A guide to Buddha and Zen emphasizes accessibility above all.
The latest offering from Neely (Life Between the Tigers, 2013) is as unconventional a Zen Buddhism manual as readers are ever likely to encounter. It’s a koan-heavy collection of lessons, in-jokes, and irreverent asides (“Sacred cows make the best hamburger” appears before the book proper has even started) designed to demystify the history, worldview, and practice of Zen. “There is no plan, no model, no script, no program, no guide, no entry or cheat sheet to reality,” Neely writes, which describes a tumultuous, multifarious world. The Buddhist outlook that he goes on to examine is clearly meant to help smooth that chaos. One key factor that the author discusses is familiar from the countless meditation books currently on the market: stress. Neely uses many different stories to illustrate the harm and futility of anxiety; he mentions, for instance, the perpetual activity of bees. “Do you think they are spending ANY time wondering about what is going to happen next week, what happened last week, or even what is going to happen two seconds from now?” he asks. “No—nor should you.” The method he advocates for undoing this strain is the kind of easy, pointed concentration that will be familiar to devotees of Zen: “Focus is an amazingly powerful tool, yet most of us barely learn to harness it in our lives….Focus can be learned, strengthened, and even taught through mindfulness studies and through meditation.”
The net effect of his patient, often humorous simplifications and explanations is to turn a detailed catechism into a smile-inducing devotional. And, as the book’s title suggests, Buddha is at the heart of the transformation. Neely’s Buddha is the kind of Everyperson who can be found not only working at Walmart, but also in every shape and position in life. “He’s…female,” Neely asserts. “Gay. Black. Asian, Caucasian. Named ‘Bubba.’ Drives an eighteen-wheeler. Has gotten a ticket for speeding. Is seven feet tall. Is three years old. Has warts. Eats garlic.” This all-purpose approach serves to bring Buddhism out of its remote temples and plant it squarely in the world most readers know—the grocery store, the highway, and, in a striking example, the movie theater, where the peace of Zen, Neely argues, is available even amid the popcorn and Diet Coke. The author’s reductions of the complexities of Zen Buddhism will no doubt puzzle or irritate many longtime practitioners of the discipline, and some of that exasperation will be justified: occasionally the jokes in these pages seem merely flippant instead of productively irreverent. But the underlying message—that everybody can find enlightenment—shines through and makes the book genuinely intriguing. Ultimately, the author’s many hypotheticals work really well to bring his lessons home to readers.
A warm and disarming new approach to embracing Zen in the real world.