Saturday, May 23, 2020

Favorite Memoirs and Novels about Spiritual Awakening

I was delighted with the response to my comments about literature in my BATGAP interview last week. (In a day or two, I expect my interview will migrate from the top of the page, but it's interview #550 if you want to take a listen.)

Many people on the Facebook BATGAP page recommended books that are important to them, so if you're on FB, you might want to take a look. I want to post my own list of some of my favorite spiritual memoirs and novels here.

Note that this list does not include any of the hundreds of books that include biographical elements but are mostly commentary on what awakening/enlightenment is.


Sally Wolfe

Breakfast with Buddha, and Lunch with Buddha
Rolland Merullo

A Tale for the Time Being
Ruth Ozeki

Enlightenment for Idiots
Anne Cushman

Special Karma
Merry White Benerza


Ambivalent Zen
Lawrence Shainberg

Enlightenment Blues
Andre van der Braak

Turtle Feet
Nokolai Grozni

Let the Whole Thundering World Come Home
Natalie Goldberg

Where the Dead Pause and the Japanese Say Goodbye
Marie Mutsuki Mockett


Beautiful Ruins
Jess Walters

The Hours
Michael Cunningham

In the future, I'll try to add a one-sentence summary of each book, but meanwhile you can Google them or look at one of the three place I review books: here, the Buddhist Fiction Blog, or Goodreads.

Please feel free to comment. Especially if you've read any of these books, I'd like to hear your impressions.

Thursday, October 3, 2019

DYING TO WAKE UP: a doctor's voyage into the afterlife and the wisdom he brought back, by Rajiv Parti with Paul Perry

A materialistic doctor who finds his true calling after a near-death experience: This story has in common many of the features of  other NDE stories and it is told in a breezy style that makes good bedtime reading. One of the features of the book that makes it useful for those looking for a spiritual path is the detailed program at the end to help readers move from ideas to practice.

I myself have no point of view with respect to near-death experiences. So many people have reported them, and the similarities in what they report are so numerous that it would be hard to say they are only hallucinations. It is true that many of these happen when under anesthesia, making one suspect that the drugs have something to do with them, but people appear to return to ordinary life knowing even practical things that they couldn't possibly have known while in ordinary states of consciousness.

Parti does find after his NDE that he is able to trust his spiritual guides (not in the material universe) to tell him how to live his life. Everything changes because of this. He has been very materialistic and now finds that money and status are not important. Fortunately, he has a supportive wife who is willing to go along for the ride after initial reluctance. In the end, he gives up his very lucrative anesthesiology practice, on the advice of his guides, to teach conscious healing to others – even not knowing exactly what that is!

Near the end of the book, Parti returns to India, where he grew up, and goes to the retreat center he had once been in as a rebellious youth. Here he finds the ultimate truth: “I passed through a field of white light that left me feeling deep love for all people I knew. Then the light faded, and I went into a deep darkness, one so dark it was palpable. To me it felt like a black hole, a void of emptiness and nothingness. I felt my selfness peel away until there was no individuality left. I was truly one with the universe.”

I do have issues with this book, specifically with its production values. There are so many errors that one wonders how an imprint of a major publisher, WW Norton, and a fairly well know agent could have been involved. Then there is the co-writer, who presumably was taken on because Parti didn't feel confident about his own writing. It is all so sloppy – for example, places where the writer wanted to move a sentence, but forgot to delete it from the first location, and so exactly the same sentence appears in two separate paragraphs. The author appears to have forgotten, in other places, that he has already told us this or that about his family and so we get the same information a second time and sometimes a third time.

And worst of all, there are factual errors. We learn, for example, that Carl Jung had an NDE in 1913 at the age of 68! On the next page, we learn that the NDE in fact happened in 1944, which would be about right in terms of Jung's age, but not right if, as is stated, it led to a rupture with Freud, because Freud had been dead for five years! The problem with not checking facts before publishing them is that, once you get something that can easily be verified wrong, people are less likely to believe whatever else you say. And when you are talking about a topic like NDEs about which many people have a lot of skepticism anyway, credibility is particularly important.

But a good editor could fix all this and maybe, in a second edition, will. Meanwhile, this is a book worth reading for those with an open mind about such things.

Wednesday, April 3, 2019

PURE LAND: A True Story of Three lives, Three Cultures, and the Search for Heaven on Earth by Annette McGivney

This is such an unusual book that it's hard to describe it succinctly. It starts out as a search for answers to a grizzly murder that took place in the Grand Canyon -- a place dear to the heart of the author -- and evolves into a memoir as the author comes to understand how her own buried past caused her to become fascinated with this murder in the first place. At the same time, PURE LAND is a story of three cultures -- Native American, Japanese, and Anglo-American -- and how they informed the events in the book.

McGivney is a nature writer who lives in Flagstaff, Arizona, and often hikes in the Grand Canyon. So when she heard that an adventurous young Japanese woman, hiking alone, was murdered by a Native American belonging to a tribe living in the Grand Canyon, she felt she had to dig deeper. That the Japanese -- Tomomi Hanamure -- loved Native American culture and wanted to learn as much about it as possible makes the crime both ironic and tragic.

