Deborah Boliver Boehm
Kodansha International: New York, 1996.
258 pp., $25.00 (cloth).

Lawrence Shainberg
Pantheon Books: New York, 1995.
318 pp., $24.00 (cloth). 

Erik Fraser Storlie
Shambhala Publications: Boston, 1996.
240 pp., $13.00 (paper).

In 1974, when Houghton Mifflin published Janwillem van de Wetering’s The Empty Mirror, the Netherlander’s account of his Zen training in a Kyoto monastery stood virtually alone in its class. In those days, Zen memoirs written by Westerners were as rare as sushi in Peoria. Now all that has changed. Zennists, apparently, are not spared the backward gaze of middle age, nor the impulse to make some narrative sense of it all. Now, with boomers hitting their forties and fifties, spiritual memoirs have boomed also, creating the burgeoning stream of Zen-inspired autobiographies presently coursing through American bookstores.

Deborah Boehm went to Kyoto in 1970, more than a decade after van de Wetering. Where van de Wetering proclaimed his desperation to know the purpose of life, Boehm arrives as a scholar of Japanese language and culture, a college student planning to continue her studies at a university in Japan. Her repeated exposure to smug and humorless devotees of Zen philosophy in American dormitories and crash pads had led her to form an opinion of Zen Buddhism as a religion appealing mainly to the more fatuous of her peers. When asked, en route to Japan, whether she was going there to study Zen, she replied, “On the contrary. I’m going to Japan to get away from Zen!” It is an accident of fate, an injury to her eye, that eventually finds her lodging on the grounds of an ancient Buddhist temple adjacent to a Zen monastery in Kyoto.

Deborah Boehm. Courtesy Tom Haar.
Deborah Boehm. Courtesy Tom Haar.

A Zen Romance is set in the summer of 1970, and the young Boehm is thoroughly a product of her generation, with one glaring exception: she is a virgin. But virginal in the way that we speak of a forest being virgin: original nature teeming with life. There is a passion in her chastity that lends it a sort of tantric cast. She views desire not as something to defend against but as something to be undefended before. It is a posture of radical receptivity wedded, in her case, to a highly romantic imagination.

And that’s what gives this book its bite. Her youthful, romantic imagination, prone to embroider everything it meets, is thrown suddenly into the rarefied atmosphere of Zen when she takes up residence next to the monastery. The tranquility and spare beauty of the monastery itself, combined with the uncomplicated friendliness of the resident monks, exert a fascination that she finds irresistible. When she is invited to become the first foreigner—never mind woman—to sit sesshin with the monks, she is thrilled—and as nervous as the schoolgirl that she resembles. She falls in love with the place and, like any love affair, it throws up mirrors for some rather humbling and humorous self-reflection.

Boehm is genuinely funny. Her account of a harrowing week spent in a Pure Land nunnery “by mistake” had me chuckling out loud:

“Mochizuki-sensei will be back soon, and she said that I should entertain you,” said the young nun, wrinkling her tiny nose. “Would you like to see where we live?” The young nun stashed the flowers I had bought in a wooden bucket. . . . Then she led me through a labyrinth of dark, windowless wood corridors, out into a large tree-lined courtyard, and through the door of an ugly new ferroconcrete building.

“This is my room,” she said, opening a door at the end of the hall. I was speechless. I had expected an austere tatami room, with blank walls and a single vase containing a summer wildflower. What I saw was more like a fifties-movie concept of an American teenage girl’s room, with pink-coverleted beds piled high with stuffed animals, and walls plastered with posters of archaic American rock and roll singers. . . .

The only hint that this was a room in the dormitory of a training school for nuns was the small altar on top of a bookcase crammed with comic books, women’s magazines, and 45-r.p.m. records. There was a figure of the Buddha seated on a brocade doll-cushion. . .

Much of the appeal of A Zen Romance is to be found in Boehm’s naturally meditative attention to the details of ordinary life. Like William Blake, who saw that “eternity is in love with the productions of time,” Boehm reveals a delight in the vagaries of temporal existence.Whether describing the spare, compelling aesthetics of the Zen monastery, where each thing has the space in which to disclose itself, or the should’ve-seen-it-coming end to the most serious romance of her life, Boehm lets us in on a 2,500-year-old secret without ever saying it: samsara is nirvana. Not the samsara of ceaseless suffering, but samsara as the root meaning of the word describes it: the flowing and wandering of the interconnected whole.

It’s not overstating things to say that Lawrence Shainberg has a slightly different take on samsara. Let’s just say he’s undecided. Ambivalent Zen spans four decades in the author’s life, from his introduction to Zen at the age of fifteen (when his father read Alan Watts at the dinner table), to the more or less present moment, watching the Japanese World Series on television with his teacher Kyudo Nakagawa Roshi. The topsy-turvy universe that Shainberg inhabits—where the secular father imparts spiritual truths and the spiritual father watches baseball with his “son”—provides more than ample fuel for his anxiety-addicted temperament. Fortunately, Shainberg writes with a dry wit and enormous skill, and the tale of his lifelong quest to tame the monkey mind through Zen practice is absorbing, if at times exasperating, reading.

Lawrence Shainberg. Courtesy Vivian Bower.
Lawrence Shainberg. Courtesy Vivian Bower.

