Friday, September 27, 2013

A Novel that Transports Readers to Eastern Monasticism

Last week, I read an amazing book, Ruth Ozeki's A Tale for the Time Being.  It's a book that has all sorts of elements to recommend it; I wrote a more comprehensive review in this blog post.

Since this is my theology blog, I want to focus on the spiritual elements of this book.  One of the main characters has a grandmother who is a Zen Buddhist nun.  She lives in a remote monastery, and the monastic community is down to two people--three when the granddaughter comes to visit.

The granddaughter is a thoroughly modern teenager who lives in Tokyo.  One summer, her parents decide it would be a good idea for her to spend the season at the monastery.  As we might expect, she's resistant to the idea of going to spend a summer with two elderly nuns.  But she goes, and the experience transforms her life.

I loved this insight into a different monasticism.  Like the Catholic monasticism that I'm more familiar with, the nuns spend much of their day in spiritual practice.  They also have physical work throughout the day, work which the teenager finds grueling at first, but then her body adjusts.  When she returns to the city, she misses the monastery.

As many of us have found with monastic visits, the rhythms of the monastery stay with the teenager and help her cope with the hectic pace of modern life.  And on many levels, the monastery seems much more appealing than the city; the grandmother character has lived to such an old age that she's not sure how old she is.  She tells everyone that she's 104, and she may well be older, since she's been saying she's 104 for years.

I was most struck by the portrait of the grandmother praying for the rest of us.  The teenage narrator even tells her stories of raped girls and all the other horrors that fall on modern lives so that the grandmother can keep the world in prayer.  She has special prayer beads to keep track.

You might think that the grandmother character will be so spiritually evolved when she dies that she won't have to come back to learn any more lessons.  But that will not be the case.

The teenage narrator explains, "One of her vows was to save all beings, which basically means that she agreed not to become enlightened until all the other beings get enlightened first.  It's kind of like letting everybody else into the elevator ahead of you.  When you calculate all the beings on this earth at any time, and then add in the ones that are getting born every second and the ones that have already died--and not just human beings either, but all the animals and other life-forms like amoebas and viruses and maybe even plants that have ever lived or ever will live, as well as all the extinct species--well, you can see that enlightenment will take a very long time" (pp. 28-29).

This book is full of these kinds of intriguing characters with all sorts of insights into minds and worlds which were wonderful to encounter.  It's one of the reasons why I read fiction, but it's rare to find a book as fully realized as this one.  Don't miss it!

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