being taken care of on the outside. There’s a lot of healthy food being eaten. There’s a lot of care being taken to preserve our health.  There is beginning to be care taken to preserve our planet.  People are coming to the consciousness that is needed to address these external social problems and that’s good. But even if those go to even greater lengths than they are going to now, if we don’t take care of the problem within ourselves its not going to work . No matter how much external work is done if what’s been happening inside is not being repaired its not going to help.  It’s not going to help  the inner problem. The inner problem is something each person has to do for themselves. That is the problem of the heaviness of the ego.

        There’s no one who doesn’t feel that.  We can in these days say I want something delicious to eat and we can get it. I want to wear these clothes and we can put them on. I want to do this with my time and we can do it. That’s possible for anybody but when it comes to being uncomfortable with our egoistic heaviness who knows how to rid ourselves of that.

        When we feel we are too self aware and too self conscious and living on our own small energy instead of a greater larger picture we don’t know what to do about that. And its the uncomfortability generated by these inner problems that brings about  a lot of our external problems.  And of course we can solve those external problems by getting what we want to eat or by doing something that we enjoy doing but in the end we will always return to this place within ourselves where we are uncomfortable with our own egoistic narrow self and this is true with more and more people. This is what the real problem is and for that reason we have zazen.  For that reason we have this practice that is designed to dig in and dig out that ego, to find that place where it isn’t happening,  to get rid of that filter, to cut away, shave away, dig into the deepest possible roots and to find that place where the water of clear mind is flowing freely.

        We can’t do that unless each of us does it for ourselves.  It can’t be done by some kind of external aid. Each person has to do it and when people look at what we are doing here for example, doing a sesshin, they think what a narrow, rigid, difficult way of going about it. But compared to living all your life in this egoistic bind, its not the things we are doing here, sitting in this posture , living in this sesshin way of living, clearly it is a very very rigid and tight restrictive way of looking at how to live, but it’s for the purpose of going to the place where our ego isn’t directing our life, for realizing that place where that huge clear mind freely originates from.

        To be able to realize that we have to cut away all of that egoistic noise, all of that external stimulation and return to that base where that huge clear liberated mind comes from.  Its for accomplishing that, that we live in this way and when we do that, when we return to this place, when we can feel our center free from having to be told what to do by that ego,  free from having to be controlled by that ego, then we can take that mind back out into our life in the outside world and we can start dealing with the external problems from the inside out rather than the outside in.  And that’s the only way that we are really going to be able to get rid of that egoistic heaviness anyway.  And it is for that reason that doing Zazen is so important.  To dig into that ego, to root it out, to dig it out at its deepest roots and for doing that we are doing Zazen and practicing in Sesshin.


        When I was young I wasn’t very different from any other kid.  I had a very typical kind of childhood but there came a time when I had to face that dilemma like all children do about what I should do with my life and what it should be about. You see my father was a temple priest and it was typical then in Japan to do what your father does. Most kids willingly accepted that and went along with that but I had a great deal of resistance to the idea.  It wasn’t that I was required to be my father’s successor as head of the temple since I had an older brother, but it was more simply because I just didn’t feel like doing that. I always resisted that feeling that I was going to become a priest and taking over a temple. Instead I was going to become a psychologist and the reason I wanted to become a psychologist was because I didn’t like myself.  There were parts of myself that I really had a hard time dealing with. I couldn’t take myself the way I was . I thought the fastest way to fix that was to become a psychologist myself.  I wanted to remake those parts of myself that I felt were so contrary to what I saw in other people.  I thought becoming a person who could understand people’s inner workings was the best way of fixing myself.

        Though one day my father asked me to go to my school in Kyoto a little early to do an errand for him.  Because I went early the buses were very very crowded. I had to push through this packed crowd of people to get onto the bus and all the way to the back of the bus to find a seat.  And all of a sudden as I pushed through all these people I came upon a person who looked like someone I had never seen before.  He struck me as a most unusual, a very mysterious person, and he was wearing a robe unlike any I had seen before. It was dyed a mud color like they wear in India, and he had a presence, a face that was of such a nature that it was like he was shining or brilliant.  And I was astonished by this man sitting there in the middle of this completely busy and full bus just reading a book. People were standing up and sitting down but he was completely unconcerned with any of that, but just reading a book in deep concentration…

        That man was Yamada Mumon Roshi who Shodo Harada Roshi trained with for 20 years.

        Here is more on Shodo Harada Roshi:

        The complete documentary The Man on Cloud Mountain is available on Youtube. This link is an introductory page with all the links.

