Ambivalent Zen: One man’s adventures on the Dharma path

Book Reviews

Madhuri’s review of Laurence Shainberg’s book: “Highly recommended!”

Ambivalent Zen coverAmbivalent Zen
One man’s adventures on the Dharma path

by Laurence Shainberg
Vintage Departures, Random House, New York, 1997
318 pages – ISBN-13: 978-0679772880

A young man from a wealthy, spiritually-oriented family discovers zazen, and embarks on a laudably dedicated practice, racking up countless hours on the cushion, while bouncing about among teachers. (He also meets Krishnamurti, whose work is, spiritually, a whole other approach, or non-approach.) Eventually he meets a funny, charming, earthy little roshi from Japan, Kyudo Nakagawa Roshi, and settles with him for a time.

What is so great about this book is the author’s intelligence. We are challenged on every page to open ourselves to the doubts, questions, arguments, observations of inner phenomena – all described with accuracy, wit, and humility – and we recognize ourselves in those things.

And he goes through a lot of doubts! Is zazen bad for his writing career, or good for it? Is it idiotic to sit and be horribly uncomfortable, or absolutely necessary for life and consciousness? Is he overly romantic about the practice? (I found this interesting, as I definitely feel romantic about sitting meditation! The Samadhi, so beautiful, and the velvet robe wrapped around me, and the silence! A Zen temple in Kyoto where I sat on cold spring mornings, wrapped round and round in a huge shawl! The radiant stillness, the stepping carefully in socked feet, the arranging of self on cushion or stool! I suppose one could doubt this joy, on the grounds that it is not objective or dispassionate – but I haven’t wanted to!)

Laurence ShainbergAs I was reading, I noticed an interesting and very personal thing: normally I have an ambivalent relationship with spiritual books – I tend to start feeling ungrounded, then get into my head and torment myself with ‘shoulds’ and ‘shouldn’ts’. “I should do this practice, religiously and with discipline!” “I shouldn’t waste my time reading thrillers!” or whatever – there’s a pretty much endless list of prescriptions and proscriptions available in the collective – and this can have a bedevilling effect. But with this book, I noted that something had changed: I enjoyed reading about the zazen – something so familiar to us, so nice to have it presented as an everyday thing instead of the usual mayhem of life-lived-for-the-secular. But the torment of shoulds just slipped off both sides of me as I read… and I knew that Human Design has been doing its work – for I experienced myself as “just this one”, just this being here who is in some way a unity, no choices to be made or doings to be done, just this who steers through her day and evening as herself. So, nothing to torment herself with.

And I came out of the book streamlined and whole, and grateful for the author’s loving attention to his process, and great skill in telling us about it. Highly recommended!

A quote from a chapter where the author’s parents have come to visit their son and meet the roshi:

When finally it is time for them to leave, Roshi invites them to look at the zendo. Mother wants to know which cushion I sit on, which cushion he sits on, what actually goes on in here. “You sit and look at the wall,” I tell her.

“What happens then?” she says.

“Well, among other things, you see how stupid you are.”

“Well, who needs meditation for that? I see it all the time!”

Meanwhile, Dad is silent, eyes roaming the room. As she and Roshi move towards the door, he lingers behind. Once again I can hear his thoughts, and the sound is anything but pleasant. He’s envious of me for sitting here, he’s angry at himself for not sitting here, he’s dismissing the act of sitting here as futile and neurotic. Joining us at the door, he asks the question I’ve been expecting ever since they arrived. “Ask him has he read Krishnamurti.”

“Yes of course,” says Roshi when I’ve relayed the question. “Very intelligent. Beautiful words!”

“Tell him Krishnamurti hates spiritual practice or any kind of formal meditation.”

Laughing, Roshi offers him a friendly pat on the shoulder. “Yes, yes! Very intelligent. I feel same!”

“Then what’s all that about?” says Dad, waving his hand in the direction of the zendo. “The cushions! The altar! The Buddha and the flowers and the candle. How can he maintain this establishment if he doesn’t believe in formal meditation?”

Once again, Roshi doesn’t want for me to translate. “Please you tell him – I have no idea.”

And later:

…When I tell him that I am studying to become a monk, a look of incredulity crosses his face. Then he explodes with laughter. “You monk? Larry-san a monk? Ha! Ha! Ha!” For a moment, I think he’ll never regain control of himself, but then suddenly his laughter stops and he fixes me with a stare. “No, Larry-san, you not monk. You instant monk! Understand? Instant monk! Listen: I monk. Become monk six years old. Four years temple, fifteen years monastery. Why you want to monk?”

Stammering slightly, I tell him I want to “take my practice to a deeper level.”

“‘Deeper level?'” He laughs again. “What you mean ‘deeper’? Zen practice only one level. No deep, understand? No shallow. Listen, Larry-san. You book-writer! You want to Zen? You write book! Don’t worry monk. You wasting time!”

There’s also a startling passage where one roshi in a different, large zendo with several teachers, is discovered to have been sexually accosting female students. Half of the students leave in anger, but some stay. One of the latter explains it thusly:

“If the roach thinks with his dick, that’s his problem. He ain’t no different from anybody else. The reason people get mad at him, they put him on a pedestal. Want him to save them. Nobody can save you on the cushion. Nobody can help you. Once I saw that, I didn’t give a fuck what he did.”

I did see one effect from reading this book: I started sitting more often – especially when I’m out on a walk, and I find a quiet bench in the woods. Just simple sitting, not trying to pretzel my legs – but just being there as long as I feel like it. And emerging eventually into a newly-slightly-psychedelic world, crunchy leaves, the trees spinning a bit – and a little smile about my face.


Madhuri is a healer, artist, poet and author of several books, Mistakes on the Path being her latest memoir.

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