13 February 2019

Palliative Reading: Zen Comics and Ursula K LeGuin's Tao Te Ching

These are all times of extreme dexterity and chaos for many of us, and just because one has learnt to live with chaos doesn't mean that chaos is welcome.

And that's as may be. Comes the time, more than often, when what one sees bearing down on one becomes intimidating and the ability to stay on an even keel leaves of its own accord. You can't knowingly coax it back, but you can recreate it.

Recently I had trouble sleeping, freight train running in my head and all that, and The Wife™suggested I read some paper book. Not book on my cheapo yet faithful tablet, that involves that blue-biased backlight which doesn't really do your biological system any good, really kind of destabilizes it, and paper book reading is a very somatically satisfying thing to do, as one can find out for ones self by just doing it (hell, I just feel better holding a book in my had, but that's for another time). And my The Wife™, she know me well, and suggested.

There is a pair of delightful little volumes called Zen Comics (not to be confused with the webcomic Zen Pencils). This modest collection of panels was drawn by a Buddhist named Ioanna Salajan, who was part of a Zen Buddhist community in Amsterdam back around the early 1970s, and they had a periodical called Cosmic Paper. She did these for that publication. What they are are little 4-panel (mostly; some of them break that to illustrate a joke or a theme) situations based on, as I understand it, Zen concepts or koans (and a koan, as I understand it, is a riddle or question that has no sensical answer, the point of which is to embrace the absurdity and acquire understanding from the point of view that provides).

There are around 100 of them in all split between two rather small volumes, titled Zen Comics and Zen Comics II. They are all charming little things that you glance over, then glance over again, and then move on and come back to. At first it's the comic style seeming to combine brushwork and fine line; the whole artistic style, seeming at once unashamedly primitive and childlike but somehow simultaneously sophisticated; and the feeling that it's all trying to communicate with you on a visible and and invisible level.

The comic has a handful of characters. The star, though I don't know if he'd say so, is The Old Monk, that chap on the cover graphic in the robe and that stylish beard with the head with the high dome. The co-star, who I've heard referred to as Number One Disciple, is his most frequent foil (and target of his switch) and serves as a relatable interlocutor. There's also Rinzo, a burr-headed chap who would be a Number One Disciple someday, if only he could figure some basics out. There are some other Zen practicioners, a few Western tourists, and one Samurai warrior who has an epiphany.

There's a whimsy that makes it all approachable even if the point is frequently ineffable (something I also understand a good koan's lesson should be). And I don't know if I'm getting the point of it all, but reading it (as I have many times, it never gets old) again and again always makes me feel a kind, gentle humor within.

It's been reprinted many times; my 2-volume set was printed by Charles H. Tuttle publishers back in the 80s. It's a pleasant reprieve for the weary mind. I recommend it to you.

The other book I've been absorbing is Ursula K. LeGuin's rendition (as she says herself, it's a rendition, not a translation) of the Tao Te Ching. It's a pleasant looking book, small, square, containing two CDs of her reading it as music plays in the background. I've not listened to the CDs yet. I read it, like Zen Comics, frankly, not quite comprehending what I'm reading but it's speaking to me on some level. I love it because UKL did it, of course, but there is a comfort to reading these poems not yet knowing what they are totally supposed to say but feeling their truths falling into place in some internal way.

Ursula K LeGuin's affection for the work makes it a soft, kind thing, and it too, helps me calm the anxiety.

And so it goes.

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