        From Buddhadharma magazine Shodo Harada Roshi:Nuclear Reactor of Zen-an interview conducted by Alan Senauke

        March Miscellany

        Back from two weeks of relative Internet exile. Only 20 minutes a day online some days, none most days. Betcha didn’t even know I was gone. One of the advantages of blogging on WordPress is being able to schedule posts for any time in the future. So I keep a long queue of almost finished posts, some of them have been sitting there for a year,  and when it’s time for a break I polish up a few, set them to robo-post and walk away.

        Just got a huge pile of new books.

        In Literature and Culture:

        Lapham’s Quarterly spring 2010 Arts and Letters-tons of great writing

        2 volumes of essays by David Foster Wallace

        The Slynx by Tatyana Tolstaya (Literature in translation is something I’m very fond of-finished another Russian to English book- Today I Wrote Nothing by Daniil Kharms recently-brilliant-I may make a review of it since it’s so Zen-like. I just scared myself using that term.)

        You are Not a Gadget by the great Jaron Lanier His manifesto on remaining human in a digital world.

        Bright Sided:How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking has Undermined America by Barbara Ehrenreich (finally-have only been reading excerpts and reviews thus far)

        In Buddhism:

        Momentary Buddhahood by Anyen Rinpoche (about mindfulness and Dzogchen teachings)

        Wild Awakening by Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche (am real excited to receive this one on Dzogchen and Mahamudra)

        From the Foundation of Buddhist Thought series, Relative Truth, Ultimate Truth by Geshe Tashi Tsering (this is a good series. Am hoping to get the third volume on Buddhist Psychology in my next book order-in 5 or 6 months maybe-they are actually part of a study program run by the Foundation for the Preservation of the Mahayana Tradition which can be taken in person or by correspondence-course info)

        A great anthology called Women Practicing Buddhism:American Experiences  with contributions by such great women as Bell Hooks, Jane Hirshfield, Pat Enkyo O’Hara, Thubten Chodron, Carolyn Chen and many others. Includes interviews, panel discussions and articles. A good panel discussion on Race, Ethnicity and Class (you can be sure it will be mentioned here once I’ve read it and let it digest a little)

        And the gigantic volume of Visuddhimagga by Buddhaghosa. This is going to be some real heavy lifting intellectually but am looking forward to the challenge. I’ll be reading it for the next couple of years at least. Got the one with all the notes, index, glossary, tables and stuff from the Buddhist Publication Society. Over 900 pages of deliciousness.

        From my last batch I still haven’t finished Bernard Faure’s Unmasking Buddhism. It’s like eating mashed up stale dry crackers you’ve had in your pocket for a week as you trudge through the desert without any water. There’s not much in it that isn’t available on the Internet, journals and elsewhere regarding misunderstandings and controversies-although on the Internet we are without the word soteriological (it has to do with salvation in a religious sense) in every second paragraph which is a relief. It doesn’t unmask much really. There are a few good points here and there.  I’ll try to go back and make note of them. And it’s not a book for Buddhist beginners as some have suggested. If you don’t know what these apparent controversies are a lot of the discussion will be irrelevant. And many of the controversies are in the field of academic Buddhist Studies as opposed to practice. The chapter titles sound like they’d be relevant-ie Buddhism is a philosophy not a religion-but then there’s a lot of intellectual bafflegab and no conclusions or even pretense of tying the arguments up.  Few of them are even clarified by this book. And a lot of the “debunking” reads like snide comments aimed at other scholars. His generalizations are ridiculous (like in the chapter on Buddhism and Neo-Buddhism) both about immigrant populations and converts. Do some frigging field work man! (but that’s my anthropological training talking) Here’s an example where he’s talking about and for Asian populations:

        Various recent studies have shown that Asians who have recently immigrated into Europe and the United States, while emphasizing their cultural differences, tend to universalize their Buddhism, making it compatible with their Western values by focusing on its modernity, rationality, and spirituality. This voluntary acculturation seems to be motivated, in part by a desire to succeed in the world of capitalism, and involves abandonment of certain devotional and magical practices.(p. 140-1)

        There is so much that sets my teeth on edge in this paragraph alone.

        What studies? I can’t think of any kind of study that would encompass all of attitudes, cultural differences, religious faith and change, values, acculturation and economics in any sort of way that could be validly measured. Too many variables. If it is a combination of studies (nearly a dozen on different topics to support the contentions by my calculation) the conclusions drawn are purely in the imagination of the author.