McGivney alternates chapters focused on the three subjects: the accused killer and his background, Tomomi and her many treks through the States until the final one that resulted in her death, and McGivney's own childhood. I must confess that I didn't see the relevance of McGivney's family's history at the beginning, and I don't suppose the reader was supposed to. But McGivney is a skilled enough writer that I was willing to follow her where she led me, without knowing where that would be.

The author is looking for a deeper truth than who committed the murder, or even, from a legal viewpoint, why he might have done it. She wants the psychological truth, and that involves some deep digging into the culture of the Havasupai Tribe to which he belonged. Cultural background and psychological history cannot be separated, and McGivney has to explore one to explain the other.

The book is called PURE LAND first and most literally because Tomomi's family belonged to the Pure Land sect of Buddhism. The rituals required at the time of death were not adhered to because of the circumstances of the death and this was traumatic to Tomomi's father. But PURE LAND also refers to the desire for each of the main people in the book in the story to find a world free from pain and struggle, a world that, according to Pure Land belief, is to be found after death for all who are true believers.

But the end of the book is the biggest surprise not only for readers but for McGivney herself as she comes to realize why she was obsessed with this story for several years -- even to the extent of traveling to Japan to meet with Tomomi's family and friends. She really leaves no stone unturned. When she is finally overwhelmed and feels she is having a breakdown, the truth comes to her, but it takes her time to learn the ramifications of it all.

More and more we find writers -- especially female writers -- exploring new forms of narrative. Maybe this is "New Journalism" -- which isn't so new anymore -- but it has a different flavor to it from the old male version of Mailer or Wolfe. Here, the reporter isn't just in the story but the story is partly about her, and comes to focus more and more on her as it progresses. After all, isn't it really true that we, as writers, are attracted to stories because they reflect something in ourselves? This is a truth not often uttered, and McGivney should be given credit for her courage in speaking it..  

Monday, February 18, 2019

Let the WholeThundering World Come Home, by Natalie Goldberg

This is a book about having one's spiritual mettle tested. A long-time Zen Buddhist, Goldberg finds herself undergoing all the feelings she supposedly learned to navigate long ago. But when one confronts death, everything one thinks one knows has to be re-learned on a deeper level.

Since I myself went through a medical crisis recently and tried to write about it, I know how hard that can be. If you don't include the details, it's hard to explain why the situation caused the distress it did. And if you do include them, there's the risk of overwhelming and boring the reader. Goldberg has navigated these waters successfully. She isn't afraid to include lots of medical detail, and I, for one, was not bored and followed her all the way.

Cancer doesn't produce sudden death, so I wasn't sure as I was reading whether Goldberg would survive or whether she was writing in order to come to peace with the inevitable. I would like to quote from the end of the book, which I found moving, but I don't want to spoil the suspense for the reader.

Readers will be rewarded for reading this book and finding out for themselves what happens in the end.

Monday, December 24, 2018

LESS by Andrew Sean Greer reflects on the passage of time

The narrative arts are particularly suited to the subjects of the passage of time and death. Time can be telescoped, and even if the novel or play takes place on a single day, there is inevitably flashback, as the characters remember their lives when they were younger. This remembrance is often quite poignant, as it is in LESS.

The stopped clock at the beginning of the story signifies protagonist Arthur Less' unwillingness to accept the passage of time. And this is partly because he conceives himself to be a failure: he must not get old until he has accomplished something worthwhile. It doesn't help that a prominent gay writer has called him a "bad gay" because his writing he doesn't always celebrate gayness. He hopes his new novel, finished and awaiting feedback from his publisher, will be one such accomplishment. Surely people will rave: “Less's new novel, a serious investigation of the human soul . . . .”

Meanwhile, Arthur needs to get out of San Francisco to avoid the dilemma of whether to attend the wedding of his former lover, Freddy. Ironically, when he was actually with Freddy, he never expected the relationship to be permanent or even serious. He felt Freddy wasn't his type, and he urged his much younger lover to find satisfaction elsewhere. And yet, now that Freddy has done so, it isn't so okay at all.

He did have a permanent relationship previously, to the renowned poet Robert Brownburn (amalgam of Browning and Burns?), begun when he was in his early 20's and Brownburn was already in his 40s, but in the end it got stale and both partners moved on.

So Arthur patches together an around the world trip which will take him to New York, where he used to live, then Italy, Germany, France, Morocco, and Japan, entertaining the reader with all his mishaps along the way. For example, he has always imagined himself fluent in German, but in fact, he makes a fool of himself when he speaks. And then there is his teal blue suit, which he feels exemplifies him to a tee, and which he tries to always wear for important occasions – until – .

Meanwhile, his publisher contacts him, under-impressed with what Less thought was his brilliant novel. 

There is a mysterious narrator who is only revealed at the end of the story. This narrative choice allows us to be in close third person and yet step back from Less over and over to see the larger picture. Without this device, it's hard to see how the novel could have worked so well: we need to see Less' foibles and also how others see him.

