Tuesday, April 7, 2009
A student in a Fall semester class asked me one of those extraordinary questions students sometimes ask: "What's your favorite book?" "Of all time?" I asked. "Yes," she said. Of course, I could have used the dodge of "that's an impossible question," but the enterprise was too entertaining and challenging for that. I did take the dodge of "prefacing" my remarks, a well known academic tactic used to stall for time. I said, "Well, I'm assuming you've read all the major spiritual texts from the venerable religious traditions globally." "By "you['ve]," I meant the whole class, before whom she'd asked the question. She: "You shouldn't assume that." I: "True, but I'm going to."
Then I finally answered: Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind, by Shunryu Suzuki. It's a book about Zen, obviously, but it's a book about the fundamentals of everyone's existence. I also added that one does not have to adhere to the tenets of Buddhism to benefit from the book. I then went on to yadda-yadda about a variety of novels and collected poems I treasured, but I stuck with my original answer. Her question was really not the same as the "what book would you like to have on a desert island? " one (my answer to that, similar to Chesterton's, is How To Surive on a Desert Island).
In any event, Suzuki reminds us that the illusion of a stable, singular personality is just that: an illusion. Everything changes, including the "I" one is, all the time. Hence this poem, I suppose, which is a bit of a come-down from Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind.
Mr. Several, who shall you be today?
Will you be buying low and selling high,
crisp-collared amongst incorporated towers?
Perhaps you’ll jelly your brain
with wine and weed, wipe away
drool with a purple hand, address demons
in the park. Maybe touring is in today’s
future, dragging bunioned feet
through many centuries of art,
holding in gas as you pretend
to enjoy an impressioned landscape,
which gives you less pleasure
than standing in a weedy meadow.
Whatever you choose, Mr. Several,
you will need a proper costume,
certain basic memories, beliefs,
and appetites—a language to speak,
cast-members who look like people
you know. We shall be delighted
to contact the usual arranged
establishments, Mr. Several.
Copyright 2009 Hans Ostrom