Stumbling into Buddha

The Accidental Buddhist
By Dinty W. Moore
Doubleday, 1997, 208 pages

Lashing memoirs for their self-indulgent, whiny navel-gazing seems common among critics of the genre — although the memoirs/autobiographies I’ve read over the past few years have been anything but whiny or self-indulgent.

Dinty Moore’s The Accidental Buddhist, a spiritual autobiography, is not whiny or self-indulgent.

It’s also not “inspirational”; it’s not a testimonial autobiography intended to uplift the reader and send him or out to shout “Namaste!” over the hills and everywhere, or to go out, ring doorbells and deliver good karma. It’s also not an in depth theological-philosophical exploration of Buddhism that would require a degree in philosophy, theology, or quantum physics to understand.

It is, at the very least, a good story, a narrative that leads the reader from Moore’s project to explore why Americans have become interested in Buddhism and what American Buddhism was like to his own spiritual discoveries: why did he seek out Buddhism? could he become a Buddhist? and what kind of Buddhist would he become?

Like many of us who hit a certain age beyond 20-something, Moore had come to a point in his life in which he “wasn’t particularly happy . . . . I was just getting along . . . . No matter where I went, what I did, I always felt a little bit empty.” Instead of sitting back and letting that emptiness overwhelm him, and simply keep puttering along, Moore set out to understand that feeling, to confront it, and see if it could be filled.

Of course, like most spiritual seekers, Moore’s journey didn’t begin as a journey toward enlightenment: it began as a project. A writer and writing teacher, Moore set out on the quest with a story in mind. He was going to write about Buddhism in America.

Much of the book is solid first-person reportage: he tells stories about his experiences at Zen Mountain Monastery in upstate New York, and writes about other American Buddhists such as Linsi Deyo and her husband Patrick Clark, who run a meditation cushion business from their farm in North Carloina’s Great Smoky Mountains. He weaves these stories into his own budding understanding of what it means to be a Buddhist and his beginning practice.

Buddhism wasn’t foreign to Moore. “As for myself,” he writes, “I had toyed with Buddhist philosophy in my young adulthood. Like millions of other college kids, I read Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance in one long weekend, put it down thinking my life had been forever transformed, then promptly forgot about it. I even took a meditation class once, but never got past how to fold my legs.”

It’s only later, after reading a few other books and setting out on his book project, that he begins his spiritual journey. It starts with his experiences with meditation, an essential practice of Buddhism, at Zen Mountain Monastery. He tries various schools: Zen, Tibetan Buddhism, and Theravada. Like most Americans, no matter their faith, he takes bits and pieces from each of the schools and practices with others and alone. As the story unfolds, he slowly begins to see what it means to be a Buddhist.

What makes this memoir engaging, besides Moore’s skills as a storyteller, is what makes the best spiritual autobiographers — C. S. Lewis, Karen Armstrong — engaging: He gives us himself warts and all. Like any of us with any spiritual or philosophic questions, Moore goes through periods of doubt. He constantly wonders if he can be a Buddhist, if he can ever rid himself of his “monkey mind,” and experience enlightenment. His enthusiasm  for the new-old religion slackens: “At times, it seems as if the only real point is to somehow keep holding it all together. Life becomes a loop of concern and uncertainty.”

Then Moore carries on and discovers he can be a Buddhist after all. And he does it with humor and humanity — and imperfection.


Booking Through Thursday: The New, The Old, The Really Old

Here is this week’s Booking Through Thursday:

Do you prefer reading current books? Or older ones? Or outright old ones? (As in, yes, there’s a difference between a book from 10 years ago and, say, Charles Dickens or Plato.)

About an hour ago I finished a draft of a book review for a novel slated to come out next month. I’ll leave the title and author a mystery; I hope you’ll read my review when it comes out. That particular book, along withPeep Show by Joshua Braff and Solar by Ian McEwan, I read because I was assigned reviews.

But often I don’t necessarily seek out new books when I read. If I read a review of a new book and it interests me, I’ll read it. I’ll also read new stuff by favorite writers.

Of course, my usual problem with new books is that so many come out that I want to read they quickly become old books. Some currents I would like to read are David Shields’ Reality Hunger, because I want to know what all the fuss is really about, and John McPhee’s Silk Parachute, because McPhee is a favorite. By the time I get around to reading these books, though, they may be old.

As far as “old” books go, I’m currently reading what may be considered “old,” though it was published a little more than a decade ago (1997 to be precise): Dinty Moore’s spiritual autobiography/memoir The Accidental Buddhist. I picked this book for several reasons. It’s an example of creative nonfiction, an genre I’m interested in as a writer. It’s also about Buddhism, a topic I have a general interest in.

But, I chiefly picked up the book to see if it might answer or give me insight into my own spiritual interests and questions: So far, it has.

I have, for instance, this morning been contemplating my attitude toward money and people with money, an attitude that shares similarities with Linsi Deyo, a Buddhist that Moore meets and interviews, who, with her husband Patrick, runs a business making zafus, or meditation cushions. Deyo was taught that people with money were bad, a belief I was taught, too, and, in turn that having money, at least a lot of it, was bad.

I feel I have an intimate relationship with that book. I can relate to Moore’s own spiritual quest, for instance. It too shares similarities with my own, a quest for me that extends at least formally to philosophy class in college.

I think readers read any book, new, old, ancient because they develop an intimate relationship with the book: The best ones hit them in the solar plexus; the book’s world becomes your own, a powerful communication between writer and reader.

