By Leath Tonino
Some texts are just plain hard. Finnegans Wake , for instance, or anything by Martin Heidegger. I appreciate the challenge of dense, weird writing, and I appreciate the argument that stories and ideas occasionally demand the experimental stretching of language and logic—otherwise, the argument goes, we remain in a too-comfortable and too-familiar realm, the words on the page mere inky markings, not moving, breathing, life-disrupting, life-enhancing powers.
Sure, but still. Every time I crack certain tricky books—every dang time!—my eyelids get heavy and my mind wanders and the memory of a childhood gripped by Sherlock thrillers and various Middle Earth adventures forces me to question whether I should give up, throw in the towel, return to reading for pleasure and pleasure alone.
It’s a problem, no doubt. And as a nerdy, somewhat obsessive guy, i.e. a guy who not only wants to survey the great literary and philosophical works of the world but also feels compelled to systematically understand them —yeah, it’s a problem that I badly want to resolve. The situation is akin to having a tantalizing slice of pizza on the table, yet due to a stomach ailment (or a lack of teeth) you can’t eat it.
How to ingest difficult poems and odd treatises and unswallowable narratives? How to process them, absorb their nutrients, turn their wisdom and perspective into blood and bone and brain tissue? Moreover, how to savor their complex flavors?
Enter my hammock.
Like, literally: lower yourself into it on an August afternoon and sway, sway, swaaaay.
Actually, before we indulge in that gloriously simple, gloriously suspended contraption, first enter Eihei Dogen (1200—1253 CE), founder of the Soto School of Zen Buddhism, the most profound Japanese thinker of, well, forever. Or so I was led to believe at the tender young age of 18.
During my senior year in high school, I quit assigned homework for a while in order to browse Thoreau, Muir, and Gary Snyder. Deeply into backpacking and rock climbing, their books felt like the syllabus my heart genuinely desired. Snyder, who ascended icy volcanoes in the Pacific Northwest as a teen before relocating to Kyoto for monastic practice, has an essay that handles Dogen, titled “Blue Mountains Constantly Walking.” Though the prose is bewildering (“The blue mountains walk out to put another coin in the parking meter, and go on down to the 7-Eleven. The blue mountains march out of the sea, shoulder the sky for a while, and slip back into the waters.”), I was nevertheless intrigued. Intrigued enough, in fact, that I purchased a translation of Dogen’s masterpiece, Shobogenzo, or Treasury of the True Dharma Eye.
That was a decade ago—a decade of heavy eyelids and wandering mind, of wanting to throw in the towel, return to Sherlock and Middle Earth, ignore this bountiful repast of spiritual insight spread buffet-like before me. Shobogenzo, a compilation of dozens upon dozens of sermons—everything from “Birth and Death” to “Plum Blossoms” to “Regulations for the Auxiliary Cloud Hall”—has proved to be consistently cryptic and (let’s just blurt it out, shall we?) boring. Accordingly, the fat tome has spent these past ten years gathering dust on my shelf, conversing quietly with its dusty neighbor, Heidegger’s Being and Time.
A few months back, with a severely cold, dim winter finally showing signs of retreat, I dug my Hawaiian shirt out of storage, along with sandals, floppy-brimmed canvas hat, and trusty nylon hammock, figuring that these totems of summer would hasten the seasonal transition. Once the last of the snow melts, I excitedly told myself, I’m gonna read like a maniac in this gloriously simple, gloriously suspended thing! Fyodor Dostoevsky , Emily Dickinson, Plato, maybe even… Dogen!
Jump ahead: to increasing sunshine and rising creeks and verdant meadows. In early June, I strung the hammock in my yard between a chalky aspen trunk and a wobbly fencepost, then proceeded to promptly devour Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior . Then Ellen Meloy’s Eating Stone. Then Pankaj Mishra’s Age of Anger. Emboldened by the momentum I was able to carry through all 374 heady, intellectual pages of Anger , I decided to give Shobogenzo another try.
Settled in my swaying chair-bed on a Tuesday evening, warblers warbling, clouds drifting, a tall icy drink within arm’s reach, I opened the copy that I had acquired years ago and—
No, not full-on sleep, but close. The heavy eyelids. The wandering mind. I tried again the following evening, and the following evening, and the following evening. By the weekend, I was a whopping 13 pages in. Stymied. Pathetic.
