A snapshot of contemporary spirituality
The Empty Chair: Two Novellas
By Bruce Wagner
Blue Rider Press,
304 pp.; $26.95 cloth
How do we transmit ancient spiritual teachings in a world that prizes information and opinion over wisdom and truth? The Empty Chair is a pair of interlocking novellas by Bruce Wagner that explore religious themes in what may be the most religion-unfriendly environment ever: contemporary secular society. The characters are “seekers slouching toward spiritual redemption,” but who will help them find their way? They struggle not only against the culture they inhabit but also against the very stuff they are made of: cleverness, privilege, pop-culture minutiae, watered-down spiritual practices. Wagner’s writing is both comical and angry because his characters are fighting a losing battle: how can you find your soul if you have no soul?
The author of nine novels, Bruce Wagner is something of a hero in the oxymoron that is the L.A. literary scene (he was for me when I was living there, anyway). He goes where few writers dare: into the superficial, taking on celebrity culture, vicious and vacant Hollywood, and smug, well-heeled liberals. Yet how do you plumb the depths of the superficial? In staking out this turf, you risk going native and producing superficial art.
In the preface to The Empty Chair, we learn that a fictionalized version of the author has recorded and transcribed his meetings with two unique spiritual seekers. In “First Guru,” the opening novella, we meet Charley, a self-proclaimed “Namaste-at-home dad” waiting for a settlement in his sexual abuse case against the Catholic Church. Charley is gay, but he was married earlier in his life to a woman named Kelly, who is described as “hardbodied and weary from too much desperation yoga.” Wounded and witty tirades against Kelly’s weak-sauce Berkeley Buddhism energize Charley’s many digressions: “Buddhism’s like anything man puts his hand to; one day you wake up and everything’s turned to shit. The magic’s been replaced by cliques of assholes with policies, slogans, and gibberish, empty rituals.”
Charley and Kelly are united in their love for Ryder, their tween son, and both, in their own way, contribute to his spiritual education. Here’s how that turns out: one day Charley finds Ryder naked and hanging from a rope in Kelly’s punctiliously appointed meditation room. He darkly rhapsodizes about the empty chair that Ryder kicked out from under him en route to “self-murder,” that perversion of the Buddhist teaching of anatta (not-self). The chair is as empty, Wagner suggests, as the "ambitious, humorless, dharma-thumping" Kelly's passive-aggressive Zen platitudes—“Impermanence Rocks!”
Did I mention that “First Guru” is actually pretty funny? Anyone who is fed up with the commodification of yoga or the dumbing down and neutering of American Buddhism can appreciate the author’s sharp eye for those moments where genuine spiritual practice becomes . . . well, something else. Still, Wagner stacks the deck a little too neatly against organized religion. On the one hand you have the Catholicism of Charley’s youth, with his rape at the hands of a demented priest. On the other you have the “cliques of assholes” that for him constitute most dharma communities. What’s not to hate? These targets are the satirist’s equivalent of fish in a barrel, and it’s not all that much fun watching him take shots.
Wagner can be a hit-or-miss writer. If he’s working with compelling characters, a strong overarching story, and universal themes, then his obvious intelligence and encyclopedic mind, along with his talent for generating high-octane, beautifully written prose, make for late night reading jags. If not, he has a hard time pulling together all the moving parts of his busy plotlines, and we wind up with digressions, dead ends, and hip-speak characters who wax brilliantly and at length but don’t have much to say.
Fortunately, the second novella in The Empty Chair is an often furiously penetrating study of the difficulties inherent in passing spiritual wisdom down through the ages—or, for that matter, from one generation to the next. Set mostly in India, “Second Guru” is told through Queenie, an aging, suicidal socialite who gets a call out of the blue from Kura, a mysterious multimillionaire and murderer. Decades earlier, Queenie and Kura had traveled to Bombay, where Kura faithfully served an American Advaita guru, until the charismatic leader disappeared, breaking Kura’s heart in that way that only a disappointing spiritual hero can. Queenie talks us through the events that build up to her reunion with Kura and the American guru many years later in a small cave outside Delhi.