        Emphasizing cultural differences yet holding Western values? Does this mean some sort of warping of culture of identity into inflated proportions while subjugating the value system of that same culture in favor of adopted cultural values?  I have a hard time understanding how this is possible on any sort of consistent basis. Values are too core to cultural identity.

        Universalize their Buddhism? Does this mean water it down?

        Western values focused on modernity, rationality and spirituality? As opposed to Eastern values which would focus on what…backwardness, irrationality and  irreverence? I’ve talked about the perils of this sort of Great Divide theory before. Faure’s insistence on locating people into discrete camps permeates this book. You’ve got your Asians here and your Westerns there and everything is either/or. It’s not sociologically valid. But then he talks about Buddhisms-as in variety. On most topics it seems he holds several different, even contradictory, viewpoints simultaneously.

        Voluntary acculturation? There’s a difference between immigration and acculturation. Simply showing some deference for local customs does not negate one’s own initial enculturation. Nor does finding some points of agreement between birth and adopted cultures. Acculturation takes at least a generation and often more.

        No capitalism in Asia? Been to Hong Kong or Singapore or Bangkok or Tokyo or Shanghai in this century?

        Capitalism incompatible with magical practices? Been to a North American Chinese Buddhist temple recently for example? Plenty of people making prayers and burning incense while having thoughts of business success. (I have Chinese relatives by marriage in Canada who go for this purpose)

        There’s a lot of paragraphs like this. The preceding and subsequent paragraphs go off into completely different directions. It’s a real mishmash.

        I’m about 85% finished it so I’ll finish forcing it down (gulp-done) as I had planned to review it here. (Ooops maybe I just did!) No instead of a review maybe I’ll take up some of these “controversies” in posts here if I run out of other blog fodder.

        Haven’t got any Zen books on the agenda for a while. I finished Heinrich Dumoulin’s Zen Enlightenment:Origins and Meaning a while back. Similar problem to Faure’s book. The European scholars are so fond of examining the products of “the Oriental mind” from their little pedestals. Disdain for one’s subject matter seems to be what passes for objectivity in some European universities. But Dumoulin was born in 1905 and his book is from the 70’s. It’s a product of the times it was produced as well as the author’s background. He was a Jesuit priest. But I don’t know what Faure’s excuse is. One good thing about this book is the historical treatment of the subject matter. That is he goes into the history of Zen right from the Indian roots and touches upon most of the major figures and concepts. He’s especially heavy on Dogen. So maybe I’ll review this one too.

        I seem to be on a bit of a ramble here so here’s some more miscellany.

        Big heavy books. I like them.

        Long blog posts. I like them.

        Complicated stuff. I like it.

        Getting in way over my head. Excellent predicament.

        Speaking of rambling there’s something enjoyable about trekking through a lot of ideas and stirring them up to see what come of it. Examining this and that, seeing if and how it fits together, just taking in the sights in mind. It’s like walking through the mountains for days on end which I also like.

        Sometimes you’ve got to scramble, climb, stretch, reach for the next footing. Try not to fall on your ass too much.  Then at the end of the day just to sit down and breathe is enough.

        Somebody else said something bad about Buddhism but I don’t know who or what. Probably a good thing.

        About Internet breaks. I take one nearly every month. Sometimes for 4-5 days and sometimes for as much as a couple of weeks. It’s too easy to over focus on some little corner of the on-line world and lose perspective. 

        Twitter really isn’t all that. I find I skip reading more of it than I read. After the 15th RT of some lame out of context quote (with OK or great added behind it) or silly platitude (with Please RT behind it) it’s hard to sift the interesting stuff out. I guess that’s why lists were invented. But if one is into marketing or gaining unknown follow-bots then it has it’s uses-like those commercials that play 15 times an hour on TV.

        Facebook is marginally better. At least you don’t have to spend all that time trying to trace conversations and replies. Am not even going to bother with Buzz. I looked at it and don’t need another profile or all my info that connected.

        Maybe it’s time for a digital diet. Cut out all that binary sugar.

        Now I want to go and indulge in my new books for a while.  I know that’s so old school. Where’s my parchment and quill?

