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!)

Quintessential Watts

Zen – A short introduction with illustrations by the author by Alan Watts (New World Library) is unbelievable at many levels. Small – actually tiny – yet huge in what it promises. Can Zen be compressed into a short telling? Most important, can it be introduced?

Or perhaps Zen only has this formidable mythology of something one drowns in, surrenders to, arises within. The brilliance of Watts writings is so clear and precise, unstintingly sharp and demanding. Still, it’s hard to imagine Zen captured in a slim volume one quarter a thumb’s length.

Prefaced by Shinge Roko Sherry Chayat, Zen (originally published in 1947 in England was published in 1948 and in the US at the same time as the second edition The Spirit of Zen. Watts intended Zen to be a “corrective to the first edition” and, as Chayat notes, it was also an expression of his growing disenchantment with Christianity. What we are left with then is a journey through the evolution of Zen through the eyes of a teacher, at once at ease and discomfited by the profound awareness Zen can evoke.

There is nothing that men desire more than life – the fullness of life, Reality itself.

And, this desire easily slides into a craving that kills the life as “(l)ife drawn from the stream is no longer living water, for it ceases to flow.” Watts recognizes that all religions are a way of trying to grasp this mystery and the paradox is to release the hold on that desire.

Watts outlines the influences out of which Zen emerges. A short line drawn from Brahminism to Mahayana prompts a quick dismantling of our thin understanding of non-dual reality. Through Taoism, Watts highlights the flowing power of wu-wei. Contrasting Indian Buddhism with Chinese, there’s an implication of shift from a desire to transcend life to freeing the life to be what is it. Out of this “Momentous Harmony, Zen emerges as the “finger pointing to the moon”. Not a set of beliefs on how to be but a way of being fully alive.

There is only one place where we are truly alive, where we come into immediate contact with Reality and that is now
the present moment.

While Watts is precise in his description and explanations of the complexity of Zen, he is also cautious – frequently reminding us that these words too as prone to mislead us, quickly and easily.

The book closes with a commentary on the cultural impact of Zen in poetry and art. Haiku, brush painting, tea, and gardening are only a few domains of its influence. In all, Zen allows for an experience of harmony in asymmetry and a creative, wordless pointing to life as it is.

Zen is a welcomed re-addition to our shelves. It reminds us through its simple presentation that our striving is an unnecessary waste of the power of life. It tucks itself into the shoulder bag and heart easily – as easy as taking a breath; as easy as putting down the weight of desire.

Final thoughts: Because of the excellent work by scholars like Ann Gleig (American Dharma) and Ira Helderman (Prescribing the Dharma), I’ve become more aware of the origins of Western approaches to Buddhism and how we have filtered it through our cultural and psychological needs. While Watts’ Zen opens a window into the origins and practices of one aspect of Buddhism, it is a product of its time and culture. And, briefly, his need to fit Buddhism/Zen into a Christian template surfaces. Still, I think he does better than most in allowing Zen to be Zen. Without apologizing for his perspective (as it arises from his own zeitgeist), I am sympathetic of it and remain attentive to how mine evolves.