November 22, 2014

Book Review: Zen Baggage

Zen Baggage
Zen Baggage by Red Pine (Bill Porter) ISBN: 1582435405

Have you ever wondered what it would be like to travel through China to discover the historical background of Chinese Zen? Red Pine is the first Westerner to take us on an unprecedented excursion through China to visit the sites we've all read about through stories of Chinese Zen popularized by translations from D. T. Suzuki, Charles Luk, Joseph Campbell, Thomas Cleary, Chang Chung-Yuan, Richard Wilhelm and many others. And it's not a dry travelogue by any means; it's filled with the richness of Chan, from the beautiful relaxed narrative, to the age-old stories that point our minds to the ineffable, to the humor and humility that gives it all a lightness that illuminates our hearts:

"When Mr. Chang asked if I had eaten, and I told him I had had a cup of coffee, he insisted we stop at his favorite restaurant. It was a noodle joint, but it wasn't the usual noodle joint: it was indoors behind big glass windows, had a tiles floor, and was spotless. As we sat down, Mr. Chang waved to the proprietor, and bowls of noodles appeared a minute later. They were the wide, flat variety, and were topped with coriander, shredded turnip, and a meat sauce of ground pork. Mr. Chang insisted on paying, which wasn't much, but it was his way of demonstrating the hospitality I have received so often in China. In America, I'm just another guy in line, but in China, I'm so well cared for, if not watched over, I have to wonder what wonderful deeds I must have performed in a previous life."

So continues the relaxed narrative of Red Pine's travels though China. It is as if we're right there next to him on the bus as he rides through the remote countryside, sharing his views out the window, smelling the aromas of the towns and villages he passes through on his way to his next destination. And the destinations are those any Buddhist on a Pilgrimage in china would seek out: places where the early Zen patriarchs, from Bodhidharma to Hui Neng, created history. The famous Zen stories we all know, as well as many we don't, are craftily interwoven throughout the narrative, but Red Pine takes them further, delving into the political and social climate of the times, offering new insights and perspectives on the age-old tales of Zen legend.

Zen Baggage isn't a book to read if you're in a hurry or can only read a few pages at a time. It requires the Zen Mind of nowhere-to-go, nothing-to-do. So grab a cup of tea, sit back with Red Pine and take an excursion into China and Chinese culture to discover the heart of Zen in the country that gave it birth. Zen Baggage will connect you with this ancient mystical practice through the stories and reflections of this enlightened traveler exploring China's most cherished history.