        By NellaLou Tagged

        devotion by Dani Shapiro [a review]

        A while back Harper-Collins publishers sent me a copy of Dani Shapiro’s new memoir “devotion” to review. I recalled that I had seen the name of the author,  Dani Shapiro, before on books and articles I hadn’t read and when I read the cover blurbs of this particular book it was really tempting to skim through and write an obligatory paragraph or two about chick-lit spirituality and be done with it.  Then I noticed a blurb by Elizabeth Gilbert, who readers of this blog know is, in my opinion, the diva of self-indulgent chick-lit spirituality.  This gave me a bit of a jolt since it meant the possibility of a scathing review. Although that is something I occasionally enjoy writing I prefer to read for new and interesting ideas and viewpoints rather than take in a writer’s insults and disrespect for their audience via platitudes, overweening self-importance and lack of originality, research and writing ability.  The mechanics of every type of reading along the spectrum, from pleasure to criticism, are of quite different natures. While scathing criticism is fun now and then it is rather tiring both to write and to read.

        So it was with some trepidation that I cracked the cover and started this book one evening. As a fan of the “Zenfessional”, that is biography and particularly autobiography about people’s encounters with Buddhism, as I mentioned a few posts back regarding a couple of other reads, I always have a glimmer of hope that the author is honest in telling their story and outlines what they have learned, for better or worse, and that the story is told in an engaging or at least competent way. If criticism is called for it’s not something I feel guilty about giving since any paid author is writing in a professional capacity even when writing personal memoir.

        The author, Dani Shapiro, a Jewish woman in her forties from a conservative background, with a husband and child was uncomfortable with her life. She had been through some serious life situations including the early loss of her father, a problem with alcoholism, alienation from her demanding mother, a long-term life threatening illness of her only son and living in New York City during the 911 crisis. I can relate to some of these situations as she is able to emphasize the emotional sense of the situations even if exact details vary quite distinctly from my own.  But in terms of difficult situations, facing crisis and family illness, and that overarching, deeply unsettling feeling of dissatisfaction, disconnectedness and even struggle and alienation, there was a familiar ring to much of what she wrote.   She was on a serious search for meaning, and that is something she defines well in the book and something I could relate to.  With regard to questions posed to her by her son she wrote:

        I was laying out a smorgasbord of options, but I wasn’t telling him what I believe–because I truly didn’t know. Each day, emails I had signed up for kept appearing in my in-box–My Daily Om, Weekly Kabbalah Consciousness Tune-up–like the results of a Rorschach test:spiritually confused wife and mother in midlife, seeking answers. for years, I had dabbled:Little bite-size morsels of Buddhism, the Yoga Sutra, Jewish mysticism. I had a regular yoga practice, but often felt like I was only scratching the surface. My bookshelves ere filled with books I had bought with every good intention, important books containing serious insights about how to live. Over the years, they remained unopened. Taking up space.

        What would happen if I opened the books? If I opened myself–as an adventurer, an explorer into the depths of every single day? What if–instead of fleeing–I were to continue to quiver in the darkness? It wasn’t so much that I was in search of answers. In fact, I was wary of the whole idea of answers. I wanted to climb all the way inside the questions and see what was there.  (p. 12)

        Fortunately she is not some flaky New-Agey, truth-seeker flitting from one scenario to another even if she describes herself as such. Instead she looked at her life deeply.  She felt she was only living on the surface of things and decided to dive in. She took her life seriously rather than trying to run away from it or from herself.

        This may all sound rather dour and depressing but she has a sharp wit and a self-deprecating sense of humor as well as a down to earth quality that keeps the story warm and engaging. She was offered a trip to India by a travel editor and she describes her response:

        India. My heart sank. How could I tell the travel editor that my interests lay a little closer to home? Say, within a three-hour drive?

        She smiled at me from across the table, her eyes twinkling. She knew (and she knew that I knew, and she knew that I knew that she knew) that offering to send a writer to India was a dream assignment. One that most writers would kill for. But not this writer.

        I imagined myself on the shores of Kerala, in a beautifully embroidered sari, at the feet of my new guru. It should be mentioned that, in this fantasy, I had a pretty good tan. I would gather shining jewels of wisdom from my guru–truths that could be found in no other way–and carry them home in my pocket.But then the fantasy shattered. I saw those jewels falling out of my pocket, one by one. By the time I got back home, back to my life on top of the hill–to my husband, son, dogs, piles upon piles of mail/laundry/manuscripts–I would have left a glittering mess behind me. No longer available. No longer of use. Once again, I was reminded: truths found out there don’t travel well.

        “I think I need to stay close to home,” I told the puzzled editor. “My life is here.” (p.150-2)


        She manages to temper romantic fantasy with realism. She has set her direction and wants to learn to live with it, knows she must learn to live with it and cannot escape it. But she questions everything. Relentlessly. From the tradition of the bris for her son to the ridiculousness of chain letters via email to the existence and utility of God there is nothing held too sacred to be questioned.

