Zen Buddhism is a spiritual discipline that seeks “to bring to bear the intensity of an extraordinary attention in the midst of all so-called ‘ordinary’ circumstances.” Its foundation is the meditative practice of zazen , sometimes translated as “just sitting”; variants include walking meditation, flower arranging and the famous tea ceremony. K. T. Berger sets out to apply Zen to another ordinary circumstance, certainly in the daily lives of Southern Californians: driving.
At first, this experience may seem a poor first step toward enlightenment. We tend to perceive time behind the steering wheel, at best, as time wasted. At worst, we are hapless prisoners condemned to automobility. A simple indiscretion by a fellow driver can release an anger so intense that it engenders acts of imagined, if not real, violence.
But the daily routine is also half-meditative. Virtually every day, a half hour or so is set aside in the morning and in the evening for an exercise in almost-just sitting. The daily commute frames the working day with unstructured time, time to randomly sort through our lives in a rapid movement of the mind’s eye. Surely the therapeutic value of this time alone, just when we need it most, contributes to our stubborn penchant for solo commuting.
Whether experienced as urban meditation or damnation, this time in our cars is real time, time clicked off the clock of our mortal being. Yet, like commuters on the road of life, we simply curse the traffic in our rush to get there.
I looked forward to reading “Zen Driving” by the brothers Kevin and Todd Berger, one a journalist, the other a psychotherapist (whose names are contracted into the pen name of K. T. Berger). I eagerly anticipated their meditations on and spiritual exercises for life in the fast lane. Perhaps Zen Driving (the meditative discipline) does offer a path to release from dharmic gridlock.
“Zen Driving” (the book) unfortunately offers very little. A clumsy mix of New Age philosophies and driving tips, “Zen Driving” is like a course in Driver’s Ed, taught at the Esalen Institute. Reading this book is like spending an afternoon on the Ventura Freeway heading west, with the radio poorly tuned in somewhere between the New Age Muzak of “The Wave” and the traffic reports on KFI. After 45 minutes of “Zen Driving,” I needed a drink.
The Bergers confuse the metaphor of Zen with the practice of Zen. While the theory of Zen makes pleasant back-yard reading on a summer day, its practice is as rigorous a spiritual discipline as man has imposed on himself. For example, the German philosopher Eugen Herrigel published in 1953 a wonderful essay on his experiences with such practice in “Zen in the Art of Archery.” After five years of diligently attempting to “simply” draw the bow and loose the arrow in proper fashion, Herrigel was finally moved up by his Zen master to shooting at a target. His first shots failed to even come near.
Notwithstanding my recollection of Herrigel’s difficult experience, I attempted one of the “moving meditations” described by the Bergers. I tried “driving in a multi-dimensional realty . . . (sustaining) a full samurai 360-degree watch.” I stretched my “awareness in all directions, as far ahead, as far behind, and as far to the sides as (I could) see.” My session was ended when I turned left, missing by only a few inches my becoming One with a pale blue Impala that appeared from nowhere.
Even the best Zen writing can be challenging, if not completely opaque. Zen relies on metaphor and allusion, typified by the various Zen koan absurdist instructional riddles. (E.g., “What is the sound of one hand clapping?”) Like modern music, it is hard for the uninitiated to distinguish the poetry from the noise.
To me, reading “Zen Driving” is infuriating chatter. Despite the occasionally interesting quote from a Zen master, this book is primarily a jumble of psycho-babble (“The inner, the unconscious, has a wisdom that can and should be followed. To tap into one’s true personal power and mastery, whether in a car built for speed, or in one built for safety, is exactly the aim! It’s tapping into natural-self!”); limp metaphysics (“Grace, after all, is often a very subtle substance”); driver safety advice (“we cannot possibly practice Zen and good driving while intoxicated); and cheery self-help recipes for good living (“This discipline takes a certain amount of hard work, yet if we can muster the motivation to practice it for a while, say ten or fifteen minutes per outing, we can be assured of being a happier, safer, more mindful and efficient driver”). It took a samurai’s effort simply to finish reading this book.
There is an expression in Zen that one should not confuse the moon with the finger pointing at the moon. And I suppose that, no matter how disfigured that finger is, the moon retains its beauty. “Zen Driving’s” clumsiness made it difficult to think long or hard about the Zen of anything. But in my heart, I know that hidden within the daily automotive ritual, as in every apparently mundane act, lies the possibility of surmounting the challenge of the lost moment--call it grace or satori --even if its direct experience eludes me. And perhaps like a mocking koan , “Zen Driving” points in that direction. But few readers will have the patience for such a 164-page koan .
Zen shares with other “Eastern religions,” such as mainstream Buddhism, Taoism and Hinduism, an ability to profoundly challenge our casual, everyday perceptions of reality, even if we do not understand their philosophical subtleties. But the same unfamiliar vocabulary that serves as a spiritual astringent can also seduce with a warm and fuzzy kind of exotic mysticism, especially when translated through the undisciplined thinking of popular culture. There is a traceable genealogy linking the timeless Chinese philosophical treatise, the “Lao tzu” and the 1970s television show, “Kung Fu.”
In our own culture, prayer has been developed with at least a similar aim as that of such Eastern practices as Zen: to penetrate the everyday and hallow a moment in time. I am taught to pray as I wake, pray as I eat, pray as I go to bed. I can’t help but wonder: What if some modern Moses got lost out there in the desert and, wandering west via Interstate 10, came upon this 20th-Century land of promises, whose culture is as intertwined with the automobile as the ancient Hebrew’s was with wheat and grape. Would I, as I turn the ignition key at 6:45 every morning, bless a Lord that brings forth wheels from Detroit? And would I not be a better person for such a prayer?
Who can say, Grasshopper.