Wednesday, January 26, 2011

old friends

I probably 'shouldn't' be embarrassed, but yesterday, there I was ... strangely embarrassed.

The focus of my embarrassment was a book, of all goddamned things. The book, "Dialogues in a Dream: Muchu Mondo" is translated and annotated by Thomas Yuho Kirchner with Fukazawa Yukio. The book presents the words and thoughts of Zen master Muso Soseki (1275-1351). Tom, who is an American Zen monk in Japan had had a review copy sent along since we have come to be e-mail chums over time. And I was delighted to receive such a beautiful present when it arrived.

But yesterday, I sat down and tried to read it. The book is popular in Japan because, according to Tom, it offers an accessible and down-to-earth presentation of Zen ... much less forbidding and paradoxical than other texts can be. I like an accessible approach to Zen and had been looking forward to reading it. But then I picked it up, admiring the care that had obviously been taken in the making of the physical volume and the care that was obvious in the words. And ... and ... it simply did not interest me.

I wanted to be interested. That's what friends do for each other, right? And that's what I had done for myself in the past -- be interested in Buddhist compilations and recitations. Twenty or thirty years ago, I might have been really interested. But not yesterday. I read twenty pages and then skipped forward in hopes that my interest might spring up. It didn't and I was somehow embarrassed.

It felt like eating leftovers. Very good leftovers, perhaps, but leftovers. What was the matter with me? Was I too old and fat and lazy to be interested? Was I merely arrogant, assuming that I somehow 'knew more' or 'knew better?' Zen was something I had muddled around with for a long time ... where was the interest? Where had it gone? It wasn't that I couldn't recognize the value these words and pages might have for someone else. Certainly, if asked, I would recommend the book. But I couldn't recommend it to me.

I felt vaguely as if I had become irresponsible -- irresponsible to a friend; irresponsible to some segment of myself. Zen was important in my life ... but the importance had somehow shape-shifted while I wasn't looking. The leftovers really were tasty, but they weren't fresh food. And what might have constituted fresh food? Well, like it or not, it occurred to me that getting crabby about the laugh track on some dimwit TV sitcom might have filled the bill. That, god knows, is something alive for me.

I wanted the devotion and excitement and interest in "Zen" back. I wanted an old friend. I wanted ... something more concerned. I missed it as I might miss a friend who had moved to Omaha.

And the best I could console myself with was Shunryu Suzuki's approximate words about the seriousness of Zen: "It's serious, but it's not that serious."

And Dylan Thomas' words in "Under Milkwood:" ... "Time passes. Listen! Time passes."


  1. Man, you really are a lazy illiterate bum, aren't you? :)

    By the way, we are clearly on opposite ends of the Thoreau spectrum. When I was 21 I rode my bike all the way to Concord from Montreal just to visit his cabin site. Considering you already live in Massachusetts, I would be embarrassed, too. :)

  2. I understand, it's getting older that does it, or giving younger desires away.