The Circle of the Way by Barbara O’Brien – Behind the Scenes in Zen-dom (book review)

The Circle of the Way by Barbara O’Brien (Shambhala Publications)

The Circle of the Way by Barbara O’Brien (Shambhala Publications) is an ambitious attempt to accomplish two key approaches in understanding Buddhist history. as our perspectives of Buddhism have broadened (and hopefully also deepen). First, the re-telling of Buddhist history is marked by a dropping off unexamined stories as we acknowledge and cope with its romanticization and impact of its appropriation by the West. Second, as we become more aware of the complex intersectionality of our inner and outer environments, aspects of Buddhist philosophy and practices that may not address the issues in our times are being deeply questioned.

Academic and popular press publications in the last few years have been sharp examinations of what we think are the roots of Buddhism and reshaped what we believe are its principles. Author/scholars like David McMahan, Erik Braun, and Ann Gleig have provided incisive and insightful challenges to Western views and uses of Buddhism. Ira Helderman and Candy Gunther Brown have brought attention to naivete in thinking that the complex religious and sometimes political field of Buddhism can be neatly flipped into Western psychological practices with impunity.

This is a time of choppy waters and sudden storms whether one is a historian, researcher, practitioner, or student of Western Buddhism. In this context, O’Brien’s book is a brave one, especially if we place it in the lineage of previous authors who tried to make sense of the fables and enduring mythology of Zen history.

In the introduction, she confronts head-on the muddiness of Zen history, the knowledge we prefer to have avoided: broken lineages, (purposely?) muddied history, dogma, assumptions of a linear progression from Theravada to Mahayana – even the assumptions that the latter is the evolution away from a less developed form of Buddhism. Of course, there’s also the erasure of the feminine lineage, the wise women of Zen. (While searching for the published books on Zen women, I happened across this blog, Zen Women.) This is a lot to take on and I’m tentative about saying that O’Brien, despite being a scholar in the field, does it all to the degree that is required. Then again, I doubt any historian committed to a transparent investigation of several thousand years of the history of anything could do full justice to the topic.

The first two chapters offer a rich and complex story of Buddhism and then Zen. More particularly, it places “The Six (or so) Patriarchs” in the context of a wildly developing region whose political capriciousness is as much Zen-ish as are the teachings and teachers who cooked in that broth. When O’Brien describes Zen as it made its way through China’s geography and political turmoil, the going gets a bit rough. There’s too much to put into the chapters and the interactions become complex. It’s not a criticism of the author as an acknowledgment that trying to convey this part of history as a thick understanding is difficult for reasons that lie in the modern mind.

First, we do love our thin slices of Zen history, the dramatis personna and their perplexing statements of our quality of mind. The wild, often inebriated teachers, chopping off arms and fingers, cutting up felines and making perplexing exits with slippers as hats have appeal far more than the emperors, concubines, and their progeny who stymied or advanced Buddhism.

Second, we love a linear, logical progression in both our lives and those of others. We also love a Just World where the good are rewarded and bad punished. That it contradicts all manner of understanding of Buddhism in general and karma, in particular, is a cheap delusion. The messiness of Buddhism’s history means no one has the right view but it is, itself, a Right View. And that in turn means, we need to stop waving our mind flags and get down to the real work of Buddhist practice.

O’Brien has made a valiant effort and the challenge of getting through the middle part of the book is a personal one. I am too much a fan of the brazenness of Ikkyu and the morose Dogen. So, I do encourage you, Dear Reader, to persist through to the last chapter, Zen in the Modern World. Or perhaps, start there at the finish. If we can tolerate a different view of our perspectives of our present history, moving back in time may not be so discomforting. (Spoiler: O’Brien thankfully does not give the current cultism of secular or what a colleague calls “bubblegum mindfulness” any space. I’m grateful!)

faded images: where we go when we’re gone

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Lessons from surviving 2017: Don’t take anything seriously. Simply because there is no end of surprises to upend expectations and desires.

IMG_2185I hope you’ve all had a restful holiday and a gentle transition into 2018. Well. Hardly gentle today if you are in the Northern hemisphere with its snow, rain, and now that bomb cyclone! Over here, north of the 49th, we’re enjoying a balmy -30°C with sunshine and the occasional welp from Dog1 tripping over Dog2 as they race around the house.

It’s a nice time of year. Not the least because I decided to end 2017 with a dedicated swing at the Room of Doom. Have I mentioned it before? Ah. The RoD is a 10′ x 10′ supposed bedroom that, over the last 14 years, has been the dumping ground – or as they say in current mindfulness-ese, holding the space – of four generations’household Stuff.

IMG_2958 I never thought of myself as a hoarder. I prefer the label of a judicious collector of objects with potential re-sale. This is based on the eternal truth that as soon as I send a box of my fake jewelry to some charity, I discover a need for it (GrandestKid loveslovesloves fake jewelry!) or that it’s the latest in Hipster crazes, like milk glass.

But no more. I have need of a spare bedroom – or two – so famdamily can visit in comfort. Because, after all, who are we without family – dammed or otherwise. So yes. As much as it terrified me to let go of the contents of these boxes, I informed The Kid that she needed to help me unpack these four generations’ boxes and discern stuff from junk.

I honestly thought she’d be more… well…objective. So. Who would have thought that metal camel chewing on a bell was a prized possession? Or the old decrepit Polaroid camera. Or the whiskey tumblers etched in gold with a ship’s water markings. All this time, I’d been hoarding the black velvet paintings of bucolic Burmese landscapes for her.

And then, as the memories were shared, the room filled with people from long ago. Ringing the bell hanging off the camel’s snout DSC_0050had been her duty when visiting her grandparents, my parents; I could see them setting the table. The etched whiskey tumblers, a gift from my parents’ best friend – a ship captain, a frequent visitor in Rangoon where he sailed past our house as he navigated into the harbour; I could hear his laugh. The milk glass is being stored for future dispersal but the cranberry glass decanter goes (horrors…this generation has no appreciation for sherry glasses or decanters!).

It was easier than I anticipated, this letting go of so many things that are now rendered meaningless as memories have been scraped of their emotional colours. And, the gift of having a room for The GrandestKid and The Kid with her PlusOne is a reasonable tradeoff.

As part of our holiday celebrations, we saw the movie Coco, a powerful parable of death as a fading away when there’s no one to remember us, the stories of us. A fitting companion to our time of remembering who we are to each other and revitalizing our histories. And most of all, keeping those memories alive through our living stories and dedication to each other.