Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Novel Zen

Dostoyevsky famously tried to write a novel about a saint, and notably failed. Prince Myshkin in The Idiot is a holy fool and the Brothers Karamazov leaves the potential of Alyosha incomplete.

The Romanian novelist's, Petru Dumitriu's, remarkable 'Incognito' has, at its heart, a 'secular' saint, Sebastian, who discovers God in a prison camp and infects others with his discovery of the unconditioned love of the world by example rather than through word.

Patrick White's 'Riders in the Chariot' has not one but four saints or four characters who carry different dimensions of the possibility of one, whole, saintliness.

Enter into this company, the Scottish novelist, Alan Spence's recently published, 'Night Boat'. In a sense he cheats because his is an imaginative realisation of an actual saint, embodied in a historical fiction (akin to Nikos Kanzantzakis' St Francis), in the Zen monk, Hakuin, one of the most important, and beloved, figures in Japanese Zen from whom all contemporary Rinzai practitioners are descended.

It is a compelling and beautiful book. I am not competent to judge its 'historical accuracy' but Hakuin himself would be sceptical of such a notion. How faithful can we ever be to 'telling the factual truth', what matters is whether you perceive the compassionately real. There is a wonderful story of Hakuin being accused of fathering a child and rather than deny it, he simply says. 'Is that so?' and takes the baby under his care, as his reputation disintegrates around him. Ultimately the young mother confesses and, with her embarrassed parents, takes the child back to which Hakuin's response is the same, 'Is that so?' What you live out of and towards is the essential not how you represent yourself or are represented. It reminded me of similar stories of the Desert Fathers in early Christian monasticism whereby the Father or Mother takes upon themselves, uncomplainingly, a false accusation for are we not all one of another - the parent of all, a sinner with all.

He was poet, calligrapher and artist, as well as Zen master, and the beautiful simplicity, humour and grace of his work can be seen here in one of his most famous representations - of blind men on a bridge. We can only feel our way, step by step, wholly alert to the texture, body of the bridge until at the end, the image suggests, we must jump, surrendering into the real.

There is only the 'support' of gravity which is grace in the moment. 

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