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BOOK REVIEW: HE'S LEAVING HOME translated by Jeff Shore

This article was originally published in Hanazono University Literary Academic Review Vol. 30, Hanazono Daigaku Bungakubu Kenkyu Kiyou Vol. 30 Kyoto, Japan 1998

HE'S LEAVING HOME (Chonan no Shukke by Kiyohiro Miura; 1988) translated by Jeff Shore. Tokyo: Charles E. Tuttle Publishing Co., 1996. ISBN 0-8048-2060-0

Jeff Shore's recent translation HE'S LEAVING HOME, of Kiyohiro Miura's 'Akutagawa Prize' winning autobiographical novel, Chonan no Shukke is fun and touching to read, and brought me to tears twice. But more importantly, this novel, perhaps for the first time, helps share the complex and diverse view many modern Japanese have about their traditional faith. This is an excellent read that bridges the romantic/austere Zen literature and the current realities within Japan for the foreign reader.

In recent times the English language audience of Japanese Zen culture has received a flotilla of new publications targeting the extremes of popular vision. On one hand is a growing body of translations of important historical works, directed towards academics and those in the West interested in Buddhism in general and Zen in particular. Nearby in the bookstores are the glossy covered pop insights of contemporary Japanese culture, that imply some Zen correlation with everything from Japanese business success to ‘oriental’ sex. Needless to say the ‘reality’ of Zen, as a living discipline within Japan, remains illusive to the foreign reader. Miura's simple and personal confessional insights helps fill-in our picture of modern Zen.

The audience may be disturbed by how divorced Buddhism has become, may always have been, from many in Japan, disturbed by the chauvinistic opinions of the author not so unlike many of his faith, the apparent short-comings in the Japanese public school system, the superstitions and militant stoicism practiced by a theology popular in the West for its clarity, vegetarianism, and pacifistic values. There is for all practitioners of Zen in the West quite a cultural shock waiting here in Japan and to have books that attempt to share the painfully honest feelings and views of people living in a land of contradictions is always helpful.

What makes Murals work successful for me is how he never completely convinces himself that his choices were right, while simultaneously confessing an obviously contradictory self assuredness of a man still proud of his adventures and sacrifices. He can never see himself, his wife, his son, nor his daughter yet he is continually watching. He is the mind that prevents the koan from taking root, an angst that many of his readers may relate to.

This is not a Zen ‘how to’ book, nor an expose of oriental wisdom or some villainous Japanese plot to undermine the world economy. This is the simple story of a man's slightly distanced relationship with a religious practice that leaves its mark, some would say a scar, at the very core of his being. The man travels, meets a women, marries, has a family, and as a kind of weekend hobby tries to sit Zen with a disturbing yet impressive nun/priestess living not far from his Tokyo suburban home; A fateful choice which seems to crystallize the separation between all in his family, in some chilling manifestation of nothingness, called life. I am not sure if this book will bring people to practice Zen meditation or push them further away, but it can help provide further insight into that void between our projected assumptions about Japanese culture and a reality perceived by at least one father whose son chooses the contemporary path of Zen Buddhist novice.

Copyright R.L.Seltman 1998

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