        She does look for spiritual direction and one of the people who makes a deep impact on her is Buddhist teacher Sylvia Boorstein (among others). One can almost feel the wisdom of her teachings taking hold on Dani Shapiro’s life. I have long enjoyed the teachings of Sylvia Boorstein myself. She draws on these Buddhist teachings as well as those of Yoga and her Jewish heritage in order to try to resolve some of the questions in her life.

        One thing that struck me was the honesty of her writing as well as her ability. She has written novels in the past and the words flow very nicely. Scenes of her life come and go and are captured with an emotional clarity that is rather striking. And fortunately she is not scared of language and of appearing uncouth or sacrilegious.  She even uses the word “fuck” on more than a few occasions.

        Not some neat little uptight, all is right with the world now that I’ve found the answer sort of narrative she gets right to the heart of  matters. 

        It’s difficult to sum up such a book. The threads all interwoven, some frayed and others carrying on throughout, their configuration at times knotted and at others a smooth plait is about the only metaphor I can come up with to succinctly encompass the major themes.

        No matter how things end there will always be questions. And continuation. I’m not sorry I took the time to really read this book.



        Dani Shapiro on Twitter

        Two Shores of Zen and The Broken Buddha: comments on two books

        Buddhism as practiced in America has been subject to criticism. So has Buddhism in various parts of Asia. Here are the works of two more experienced voices on that subject.

        Two Shores of Zen

        A short time ago I got an email from Jiryu Mark Rutschman-Byler, who is a Soto Zen Buddhist priest and teacher, resident at Green Gulch Farm Zen Center which is part of the San Francisco Zen Center.

        He has a new book out on the issues of Buddhism East and West which chronicles his time practicing Zen in California and in Japan. He seemed to think I might have interest in the subject matter of his book. He was quite right.

        I’ve read the excerpts he sent from his book and found them to be really interesting. It isn’t often that those involved in the Buddhist Establishment write so openly about their disillusioning experiences in trying to find a way to practice that feels true and deep.

        He writes in the beginning of his enthusiasm and zeal for practice in Japan. Ignoring physical discomfort and even injury he pushes ahead, and perhaps pushes himself too far in the quest. And it seems like a quest to an earnest young guy hell-bent on fully immersing himself in the Dharma.

        His quest took him to Japan after some years studying in America. He describes this transition in this way:

        But I’m frustrated, and I’m tired, and it’s dawning on me, like a slow, unstoppable train, that if I’m really serious about this Buddhism thing, I may well need to abandon this California imitation of it. I don’t mean to disparage the Sangha, my peers and my teachers, but I have vowed to end all suffering, my own and others’. And I’ve glimpsed the possibility of that kind of salvation, but the lifestyle here is not pushing me to take the plunge, to realize the one final truth that will shatter all delusions and liberate all beings.

        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?” I want to live more humble problems: cold wind through threadbare robes, the faint, holy fragility of a diet of watery rice. I want monks’ problems. The problems implied in the ancient admonitions like Dogen’s Zuimonki, and the original Buddhist monastic code, the

        The romanticization of life in the East and life in the past has taken over many who follow the Buddhist path. Idealization of both place and time when encountering the products of other cultures and their histories can be a real diversion from one’s decided direction. It can become a great disappointment when the obvious appears. We can’t go “there” or “then”.  This can also be one of the most valuable lessons to learn.

        Some resort to bitterness when disillusionment sets in. In several descriptions of a fellow American monk in Japan who became thoroughly disgusted with what he perceived to be American Zen this character states:

        “I mean if you want to just live a good life, go back to American Zen. Move up the Zen corporate ladder, make your little Zen career like the rest of those guys out there.”

        “Those American Zen ‘teachers’ think they’re saving beings but they’re just stopping some children from crying. They aren’t themselves awake, so how could they really save anyone?”

        To which the author responds:

        Here, finally, is a monk who understands the pain of being at a comfortable, pop-psychy American Zen place, while really wanting to realize the Way. I can talk to him, and say the things that seem too hard, or too unkind, to say at home.

        Yet the author seems to have some doubts about the boisterous monk’s criticisms.  A few days later at the end of a conversation with another fellow monk he has some realizations that give a different perspective.

        “You’re going back home!” I say, watching the water. I am sad and excited: sad for myself, and for our parting, but excited at the emerging possibility that there might be such a thing as “going home.” That even kalpas trickle away. I bite off a piece of my espresso ice cream bar, and remember once in the States looking at the ocean with a Japanese monk friend, watching the waves roll in and slide back. He taught me the word natsukashii, like nostalgic, homesick, longing backwards. It had seemed right then that he could swim home if he wanted—I had seen him see that he could swim home.

