• Though Gold Dust Is Valuable, in the Eyes It Causes Cataracts:’ Two Modern Zen Autobiographies

    Ben Van Overmeire (see profile)
    American Literature, Religious Studies
    Zen Buddhism, Literature, Autobiographies
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    In this article, I examine two recent memoirs of Zen students that speak openly about the aberrant behavior of their teachers. These memoirs are Natalie Goldberg’s The Great Failure (2004) and Shozan Jack Haubner’s Single White Monk (2017). Both of these authors consider the scandals surrounding their teachers as an opportunity for spiritual growth. For them, acknowledging the problematic aspects of their teachers leads to a deeper understanding of themselves as well. In the process, their narratives demonstrate that the tools that they have relied on so far on their spiritual search, autobiographical writing and sitting meditation, have prevented them from seeing their teachers and themselves for who they really are. The article proceeds in the following way: first, I examine how autobiographical writing not only portrays a self, but also constructs it. I understand the moment when this provisional nature of the self is understood as traumatic, where trauma is both painful and insightful. I then survey Zen Buddhist attitudes towards writing and meditation, concluding that these attitudes are deeply ambivalent. This conflicting heritage deeply affects Goldberg and Haubner’s memoirs. Despite superficially averring otherwise, these narratives demonstrate that meditation and writing are ways of blindness, and instead find insight through other means. Whereas with Goldberg, insight takes the form of a film, in Haubner insight comes as a haunting and a shamanic session. The conclusion of the article places the dynamic of these memoirs within the framework of Bernard Faure’s work on Zen rhetoric.
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    Journal article    
    Last Updated:
    2 years ago


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