At moments during Queenie’s monologue, her manic mimesis of other, more compelling characters allows Wagner to channel a kind of dynamic, free-floating anxiety about the problems that intelligent and discerning Westerners face the instant we take up a spiritual practice: how do we get the teachings that are right for us, and how do we pass them along without destroying them, each other, or ourselves?
The American attempts an answer to these questions when he introduces what was for me the book’s most arresting conceit: “At the moment one finds one’s guru, one becomes truly lost . . . until one finds another! For it is only the second guru that allows you to make sense of the first.” Who is this second guru that helps you to sort out the first? Or, in my formulation, what makes Buddhism make sense? What brings the teachings to life, especially when the teacher is no longer with us and the high seat is empty?
These are questions I ask myself every single day. In the foyer of the monastic-style Zen center where I live, in front of the double doors of our sutra hall, there sits, in the shadows, like a dust-gathering museum piece, an empty chair. My teacher used to sit on it in the sutra hall while giving formal lectures, but he has since retired from teaching.
Having a flesh-and-blood teacher is its own challenge—and, depending on the teacher, an often salient one. Losing the same, however, poses another unique problem: how do you keep the teaching and tradition alive and vital when the lineage holder is not?
And perhaps most importantly: why bother trying? What’s left after the teacher is gone but a bunch of students, and what can you learn from them?
Quite a lot, as it turns out.
For those of us who have found a first guru—either a teacher or the teachings—the second guru is the seeker who finds us. They are looking for something, like I was when I found Zen. And what I find is that their need for something gives me something in return: a reason to keep throwing everything I’ve got into the journey I began with my teacher, for the students who need what he gave me.
Wagner’s “empty chair” is a vivid metaphor for those of us who are struggling to make the transition from student to teacher (and all of us are, in one way or another). The best thing we can do is claim the seat of wisdom in order to draw the seeker’s attention to it, and then leave it as quickly as possible so that they can assume it themselves.
A tricky task, for if we don’t fully own our place on the seat, or if we abandon it too soon, our students will never be properly oriented toward it. They’ll remain lost, like Kura after his American sage deserts him. But if we attach ourself to the seat, and use others to sound out our spiritual ideas, as Kelly does in her dharma indoctrination of Ryder, then the result is tragic.
How are we to meet the call of the genuine spiritual seeker, and how can we seekers get the call right so that we are truly heard? (The image of the chick pecking from within the egg and the mother hen pecking from without comes to mind.) The Empty Chair absolutely burns with these questions, but ultimately its author seems to suggest that we seekers are on our own. For the characters here, that means staying lost. There is no bridge between the enlightened teacher and teachings and the student who so desperately needs them. (“Indeed, it might be said that a common thread among enlightened men was the certitude none of their students ever understood a word they said.”)
The book puts up a good fight, but in the end it gets lost in the struggles of its characters, turning them into both embodiments and victims of the spiritually bankrupt world that we keep hoping they will transcend. As a snapshot of contemporary spirituality, The Empty Chair feels incomplete. Wagner does not adequately reflect the students that I meet, those humble, sincere seekers who are trying their best to make their way through this life with a flawed but meaningful spiritual practice, aided in their efforts by the workaday monk, priest, or teacher who facilitates their training as part of his or her own. Most of us are neither thoroughly lost nor enlightened, but somewhere in between. It’s a complex and interesting place to be—the threshold of the human and the divine—and it gets short shrift in this pair of novellas.
Thanks to Charley, the eponymous empty chair ultimately ends up in a fireplace, and Wagner’s central metaphor goes up in smoke. The empty chair is empty even of itself. It’s a plea for silence in a noisy world, but it’s also a retreat from the problem of having to say something meaningful. Wagner’s prose burns brightly, but absent some deeper purpose it incinerates itself, the glow soon fades, and we’re left not with a sense of mystery and awe but with the feeling that something is missing.
Shozan Jack Haubner is the pen name of a Zen monk. Haubner is a humor writer and the winner of the 2012 Pushcart Prize. His most recent book is Zen Confidential: Confessions of a Wayward Monk.
Correction: In the print edition of this review, the last line was cut off due to a production error. We regret the mistake. The sentence should read in full as above.