Nothing Holy About It: The Zen of Being Just Who You Are
By Tim Burkett, edited by Wanda Isle. Shambhala; $16.95. 292 pages.
White, middle class Americans -- whether they're raised Catholic, Protestant, Jewish or in some other religion --almost always seem a bit absurd when they turn to Buddhism, as the African American author James Baldwin recognized years ago when he called the Beat Generation writers, "Suzuki rhythm boys."
For those who have forgotten or who never knew, D.T. Suzuki, the Japanese author, intellectual and self-promoter, helped to bring Zen Buddhism to the West with a vengeance from the 1930s until the 1950s, when Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg, the self-proclaimed "dharma bums," burst on the literary scene and helped to spread their own idiosyncratic tales of the Buddha.
In the inner Beat circle, only Gary Snyder, a working class kid from the Pacific North West, actually went to Japan to study Zen Buddhism long before it became fashionable to do so.
Tim Burkett, the author of Nothing Holy About It and the abbot at the Minnesota Zen Meditation Center, has spent most of his adult life sitting and meditating. Nothing Holy About It, which was edited by Wanda Isle, offers the distillation of dozens of his talks about Buddhism and what it says to and for Americans.
Born and raised in California, and a child of the counterculture of the 1960s and 1970s, Burkett is also a licensed psychologist and the CEO of People Incorporated, a non-profit mental health organization in St. Paul Minneapolis.
Not surprisingly, his version of Buddhism merges with psychology and psychotherapy. Indeed, Burkett goes so far as to say, "One could argue that Freud was expressing ancient Buddhist concepts without knowing anything about Buddhism." In Nothing Holy About It, which is in part a spiritual autobiography, he explores his relationships to his demanding parents, schizophrenic sister, suicidal brother, devoted wife, loveable children and grandchildren, as well as his good Christian grandmother who told him, "honor the god in front of you."
In a way, that 's what Burkett has aimed to do his whole life. Nothing Holy About It honors her and all his teachers. It peels away the author's own skin and in the process offers a series of sessions in psychoanalysis. Indeed, part of the charm of this book is the author's disclosures about his boyhood and early manhood, his battles with anger, impatience, ennui and more, as well as his attempts to attain some sort of inner peace and enlightenment.
Divided into five parts, with eighteen chapters, Nothing Holy About It, might be read in one sitting or two, but it's perhaps best taken a bit at a time and savored little by little. Otherwise it can feel like a long, drawn-out sermon.
Some of the most vivid parts of the book reveal Burkett's feuds with his biological father, a self-defined atheist, plus his complex father-son like relationship with his Buddhist teacher Suzuki Roshi who was born in Japan in 1904 and who arrived in San Francisco in 1959 just as Beats and Beatniks turned to Zen and D.T. Suzuki to attain satori.
Of Suzuki Roshi, Burkett writes that he "was not the first Zen teacher in America. But he was able to spread Zen further than others partly because he accommodated himself to his environment." He adds, that he was "able to accommodate himself to the Haight-Ashbury subculture that began in 1966-67."
Burkett's most provocative comments are probably about the connections between Buddhism and the drug culture that flourished in the Haight-Ashbury in the 1960s.
"Without LSD, it's doubtful the Zen movement would have caught on in the United States," he writes. He also describes Richard Alpert, AKA Ram Dass, as a "model" for the counterculture and his book Be Here Now as the "the counterculture Bible."
My own experiences with Buddhism, both Zen and Tibetan, divagate from Burkett's. I'm not a therapist or psychologist, nor have I followed Ram Dass or dropped acid in the manner of the hippies, though I tried it twice in 1970. Granted, sitting and meditating, which Burkett urges readers to adopt as a practice, helped me to quiet my own flighty mind, especially when I chose to have brain surgery in 1996.
But I do not sit now and I no longer go to the sangha, or community, to which I once belonged. I did not find the kind of shared, heart-felt values that Burkett describes. "We were not born into Buddhism," he writes. "Nor are there any cultural benefits to being a Buddhist -- no power, status, or networking opportunities."
In some parts of the community in Northern California where I live, Buddhists network at the sangha. They also boast about their ability to sit, and claim that they meditate better than others. I have even heard Buddhists say to one another, "I'm a better Buddhist than you." That Buddhists have much the same sense of superiority and arrogance as members of any other religion, Burkett doesn't really acknowledge. Then, too, Buddhists in Asia have gone to war with other Buddhists.
Still, Burkett's book offers valuable lessons. "Don't try to be a good Buddhist," the author writes. "Just be who you already are." There are also insightful comments about working with homeless people in Minnesota. "We found that when people who have been on the street a long time are given a warm, safe place to live and three meals a day, they often become disorientated," Burkett explains. In times and situations like that, Dostoevsky might be as good a guide as the Buddha.