The story is episodic; the lack of the usual narrative arc makes it sag a bit in the middle. But just when one wonders if it is ever going to get deeper – bang – we are in the midst of the real dilemma that has driven Less to wander the world. His old lover, Robert, now 75 and has had a stroke, and Less contacts him through internet conferencing. Robert's ex-wife is with him, too, and at first, Less doesn't recognize either of them. And then he remembers this scene at the end of Proust's opus: Marcel goes to a cocktail party and sees people he knew long ago. At first he thinks it must be a costume party because everyone has donned a white wig and is stooped and wrinkled. But no: these are the people from his past; age has caught up with every one of them.

Arthur has spent his entire around-the-world trip bemoaning the fact that he has turned fifty, but the appearance of Robert and his ex-wife is the evidence that no one escapes this age thing. He has to quit pretending he will not grow old and start living. Robert, who can hardly talk, admonishes him that, at fifty, he still has plenty of time to live.

Now he realizes that his publisher was right: the book he wrote was trash. He is meant to write not in the vein of ULYSSES – a gay man wandering around the city in a single day – but of REMEMBRANCE OF THINGS PAST -- a man who discovers the value of life as he accepts the passage of time. Meanwhile, the blue suit, emblematic of the Less who never changes, is gone and he finds himself wearing the more appropriate gray. He has learned that life is to be lived now, in the present, and he finds his reward for his lesson learned when he returns home.

Wednesday, July 4, 2018

We realize the essence of life when faced with death

I came across an article by James Wood in the November 27, 2017 issue of The New Yorker that speaks to what is gradually becoming, for me, a new way of looking at literature. It begins with a summary of a short story by Luigi Pirandello, "A Breath of Air," which I'm going to summarize even more briefly than Wood did: a man who has had a stroke lies in bed at home and realizes that everyone around him has changed, but when he asks them about it, they all deny that anything is different. Finally, he understands that the other family members are embodying the spring which has come; he, having been near death, is the only one who can feel the pulsing life brought about by this change.

I had a similar experience after my stroke last year. It seems we can realize the essence of life when we are on the verge of losing it.

Woods goes on to the main topic of his article: a novel -- Reservoir 13 -- by a young British writer, twice short-listed for the Booker Prize, Jon McGregor.  His new novel takes place in a village in northern England but is really about nothing except life -- how life manifests in every way. Who would read such a book? I suppose I would because I have ordered it.

Am I looking for another Beautiful Ruins? Of course. I am always looking for another such masterpiece -- and trying to comprehend how this can be done in words -- how a writer can lead us into what is essentially a transcendent experience through language.

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

When the Dead Pause and the Japanese Say Good-Bye by Marie Mutsuki Mockett

When I first picked up WHEN THE DEAD PAUSE AND THE JAPANESE SAY GOOD-BYE by Marie Mutsuki Mockett, I assumed it was about the 2011 tsunami and its effects on survivors. It is certainly about that, but not only -- or even principally -- that. It is a book about grieving, and learning how the Japanese handle grief.

Mockett is half-Japanese (her father was American) and grew up in California. But as a child she returned to Japan yearly with her mother. So she not only speaks the language but knows a lot of the customs. In addition, members of her mother's family own a Zen temple not far from the tsunami area. When her father and grandparents died one after the other, she felt a deep grief, and hoped she might learn something about how to accept it from the Japanese Buddhism she inherited through her family.

The book covers several visits to Japan and jumps back and forth between them, so that the chapters are more thematic than chronological. Sometimes, she visits a certain temple, for example, but comes back again on another trip. She is treated as a foreigner, which she is since she didn't grow up there, but when she tells her various hosts that her family has a Zen temple, the priests and others in charge of the various spiritual sites she visits change their attitude and become more welcoming. They see that she isn't just a tourist but a serious seeker.

Although I myself lived in Japan for two years and practiced Buddhism at two different temples, I did not know many of the customs and practices Mockett describes in her book. This may be because I was considered completely foreign since I have no family affiliation in Japan, and also because my Japanese was not as fluent as hers. (I was quasi-fluent, which means I missed a lot when Japanese were speaking among themselves.)

Mockett's sojourns take her to Buddhist temples of various sects But she is also interested in sites of the more ancient, matriarchal spirituality (from which Shinto is derived), which has a sometimes uneasy coexistence with Buddhism. For example, there is one Buddhist temple where the itako, or traditional female fortune tellers, return once a year. Now there are only two left. When Mockett said she wanted to visit one and asked how to make arrangements, she was advised that it was really better to see a Buddhist priest at that temple, rather than an itako.

Mockett also delves into the realm of spirits and ghosts and the rich Japanese tradition of contact with the “other world.” She visits several festivals, such as O'Bon, where the dead are welcomed home or sent back to the other world. At one point, it seems that her young son, whom she brings with her on the last journey, experiences contact with a ghost.

Nothing dramatic happens but many, many small things happen and all of these experiences turn Mockett's grief into a felt understanding that what she experiences is universal to all.