        Going away in order to come home is a familiar theme in Buddhism. Home leaving in one form or another,  the finding of what has always been there, that home is not a place. There are a lot of lessons that come from the journey however it manifests and for whatever reasons it is undertaken.

        There is an amusing episode involving a foreign family from Australia that comes to visit the temple but I’ll leave that for you to read in the excerpts available.

        On the other hand there is disillusionment to be found in Japan as well.

        A former priest I met in the U.S. once told me about practicing at the Japanese Soto Zen head temple Eiheiji—not just the parties and porn, but at the gate, when he’d announced, upon ritual questioning, that his reason for coming to the monastery was ahimsa, “non-harming.” At that he had received a look of total incomprehension that really set him back, an early blow that never went away, that never turned around, and he’d only made it for nine months or so before getting out of his priest robes and out of Japan. If it isn’t ahimsa, he said, what is the point?

        It seems the greater the delusion one is under the greater the effect when that delusion shows it self by way of reality. The burning out of delusion sometimes leaves people themselves burnt out. This is likely the reason so many turn away from the Buddhist path and into nihilism or worse.  Effort in that circumstance, when there is no more goal, is one of the most difficult things to muster.

        Fortunately for Jiryu he managed to work out a way to continue.

        One of the most important sections is in trying to define a Middle Way. I will take this topic up again in a larger context in the next section of this post with another author’s work. But on this subject Jiryu writes at some length:

        But on what graph do we chart this Middle Way? Dogen would perhaps at one extreme draw the ancient Indian mountain ascetics, naked, long-haired, eating grasses if they ate at all; and, at the other extreme, he might put the pampered nobility of his own day. Given those poles, his model of the Middle was Shakyamuni, the renunciate monk who ate one meal a day and lived simply in the woods.

        Shaykamuni, as recorded in the Vinaya, is clear how monks should live out the Middle Way: don’t light a fire just because you’re cold, don’t hand a woman anything, or ever be alone with a woman. Don’t ride on a carriage, don’t handle so much as a penny, and if you must lie down, sleep on your right side, in your robes, mindful. This was by no means Shaykamuni Buddha’s view of asceticism—this was precisely his teaching of the Middle Way.

        But we American Buddhists, calling ourselves disciples of Buddha, find Shakyamuni’s own Middle Way too extreme. To find our Middle Way we seem to set Shakyamuni himself at one extreme, and the likes of Donald Trump at the other, so naturally we find our middle in soft beds and lazy practice schedules, in romances and The Times. But how can we call this following Shakyamuni? How did we manage to make the original Middle Way into an extreme to be avoided?

        The texts like Zuimonki and the Vinaya scriptures thus recede into spiritualized metaphor—they aren’t about how we should actually live, but just about an inner attitude we should have. In their place, books like “Zen and Business” and “Zen Sex” spring up and dot the bookstores, excerpted in glossy, pop-Buddhist magazines. I hate those magazines, though it’s true I have liked some of the articles. There was that one about Zen and sex that I nervously skimmed, leaning against the shelves in a big city bookstore, but that’s just my own weakness…. Hate, too, is improper, but I quite nearly hate the celebrity Buddhists who, I’m told, dash their People interviews with Buddhist terms. My negativity is my weakness, I know. I should not disparage the Sangha. I apply myself to my studies and practice. I meet with my teacher again and again, hoping he can free me from my bias.

        There are a lot of big issues in this book which is narrated in an engaging way. This work was reminiscent of the work of Janwillem Van de Wetering,  who wrote The Empty Mirror: Experiences in a Japanese Zen Monastery in 1971  followed by A Glimpse of Nothingness: Experiences in an American Zen Community in 1975 and Lawrence Shainberg’s book Ambivalent Zen from 1995.  More recently Noah Levine and Brad Warner have written in a similar vein. I have to admit a fondness for the “Zen-fessional” genre.

        Everyone struggles to sort out what is true and what is not. To be able to read of this struggle is both comforting and disturbing. We learn that others struggle and we also learn that it takes a lot of time and sincere effort to resolve that struggle if indeed it is ever completely resolved. The words “soul searching” come to mind but they would be misplaced and too literally taken by some.

        The search for authentic practice of the middle way is at the crux of criticisms many have of Buddhist establishments anywhere.   Authentic practice is an expression of one’s authentic being .