Death of the paid writer? (via Darksculptures – T.A. Olivia)

This blog post addresses a fear lurking in the underbrush of my mind: Will there be a time in the near future when writers no longer get paid for what they do (not that for most part the pay is all that great, but still . . .)? What happens if or when every newspaper and magazine folds? Will any online content be paid for?

Death of the paid writer? This is why I'm renewing my vow to read the printed word. I looked at Smashwords and a few other e-book sites AGAIN last night. There is a bunch of free writing out there. It was like surfing the blogosphere – except better organized by genre. I liked it. That scared me. Will the days of getting paid to write a novel vanish? As we scramble to be recognized are we (writers) actually damaging the market?  I thought about Nathan Bransford’s comment … Read More

via Darksculptures – T.A. Olivia

‘Reality Hunger’ redux (via NARRATIVE)

As always, Richard Gilbert provides some insight into currents in creative nonfiction. As I note in the comments to this post, I haven’t read Shields’ book, but a cursory glance reminded me of a literary theory — intertextuality — I studied in grad school. Those theorists, in general, were enthusiastically obsessed with the death of the author to the point it seemed to me that they would’ve delighted in chopping authors into little unidentifiable pieces. What was to replace the author, then?

As I repost this post, I wonder if I’m committing my own intertextual appropriation. Am I claiming as my own this post?

'Reality Hunger' redux Lincoln Michael at The Rumpus has written one of the most interesting and compelling responses to Reality Hunger, by David Shields, that I’ve come across. And that includes my three blog posts stimulated by the “manifesto.” Michael writes: [W]hile Shields praises the same qualities I look for in my art, the book is framed by a somewhat inco … Read More


Booking Through Thursday: Sign on the Dotted Line or the Title Page

Here is this week’s Booking Through Thursday:

Do signed copies excite you? Tempt you? Delight you? Or does it not matter to you?

I like signed book copies, especially if I’ve gone to hear the author read at an event like the Texas Book Festival, bought the book, and waited in line for him or her to sign. But, a book doesn’t have to have a signature to tempt me to read it or own it.

Some books I own with signatures:

  • Somebody Told Me by Rick Bragg (a collection of  feature stories signed at Texas Book Festival before Bragg got ousted from The New York Times)
  • Bel Canto by Ann Patchett (novel signed at Texas Book Festival)
  • Nobody’s Girl by Antonya Nelson (novel signed at Texas Book Festival. I think she and Patchett may have been on the same panel.)
  • Nothing but Blue Skies by Thomas McGuane (novel signed at Texas Book Festival)
  • Had a Good Time: Stories from American Postcards by Robert Olen Butler (story collection in which Butler uses postcards for the basis of the stories)
  • A Stone of the Heart by Tom Grimes (copy I bought at Texas Book Festival pre-autographed. Missed Grimes’ panel.)
  • Wonder Boys by Michael Chabon (bought copy at local bookstore Book People in Austin)
  • Sex, Art, and American Culture by Camille Paglia (bought used at Half-Price Books; signed to someone else; wonder if Paglia must’ve fallen out of favor with reader)

Here’s a PDF of the signatures:


The Beats and Multimedia

The Beats never moved me as they did my friends in grad school. No, I’m not that old; it was the ’90s and I hung around Beat wannabes and Beat scholars. I read Kerouac. Some of Ginsberg. And I think a poem or two by Gregory Corso.

Still, though I’m not enamored of them, their movement is clearly influential. They follow a tradition of wandering American writers and poets out seeking raw experience to transform into art.

An essay in The New York Times hints the Beats also delved into multimedia. The essay talks

Allen Ginsberg

about poet Allen Ginsberg’s foray into photography.

“With his secondhand Kodak Retina,” the essay says, “the poet had surreptitiously illustrated not only his energetic generation, but his own oeuvre, leaving behind a catalog of images to reawaken the euphoric thesis that he’d scribbled across the arch of his lifetime: namely, that sex and poetry and the ‘cosmic vibrations’ of youth and life are way, way awesome.”

For the most part, I’ve resisted multimedia. Even with this blog, I’ve stuck with writing, and the occasional snagged photo or YouTube video. I experimented with an audio blog, but I hate my non-multimedia voice. And yet, I’m beginning to come around to the idea and necessity of  multimedia.

I think it may become a necessity for writers. And obviously, as the essay on Ginsberg reveals, it’s not new. According to the essay, Ginsberg made photography a part of his poetry. He later added captions to the photos, and these captions “act as concentrated poem-documentaries and leave us with a welcome first-person perspective of Ginsberg’s peculiar element.”

The essay says Ginsberg’s photography serves his poetry “almost as well as William Blake’s prints did for his own verse: as a necessary and lovely companion-opus that springs with new life from the spirit of the writings themselves.”

The question for me, is where to start? How much multimedia is necessary? What can I afford? How much do I have to learn? Why do I keep resisting?

Booking Through Thursday: The Long and Short of It

Here is this week’s Booking Through Thursday:

Which do you prefer? Short stories? Or full-length novels?

To be diplomatic, I have to say I like both forms. That said, I like novels best. I like the depth of character in novels. I like subplots and side stories. I like digressions. I like getting involved in the writer’s world — most of the time: sometimes, of course, you can’t wait to get out!

At the same time, a good short story can be as involved as any novel. The characters can be well-developed. There can be subplots — though brief — and side stories. I am also fond of story collections and like hybrids such as the novel-in-stories.

A favorite form is the novella that lingers on the edge of genre.