Catherine Gammon

The composition is the thing seen by everyone living in the living they are doing, they are the composing of the composition that at the time they are living is the composition of the time in which they are living… Gertrude Stein

A Zen Reading of Moby-Dick

The following review was written for the San Francisco Zen Center Sangha News and first appeared there on September 23, 2014

Zen and the White Whale:Zen_wwhale_bookcover
A Buddhist Rendering of Moby-Dick
by Daniel Herman
Lehigh University Press,
with Rowman, Littlefield, 2014

Once upon a time, not so long ago, a young Zen student practicing at Tassajara read Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick on the suggestion of a friend at the monastery. Maybe Daniel Herman would have gone on from there to study literature and complete his PhD, even to write his dissertation on the very novel and the very subject, without the happy circumstance of having met Melville’s whale for the first time in the mountains of the Ventana Wilderness, in the deep heart-opening canyon that is Tassajara. Maybe that dissertation would even have become a book. And maybe not. Certainly not this book.

Like Melville’s narrator Ishmael, Daniel Herman introduces himself before he guides us carefully into the world of Moby-Dick, introducing at the same time the lens through which he will read the novel: the lens of a Zen student. This is an almost magical and apparently inevitable pairing, as if Moby-Dick had been waiting for just this person to come along and write about it in just this way.

Herman brings to hisdaniel_herman_crop_x600 reading of Moby-Dick an intimacy inextricable from his practice experience and from his deep sympathy for Melville and his works. Together these origins make Zen and the White Whale unusually moving for a scholarly study, quite independently, I would guess, of one’s previous knowledge of Moby-Dick or the dharma. And Herman’s whole project and execution reaffirm the possibility and understanding of literary reading and writing as a dharma practice.

Although this is a work of literary criticism, well documented with sources and citations, Zen and the White Whale is delightfully free of theoretical jargon, and as a dharma reading, it is free of jargon as well. Herman intends his discussion to be accessible to anyone familiar with Moby-Dick, not dependent on prior practice of Zen or knowledge of buddhadharma, and I would take this intention a little farther to suggest that the reader need not already know Moby-Dick either, so skillfully does Herman guide us through the novel’s difficult waters. And those of us who do know the novel and are Zen practitioners also may find here the pleasure and danger, both, of being inspired to venture into the novel once again, with our Zen eyes and our Zen hearts open.

Zen and the White Whale begins with the observation that “Moby-Dick and the teachings of Zen Buddhism share a central premise: that the ultimate truths of the universe cannot be distilled by conventional understanding, and that our ‘intellectual and spiritual exasperations’ arise from a desperate need for concrete answers to these ungraspable truths.”

From this assertion, all else follows. The book’s architecture is straightforward. First establishing the Buddhist texts Melville would have been familiar with, both those he is known to have read and those he is likely to have read, Herman goes on to read the novel alongside those teachings, using both the terms the 19th-century texts made available and the language of contemporary Zen teaching and teachers to illuminate Melville’s explorations—and he accom-plishes this journey with the lightest possible touch.

From the start Herman expresses the intention to offer a reading without attaching to it, and it is the congruity of this intention with the method and spirit of Moby-Dick itself that makes the book such a satisfying literary reflection. He writes:

Just as every whaleman in the novel has his own unique notion regarding Moby Dick the whale, every reader has his or her own unique understanding of Moby-Dick the book. As Ishmael might say, it “begins to assume different aspects, according to your point of view.” To insist that any particular reading of the novel is somehow truer, or more worthwhile, than all others is to fall into the same trap as Captain Ahab.

In true Zen spirit, Herman saves this insight from its potential for nihilism by the care he takes over details, individual and concrete. His discussion progresses by loosely following the trajectory of the novel—focusing first on Ishmael and his “way-seeking mind,” then on the white whale as the figure for the absolute or ultimate unknowable, and finally on Ahab and his obsession as a self-consciousness that even in its suffering must cling to its sense of separation.

From the first words of the novel—the famous “Call me Ishmael”—Herman brings his literary reflections and his dharma reflections into conversation with one another, and his approach here at the beginning can stand as example for the whole. Playing off those first words of the narrator, Herman writes: “Call me, he says, as I begin this new life, with this new name. It is at once an embrace of his own existence and a plea for us to join him. Call me—establishing the reader’s essential role in his narrative. Call me—I cannot exist without your call. Call me.” He continues:

[T]hat Ishmael requires us to join him on his cetological meditation suggests that he would be unable to attain knowledge of the whale without his reader participating in his effort. This recalls Dogen Zenji’s teaching (originally from the second chapter of the Lotus Sutra, “Preaching”) that “buddhas alone, together with other buddhas, are directly able to realize [truth].” It is only through appealing to an outside source that one can “affirm that he understands clearly and fully.”

