Nine-headed Dragon River

The striking sincerity, lucid exposition, and solid research of Peter Matthiessen’s Zen journals are quite appealing, but unless a reader is particularly interested in or already familiar with Zen thought, even Matthiessen’s considerable skill as a writer may not be enough to hold his attention. Although the book is intended as a record of a spiritual journey of some significance, Matthiessen’s strenuous honesty in recording his setbacks and struggles may leave the reader who desires a positive conclusion both exhausted and dissatisfied.

Yet, the Westerner who finds Zen congenial will probably find Matthiessen’s company fascinating. He is an excellent storyteller, capable of bringing a diverse group of people from many centuries to life. He has a special feeling for the natural world-- an attribute crucial for Zen vision-- and he is a master of precise, evocative language. In addition, he is impressively candid about his stubborn and sometimes eccentric view of politics and contemporary culture. His American skepticism nicely balances his sometimes unabashed enthusiasm for the Orient.

Matthiessen has spent more than twenty years studying Zen, and his knowledge of its scholarship, poetry, and lore makes the book an excellent introduction. Concentrating on Dogen, a thirteenth century master whose insights are remarkably consistent with modern particle physics, Matthiessen mixes anecdote and explanation in the manner of a patient guide who is himself still a seeker. Acknowledging the constant battle between dogma and freethinking, between structure and vitality, he strives for a “vital particularity” in which the “common miracle of everyday life” is evident.

While Zen may enrage or befuddle many people, the qualities of supramundanity (like Walt Whitman’s eternal here and now); asymmetry (new angles of observation); and tranquility (a kind of sublime serenity) that Matthiessen strives to embody are intriguing possibilities even without the philosophical and conceptual trappings. Satori may be difficult to achieve, but many readers will share the more modest goal of the modern master Hakuin, who hoped to “make the rhinoceros of doubt fall dead.”