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True Zen: Detail from artist Toko Shinoda's lithograph 'Sailing.'


Ripping off the Buddha, one path at a time

By Jordan E. Rosenfeld

Would Siddhartha Gautama roll over on his, er, comfy cloud of enlightenment if he knew how Buddhism has been peddled for a profit, or would he bestow that enigmatic smile of praise upon the latest of such shills, Zen and the Art of Falling in Love (Simon and Schuster; $12)? Do not be misled: This book is not about how to tighten your bod or enhance your scent to attract a potential mate. In fact, we have to abdicate all talk of abs and vanity here, because according to author Brenda Shoshanna, "The wonderful ancient practice of Zen is actually the practice of falling in love." You got that?

Shoshanna, a psychologist and alleged student of Zen, tightly stretches her metaphor like a slightly too-small sheet around the edges of her lumpy theory. She begins with the essential poverty that any self-help book requires: You are missing something. That something is necessary to your being. This book intends to provide you with the secret.

"We are meant to live a life of love," Shoshanna instructs. "When we're not in love, something's the matter." Forget that we might have sick relatives or a tax bill coming due or even, heaven forbid, that we're enjoying being single for a time. Stop that nonsense. You need to be in love, and Shoshanna will show you the path. The eightfold path, that is.

Beginning at the zendo, the Buddhist equivalent to church or temple, our eyes are opened through anecdotes of young, modern singles whom Shoshanna has clearly seen in her psychology practice. We learn that just as in the zendo--which before entering one first must remove one's shoes--so too in a new relationship we must learn to take off our metaphorical shoes as well. In this simple act, Shoshanna asserts, a whole world of learning becomes instantly available to us, one that we can now turn around and apply to that pesky little dating life of ours.

Let us meet "Rachel" for a moment, a good student and client of Shoshanna's, who has provided just the example needed to illustrate the author's point. Rachel has been going through men like lattes, discarding them when they begin to bore her. She is tired of the hungry-ghost hustle. Hungry ghosts, in Buddhist terminology, are people doomed to be unable to "taste the food. No matter how much they put in their mouths, they continue to search for more."

Rachel, 33, is naturally looking for that fated love that is her birthright and, according to the author, has nearly given up hope. Because who at 33 doesn't know that it's all downhill from there? I mean, 33 is positively old, right? Rachel, however, finds Zen. And by finding Zen--come on, you're ahead of me--she finds all the many tools necessary to get her heart's desire.

The first such tool is reality. Shoshanna tells us that Rachel should be prepared not to get her heart's desire. Stay on the path, because we're on to the next lesson: patience. "Love without patience is like soup without liquid," according to Shoshanna. Soup without liquid is, of course, rice, noodles or vegetable mush, which seem perfectly palatable to me, but, hey, she's the master.

We move on to take what we can glean from learning about sitting down in the zendo, walking meditation, taming our wild monkey minds, letting go, weeding our gardens, cleaning up and sitting down again. It is not the Zen Buddhism itself that is objectionable here. But like many self-help books, this one takes ancient, forthright wisdom and packages it a bit too conveniently inside handy, modern-day examples. The book purports to have The Answer to something as complex as love through just a series of simple lessons.

And if you get all the lessons down, Grasshopper, "You can now fall in love with everything--beautiful sunsets, rainy days. . . ." A truer measure of your progress, however, is if you can fall in love with little, yapping dogs, mosquito bites and the smell of the dump on Highway 101 as you head to find love on your next date.

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From the February 5-11, 2004 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.

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