In a further reflection on the opening words, Herman tells us that the name Ishmael “is often translated as ‘God hears.’ So we might read this sentence as ‘Call me “God hears.”’ Or perhaps it should be ‘Call me the one who God hears’ or ‘Call me the one who God has heard.’”

Herman relates this “Call me” to the standard sutra opening “Thus have I heard” (and could as easily, I think, have taken us in another direction as well, to some similar imaginative riffing on the Bodhisattva Regarder of the Cries of the World, for surely this Ishmael whose name means “God hears” can be read as the novel’s cry regarder, its Kanzeon).

As Herman’s reading continues, giving in this way his close attention to the imagery, language, and idea within the world made by the novel, he brings to bear mutually illuminating images, language, and ideas from the teaching and practice of Zen. If Melville’s language likens the whaling ship to a monastery and its men to monastics, Herman’s own experience of monastic life enlivens his reading of the metaphor. If men at the watch go drifty, there are parallels to be found in meditation. Herman writes:

When Ishmael succumbs to a “dreamy mood losing all consciousness,” he describes the progression of his mental states in precise and astute detail… He strikes a stable balance between seeking the whale but not grasping the whale—between whaling and not-whaling (we might call it “non-whaling”)—leading to his realization that there is ultimately no sperm whale to be found.

And if Ishmael’s transformation and ultimate survival may to a technically minded reader seem mere narrative necessity, to the Zen practitioner they embody and enact the movements on a path of practice.

Throughout Zen and the White Whale, Ishmael, the whale, and Captain Ahab receive equally close attention, with engaging and thoughtful side visits to the other whalemen, and Zen is spoken here in the voices not only of Dogen but also of Dongshan, Linji, Suzuki Roshi, and Tenshin Reb Anderson, among many others.

Herman Melville's graveWhen in his conclusion Herman describes the blank unfurling scroll that adorns Melville’s gravestone, its “blankness” has been established as an image carrying the weightless weight of Moby-Dick and dharma with it. At the end of his acknowledgments, Herman expresses gratitude directly to Melville “for writing this strange book about a whale. It breaks my heart to think you died without knowing what your work would one day mean to the world.”

Thus, all along its way, Daniel Herman’s Zen-based reading serves to bring the great American novel of whalers, whale, and whaling ship out of its classic, 19th-century, masculine-oriented, academic—dare we say even stuffy?—confines into timeless life with all of us here and now, where in truth it has always belonged.

I have to confess that I enjoyed reading Zen and the White Whale so much that at first I found it difficult to write about. More than anything Daniel Herman’s book moves me to go out and get my hands on a copy of Moby-Dick and to read it again. May it have that effect on others, whether students of Zen or students of literature, or most happily both.

__________

Two reviews, a nomination, and time and space to write …

Just a little catching up here, after six months at Green Gulch, a few days in Brooklyn, and now a room and time for writing at Wellspring House in Ashfield, Massachusetts, where the trees still look like winter, but the air knows it’s spring…

sorrowcompE.inddA couple of newer reviews of Sorrow have come out: the smartest read from PANK (spoiler alert) and the smartingest from The Pittsburgh Post Gazette.

Meanwhile, in California, Sorrow is a finalist in fiction for the Northern California Book Awards—the ceremony (“and the winner is…”) coming up this Sunday in San Francisco, details here.

Just to be nominated in such excellent company is a win, and I’m sorry to miss the event, but happy for this precious unstructured time.

Good luck to all the nominees, and gratitude to the Northern California reviewers. And, as always, to Jeff Condran and Robert Peluso of Braddock Avenue Books.

Notes on The Hidden Lamp

The following review was written for the San Francisco Zen Center blog Sangha News, and appeared there on November 12, 2013.

The new koan collection, The Hidden Lamp, edited by Zenshin Florence Caplow and Reigetsu Susan Moon, takes as its manifestly traditional starting point the collecting of one hundred Zen teaching stories. The radical difference is not simply that the stories feature women as students, adepts and masters, but that the commentaries and reflections paired with them are offered not by one living teacher, but by one hundred, all women, and from many lineages and Buddhist traditions.

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This diversity brings a palpable vitality to stories that include both the classic and the contemporary, and a single reflection can suddenly shift with startling effect from a traditional way of reading to a wake-up call grounded in engagement with the collective present, as for example when Pat Enkyo O’Hara turns from explication of a koan presenting a playful encounter between Iron Grindstone Liu and Master Guishan Lingyou, to ask,  “What does this koan teach us today? Is it not that New York melts the arctic ice; that karmic threads of colonialism have woven twenty-first century violence; that restitution across the globe rests in our hearts, here at home?”

