[personal profile] zalena
Several years ago I read a book called Turning the Wheel: Essays on Buddhism and Writing by Charles Richard Johnson. I have no idea where this book came from, but it hit when the time was right. It was about what I did know (writing) and what I didn't know (Buddhism.) I remember thinking, "In a few years this will probably mean more."

At that time I put one of his books on my bookmooch wishlist. It was only a few weeks ago that it came available and turned up in the mail.

I LOVED the beginning of The Oxherding Tale. It is set in the antebellum south and is about the mixed-race son of a plantation owner's wife and a black butler. The origin tale is bawdy and funny... and the whole book is kind of a tragicomic meditation on on eastern spirituality via western philosophy. Which means my peeps the Transcendentalists are referenced, but so are a million other things.

The main character, Andrew, is educated by a a kooky transcendentalists, which means he has this elite white education, but lives in a black slave world. And this sets him up for a heap of suffering. Added to this are all these little Buddhist parables (including one about samsara that I swear is an alternate telling of Job) and he pilgrimages through the book in his search for freedom via various Ways.

It's a ripping read. It's got a lot of nods to literature. It meets me where I'm at. And it combines with a lot of stuff I've been thinking about anyway. If Huckleberry Finn is about an illiterate white child heading downriver, The Oxherding Tale is about a literate black man heading upriver. It's funny and moving and shocking and everything you want a book to be when you open it.

Unfortunately, the ending let me down. If the first half of the book is about Andrew's experiences being black, the second half is about his passing for white, and the way 'the Soulcatcher' still manages to track him down, reconstructing his attachments of the past to catch him out in a kind of trap. No matter how convincing his 'white' present, he can't escape his 'black' past.

The author even goes so far as to point out that slave narratives follow the same arc from slavery to freedom as Puritan narratives, from sin to salvation. (And in this case, painfully, from black to white.) Following the example of what he describes as the church's first black father Augustine. (tolle, lege)

But mixed into all this is a meditation on Buddhism nihilism. I know that buddhist nothingness is not the same as the Nothing in The Neverending Story. Yet the one person the Soulcatcher can't catch is the slave whose attachments have been so brutalized that there is literally nothing left.

Johnson is often quoted from the introduction of Turning the Wheel, "Were it not for the Buddhadharma, I'm convinced that, as a black American and an artist, I would not have been able to successfully negotiate my last half century of life in this country. Or at least not with a high level of creative productivity."

But the end of the book with its insistence that the only way out of slavery both literal and metaphorical was to become this nothing.... I still have difficulty grasping it. Johnson clearly intends this as a kind of parable, and the ending, though sudden, is intended to be positive. But it hurt. And a book I read with such joy now feels like it veered off into metaphor and abandoned me.

Interestingly, what floated to the top of the essays I read several year was this description of 'perfect speech,' which was part of my Lenten Challenge that year. He included this passage attributed to the Buddha from 'The Sutra of the Forty-Two Sections:'

"Lie not, but be truthful, and speak truth with discretion, not so as to do harm, but in a loving heart and wisely. Invent not evil reports, neither do ye repeat them. Carp not, but look for the good sides of your fellow beings, so that you may with sincerity may defend them against their enemies... Waste not the time with empty words, but speak to the purpose or keep silence. Covet not, nor envy, but rejoice at the fortunes of other people.... Cherish no hatred, not even against your slanderer, nor against those that would do you harm, but embrace all living beings with kindness and benevolence... He must not flatter his vanity by seeking the company of the great. Not must he keep company with persons who are frivolous and immoral... He must not take delight in quarrelous disputations or engage in controversies so as to show the superiority of his talents, but be calm and composed."

(I wrote, "And I thought Jesus was a tough act to follow!")

It seems interesting that 'perfect speech' is again highlighted for me this year. (Though my actual Lenten Challenge is articulated differently.) I suppose as a Woman of the Word perfect speech has potential to be both my highest calling an my greatest failing.

Despite my disappointment in The Oxherding Tale I can't wait to read Johnson's book of essays, again. When I do, I will write about them.

In upcoming literary news: A response to Elizabeth Hand's essay on women & retribution in literature. (My mother is teaching Radiant Days for her advisory class this year after my review convinced her to read the book.)

A response to Inside the Victorian Home, which will probably incorporate Betty Friedan. (Loved Victorian Home, less crazy about Freidan whose Feminine Mystique I hilariously read in high school thinking it would teach me how to seduce men. A friend responded, "That'll set you straight!" the irony being that I am a single income household with no men and boy howdy let me tell you it takes a lot more than a dayjob to keep one creatively fulfilled!)

And whatever else I've been reading. A bunch of gothic suspense, really, Kate Morton's latest Secret Keeper which had a boring start and a nice reveal. And Juliet Dark's Water Witch (Carol Goodman writing supernatural romance) which proves to me that a) yes there is a thing as too many magical creatures... and b) not even Goodman can make me like supernatural romance.

I swear there's more, but I've been reading a lot less... and my thoughts have been kept mostly to myself. It hasn't felt safe to share as of late. I'm hoping I can get to a place where I feel more open and safe to share, again.
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