Four Men Shaking by Lawrence Shainberg
Michael Haggiag reviews this highly personal account of a writer struggling to come to terms with Zen training, his search for awakening and himself.
Lawrence Shainberg is a novelist and journalist whose work has appeared in major US publications like Esquire, Harper’s magazine and Tricycle. A professional observer with a fluent style, he became a disciple of Kyudo Nakagawa Roshi in the 1980s. In this memoir Shainberg refers to him simply as Roshi. Toward the end of his life Nakagawa Roshi became the abbot of Ryutaku-ji, which is a Rinzai Zen temple in central Japan known for encouraging Zen practice in the West. Prior to this, from 1981 to 1986, he ran the Soho Zendo in downtown Manhattan, after which he returned to Japan, visiting New York only once a year in August.
Shainberg’s memoir opens with Roshi dozing in the front seat of the author’s car after the long plane ride to America. It’s six years since Roshi has been recalled to Japan and in the interim Shainberg makes it clear that he and a female painter called Kazuko with whom he has never got along have been trying to keep their small zendo going. He describes Roshi as an irascible, unpredictable monk and himself as a picture of confusion and self-doubt. Kazuko, who doubles as a translator for Roshi explains to Shainberg that he’s angry with her for wasting her energy on creating memories. He realizes that Roshi’s comment could easily apply to himself and is thrown into even greater confusion. The rest of the book details the author’s inner conflict between writing - his chosen profession - and his burning desire for enlightenment. He illustrates this by describing his literary friendship with two very different but equally legendary writers, Norman Mailer and Samuel Beckett, and their impact on him. By the end of this slim volume, the author reaches a moment of resolution so deeply felt that his body shakes all over. He then has one last interview with Roshi. He tells him that he finally discovered his essential nature - his long-lost home - but his brain wouldn’t accept it: “That’s why I was shaking!” Roshi shuts his eyes and then fixes them on Shainberg: “Shaking is your long-lost home.”
There are certainly wiser books on Zen, those that explore more deeply the principles and practice of Buddhism, but the value of this personal account is its disarming focus on the central problem of lay practitioners in the West. How do you integrate Zen practice with all the other commitments in your life? Rinzai Zen in Japan has an 800 year old history of austere, unrelenting monastic practice. Traditionally lay practitioners offer financial support and come to their Zen temple for spiritual advice and the occasional meditation retreat. In the West the line between the monk and the lay practitioner has often been blurred and the ambition for satori, or instant enlightenment, intense. Unfortunately this outsized spiritual ambition itself becomes an obstacle in the process. Both the existentially depressed Beckett and the competitive, sporadically violent Mailer tolerate Shainberg without having any real affinity for Buddhism so it’s up to Shainberg to make all the connections. None the less there are some lovely insights into Beckett, especially his revelation, when his mother contracted Parkinson’s, that all his work had been on the wrong track: “ The whole attempt at knowledge, it seemed to me, had come to nothing. What I had to do was investigate not-knowing, not-perceiving, the whole world of incompleteness.” Alas this doesn’t resolve Shainberg’s own crisis. At one point he writes, “What is writing anyway but another form of brain damage? What if not disrupted neurology made me add Mailer’s and Beckett’s pathologies to my own? The more I try to follow my breath the more persistent the chatter becomes.” This is less the story of “four men shaking”, than of one lay practitioner who struggles mightily - like so many of us - to come to terms with himself.
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