Books in Brief Fall 2011

Sam Mowe

When Dogen wrote, “engage yourself in zazen as though saving your head from fire,” he was encouraging us to practice meditation with a sense of urgency, to douse the flames of desire during this lifetime. However, after reading Zazen (Red Lemonade, 2011, $15.95, paper, 256 pp.), Vanessa Veselka’s intense debut novel, one wonders whether Zen Master Dogen had it right. Not about impermanence—our “dewlike existence”—but about the fire. Della, Zazen’s heroine, is a cynical 27-year-old paleontologist and waitress obsessed with pictures of self-immolation. She is especially impressed by:

Buddhists who can sit, quiet as well-water, and burn like candles, like in that famous photo where the Zen monk is sitting cross-legged on fire in the middle of an intersection while cars drive past and people watch. Everything near him is blurry, the cars, the people, because they’re moving. But he’s not. He is absolutely sharp because he is absolutely still.

It’s easy to see why Della would marvel at the monk’s ability to burn gracefully—everything in Zazen is ablaze. The novel opens with War A ending, War B beginning, and a soul-dead American city watching the apocalypse on TVs that are “on all the time now.” Veselka, who is clearly inspired by and working with Buddhist themes (and not just from Zen sources; remember the Pali canon’s Fire Sermon?) has an unmistakable voice: imaginative, funny, sarcastic, and, yes, fiery. Ultimately, Zazen manages to inspire hope in readers who find Della’s violent world inside our own; however, as the story ends we are left with the proverbial fire on our heads. Zazen invokes a question: What if instead of putting out the fire, we could learn to sit still?

Of course, real world fires leave no time for questions. Wildfires invoke action. When a 2008 “lightning siege” threatened the historic Tassajara Zen Mountain Center in California, five resident monks refused to sit still. They also refused to evacuate the area, as federal authorities had ordered. Fire Monks: Zen Mind Meets Wildfire at the Gates of Tassajara (Penguin, 2011, $25.95, cloth, 272 pp.) tells the dramatic story of these monks-turned-firefighters and how they saved their center. Author Colleen Morton Busch, a Zen student and former Books in brief Yoga Journal senior editor, did her research and tells the story well. In addition to providing extensive background on the people involved—and exhaustive detail about the fire’s course—Fire Monks demonstrates the clarity of thought and action that can spring from Zen practice. As Shunryu Suzuki Roshi, who established Tassajara in 1967, wrote in Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind:

In order not to leave any traces, when you do something, you should do it with your whole body and mind; you should be concentrated on what you do. You should do it completely, like a good bonfire....Zen activity is activity which is completely burned out, with nothing remaining but ashes.

Busch notes that even though the monks lacked training in firefighting, through their Zen training they had clearly mastered one of the Ten Standard Orders that every firefighter knows: “Be alert. Keep calm. Think clearly. Act decisively.”

One familiar face in Fire Monks is poet Jane Hirshfield. Having defended Tassajara against the Marble Cone wildfire in 1977, Hirshfield was there as the fires approached in 2008, to provide moral support to the firefighter monks. Readers of Hirshfield’s poetry might have guessed that she possessed this tenacity of spirit. In Come, Thief: Poems (Knopf, 2011, $25, cloth, 108 pp.), her latest collection of poems, Hirshfield is both tough and soft—often at the same time. In “Bruises” she writes:

Old love, old body,
do you remember—
carpet burns down the spine,
gravel bedding
the knees, hardness to hardness.
You who knew yourself
kissed by the bite of the ant,
you who were kissed by the bite of the spider.

Now kissed by this.


While the poems in Come, Thief address a range of subjects—from the fragrant, natural world outdoors to everyday items inside her refrigerator—Hirshfield’s lines are spare, her expression reliable. In “Sonoma Fire,” a three-line poem, we can imagine her reminiscing about her days as a firefighting Buddhist when she writes: “Large moon the deep orange of embers./ Also the scent./ The griefs of others—beautiful, at a distance.”

Many of Hirshfield’s poems are influenced by her practice of Zen Buddhism and knowledge of classical Japanese verse. In Nine Gates, an examination of the craft of poetry, Hirshfield writes that a good poem “helps you to wake up” and that things “speak to us on their own terms and with their own wisdom, but only when approached with our full and unselfish attention.”

This was certainly the attitude of her predecessors in a lineage of Zen poets that stretches back at least to Matsuo Basho. Often through the practice of haiku these poets found ways to express the stillness and silence embodied by sitting zazen. In The River of Heaven: The Haiku of Basho, Buson, Issa, and Shiki (Counterpoint, 2011, $15.95, paper, 208 pp.) the late Zen roshi Robert Aitken provides commentary on haiku by masters of the form. It’s touching to read his seemingly stream-ofconsciousness thoughts on a subject that is clearly near to his heart. Aitken’s analysis of the poems is often self-referential. When reflecting on a poem by Basho about finding his umbilical cord at his dead mother’s house, Aitken writes: “On reading this verse, my sympathy with the poet was made deeply intimate with the memory of my own experience of finding a lock of my hair in my mother’s things. It retained the freshness of baby hair, which mine had long lost.” In addition to the haiku collected here, The River of Heaven is notable for providing a glimpse into the heart of an American Zen elder.

Kobyashi Issa, in his poem “The Frog,” included in The River of Heaven, could be accused of anthropocentrism when he writes: “The frog/ looks at me/ with a sour face.” Aitken doesn’t think so, however, commenting: “It is the frog who is projecting its frog nature on Issa.”

Buddhist-inspired, Pulitzer Prize–winning novelist, poet, and activist Alice Walker has a similar relationship with chickens. In The Chicken Chronicles: Sitting with the Angels Who Have Returned with My Memories: Glorious, Rufus, Gertrude Stein, Splendor, Hortensia, Agnes of God, the Gladyses, & Babe: A Memoir (The New Press, 2011, $21.95, cloth, 186 pp.), Walker shares a story of personal discovery in her exploration of “the parallel universe all the other animals exist in, simultaneous with us.” Walker delights in observing her flock of chickens, whom she affectionately refers to as “her girls.” Her thoughts move as freely as her hens roam the yard. Through letters addressed to her girls, we follow Walker’s candid ruminations on individuality, interconnectivity, war, peace, and the strength of family. She embraces a larger sense of motherhood, writing “when Mommy’s away, and Mommy’s away a lot because Mommy is a nomad, you yourselves, being twelve strong females, can create me in my absence. You create the mother you need.” The time spent observing her hens prompts Walker to explore difficult memories from her past, specifically her relationship with her own mother. The hens come to represent a microcosm of society, within which Walker considers the poignancy of companionship, the consequences of violence, and the inevitable formation of the “pecking order.”

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