In a similar spirit are moments like this from Susan Murphy:

In a life-world on the brink of crumbling in mass extinctions, while human forms of insanity are roundly certified as “business as usual,” how will you actualize the cry of the rooster with this whole great body and mind of fields, mountains, and flowers?

And from Joanna Macy:

My attention, too, is so preoccupied with what we, collectively, are doing to our world…. My spiritual practice calls me to come to terms with the destruction we humans are causing. I wouldn’t want an “enlightenment” that would keep me from knowing and feeling the ways our actions are unraveling the very web of life. I want to be present to the suffering that comes with “the spirit of the knife and the axe”—the spirit of bulldozer and chainsaw, of deep sea drilling and mountaintop removal, of factory farms and genetically modified seeds.

And from Natalie Goldberg:

All the meditating in the world doesn’t stop a rape in the Congo. Some effort needs to be made; we must be willing to get our white clothes dirty. We don’t need more wisdom poured into an empty vessel. We need to be willing to hear about horror, broken bones, economic collapse, betrayal.

It is tempting to go on, but these moments that bring timeless practice face to face with contemporary crisis are not the only treasures here.

Most Zen students are likely to be familiar with the expression “the bottom falls out of the bucket,” but how many of us know its origin in the life, work, and enlightenment story of one particular woman? How many of us who chant a dedication to our women teachers that ends with the name Chiyono know who Chiyono was? No doubt such details are not new to every reader, but for me coming across them was one of the many delights of this book.

The story of Chiyono goes like this: In the midst of long and deep practice, on a full moon night, she fills her old bucket at the well. The bucket breaks and the moon’s reflection falls away with the water. This is Chiyono’s moment of awakening, not unlike the possibly more familiar stories of a monk awakening after years of study and practice when his broom sweeps a pebble to ping against bamboo, or another who awakens on seeing a peach tree blooming.

Chiyono’s enlightenment poem expresses her understanding and gives us the well known image:

With this and that I tried to keep the bucket together,
and then the bottom fell out.
Where water does not collect,
the moon does not dwell.

In her reflection on this story, Merle Kodo Boyd offers a fresh take on the image itself:

As much as I may wish to appear competent at all times, I cannot immerse myself in Zen practice without a willingness to come apart. Sometimes it’s appropriate to stop patching things back together. I have come to trust the true freedom of living where the moon does not dwell.

In her own commentary on the koan “The Old Woman’s Relatives,” Caplow captures the spirit of the whole collection when she writes:

But you must understand that it is the asking that matters, not the answer. Because every real asking, every real meeting comes from the place where the Buddha glimmers in the depths. In the asking is the answerer; in the answer is the asker. And in the meeting of the two, there are mountains, rivers, and the whole earth.

The Hidden Lamp is a large and spacious collection, rich with the voices and years of practice of these hundred living women and two and a half millennia of women forebears, known and unknown. I have sampled here only a few of them. For all their richness and diversity, these stories and reflections share the central wisdom expressed by Emila Heller:

Taking refuge in a community of practitioners for so many years gave me the gift of knowing that we are all suffering, and my faith is that there is the possibility of an end to suffering.

May it be so.

The Hidden Lamp: Stories from Twenty-Five Centuries of Awakened Women
Edited by Zenshin Florence Caplow and Reigetsu Susan Moon
Foreword by Norman Fischer
Wisdom Publications
Paperback
440 pages, 6 x 9 inches
$18.95
ISBN 978086171659

Review and a Reading

A lovely first review of Sorrow at Necessary Fiction.

And a recording of the reading at the August 24 Brooklyn launch at Brooklyn Zen Center — here. (With thanks to Ian Case and Terence Caulkins)

photo by Noah Fischer

photo by Noah Fischer

Launched and Surveilled

After a brief visit to Pittsburgh to see some friends—

dobra 3

here with Nancy, Rannigan, and Amy at Dobra tea

—and to launch Sorrow at the wonderful East End Book Exchange

 launch reading

—and a long day on the train back to New York, then a quick overnight with Heather and Nick and the splendid Cordelia (recently practicing the mokugyo at Brooklyn Zen Center)

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—I am now heading back to Wellspring House, a peaceful writing retreat in Ashfield, Massachusetts.

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On the way to Penn Station a few hours ago, on the D train, I found myself noticing that of the people in my immediate vicinity (I counted twelve), seven were engaged with or plugged in to their electronic devices, the others engaged with old-fashioned devices—a book, a subway map, El Diario, a nail file & hand cream, and sleep—only one other person, like me, awake with nothing in hand.