        Related Links

        The author,  Jiryu Mark Rutschman-Byler,  maintains a blog No Zen in the West. More information about the book is on www.shoresofzen.com. There is a downloadable selection of excerpts available there as well as ordering information for the entire book both in print and electronic format.

        Dosho Port has a couple of interesting posts on this book  Two Shores of Zen: Are Western Sanghas All of That? and What is Great Practice? and there is vigorous discussion in the comments as well.

        The Broken Buddha

        Ven. Shravasti Dhammika has been a Theravada monk for over 30 years. He has trained in Sri Lanka, Burma, India, Laos and Thailand and is a great storehouse of knowledge of the Dhamma both in study and in practice.

        Some time ago he produced a short book that addressed concerns he had about the stagnation and rigidity to be found in the institutions of Buddhism in Asia and increasingly in the west. This book is called The Broken Buddha:Critical Reflections on Theravada and a Plea for a New Buddhism. The purpose of the book is  summarized as:

        …these reflections will also attempt to show what Theravada really is, how it got like that and suggests ways of bringing it closer to the spirit of the Buddha’s teachings so that it can become revenant to a non-traditional environment.

        The author begins the text with a quotation:

        There is no law in history which guarantees that Buddhism will grow roots in the West or advance beyond its present infantile stage. But one would expect that it will grow more conscious of its own difficulties and Buddhists will awaken to the problems which Buddhism itself thrusts upon man as an essential part of its treasure. One would also hope that doubt should appear as the sign of a deeper conviction. Luis O. Gomez

        This is an interesting quote because it points to the apparent gap between Buddhism as historically practiced and the sometimes wildly new expressions found in convert groups. The choice seems to have become so polarized that what we are left with is either stultifying rigidity or hedonistic abandon. It is as if no middle ground exists. Yet the middle ground is what most of us occupy.

        Just as the previous author mentioned here too is a dichotomy that has appeared not only between East and West but also between past and present. The latter duo is what is emphasized in this particular work.

        We are given a thorough history of Theravadin schools and developments, with points illustrated with stories from the Pali Canon as well as Mahayana texts  such as the Vimalakirtinidesa Sutra. The breadth of background material is somewhat daunting but very informative. He also relies on historians, philosophers and social scientists, particularly in the field of anthropology in the analysis.

        There are particulars about monastic life in South and South-east Asia that are given scrutiny. Institutional problems such as hypocrisy, boredom, lack of materials, exaggerated veneration and other excesses as well as selfishness, misogyny, sectarianism, wealth collection and hollow rituals are outlined. It is a fairly comprehensive catalogue of issues. But issues cannot be addressed until they are first acknowledged.

        A New Buddhism is proposed. The author writes:

        It might appear from all that has been said that I would advocate throwing the old Buddha image with all its cracks, missing pieces and dents on to the scrap heap and leaving it at that. However, there might be another alternative. The metal the image is made from may be corroded and rusty but it is still of inestimable value. The image’s style might be at odds with modern tastes but a skilled sculptor could fashion a more contemporary and beautiful form. The old Buddha image needs to be melted down and cast again in a new mold.

        Many of the issues discussed on this blog and elsewhere including issues of ethnic Buddhists and converts, levels of involvement in the Dharma from hobbyist to monastic, representation of women are presented. This new Buddhism which  would encompass elements from most of the current representations of Buddhism is tentatively titled Buddhayana. I’ve just looked up a reference to this and here is a section of text from:

        Saddharmapundarika Sutra

        The stupid and those of little wit,
        Those tied to externals,
        And the proud cannot believe this Truth.
        But now I gladly and with boldness
        In the midst of (you) Bodhisattvas,
        Straightway put aside expediency
        And only proclaim the Supreme Way.
        It was as expedient means
        That I expounded a Three-Vehicle Law.
        Let all be free of doubt and perplexity.
        World-Honoured Ones, without exception,
        Teach this Way: the One Buddha-yana.
        (For) all Buddhas take the one vow:
        ‘The Buddha-way which I walk,
        I will universally cause all the living
        To attain this same Way with me.’
        Though Buddhas in future ages
        Proclaim hundreds, thousands, kotis,
        Of countless ways into the doctrine,
        In reality there is but the One-Vehicle.

        from the complete text here.[pdf]

        It is not a description of one way that throws out everything including texts and commentaries but one that understands them more fully. Not one that seeks a destructive approach of sowing to salt the ground on which tradition stands, but one which clears the weeds and finds the seeds which were planted there and attends and nourishes them appropriately.

