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Review: A Straight Road With 99 Curves
March 30, 2013

A Straight Road With 99 Curves
Coming of Age on the Path of Zen

Gregory Shepherd

Zen Buddhism has been a rich source for a genre of Western literature exploring self-discovery and the perfection of an art or skill. Perhaps the first such book was published in 1948: Zen in the Art of Archery, by Eugen Herrigel. The book inspired many others with similar titles, including the bestselling philosophical novel Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values by Robert Pirsig, Ray Bradbury’s Zen in the Art of Writing, and Zen and the Art of Poker by Larry Phillips. The authentic Zen in these books varies from little (admittedly so by the author of Motorcycle) to introducing some of the basic ideas of leaving the conscious self behind to attain a higher plane of understanding and awareness.

However, there are far fewer books that explore the actual practice of Zen in which adherents pursue enlightenment through Buddhist teachings, meditation, and interaction with a master. A Straight Road With 99 Curves is a richly realized memoir of Gregory Shepherd’s life in and out of this world of Zen. The title refers to a Zen koan, the paradoxical stories or riddles, meant to vex the students into a deep, subconscious understanding: “Go straight along a road with ninety-nine curves.” And the author indeed found many curves on his path.

The book opens with Shepherd visiting the Three Cloud Zen Center where he studied off and on for several years, and hadn’t been back to for more than thirty. He hesitates to go inside as he recalls his tutelage under the center’s head instructor: “With a face as impassive and imposing as an Easter Island moai when he was serious, The Master was reputed to be spiritually enlightened on an epic scale, a supernova of spectacular magnitude in the Zen firmament, and he had always scared the daylights out of me just by the solidity of his presence and seeming ability to see into my head, heart, and soul. I had left his Three Cloud Zen Center under something of a cloud of my own all those years ago, and we never spoke again. Now he was dead.” That recollection sets the stage for the well-written memoir, which is at turns suspenseful, reflective, insightful, and expurgatory.

Raised a Catholic, Shepherd’s older brother began studying eastern philosophies, and Shepherd finds himself drawn to Hinduism and Buddhism, “perhaps because they were unfettered by the notions of eternal damnation that were driven home relentlessly at our church and school.” Also attracted to meditation and yoga, he finds the practice of Zen-sitting, zazen, appealing as a concrete way to achieve true peace of mind. He also gently introduces other core Zen concepts such as dukkha (the essential unsatisfactoriness of life), samsarai (the ever-changing world of illusion), and the Four Noble Truths dealing with suffering and craving.

Dropping out of college, Shepherd along with his brother go to Hawaii to experience the ‘60s “go with the flow” lifestyle. They hook up with a loose group of Zen practitioners. There he finds that the practice of Zen is not an easy road, especially in trying to wash away all negativity, which bubbles up unbidden through our subconscious. Between zazen sessions, he learns to surf as part of his meditative practice. But after wiping out into a bed of coral, stepping on a sea urchin, and having an errant board smash into his ribs, he paddles in and feels disembodied. He wonders if the feeling is the Zen concept of “no-self,” but realizes if it is. It wasn’t at all liberating, instead it was a “kind of cold hell, brimming over with fear, anxiety, and darkness.”

This was the first of Shepherd’s experience with trying to attain kensho, or an insight to the true essence, and is the first step in Zen toward enlightenment. He wants to achieve the “Big K” with an un-Zen-like desperation. He reads and meditates, travels and studies with Zen masters, including Bob Aitken, an American who studied Zen early in the 50s and established many of the Zen centers in existence today, and his ultimate Master at the Three Cloud Zen Center. And yet the elusive Big K eludes him, even when a teacher tells him he has achieved it, or another says “perhaps, maybe so.”

After several years of study, with successes and failures, Shepherd abandons his formal study of Zen. His life takes more curves on the straight road, and yet Zen is always percolating in him. His final visit to the old Zen center is truly one of kensho. Shepherd’s memoir is a phenomenal journey through Zen and what it means to live and ponder life. I’m reminded of Socrates’ statement: “The unexamined life is not worth living.”

COMMENTS

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Lee Witte
I tried zazen meditation, but never got too far with the practice. I'm sure it would be very helpful and enriching, but I never got past the pain of sitting on my legs, and well, the boredom. But that is just me...

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