19 March, 2020

Five Books I Spent My Winter Reading

My neighbor and Buddhist acquaintance Tim brought me the first book on this season's reading list. Humanistic Buddhism: Holding True to the Original Intents of Buddha looked interesting enough. I don't generally judge books by their covers, but the delightful photo of its author, the happily aging Venerable Master Hsing Yun, could win over even the hardest heart. There was also that subtitle. I subscribe to a kind of originalist thinking where Buddhism is concerned, so of course "The Original Intents Buddha" also hit a nerve.

After the Buddha's enlightenment, there were schisms and geographic divergences. It's impossible today to speak to a stranger about one's own idea of Buddhism and be immediately, fully understood. To start with, there are Hinayana, Mahayana, and Vajrayana flavors of Buddhism, each of which divides into its own traditions, schools, and lineages. Having come from deeply irreligious tendencies, I appreciate how Buddhism recognizes the individual as being uniquely empowered to help him- or herself find liberation from the suffering that pervades existence. Shakyamuni Buddha, the historical figure (not to be confused with a prophet or deity), had a profound experience that he went on to teach as a philosophy, a simple way of life. Buddhism's religious trappings seem like so much gilding of the lily. Why embellish what's already perfect?

Humanistic Buddhism, as translated by Venerable Miao Guang, of Fo Guang Shan Monastery, wasn't quite what I'd hoped. The history of Chinese Buddhism featured heavily, and that was interesting enough. The book began with an explanation that Master Hsing Yun's "Humanistic Buddhism" is effectively a universal Buddhism, dispensing with the sectarian divides and embracing Buddhism's fundamental similarities. Cool, but the book soon devolved into an unfocused rant against politicians and other Buddhist organizations that, in his eighty years as a monk, Hsing Yun ran afoul of. Not so cool. I read it all, but by the end was disappointed that no uniting wisdom was forthcoming.

Less delightful in photos is Alan Moore:

You get the impression that from his pen flows brilliant madness. He wrote the excellent graphic novel V for Vendetta and coauthored the landmark series Watchmen, both of which went on to have successful lives as motion-picture adaptations. And yet his 1,260-page Jerusalem: A Novel won't likely go from page to screen in any era. A love letter to Moore's UK hometown of Northampton, Jerusalem taipses across centuries, playing fast and loose with history and conventions of readability alike. Moore's family, as well as past and current residents of "the Burroughs," as Northampton is sometimes called, might be tickled by his countless references to the city's cramped and crooked streets; I wasn't. My reason for finishing this tome was twofold: (1) hope would not die that a plot might congeal amid the happenstantially connected vignettes, and (2) I am frequently stubborn in the face of literature.

One of multiple positives to being confined at ERDCC, as opposed to Crossroads Correctional Center, where I spent sixteen years, is involvement with the Saint Louis University Prison Education Program. I've blogged about SLU events before, but this whole semester is devoted to the Big Read — an initiative by the National Endowment for the Arts, in partnership with Arts Midwest, to bring communities together with a good book. In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex, by Nathaniel Philbrick, was the book in question. Even though I don't usually enjoy historical nonfiction, I tore though this excellent, harrowing account of nineteenth-century survival at sea, and had a lot to discuss, afterward, with other prisoners and the professors who visited us.

Going back to reading alone, I turned to the comparatively tame writing of Richard Peabody, a minor figure in contemporary American literature, who founded Gargoyle Magazine in the mid-'70s. Edited by Peabody's longtime friend in letters, Lucinda Ebersole, it collects stories, poems, and a novella — almost forty years of Peabody's writing, which, given the large span it covers, felt uneven, its high points rising from the imaginative form certain pieces take, its low points lurking in certain characters' overwrought emotional responses. Lauri B. thoughtfully ordered The Richard Peabody Reader for me, from my usually carefully curated Amazon wishlist. I didn't relish this collection, but Lauri's generosity (last year she gave me a thoroughly fascinating and quite helpful book about the cultural history of zombies) remains deeply appreciated.

Constance M. then delighted me with a Michel Houellebecq novel, The Possibility of an Island (translated by Gavin Bowd). Back in the summer of 2013 (as my reading list for that season shows), I read Houellebecq's dour metafictional take on the detective procedural, The Map and the Territory. That book deeply frustrated me on certain levels, but I recognized the seething intelligence of Houellebecq's writing and was intrigued by The Possibility of an Island's apocalyptic sci-fi premise. "The most important French novelist since Camus," Houellebecq's been called. That's not a comparison I'm prepared to make; however, The Possibility of an Island deals in existential theories and even deconstructs love, breaking it down to its most fundamental elements. A lesser writer would've fallen flat on his face, trying. The ground across which The Possibility of an Island traipses is rich with ponderings of several difficult, or at least uncomfortable, questions. It can't be denied that, however unlikeable Houellebecq's political or social ideals might be, he sees the Western world through eyes unafraid to peer beyond the veil of propriety by scrutinizing values, taboos, authorities, and sacred cows of every type.

The reclusive medieval Buddhist monks Yoshida Kenko and Kamo No Chomei, respectively, wrote Essays in Idleness and Hojoki. Meredith McKinney translated the Penguin Classics volume that includes both. These works paint a fascinating picture of two complex, surprising, often very funny humans. Both were recluses. Chomei lived alone in a hojo, a ten-square-foot hut, in the forest. Kenko, a well-known poet in his day, retained his highbrow social circle after abandoning worldly life in what's now Kyoto, and many of his fourteenth-century thoughts feel Twitter-ready, or at least suitable for microblogging. One extremely brief entry amid the 243 Essays reads, "A certain recluse monk once remarked, 'I have relinquished all that ties me to the world, by the none thing that still haunts me is the beauty of the sky.' I can quite see why he would feel this." It's tempting to imagine that his hashtags were edited out for print publication.

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