Following is the article I just completed for Watkins Review, the magazine published by Watkins Books, London’s largest and oldest esoteric book shop. I gave a reading and signed books there in January. I believe the article explains some intuitions I have about Zen, and Buddhism which are foundational to Lost Coins practice.
Wonderland: The Zen of Alice
My book was first published in the U.S. by Parallax Press and titled Wonderland: The Zen of Alice. It was reprinted later by Random House in Germany and re-titled Wonderland: The Art of Falling Through a Hole. I am partial to the Random House title. It implies an endorsement of being upended, which is what I am writing about – the practice and value of slipping into the unknown – the unveiling of Wonderland.
Many of us first encounter “wonder” when we are very young. My early exposure to it was in The Bronx, New York. The Bronx was an intricate and dangerous place. But, exploration was just what I loved. The drafty streets led to the domain of the cool Cheshire cats that hung out in the poolroom and sometimes stole cars. The hookah- smoking caterpillars were in mystical and shattered brick walk- ups getting down with their hookahs.
I maintained this love of wonder and exploration and, in time, it led me to Zen training with all its attendant adventures – long meditation, short sleep, demanding, inspiring and sometimes baffling teachers, exotic rituals – all of it.
I began my study in upstate New York at Zen Mountain Monastery. It was the perfect setting, short of a prolonged stay in Japan, for the arduous adventure of seeking and wondering.
Twenty-five years went by. I studied with three teachers both in and out of a monastery. It lasted that long because I was particularly dense and stubborn and because I was exploring in other ways as well: art, science, psychology (I worked as a psychotherapist during this time). I felt these areas were an important part of my education as well and could be integrated into a well- rounded practice. I still happily explore these areas and I draw on them in the book.
During those intensive years of Zen study I spent some time questioning whether I had strayed from what brought me to practice. What I’d come for had morphed into something else. Knowing had taken the well-worn comfortable seat right in the middle of the room. The wonder I was seeking through Zen practice had left me. I needed to get my mojo back – I wrote this book.
In Alice and Wonderland, Alice is lost and asks the Caterpillar where to go. The Caterpillar replies that it depends entirely on where she wants to wind up.
Monasteries and practice centers around the world chant the Heart Sutra. Shin translated as heart is also the word for mind so it is the mind/heart sutra. It ends with the Sanskrit phrase Gate, Gate Parasam Gate Bodhi Svaha after describing the state of emptiness (Shunyata) in Sanskrit. This is the ground of being, which is devoid of characteristics and yet not empty at all, because at the same time it gives rise to everything and thus, is full. It is the empty and fertile hole – the place of not knowing.
This Sanskrit phrase “Gate, Gate….. means gone, gone – gone to the other shore. My favorite rendering of the final word – Svaha is “Yippee” You might say “What is there to shout Svaha about – as I did. The thrill is gone, the other shore is far away and I am never going to be able to get a boat because my credit totally sucks. But hey, as we used to say in the Bronx, “it don’t make no nevermind.” Because the stunning truth the lineage has delivered to us is that there is no boat and no other shore. This shore is the other shore. This life is the before and afterlife and this place – this hole – is Wonderland. That’s what this book is about.
Wonderland, like my mojo – is easily lost and not easily found. The entrance is sealed by what we already think we know. As the great Zen teacher Dogen said, the ten thousand things (wonderland) are perceived when we forget the self, which requires a leap or fall – more than a map. Once we are really lost, ironically, our direction is clear. As the revered baseball sage, Yogi Berra said “When you get to the fork in the road take it.”
photo credit: movito