21 June, 2022

Three Books I Read This Spring

"What is the meaning of Bodhidharma coming from the West?" This question has been posed by Buddhist teachers to students in the Zen tradition for 1,500 years. It's a koan, a question unanswerable by intellectual means, designed to short circuit a student's questing mind and bring them one step closer to the essence of being.

Bodhidharma was the First Patriarch of Ch'an Buddhism (which we in America call Zen) Buddhism. He was a redhead of royal birth, either Indian or Iranian, who likely traveled the Silk Road to teach his "wall-examining" style of Buddhism in Northern China. During the country's T'ang Dynasty, Buddhist practice typically involved the endless study of texts and recitation of mantras. Bodhidharma's teachings took a more direct approach, de-emphasizing intellectualization and focusing instead on seated meditation. He taught practice over theory.

A short biography makes up part of The Bodhidharma Anthology: The Earliest Records of Zen, a deceptively small book containing the world's first writings about Zen's first teacher. Jeffrey L. Broughton's translation, which I read in April, took a little while to read, even though I skipped the many appendices. Ironic that a text eschewing complexity and one's intellectual grasping at Buddha's teachings should be loaded with scholarly whatnot. Still, this is the stuff of history; I paid it the attention it deserves.

Translation is such an underappreciated (not to say invisible) art. Like almost any car part, you usually don't notice it's there unless it goes bad. Broughton's translation ancient Tibetan and Sanskrit reads well. The contemporary poet John Ashbery's impactful translation of Arthur Rimbaud's surreal masterpiece, Illuminations, reads altogether differently.

Before the ever-generous Emily C. sent me this version of Illuminations as a gift, it had been on my wish list for years. That often happens with books recommended by other writers and poets recommend but no one else understands the relevance of. Rimbaud is truly a poet's poet. We envy the freedom he found within his chosen forms. Even his life was poetic. He published his first work at seventeen, after traveling with the older poet Paul Verlaine to Belgium, where the two had a torrid love affair. Then Verlaine shot Rimbaud during a quarrel and the young man returned to his family farm to convalesce. Thereafter, he basically gave up poetry altogether and died, at age thirty-seven, in the Horn of Africa, done in by a tumor on his knee.

Rimbaud's original French on the facing pages of this version of Illuminations allows the reader to sit, sounding out bizarre poems in a language one hardly understands, until, as the poet (via Ashbery) writes, "A white ray, falling from the top of the sky , wipes out this little bit of theatricality."

Comparatively, there are books that don't age well, and Tom Robbins's Jitterbug Perfume is one of them. I remember several Robbins titles on my dad's bookshelf, when I was a kid – Skinny Legs and All, Even Cowgirls Get the Blues, Half Asleep in Frog Pajamas. Their titles alone were sublimely ridiculous; I had no idea what kinds of stories they foretold. Then I came to prison and decided to see what had so clearly interested my father. Jitterbug Perfume is the fourth Robbins book I've read, and it's by far my least favorite.

Basically, Jitterbug Perfume concerns the quest for eternal youth by a couple of ancient narcissists. One is a former king of a pre-European tribe; one is an Indian widow from an undescribed mid-level caste. Along the way, they meet the Greek god Pan, go to prison, narrowly escape being burned alive by superstitious townsfolk on numerous occasions, become embroiled in the perfume business, and dress up for Mardi Gras as giant beets. I expected silliness, but the sexism and casually racist garbage that ran through the novel didn't pass muster. I finished reading it mostly just to avoid thinking of myself as a quitter.

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