Okay, now here’s the surprising thing, the thing I’m eager to share with fellow obsessive nerds who aspire to chew rich Buddhist philosophical sermons and slurp up the wacky metaphors of wacky masters: somehow, despite my slow pace and limited comprehension, I enjoyed the act of chilling with Shobogenzo. Reading in my hammock differed from reading in an office, a library, a kitchen. Dogen seemed, if not more accessible, at least more companionable, more friendly. After so many false starts with the Soto School’s founder, this start, I could tell, was true.
I’ve long been convinced that the physical place where a person reads has a huge influence on how a text is received. Barry Lopez’s Arctic Dreams on a beach in Malibu, California or a beach in Nome, Alaska? Pema Chodron and Thich Nhat Hanh in a quiet hermitage or a noisy subway terminal? Consciousness, environment, and book form a tripartite dialogue, a sort of roundtable discussion. This is very mysterious, very cool stuff.
And this stuff gets cooler. Over the past month, as I’ve continued chilling with Shobogenzo , it’s become increasingly clear that a reader’s habitat matters, indeed, but so does the specific—hmm, what to call it? Furniture? Vessel? Microhabitat? Shakespeare on a jumbo jet (riding coach, middle seat, pinned between 300-pound linebackers) is something. Mary Oliver in a Barcalounger is something else. Dogen plus swaying hammock equals…
Pause. Consider the definition of “sway.” Verb: to fluctuate or veer between one point, position, or opinion and another.
Zen study typically emphasizes strict discipline, laserlike focus, paying attention “as if you had a fire burning in your hair” (to borrow a vivid image from the 20th-century master Taisen Deshimaru). Fair enough. But always? In all scenarios? What about a less willful, less rigorous approach, especially with regard to gnarly texts? Might we be able to travel around inside these texts—and invite these texts to travel around inside of us—by letting our guard down, by reading with a mind that swaaaays?
“Sway” is a noun, too, of course: a controlling influence. My hammock holds sway over me, establishing the rhythm of my reading. Granted, this gentle rhythm, this lovely side-to-side rhythm, relaxes me to the point of goofy dazedness, but what I’m getting at is that this relaxation—this releasing of the analytical, striving mind—appears to be a positive.
Robert Aitken, the late Zen priest of Honolulu’s Diamond Sangha, once wrote that “Drowsy contentment may be a condition close to realization. It is a kind of emptiness, of nondifferentiation, where the ten directions melt: inside and outside become one.” I don’t mention this to imply that when I’m nodding off in the yard a merger occurs, man and text made seamless in the mystical union of the swaying moment. Nope. As previously stated, my comprehension is limited at best, the bountiful repast of spiritual insight spread buffet-like before me tough as ever to digest. Hammocking with Dogen doesn’t help me get him so much as it helps me not worry about getting him. That, for a nerdy, somewhat obsessive guy, is special.
Hard to believe, but Dogen and I have become buddies.
We (pun alert) hang together.
Scholars and hardcore Zen students should probably remain hunched over their desks, squinting, scrutinizing, trying —because there is lots to be said for concerted effort and genuine comprehension, for Deshimaru’s hair-ablaze attention and its rewards. Me: I’m not a scholar or a hardcore anything. I’m a loafer. A reader. As such, my task is to create a situation that invites picking up the book again and again and again, rather than retreating from it into the pleasures of Sherlock and Middle Earth.
That’s my mandate. Pick up the book. Again, again, again.
So back to the hammock I go! Back to another lovely evening session with cryptic, boring Dogen, tall icy drink within arm’s reach, a sermon on “Twining Vines” or “Painting of a Rice-cake” or “Buddha Ancestors” filling my vision, ringing in my ears, making little sense, making sense enough—for now. We read to learn, obviously, but we also read to come into contact with, to be in the presence of, to give ourselves over to.
To a writer. To a text. To the sway of sentences, paragraphs, pages. Ideas. Wacky metaphors. A wisdom that we are not yet wise enough to understand.
Leath Tonino is the author of two essay collections, most recently The West Will Swallow You. A freelance writer, his work has been published in Orion, The Sun, Tricycle, Outside, and many other magazines. Three poems of his appeared in KJ89, his memorable essay ‘A Cabin in the Pines’ in KJ91, and ‘Gram’s Yuige’ in KJ97 (Next Generations).