by Dennis Genpo Merzel
Published by Journey Editions
139 pages, 2001
God Is Alive Magic Is Afoot
by Leonard Cohen
illustrated by Sarah Perkins and Ian Jackson
Published by Stoddart
64 pages, 2001
Zen Flowers: Contemplation Through Creativity
by Harumi Nishi
photography by James Mitchell
Published by Aquamarine
160 pages, 2001
In the Details
Reviewed by Monica Stark
Einstein said that God is in the details. While I've seen this particular quote stretched to accommodate any number of world views, to me it's always meant that while big bangs can be pretty random, we find perfection and a place to pause and wonder in things that might be easily overlooked. Stop and smell the flowers, as it were. And, while taking in their scent, you might also notice the symmetry of the pattern of veins on a petal; the careful geometry of a stamen; the delicate place where leaf fuses with stalk. You can call it what you like, but it's all of those little things that give us confidence that the whole fits together somehow and, without those little things, it surely wouldn't.
Author and Zen master Dennis Genpo Merzel spends all of 24/7 Dharma's 139 pages contemplating the little things that, together, make the whole:
Everyone is the Buddha. Everything is the Buddha. But if you search for Buddha you can't find Buddha. You'll just find grass and trees, birds and flowers, blue sky and white clouds. This formless form that's listening to the birds, that is the mind of the Buddha. That is your body.
You can almost smell the flowers. That, in its way, is the nature of Zen.
In 24/7 Dharma, Merzel addresses three fundamental questions: Why do we suffer? How can we free ourselves from fear and sorrow? What does it take to live in harmony with others? He tackles the questions by not tackling them at all. Instead he offers up salient slices of his own teachings. For example, page 23 consists entirely of this:
If everything were solid and permanent and fixed, then there would be no life. Everything would be static and dead. There would be no life because there would be no possibility for change.
Few entries are more brief than this one but none are longer than a single diminutive page. Though the book could be gently grazed or read neatly, cover to cover, my own feeling is that a steady diet of one a day over a period of several months would provide a focal point for contemplation. As Merzel writes: "We watch and observe, and we learn about our own mind, who we are." 24/7 Dharma could be a tool to help do that.
Leonard Cohen has always offered up contemplations of an entirely different kind. A world-renowned -- if not always beloved -- poet, songwriter and vocalist, Cohen's two novels, Beautiful Losers and The Favourite Game have both earned international acclaim since their publication decades ago. Described as "one of the best known experimental novels of the 60s," Beautiful Losers included a 400-odd word mantra that explored the possibility of God and his meaning here on Earth. Being Cohen -- and being the 60s -- there was nothing the least bit preachy or churchy about this mantra. But it was beautiful. And resonant. Resonant enough, at least, that almost four decades later, this section alone has been teamed with an exquisite selection of illustrations by husband and wife graphic design/illustrator team Sarah Perkins and Ian Jackson. The resulting book has been republished as God Is Alive Magic Is Afoot in a form that invites contemplation and reflection.
God is alive
God Is Alive Magic Is Afoot is like a little picture book for grown-ups. Something intended to be cherished and referred back to and enjoyed anew over the years rather than a book that is read and then discarded or put aside.
If all of this Zen and contemplation results in your desire for a more proactive approach to spirituality, Zen Flowers offers you something to do with your hands. Harumi Nishi has grafted western floral sensibilities with traditional Japanese ikebana flower arranging. Nishi writes that it is her "objective to blend with creative Western flower arranging the spirit of Japanese Zen. I am trying to create a new approach to floral design and at the same time instill a sense of tranquility."
Whether or not the book helps you to be "released from your worldly desires for a moment" or that your body becomes "suffused with freshness," Zen Flowers is spectacular. Even the floral neophyte will enjoy James Mitchell's breathtaking photos of Nishi's arrangements.
Nishi spends some time explaining just what it is she's up to with forays into Zen and Zen gardens as well as what type of arrangements would be appropriate to various moods and locations in your home or workspace. Projects to help you on your approach to Zen are interspersed throughout the book. These include photographs of the finished piece as well as the steps it takes to get there, a list of the "ingredients" needed for the project at hand, some Zen and practical thoughts on the project as well as the instruction necessary to complete your own Nishi-style Zen arrangement. As the author reminds us, "A single flower can shine like a lone star and illuminate the beauty of the universe." It's all in the details. | June 2001
Monica Stark is a freelance writer and editor.