This observation presented itself as a facebook post, although I could not at that moment connect to facebook, and then I thought that posting this observation on faceback (and also posting it here a few hours after the fact) would make me part of the surveillance apparatus of our time.

These thoughts may be in the foreground because I have been reading two very interesting and very different books on the subject of surveillance, Cypherpunks: Freedom and the Future of the Internet, by Julian Assange, with Jacob Appelbaum, Andy Muller-Maguhn, and Jeremie Zimmerman, and a recent book of literary scholarship that looks at Western cultural history on issues of privacy and observation, self and panopticon, The Watchman in Pieces: Surveillance, Literature, and Liberal Personhood, by David Rosen and Aaron Santesso.

Side by side, and in the context of the Edward Snowden revelations, these make fascinating reading. (I first read Cypherpunks last fall when it came out, and sad to say it reads much less abstractly now, these ten months later.)

*

One aspect of being surveilled is going out in public and presenting oneself—so that I found after the launch event some photos of myself reading  (thankfully distant and fuzzy but evenso looking, to my eye, rather dowdy and grim) appearing on facebook. (What? I look like that?)

Well, I do, apparently, the camera says so. Or maybe I think I still look like this?

with Ken et al

But no, just something in between—time to return to those Dobra photos…

Dobra1

Great thanks to everyone for all the generous support for the coming of Sorrow!

Necessary Fiction

Many thanks to Steve Himmer at Necessary Fiction for inviting this reflection on the genesis of Sorrow:  Research Notes: Sorrow

I just had an evening with the wonderful writers with me this week at Wellspring House and had the opportunity to read this small essay aloud. May every reading be so intimate and warm.

Now I’m counting down and packing up for an overnight in Brooklyn and making my way to Pittsburgh for the launch.

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Saying thank you

Over the last few weeks I’ve been preparing for the imminent publication of my novel Sorrow by offering words of gratitude on Facebook to my publishers and to the wonderful writing women who have given words of praise for the book, Eve Ensler, Kellie Wells, and Toi Derricotte.

Following are my words of thanks, and their generous words of support.

From July 22

As publication day for Sorrow approaches I have the opportunity at last to celebrate the beautiful work given to this book by Jeff Condran and Robert Peluso, my wonderful publishers at Braddock Avenue Books, and to begin to express my gratitude to those who have given their voices in pre-publication support.

Today I want to send a shout out of thanks to Kellie Wells, author most recently of Fat Girl, Terrestrial, for these extraordinary words:

“What Sorrow illustrates with such dark and devastating beauty is that the heart that is forced out of innocence into terrible knowledge will one day utter its grief, and when it does, the sound, like its source, will be unimaginable. One of the many astonishing things about Catherine Gammon’s novel is the exacting emotional and psychological candor with which it is written. Never does the book blanch for the sake of false comfort; never does it allow the reader to dodge harrowing truths, those truths humanity most urgently needs to confront. It is a work of profound courage and integrity.”
– Kellie Wells, author of Fat Girl, Terrestrial

From July 26

As I pack and clean and prepare to say goodbye to Brooklyn, it’s time to pause and share an immeasurable thank you to the fabulous Eve Ensler for everything she is and does and just also now for these glowing words supporting Sorrow, out in two weeks from Braddock Avenue Books (and available for pre-order). Eve writes:

Sorrow is a devastating, gorgeous, impossible, unstoppable book—powered by unbearable desire, murder, a stunning turbulence of language and story. The real triumphs of this novel are Anita, Magda, Danny, Tomas, Cruz—people you will never forget even though tragedy, abuse, and circumstance did their best to render them invisible. A tour de force.”
– Eve Ensler, author of The Vagina Monologues and In the Body of the World

Huge gratitude, huge love, Eve.

From July 31

From the deep, productive peace of Wellspring House in Ashfield, Massachusetts, a final word of gratitude for the gift of early praise for Sorrow, today to the incomparable Toi Derricotte for this generous offering:

“Think of a female Dostoevsky. Think of a female Raskolnikov. Gammon’s modern turn on the classic tale takes us into the mind, heart and soul of a woman who has been the victim of sexual abuse in childhood; but, in so doing, she illuminates the dynamics of power and redemption to which we are universally subject. Sorrow is a stunning page-turner and unforgettable.”
– Toi Derricotte, author of The Black Notebooks and The Undertaker’s Daughter

Immeasurable gratitude to you all

Sorrow is available for pre-order at http://shop.braddockavenuebooks.com/shop/braddock/sorrow.html
For free pre-order shipping use the discount code: GAMMON

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