AMBIVALENT ZEN by Lawrence Shainberg


A Memoir
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 Novelist and spiritual self-abuser Shainberg (Memories of Amnesia, 1988, etc.) emits a long, piercing whine on the subject of his experiences with zazen, or sitting meditation. Early on the memoir has a certain stuttering momentum, as Shainberg describes growing up in postwar Memphis and enduring his father's intensive dinner-table monologues about psychoanalysis and Zen. The intrepid father and son traveled across the country to hear lectures by Krishnamurti and Alan Watts long before Eastern spirituality became fashionable in middle America. Shainberg fils was mostly concerned with his performance on the basketball and tennis courts, which suffered from his adolescent attempts to parse Zen paradoxes about desire, effort, and perfection and incorporate this wisdom into his play. The author had less time for sports as he grew older, owing to the consuming demands of his rampant self- absorption. As near as can be gleaned from this memoir, Shainberg has devoted his entire adult life to a failed attempt to understand Zen practice. Except for a few passing references to his writing and some oblique consideration of his marriage as a meditation competition, the author presents himself as having spent the past few decades sitting on a succession of cushions and approaching, but easily escaping, lasting enlightenment. Interspersed throughout are exchanges of dialogue with Shainberg's Zen master Kyudo Roshi, whose gleeful riddles in pidgin English are reproduced fondly but often inscrutably. The memoir's narrative line is how Shainberg's ego, like the occasional bout of flatulence he describes during group zazen, always bobs up and disrupts any spiritual progress he might be making. By the time Shainberg affiliates himself with a spendthrift Zen quack late in the book, readers may wonder whether he's serious about his spiritual quest or whether he just gets off on the company of eccentrics.

Pub Date: Jan. 17th, 1996
ISBN: 0-679-44116-6
Page count: 336pp
Publisher: Pantheon
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 15th, 1995


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