Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Quick hit: watershed texts

Long day (looks like there are going to be a lot more of those this semester), so I'll punt with a quick hit.

The Sarge was telling me recently that she'd come into a few bucks--thank the Universe for student loans!--and was looking for a few reading recommendations. Well, all you gotta do with a musicologist is ask one question--it's like offering John Belushi one free drink--and you'll as much as or far more than you asked for.

Here's a selection of what I offered:

Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind, Shinryu Suzuki-Roshi
Suzuki-Roshi was the man, probably more than any other, who caused Zen to take root in 1960s America. Not to take away from any of the other great Buddhas who held the lotus to the rock--but, if "by their fruits do we know them," then Suzuki-Roshi's lineage of students is a staggering confirmation of the lasting value of his teaching.

Long Quiet Highway, Natalie Goldberg
I'm not a huge fan of everything Goldberg has written, and the last three books feel like she's kind of running on fumes (or recycling things she's said earlier, and more eloquently), but this one--a parallel biography of her life, as it led to her becoming a writer, and a Buddhist--and the earlier Writing Down the Bones are both astonishing testaments to her own commitment, and to the great Buddha-hood of her teacher, Dainin Katagiri. And more evidence of the power of the lineage: Katagiri was Suzuki's assistant. And Highway contains possibly the most beautiful, heartfelt tribute to a teacher--a subject close to my heart--I've ever read.

Ax Handles, Gary Snyder
Gary Snyder is probably the most important influence on my life and poetry I can think of. He's not a perfect writer or perfect person, but as poet, activist, Buddhist, and teacher, he sets a model I hope someday to live up to. This collection was written after he returned from Japan, homesteaded in the Sierras, started a family, and began to think in ten-thousand-year cycles.

Dharma Bums, Jack Kerouac
Poor, poor Jack. He had a vision of what freedom could be, he had the huge blessing (and the admiration) of friends like Ginsberg and Snyder, he had an outsized talent and an absolutely staggering dedication to his craft, but, as Goldberg says, he didn't have a daily practice in which to ground his insights. And he died. This book is his tribute to what he saw, in Ginsberg ("Alvah Goldbook") and Snyder ("Japhy Ryder"--Kerouac was absolutely awful at fictionalizing names for his roman-a-clef characters), and what he wished/hoped he could find in himself. It's tragic that he never did--but in this book, he captures, more beautifully, and with an unwittingly elegiac tone, what we found in them as well.

Cold Mountain, Han Shan (Snyder or Watson translation)
The poets of the Tang dynasty are simply unmatched. There is simply nothing to compare. Han Shan, and his friend Shih Teh, are two jokers who live on "Cold Mountain," and spend most of their time telling stories, playing practical jokes, mocking the pomposity of pretty much the rest of the world. No other poetry has ever touched me like this.

The Seven-Story Mountain, Thomas Merton
I think that it is probably realistic to say that, by any quasi-objective metric (and leaving aside the politicking of the current pope, a Prada-wearing former Hitler Youth who was formerly the Vatican's hatchet man), Thomas Merton was a saint. Poet, prosodist, peace activist, cheese-maker, priest, painter; killed in a freak "accident" in Asia in 1968. He was a saint in the tradition of Francis of Assisi and a great Buddha. And maybe the almost-last chance for the Catholic church to recover what the Desert Fathers first found.

Start Where You Are
, Pema Chodron
Senior student of Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, the hugely-difficult and hugely-important "crazy wisdom" master of the Tibetan Nyingma and Kagyu lineages; founder of Naropa Institute--where my Dharma-brother Dr Masbrow is currently hitting "reset". Chodron is a hugely influential, imaginative, compassionate, and insightful teacher and writer, and exemplar of the "wisdom of no escape." Abbess of a Trungpa monastery in Nova Scotia, the clarity of her voice, the calm of her insight, the sanity of her teaching, are one of the last resources we've got in this terminal world of Samsara.

The Snow Leopard, Peter Matthiessen
One of the first and surely one of the most influential Buddhist books I ever encountered. Matthiessen, an author, naturalist, deep-sea diver, and film-maker (he wrote the screenplay for Blue Water, White Death), nursed his wife until her death from cancer, and then left for Nepal, where he trekked mountains, said mantras, and never found the snow leopard. And he closes by quoting a dialog:

"'Have you seen the snow leopard?' 'No--isn't that wonderful?'"

And so, of course, it is.

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