Choosing Life

The Light That Shines Through Infinity: Zen and the Energy of Life by Dainin Katagiri.  Shambhala.  229 pp.  $16.95.

Jesus’ Son  Stories by Denis Johnson.  Picador.  133 pp. $15.00

It was unnerving for me to read Denis Johnson’s excellent but disturbing book of stories at the same time I was reading the new book of lectures by Dainin Katagiri.  One book was about embracing life just as it is.  In the other people were doing everything they could to run from life.  Johnson apparently had a period of addiction in his early twenties, before he became a productive and substantial writer.  It’s frightening to think that, if he’d continued the way he was going, he probably would have wound up as one more junkie in the gutter.

I read Johnson in the first place because I came across this article on Literary Hub, which spoke of his spiritual life.  Johnson was a lifelong reader of the Bible and of A Course in Miracles, also of the big book of Alcoholics Anonymous, and he was a regular at AA meetings, which helped keep him sober.  All this reminded me of my old friend Levi, with whom I had many a conversation about addiction.  And it made me want to read Johnson’s fiction, which I’d heard about for years.

I found it painful to read, beautifully done as it is.  Johnson was a superb writer, with vivid sentences and fast-paced stories.  But seldom have had I encountered such a collection of aimless lives, where people die of overdoses, or because someone has shot them (perhaps accidentally) and can’t get it together to get them to the hospital.  I understand that people live this way, and have had my own struggles with obsessive behavior.  But these characters are like those in the first circle of Dante’s hell, swept around in a darkness where they keep moving, but never know why they’re moving or what they’re doing.  The wish to keep moving is everything.[1]

Perhaps most disturbing was the book’s final story, where the narrator is in recovery.  (We assume—at least I assumed—that the narrator throughout the collection is the same person, but we don’t know that.  The cast of characters repeats, as do the locales, including a bar where they all hang out.  But the narrator doesn’t name himself, at least not in every story.)  He was living in Phoenix—the city I’d flown out of as I began the collection[2]—and working on his recovery, caring for people in a rehab facility and understanding that their physical problems were like the psychological problems he faced as an addict.

At the same time he avoided addictive substances, he was spying on a woman that he’d discovered on his way home from work, in an apartment where he could see her take a shower at the end of her day.  She and her husband practiced some religion—“they were Amish, or more likely Mennonites”—and he became obsessed with seeing her naked, also possibly seeing or hearing her make love with her husband.  It’s the kind of obsessive behavior—like drinking or drug taking—that seems to give life meaning and at the very least occupies a great deal of time, so people think they’re living.  Actually, it’s an obsessive avoidance of the stunning reality all around us.

Katagiri describes that reality beautifully in this new book of his lectures, compiled by his student Andrea Martin, who also did the earlier Each Moment Is the Universe.  Katagiri died in 1990, and at the time of his death had published only one book, but there have been three published since he died; he left behind an archive of recorded talks, and people are still working on them.  Andrea Martin in particular has been a faithful steward of his work—she became his student in 1978—and has rearranged talks and simplified them to make them more comprehensible (Katagiri’s English wasn’t great, and his talks could be repetitive and convoluted).

I’ve always thought of Katagiri as a difficult teacher, and was stunned when I came across the first chapter of this book on the Shambhala website and found it almost lyrical, penetrating to the heart of Zen practice.  Some chapters are better than others, but chapter after chapter returns to this lyrical simplicity.  A few paragraphs from the first chapter set the tone.

“Shakyamuni Buddha taught that a magnificent event is unfolding in every aspect of everyday life.  Vivid, living energy is constantly at work, creating and supporting your life.  It is just like a fire that is eternal and boundless.  Whoever you are, your life is very precious because the original energy of life is working in your life.

“We study and practice Buddhist teachings in order to go deep into our own life.  There you discover your original place, the place where all beings live together in peace before we exist as individual beings.  From that place you can join the flow of life . . .

“But whatever you do—Buddhist practice, Christian practice, or nonreligious practice—when you become aware of the magnificent energy of being arising in your body and mind, you feel fully alive.  You are boundless and broad, compassionate and kind.  This is the guideline for living as a human being.”

Somehow, out of the fog of addiction, Denis Johnson got a glimpse of the place Katagiri was talking about, and spent the rest of his life working to stay in it.[3]  His clear-eyed stories are a record of what he’d left behind.

[1] That circle for Dante the of sexual obsessives—it’s where he found his old mentor Bruno Latini, and greeted him with the famous words, “What, are you here?”—but could have been the circle for any addiction.

[2] I finished the book just before we touched down in North Carolina.  I’m not a rapid reader, but it’s a slender volume, quite intense.

[3] As did Levi.