Shainberg’s refusal to learn from experience and be guided by intuition borders on the unbelievable at times. Nowhere is this refusal more apparent than in his description of his relationship with a renowned teacher of martial arts, Chang Wei. From his first encounter with this teacher, Shainberg picks up on an arrogance and power-lust parading as spiritual attainment that is only more thoroughly revealed in each subsequent encounter. Nonetheless, Shainberg ignores what he sees in deference to the teacher’s reputation. Fate, alas, is unkind to those who refuse to see what they see: a karate punch to his eye, followed by his teacher’s violent manipulation of the eye to “extract the poisons,” leaves Shainberg temporarily blinded and with a chronic visual impairment that continues to this day.

Insight followed almost immediately by a relapse into conditioned thinking is the story of Shainberg’s life as he tells it here. He wants desperately to believe that Zen practice will cure him of his anxious ambivalence, but when it momentarily does, he worries that Zen practice protects him from the desperation he needs for his creative work. In the end he asks: “Is it possible that ambivalence is a genetic disease? Could one embrace it, at least, wholeheartedly—or is such an embrace precisely what the genes do not permit?”

At various points in the narrative, Krishnamurti’s notion of “choiceless awareness” is offered as a foil to Shainberg’s ravenous pursuit of liberation. Fittingly, after years of less than satisfying study with such luminaries of East Coast Zen as Eido Shimano, Soen Nakagawa, and Bernard Glassman, Shainberg encounters in the diminutive and unpresupposing figure of Kyudo Roshi his polar opposite and his perfect teacher. The disparity in size between the two men mirrors a far more thoroughgoing disparity. Kyudo Roshi disdains the conceptualizations and intellectual understanding that Shainberg craves; he is banal when Shainberg hopes for profundity; but mostly, he is choicelessly and fearlessly aware in contrast to Shainberg’s neurotic ambivalence. Waiting together for the subway on an outing to Yankee Stadium, he scolds Shainberg: “Larry-san, why you always afraid? Forty-five years old you talk like baby! What you think? Zen about quiet mind? Relaxation? No! No! Zen about bravery! Zazen mind bravery mind!” Later, when a Yankee second baseman lays down a sacrifice bunt, he continues the teaching, “Larry-san, if you sacrifice everything, you won’t be afraid of anything.”

Shainberg, of course, could not write so convincingly and humorously of his difficulties had he not repeatedly seen through them with the clear, awakened eyes of his own Buddha-nature. But like a child who doesn’t want the game to be over, he keeps on keeping on, playing that ambivalence card to the bittersweet end.

Eric Storlie. Courtesy Eric Storlie.
Eric Storlie. Courtesy Eric Storlie.

With Nothing on My Mind Erik Storlie attempts to weave together the saga of his personal involvement with the rise of psychedelia in Berkeley in the sixties, and his involvement with Zen, which began more or less concurrently. There is irony in the title. Storlie uses a day-long sit on the top of a stony crag in the wilderness as a literary device, and the story is spun out, chapter after chapter, as vivid recollections (replete with lengthy dialogue) arising in this meditation. It is not, in fact, an empty blue sky kind of meditation. Storlie has plenty on his mind.

He refers in his preface to “the first half” and “the second half” of the book, and although the text is not formally divided in this way, it does read as though it is. One senses that the first half—which chronicles his failed effort to merge graduate studies at UC Berkeley with heavy (we’re talking heavy) recreational drug use—was originally written with the intent to publish it separately as a work of fiction. Indeed, this section is fictionalized, while the latter is not, and this lends a choppiness to the narrative, which the ongoing meditation-on-the-crag device tries to smooth over. It doesn’t quite work. As a result the book seems a draft or two away from being ready for prime time. With notable exceptions, the dialogue is weak, and unfortunately there’s lots of it. Particularly grating is his tendency to place his own thoughts in dialogue form.

“Beyond thinking indeed!” I think, snorting aloud, then sighing, “Ah, if only once more I could ask Suzuki and Katagiri what those words mean. They’d laugh or shout or say nothing—and I’d return to the meditation hall, ready for this balancing act again.”

I place my palms in my lap in the Buddha’s mudra and cast my gaze down softly to the red-brown duff. . . .

But thoughts—now fretful, anxious, darken my mind. The voice in my head whispers, “What if one of the kids is hurt back in Minneapolis? Or sick? You’re so damned irresponsible! Oh, I miss them. Remember when they were tiny? At story time, lying on the big bed, they’d wind their arms around your neck, then with little squeaks and grunts fall into sleep. Now they’re so tall. . . .”

People don’t think like this. These too-frequent monologues only end up sounding disingenuous and saccharine.

Yet there are solid reasons to recommend this book. Chief among them are the chapters devoted to Shunryu Suzuki Roshi and Dainin Katagiri Roshi. These are lovingly drawn portraits, richly textured with intimate anecdotes, one or two of which are likely to remain with readers as potent aids to their own practice and understanding. Likewise, some of the descriptions of Storlie’s more far-flung psychedelic journeys are masterfully executed. If Merriweather Lewis had explored the frontiers of bardo-land, he wouldn’t have sent home reports any more informative and detailed.

There is a fine line to be walked in the writing of a spiritual autobiography. An absence of self-interest can make for dull reading. Still, one can’t help wondering: is the work of self-emptying antithetical to the writing of a memoir? As Meister Eckhart put it, “Only the hand that erases can write the true thing.”