Arthur Braverman's Dharma Brothers reminds me of the Seinfeld series: Nothing special happens. But of course that is the beauty of both. How does a novel track two Zen masters through most of twentieth century Japan, barely mention a world war or the Atom bomb, and still feel so relevant to our shared human experience?
Braverman tells the story of two struggling human beings searching for their identities after loosing their families as children. In the process Braverman is guiding readers to appreciate the essence of Zazen. Braverman knows the practice is not about something special happening, it is about being present to one's experience just as it is and with oneself just as s/he is now.
This is a story of men who live extraordinarily simple lives with ordinary passions of anger, resentment, confusion and wanting. While it may appear the two monks are avoiding the "real world," they are relentless in confronting their wanting, angry and suffering Selves, thus transforming themselves and those around them.
Early on his path, Kodo receives an inspirational message fortelling that he has important and difficult work ahead which he will not understand for some time. He is assured that with persistence he will eventually help others and find great peace.
Like life, the Koan practice of Kodo offers no easy answers from a thinking mind nor from a teacher. Braverman puts us right in the midst of the monk's restlessness, agitation, and letting go of the way Kodo thought practice should be, of how he should be.
Tokujoo, living alone on a mountain, has no easy time trying to quiet his own busy mind and he wonders about the meaning of his life, asking "the perennial question for practitioners of zazen--would I ever experience an enlightenment about which I had no doubt."
When Tokujoo suffers the loss of his son he resists being in the present moment. At once he wants to think about his son and hold onto the feeling of pain that had become familiar to him, yet he can't stay with the pain, it is too much to bear. He realizes that his meditation practice cannot bring back his son or stop him from grieving. But still he practices, digging deeper into a practice whose depth he cannot fathom.
Anyone who has tried to practice meditation will identify with these monks. Braverman is illustrating for us how we humans, renunciates and lay persons alike, have important and difficult work ahead which we may not understand for some time. With persistence we too can realize that our actual experience, the joys and inevitable sorrows, are not ours but simply joy and sorrow, part of being human. And "beautiful as it is, it is nothing special. You must live each day, each ordinary day, with the care one would give to his infant baby."
Dharma Brothers is an adventure into and out of self, dharma indeed.
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