Books in Brief Spring 2011

Sam Mowe

Gary Snyder has been a mosquito, and Jim Harrison would like to be a tree. These are two important things we learn from watching The Practice of the Wild, a documentary by John J. Healey featuring the old codgers (San Simeon/ Whole Earth Films, produced by Will Hearst and Jim Harrison, 52 min., DVD, $18.95). Although it contains some archival footage and short interviews with friends and colleagues, the bulk of the film consists of a Q&A between Snyder and Harrison. Officially, it’s Harrison asking the questions and Snyder answering them—however, in truth, it’s a shared conversation. It’s a delight to watch the two friends as they amble across the Santa Lucia Mountains discussing the objects of their passions: the earth and its poetry. They make a likable pair. Where Snyder is refined and eloquent, a trim graybeard speaking with the authority of someone accustomed to being listened to, Harrison is unassuming, earthy, and unkempt. In a particularly good scene about reincarnation that demonstrates this dynamic, Snyder thoughtfully and coolly remarks that reincarnation is “a charming metaphor” that, if true, “means that I have done everything already. I’ve had every possible experience already. I’ve been in every possible form. I’ve been a woman; I’ve been this; I’ve been a butterfly; I’ve been a mosquito.” Harrison, inspired by this listing of possibilities, earnestly interjects. “A tree,” he says, “I like the idea of being a tree.” Healey does right to keep the film simple; the movement throughout is slow and deliberate, like Snyder’s poetry.

The Etiquette of Freedom (Counterpoint, 2010, 164 pp, cloth, $28.00), a book meant to accompany The Practice of the Wild, serves primarily as a transcript of the film and the unused material from Snyder and Harrison’s conversation. While readers will enjoy Snyder’s poetry at the back of the book, and the 32 pages of black-and-white photographs, the reason to pick up a copy is that it includes a special DVD edition of the documentary, complete with outtakes and readings by Snyder.

The title says it all for Karen Armstrong’s new book. Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life (Knopf, 2011, 240 pp., cloth, $22) is a how-to guide meant to help readers cultivate and emanate the virtue of compassion. It’s the latest effort in Armstrong’s bid to place compassion at the heart of public discourse on religion and morality. After winning the TED Prize in 2008, an award that gives recipients $100,000 and grants them a wish for a better world, Armstrong launched the Charter for Compassion—a document written by a variety of leading religious thinkers in order to inspire worldwide acts of compassion. Twelve Steps is a little different from what we’ve come to expect from Armstrong, who, with books like A History of God, Islam, and Buddha, has created a unique niche for herself as today’s popular historian of the major faiths. The history is still present, but this time it’s in service to her pragmatic-compassion manual. Many of the practices found in Twelve Steps—such as mindfulness training—come from Buddhist sources. “I see the Buddha as the star of the axial age,” Armstrong told Tricycle in a recent interview. “With its psychological relevance, Buddhism is so practical.” Because Armstrong is, by temperament, a bit of an introvert—preferring the solitude of study to speaking from a stage—the prose in Twelve Steps can at times feel distant. Armstrong’s writing is not going to give you an inner warmth like that of, say, Pema Chödrön or the Dalai Lama. Still, Twelve Steps is an important and useful book that will help many readers take on humanity’s most important task: creating a better, more compassionate world.

In the early 1970s, as a young theology student at Harvard Divinity School, Kurt Hoelting wrote a thesis entitled “Wilderness as an Ethical and Spiritual Imperative,” in which he suggested that the ecological crisis is, at root, a spiritual crisis. Nearly 40 years later, he decided to do something about it. In an effort to bridge the gap between his convictions about climate change and the size of his own carbon footprint, Hoelting gave up cars and planes and spent a year living within a 100-kilometer radius of his home on Whidbey Island, Washington. He chronicles the experience in The Circumference of Home: One Man’s Yearlong Quest for a Radically Local Life (Da Capo Press, 2010, 288 pp., cloth, $25). By kayaking, biking, and hiking his way around Puget Sound, Hoelting relearns, and then relates to readers, the language of his native place. There is a strong, if subtle, Zen aesthetic to his environmental concerns when he writes, “If we share any part of the wider biological legacy of flocks, may it be this: that in times of great need, a few individuals acting boldly on their convictions can trigger a shift toward collective survival that is both swift and widely shared.” Though it tells the story of a man living out his beliefs, The Circumference of Home cannot serve as a manual for those hoping to solve their own eco-spiritual crises. By their nature, solutions to these types of crises can only be imagined and actualized locally. One hopes that after putting the book down, readers will be inspired to reexamine their lives and surroundings, in order to discover their own adventures.

“An integral part of genuine happiness,” writes Zen teacher Ezra Bayda in his introduction to Beyond Happiness: The Zen Way to True Contentment (Shambhala Publications, 2010, 176 pp., cloth, $21.95), “is the willingness to open to feelings and experiences we would not normally associate with happiness.” The truth is, this astonishingly simple insight is nothing short of life-changing. You can be happy when you’re sad. You can be happy when everything is going wrong: when you lose your job, your partner leaves you, and you’re sick, ugly, old, and dying. In Beyond Happiness, Bayda asks us to reconsider the notion that happiness is dependent on external factors and gives us guidelines to help us experience a deeper level of contentedness that comes when we’re present to whatever the circumstances of our lives may be. One of the ways Bayda does this is by showing us the “Three Questions” practice, in which we ask ourselves: Am I happy now? What blocks happiness? Can I surrender to what is? Bayda’s writing is straightforward and his wisdom hard-earned. When he tells us that he himself was “born with a fairly low set point for happiness,” you get the feeling that Bayda understands what it is that gets people stuck and, having learned a few things himself over years of practice, that his only agenda for Beyond Happiness is to help people find their own way. Fortunately for readers, he’s a trustworthy guide.

The Bodhisattva’s Embrace: Dispatches from Engaged Buddhism’s Front Lines (Clear View Press, 2010, 244 pp., paper, $15) is a collection of personal essays written by Alan Senauke over the last twenty years. Senauke, former director of the Buddhist Peace Fellowship and advisor to the International Network of Engaged Buddhists, is a Zen priest who writes with authority on the topic of engaged Buddhism, from Israel and Palestine to the streets of Burma. He takes on difficult subjects to invite readers to “bear witness” to them, holding the belief that the deep suffering of the world naturally inspires compassionate action. Throughout his essays, Senuake’s words are like rocks: simple and strong. It’s a no-nonsense, sober approach to the truth of suffering, and Senuake’s message is clear: we’re all in this together, so let’s help each other out. Despite the spare writing and Senauke’s unsentimental attitude, The Bodhisattva’s Embrace still manages to speak to the heart. When we see the world as it is, we can’t help but see its beauty.

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