“Growing up meant you were competent and stayed out of trouble…When you hit the wall, who or what would see you through?”
Traditional Zen practice is both very simple and very formal. Think of classic Japanese brush painting. In Zen, there are prescribed ways of bowing, walking, holding the hands in meditation, and so on.
At the end of by all means A ZEN CAUTIONARY TALE, Zen abbot, Edward Espe Brown, includes a photograph of himself, in full Zen regalia, with a stern expression on his face, and a pig puppet on a cushion beside him. Traditional Zen masters don’t give dharma talks with pig puppets any more than traditional authors use upper and lower case in their titles like Brown does here. by all means lies outside traditional book categories, which ironically, makes it very Zen.
When Edward, as an adult, rescues Ponce (two syllables) the Pig puppet from a cat named Turtle (not a puppet), his affection for Ponce allows him to explore many issues, especially those of abandonment: how others abandon us, how we abandon them and ourselves, and all the things we do to try to compensate:
“A lot of things that Edward did were very important because it was important to him to be doing important things and not just wasting his time. Otherwise how could he have any respect for himself? And wasn’t it important to be self-respecting? Because if you left it to the others, there didn’t seem to be a lot of respect going around, and you weren’t likely to get much.”
We learn how Edward lived in an orphanage after his mother died when he was three. We learn how he turned his anger on the stuffed animals he had as a kid after he got out. We see how childhood issues live on inside the adult and how Ponce the Pig reacts at a critical moment, when Edward abandons him. At first Ponce weeps, but then he closes his eyes to meditate (the pig is a dedicated Dharma practitioner):
“He found his heart swelling even though nothing changed outwardly. The space within was like that: vast and expansive, warm and tender without dimensions. All of his friends were gathering just as fast as he could think of them. A burst of astonishment flashed through Ponce. Left without any capacity for thinking about what was happening, he was one with everything, and everything was a part of him. No separation could be found. Dazzling! What was there to think about? Nothing needed figuring out…” Edward learns his lesson and reconciles with Ponce in the end because it’s that kind of a book.
I enjoyed by all means, but it’s not for every reader. It is not an instruction manual in Zen or a book of eastern philosophy. If you have no interest in Zen or have not spent time talking to puppets as I have, the book might not appeal.
If you are in doubt, I suggest you check out some of the Dharma talks Edward has made available on his website. If you like them, you’ll probably like the book. The talks, like this book, are simply another way that Edward, with abundant humor and compassion, tells his truths, using all means.