        This book brings to the fore, in an honest fashion, the author’s observations over decades of monastic practice. In some ways it parallels the author’s own spiritual path. He amply illustrates his points with personal stories as well as scholarly references. Some people will not like what he has to say. Others will conclude he has not gone far enough. I don’t necessarily agree with all of it but it certainly provides a great deal of food for thought.

        Related links

        The Broken Buddha:Critical Reflections on Theravada and a Plea for a New Buddhism by Shravasti Dhammika  – the complete pdf document downloadable from the link.

        The author maintains a blog Dhamma Musings full in interesting and insightful writing.  There are links there to other books he has written.


        Overcoming this deep ocean that seems to separate East from West and Past from Present is going to require the building of a raft with materials from both shores.

        2009:The Best Buddhist Book I Read This Year

        Best Of Inquiring Mind: 25 Years Of Dharma, Drama, and Uncommon Insight

        The Inquiring Mind magazine had been around for 25 years now.   While it came out of the Theravada tradition and particularly Vipassana in North America,  the publication itself has been very inclusive and broad based not only in terms of the various Buddhist schools but with presenting the views of people from various cultural backgrounds as well.

        There are numerous articles available on-line from past issues and previous issues can be ordered for the cost of postage. They place their readership numbers at 30,000 which is a comparable to some of the glossies. And they don’t have outside advertising on the website.

        Another  interesting thing to note about Inquiring Mind is it’s subscription policy:

        Inquiring Mind is available, without a set subscription fee, to anyone who wishes to be placed on our mailing list. While the journal is freely distributed, almost all of the funding to produce and publish Inquiring Mind comes from donations by our readers. This is in accordance with the Buddhist tradition of dana, or generosity—the means by which the teachings of the Dharma have been offered for nearly 2,500 years.

        That a publication could survive for 25 years with this kind of policy gives one pause in the consumer oriented world of Dharma-for-dollars. Perhaps it has something to do with quality.

        This current anthology of some of the previous work that has appeared in the magazine attempts to cover quite a spectrum of views.

        There are familiar names from America such as Jack Kornfield, Sharon Salzberg, Joseph Goldstein, Jon Kabat-Zinn, Noah Levine,  Gary Snyder and Robert Thurman. As well there are some writers you may not have encountered before such as:

        • Jarvis Jay Masters who is a death row inmate at San Quentin and a widely published African American Buddhist writer.
        • Lorain Fox Davis of the Cree and Blackfoot nations and Eduardo Duran of the Apache and Tewa nations who provide a perspective of Buddhism from the aboriginal point of view. The latter is the author of the book Buddha in Redface
        • Tsultrim Allione was ordained as a Tibetan Buddhist nun in 1970 and was one of the first American women to do so
        • Edward Espe Brown, a student of Shunryu Suzuki Roshi for many years and who is the author of the well known Tassajara Bread Book

        From outside America there is quite a selection as well.

        • Australia has representation with Sydney based Susan Murphy Roshi and artist Ma Deva Padma from Melbourne
        • Canadian born Ajahn Passano ordained in Thailand over thirty years ago
        • From Europe Ajahn Amero and Ajahn Sundara are among several contributors.
        • India’s most prominent representative in this collection is Kiran Bedi. She became a high ranking police administrator with the Indian government and introduced the concept of prison reform to the system there. She also brought Vipassana into prisons and has won the Ramon Magsaysay Award which is often dubbed “the Asian Nobel Prize”. As well contributions of interviews with Dipa Ma Barua of Calcutta and Hari Lal Poonja of the Punjab are included.
        • S.N. Goenka of Burma contributes an interview as does Tsoknyi Rinpoche of Nepal.

        Many of the contributors have spent significant amounts of time in countries other than those of their birth. The breadth of cross-cultural experience among these contributors is quite large.

        Tenzin Palmo of “Cave in the Snow” renown, who started a nunnery in Himanchal state in northern India is probably the most recognizable name. But others have spent many years in such diverse places as Thailand, Japan, India, Burma, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Brazil and Tanzania.

        These inclusions reflect a wider perspective of the world than many other anthologies of Buddhist writing currently available.

        And the subject matter is more diverse as well. From interviews with intriguing figures, reflections on practice by ordinary practitioners and the piece Buddhist Humor Practice:It Hurts So I Laugh by Rev. Heng Sure to travel tales and the Buddha’s awakening story written in the style of Dashiell Hammett, this is an interesting and often entertaining collection. And certainly not your ordinary Buddhist anthology.

        There will be lots in here for most people to enjoy and think about.