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.