By Dana Gornall
We get a lot of books to review at The Tattooed Buddha. As a book lover, it can difficult to decide which ones I want to read and review and which ones I want to pass on to other writers.
When Naked in the Zendo came in the mail I knew I wanted to hold onto this one. The title, the brushed printed font, the paint splattered background on the cover, everything about it said I should read this book.
When I opened the first few pages, I had trouble even putting the book down. I took it everywhere with me.
I took it to work in my bag that holds contact lens solution and tampons and read it while I sat on long holds with musak playing in my earpiece. I took it to the salon as I sat under an old school dryer with color in my hair that was supposed to be purple low-lights and ended up turning a shade of turquoise. I read pages before bed with eyes growing heavy after a long day of work and dinners on the couch watching Netflix, as my 17-year-old daughter popped in and out from cheer practice to friends’ houses.
I read it in parts, because my life seems to be in parts: segmented between work and parenting, weekends and weekdays, busy and yet at times frustratingly not busy—the limbo-like state a single parent finds herself in at the edge of soon to be empty nest; needed and not needed at the same time.
When I finished it, the book sat in my bag—the one I take back and forth to work, the one with extra contact lens solution and my messy bullet journal and extra tampons—waiting for me to write about it; for me to find the right words to give it the breath it deserves.
Naked in the Zendo: Stories of Uptight Zen, Wild-Ass Zen, and Enlightenment Wherever You Are. The title alone speaks volumes.
The author, Grace Schireson, is a woman with many years of training. A teacher in the Suzuki Roshi lineage of Soto Zen and a clinical psychologist (receiving her doctorate from Wright Institute in Berkeley, California), she has put in countless hours studying and sitting, with some of the best teachers and instructors of our time. Yet, this book isn’t a text on Zen or Buddhism. It isn’t a book of koans (or maybe it is), or a book outlining how to meditate.
This is a book about a woman who is a mother, a wife, a grandmother, a student and a teacher. This is a book about a feminist. This is a book about finding zen in everything—in daily struggles, on the cushion when your knees are hurting, in standing up for what you believe in, in finding out who you are, in parenting teenagers, in dealing with grief.
Grace takes us through stories of when she was a child, when she first found meditation and Zen and meeting Suzuki Roshi (“There’s a guy in San Francisco who can teach you how to get high without drugs”), and when she stood against fear and rescued a sexual assault victim:
“When I saw her on the ground, she was still screaming. Her wild screams scared me, and she was curled up like a frightened animal. She screamed when I reached out to touch her, to pat her back and tell her it was just me. I worked through my fear to find a calm voice to repeat, ‘It’s just me, they’re gone, you’re safe.’ She just kept screaming. I needed to repeat this message several times before she was able to look up and see me there. As she stood and moved away from the wall, I saw her panties on the electric meter. Flowered cotton and lace, hanging on the metal-and-glass dial of the meter. I left them there. I didn’t know if the men or boys would come back. I didn’t know how much time we had.”
About finding laughter and humor in times of seriousness and sanctimony:
“The cook for that meal, George, was a warmhearted and friendly and in his seventies. He was well versed in how to enact the ritual. He bowed once—ding. He bowed twice—ding. And he bowed a third time—ding! But something went horribly wrong; when he stood up from his third bow, his sweatpants dropped from his waist and went down to his feet. George stood briefly and bravely in his underwear, in front of Buddha and all retreatants. When he realized his pants were no longer in place, he scooped them up, pulled them back on, and hurried out of the zendo without stopping to enjoy lunch. My first reaction was to pretend George’s pants had not fallen off, so I could begin serving food without further incident—let’s cover up what is uncomfortable because I have a schedule to keep. But I looked up to find Sojun Roshi, seated at the front of the room, convulsed with laughter—contagious laughter. And so, I stopped pretending that I hadn’t seen George’s pants fall off when he was bowing and allowed my own emotions of embarrassed laughter to rock and roll.”
When she was raising children:
“Anyone who has raised children knows how cute they are when they are small, and how challenging they are when they are teenagers. Somewhere in the process we become different to them. Once we were needed and lovable, but at some point we become unbearable. It doesn’t happen all at once, but we gradually take our cues from dirty looks, slammed doors, and being shunned around their friends.”
About standing up for yourself:
“I had obtained permission from Roshi to sit in any posture that suited me since I was not officially a monk of that temple. I was seated in a kneeling position with a cushion supporting my buttocks. From across the room, the head monk indicated with gestures that he was ordering me to go back to a cross-legged posture. I let my body answer by looking him straight in the eye and not moving my leg position. Instead, I moved my head slowly, side to side, an unmistakable nonverbal no. He quickly looked away and snapped back into his own zazen posture. He never bothered me again.”
As I read, I found connection in her words. To say that life is messy is cliche. We all know that life is messy. But to take the all the parts—the daily interactions both big and small—and find the meaning behind it all is no simple task.
While reading this book, I posted on my social media feed that I was reading it. Someone asked what it was about and if it was for an academic or a popular audience. I paused…what could I say?
It’s about a feminist? No…not exactly, but also yes. It’s about an everyday life and finding meaning? Maybe. It’s a memoir? Yes, and yet no. It’s more than that. Hovering over the text with my thumb, I spouted something about it being kind of in memoir-like style.
Ms. Grace Schireson responded: Zen teaching disguised as everyday life. Oh wait, everyday life includes Zen!
Everyday life is all we have. In everyday life we encounter Zen.
It’s going to work with musak in your earpiece. It’s getting turquoise lowlights when you really wanted a dark purple. It’s eating dinners on the couch sometimes as your teenage daughter navigates her way.
Understanding these simple lessons in everyday life and then laying them out in a book for all the world to read and glean from—to tell stories openly, and allowing everyone a peak into our steps and missteps as we walk this path.
This is truly standing naked for all the world to see.
Photo: Shambhala Publications
Editor: Alicia Wozniak