A Delicately-Written Invitation

November 25, 2011 § Leave a comment

Somewhere, as I write this, a serious academic is scowling as he creates an essay about the reasons why Jesus walked into the desert of Christian mythology. Jesus did not go in order to sip tea and eat cookies with his friends and neighbors. He went alone. It was hot. It was hard. It was … well what it was, no one can ever know until they walk into the desert and face the fierce aloneness that is part of walking the walk in any spiritual persuasion.
 
Merry Benezra’s Special Karma: A Zen Novel of Love and Folly is a delicately-written invitation to anyone who has walked or is considering walking into the desert of spiritual life. Her central character, Iris, spends and on-again-off-again eight months of intensive practice at a Zen monastery, much as Benezra herself did.
 
But Special Karma is a novel, not some spiritual screed. There are no subtle lectures on the elevated wonders of Zen practice (though there is a glossary of Japanese terms that crop up within the text). Neither is there a gushing surprise at the wonders she encounters, including the confusing sexual advances of the Zen teacher. Instead, with deft and quiet understatement, the book does a subtle and thorough job of depicting one human being’s hopes and discoveries and rewritten dreams that are then rewritten anew.
 
What happens in Special Karma is nothing very special … and for that reason, for anyone interested in the fine-print factuality of spiritual life, Special Karma is really quite special indeed. There are vegetables to cook and clothes to wash and periods of intense silent meditation and encounters with fellow students … all of it flowing smoothly and with a wonderful redolence of things just out of reach. It is a quiet book whose carefully-worded sentences build a cocoon of understanding around the reader. And it makes any reader wonder, perhaps ….
 
Why would anybody in their right mind submit to such a fierce, demanding, upending, delicious, horrific, and burning regimen? Why would anyone in their right mind walk into the desert of spiritual practice?
 
No one can answer ‘why’ questions satisfactorily. Anyone in their right mind knows that. But where the desert beckons and where the mirages rise up, some will accept the invitation. Special Karma provides a wonderful picture of what it is like when the challenge is accepted and the implications of that invitation are, for better and for worse, embraced.

Genkaku Adam Fisher, Author of Answer Your Love Letters: Footnotes to a Zen Practice and meditation leader of Black Moon Zendo.

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