“The truth is I can’t avoid saying the Buddha’s name because that’s all there is to say,” American Zen teacher Lin Jensen writes in his latest collection of memoir essays, Together under One Roof. Struggle as he might as a Zen practitioner to assert that “zazen [Zen sitting meditation] itself . . . is the foundation of Buddhist practice,” Jensen yields to things as they are when his prison zazen group organizes a boycott, its members finally striking a deal that if they sit Zen, their teacher will join them in the Pure Land practice of chanting the Name of Amitabha Buddha. “I characterized them as helpless, and myself as the helper,” Jensen says. “I underestimated their strength and didn’t take them into equal partnership in the forming of our sangha.” This taking of one’s place in the Buddha’s community of mutual respect and recognition is a continuous process of growth, a theme that resonates throughout the book.
Together under One Roof is a reflection on life lessons learned through right effort, a mature writer’s well-crafted musings on language, consciousness, meditation and the need for kindness and love in human relationships. In his previous books, Jensen never flinched from exploring his personal territory of boredom, suffering, judgment and human cruelty. In this book, written at the age of seventy-five, he seems to have found a resting place, a faith that small acts of goodness exchanged in the course of everyday interactions are a worthy practice—and contain their own poetry:
“It’s not hard to imagine that my casual morning comment to my neighbor, wishing him a good day, may someday go streaming among the stars on its dark flight toward destinations unknown to me.”
I appreciate the ability this writer has to capture the moment of epiphany, the luminosity that can, as in haiku, reveal itself through marvelous and precisely observed detail. Little things will do, as when he imagines his wife, Karen, walking in the park, seeing “late autumn leaves falling through the chill morning air from above—broad sycamore leaves drifting lazily downward and compact little oak leaves falling swiftly.”
The cozy domesticity of oneness with all beings in Buddha’s household, however, is incomplete without acknowledgment of wilderness and the courage that is needed to traverse our inner deserts. “Desert Places,” a chapter that strikes a note his fans will recognize as signature Jensen, describes an experience of hiking into a landscape neither beautiful nor comforting and getting lost, or rather, getting in touch with being lost and accepting it as an inevitability:
“We’ve all of us walked off the map, though we like to imagine otherwise. . . . None of us has a hint as to where we are.”
It’s a good reminder to keep our wits about us.