Zen Flesh, Zen Bones – compiled by Paul Reps and Nyogen Senzaki

Zen Flesh, Zen Bones
Zen Flesh, Zen Bones

Zen Flesh, Zen Bones  is a collection of Zen and pre-Zen writings compiled by Paul Reps and Nyogen Senzaki. First published in 1957, the book remains a comprehensive and relevant introduction to Zen philosophy. According to the publisher:

Zen Flesh, Zen Bones is … a collection of accessible, primary Zen sources so readers can struggle over the meaning of Zen for themselves. It includes 101 Zen Stories, a collection of tales that recount actual experiences of Chinese and Japanese Zen teachers over a period of more than five centuries; The Gateless Gate, the famous thirteenth century collection of Zen koans; Ten Bulls, a twelfth century commentary on the stages of awareness leading to enlightenment; and Centering, a 4,000 year-old teaching from India that some consider to be the roots of Zen.

Zen Flesh, Zen Bones transports you back thousands of years, to a time when Far East teachers dedicated their entire lives to quiet contemplation, personal discovery, and spiritual enlightenment. How much better would the world be today if everyone spent a little time each day on contemplation, discovery, and enlightenment?

This book of mind-clearing koans is itself like a giant koan; the circular prose is borderline hypnotic. The 101 Zen stories in Zen Flesh, Zen Bones are tasty morsels of WTF? The Gateless Gate offers more content — a Zen tale, Master Mumon’s wiseass commentary, and a verse to sum in all up — but it isn’t any easier to grasp. Figuring out what the ancient Zen masters mean is half the fun, and the whole of the journey.

What is Zen?

Zen is nothing.

Zen is everything.

But is everything Zen?

I don’t think so!

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Hollywood by Charles Bukowski

Hollywood by Charles Bukowski
Hollywood by Charles Bukowski

Charles Bukowski‘s intrepid hero / alter ego Hank Chinaski is back in this funny satire of Tinsel Town in the late 1980s.

Culled from his experience writing the screenplay for the film Barfly, Bukowski’s Hollywood rips into the shallowness of show business. The plot twists are so absurd, the characters so vapid and vain, they must be based on real life.

Bukowski’s cynical take on movie audiences (“People became so used to seeing shit on film that they no longer realized it was shit,”) versus novel/poetry readers is insightful (“Almost anything upsets or insults a movie audience, while people who read novels and short stories love to be upset and insulted.”)

The best bits of Hollywood happen when Bukowski looks at the role of the writer in the film business.

“Who ever photographed the writer? Who applauded? … It was damn sure just as well: the writer was where he belonged: in some dark corner, watching.”

Bukowski’s portrayal of Barfly leads Mickey Rourke and Faye Dunaway as characters Jack Bledsoe and Francine Bower is particularly interesting, especially since he’s depicting a fresh-faced Rourke, when the rollercoaster of Rourke’s career was just cresting the top its first hill.

Like the town it is named after, Bukowski’s Hollywood is fun, funny, droll, and pathetic. There’s a lot of wine drinking, and the love affair between Hank and Sarah — the only two “normal” characters in the novel — is sincere and sweet.

Hollywood doesn’t pack the emotional wallop of Ham on Rye, or the laughs of Post Office, but it is still vintage Bukowski, and you can’t go wrong with that. As Hank Chianski notes:

“Maybe writing was a form of bitching. Some just bitched better than others.”

Bitch on, Bukowski, you beautiful bastard!

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Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck

OfMiceAndMen cover
Of Mice And Men by John Steinbeck

I didn’t read John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men in high school; we read The Pearl instead — and I don’t remember much about it. I wanted to experience Of Mice and Men for myself, but I didn’t expect to be knocked on my ass by its raw power.

As the father of a son with autism, I identified with George and Lenny’s lopsided relationship, especially George’s caregiver stress. Sometimes it’s hard keeping someone you love from hurting himself or herself … or someone else.

Dear, sweet Lenny — how can you not sympathize with his childlike innocence and eagerness? Everyone in Of Mice and Men is affected by Lenny’s simple-minded focus — he just wants to cuddle with soft, fuzzy rabbits. People let their guard down around Lenny, sharing personal dreams with him. George wants his own piece of land. Candy wants his hand and youth back. Crooks wants a straight back and the same treatment as the white men he works alongside. Even Curly’s slutty wife opens up — she just wants someone to love her; she needs a friend. Lenny lets them know it’s okay to dream; you can live off the fumes of pipe dreams if you have to … and you often do.

Loneliness permeates this novel. There is such longing, such sorrow among these broken misfit characters. Billy Joel says we’re sharing a drink we call loneliness, but it’s better than drinking alone, while the late great Charles Bukowski suggests you get so alone sometimes that it all makes sense. We’re all connected on a basic human level, yet we remain mysteries to each other, walled up inside our own heads.

Steinbeck said he wanted to write a novel that could be played from its lines, or a play that could be read like a novel. Of Mice and Men is pretty damn close to perfect that way. It’s a lean, mean, dialogue-driven machine. This novel is as socially relevant today as it was when it was published in 1937 — a snapshot of a desperate working class, struggling to make ends meet amidst a shrinking job market.

According to literary scholar Thomas Scarseth, “in true great literature, the pain of Life is transmuted into the beauty of Art.” Experience Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men for yourself, and let the transmutation begin!

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