May 24, 2012

Across the vastness, nothing holy…: Tracking Bodhidharma (Kind of a Book Review).


The emperor then asked, “What is the first principle of the holy truth?”
Bodhidharma said, “Across the vastness, nothing holy.”
The emperor said, “Who is facing me?”
Bodhidharma said, “I don’t know.”*

Twenty-five years ago, a friend and I were hitch-hiking from Rome to Pompeii, to see the ancient city with its gorgeous mosaics preserved by the lava that killed its inhabitants, and, of course, the ruined coliseum where Pink Floyd played. While my friend took his turn waving his thumb at traffic, I sat in the traffic island grass, reading a borrowed copy of D. T. Suzuki’s Introduction to Zen Buddhism. Later, I found Alan Watts, Shunryu Suzuki, Thich Nhat Hanh, Zen Flesh/Zen Bones, and the great drunken poet/monk Li Po—book after book telling me I wouldn’t learn anything about Zen in reading books about it. Eventually, I got into meditation. And yoga. And read a whole lot more books about both. Nonetheless, while fascinated by the philosophy and poetry, with its emphases on direct experience and spontaneity, I was quickly turned off by what I saw of the strictures of monastic Zen practice, with its reverence for tradition, early hours, and whacking people with sticks. Ultimately, I never became a Buddhist. Some might say that was very Zen of me, whatever that means.

Anyway, through the many books, I learned about Bodhidharma as one of those great semi-historical/semi-mythic Buddhist figures, more specifically, the semi-mythic/semi-historical dude who, according to some mixture of history and myth, brought Zen to China. Can’t say I ever had much interest in learning more about him than that, but, nonetheless,  said yes when my erstwhile, hard-working Elephant-colleague, Sophie,  asked if I’d have any interest in reviewing a book called Tracking Bodhidharma, by Andy Ferguson—a decision I started regretting as soon as the 359 page tome arrived at my house. And, certainly, if Tracking Bodhidharma had turned out to be either the intricately footnoted scholarly study or pious hagiography I feared, I’d quickly have seen what this nice-looking hardback would command at the local used book store. Like Zen itself, however, Ferguson’s book turns out to be something different than what it might appear at first glance, and not easily definable:  a kind of freewheeling travelogue, trekking through modern and ancient China, history, myth, and timeless philosophy, religion and politics, storied rivers and mountains and ever-present industrial pollution, and the sometimes surprising places these converge, with lively excursions, literally and figuratively, in countless directions.

…upstream, on the far shore of the river, a modern gravel pit has gashed a big hole in the side of the Dragon Mountains. As a result, it appears that a gravelly detritus has filled in the waterway, taming the white water where fish once turned into dragons.

Early on, Ferguson expresses his intention to offer a view “removed from prevailing religious and scholarly orthodoxy,” praising one of his sources, the ancient scholar Daoxuan. for “keeping Bodhidharma’s life planted on earth instead of floating in mythical clouds.” (Note to readers who like their ancient Buddhists floating in mythical clouds: this might not be the book for you). Shortly afterwards, he notes that Zen was, in fact, already in China by the time Bodhidharma got there, and that scholars debate whether his celebrated encounter with Emperor Wu ever happened, some even suggesting that Bodhidharma never existed at all, except on the purely mythic end of the mythic/historical scale. Ferguson, for his part, refuses to go nearly that far, pointedly rejecting “postmodern” and “deconstructionist” approaches that would dismiss Bodhidharma or his vital importance to Zen and Chinese history. And so, early on, the author, himself, poses, and sets out to answer, the question of why anyone would care enough about this mysterious figure to read a 359 page book about him.

In what follows, Ferguson’s search for Bodhidharma serves as a kind  of axle around which the narrative wheel spins, often in surprising directions. While clearly driven by a his own devotion to Zen, he offers a lot to disturb the Romantic sensibilities of Westerners who might like to hold up Eastern religions, including Zen, as more pure, peaceful, and uncompromised than their Western counterparts. Certainly, to those who purchase their knowledge of Buddhism with their organic kale and kombucha at the local food co-op, the opening anecdote concerning Emperor Hirohito timing the bombing of Pearl Harbor to coincide with the date of Buddha’s enlightenment will be disconcerting, to say the least.

In his travels through China, literally “tracking Bodhidharma,” Ferguson braves treacherous highways, over-packed trains, incredibly circuitous bus routes, and countless guides who seem to have little idea of where they’re going. He finds Starbucks locations at sites of great spiritual and historical import, sacred stupas off-limits inside of police installations, major temples reduced to rubble, and sacred remains that seem utterly dubious. At times, perhaps, he goes a bit fast, making highly debatable political and philosophical points with little explication or defense, and straddles the line between writing for general readers and scholarly Buddhists somewhat uneasily—where the former might see him as getting bogged down in discussions of Buddhist doctrine, those with a proverbial horse in the doctrinal race will likely be irritated when he moves quickly on to an entertaining description of a frenzied bus ride that took over two hours to go two miles. Overall, I found Ferguson an engaging and personable writer, who makes a very pleasant, if opinionated traveling companion (even if he brings up the fact he’s vegetarian with such an irritating frequency, I started wondering if the book was ghostwritten by Waylon Lewis).

Yanci puts down his cup and smiles. Then he says, “If you keep coming and going, you’ll never find Bodhidharma.”

As such, the book may be best seen as a loose introduction to an ongoing conversation on many intertwining topics. The author is knowledgeable yet ever full of questions, intellectual but with a poetic sensibility, neither overly authoritative nor wishy-washy. All in all, he seems like a person I’d like to have long conversations with over coffee—basically the conditions under which I’ve read his book and written this review—as opposed to an authority at whose feet to sit in deference. (Then, honestly, that sitting-deferentially-at-feet thing is one of the things I could never stomach about Buddhism).

Ultimately, he finds in Bodhidharma and his perhaps mythic encounter with Emperor Wu an essential meeting of two very different conceptions: that of the Zen that “does not bow to a king,” and that of the “Imperial-way Zen” that conquers in the name of state-sponsored religion. And this conflict is one that, as he deftly points out, has had devastating effects not only on the history of Buddhism, but of China and Southeast Asia, as a whole. Of course, it’s not difficult to see in this echoes of conflict and confluences of church and state, with religious wars, oppression, and suppression, here and elsewhere.

Overall, Ferguson is not one for easy homilies or for finding common ground at all costs. Nor is he one to rankle for rankling’s sake (and, anyway, I think the old Zen masters would probably agree that a little rankling isn’t always such a bad thing). More than anything, he’s a storyteller, narrating his own journey—both physically through today’s China, and more metaphorically through time and timelessness in search of elusive truths. And, as importantly, his lively writing style gives a powerful sense of that journey. When he writes “we set off slowly into the mists toward the base of Song Mountain,” I want to go with him.


* All quotes are from Tracking Bodhidharma.

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