Buddhism and Zen are the subjects of Musho Rodney Alan Greenblat’s colourful new book, Dharma Delight. I’m a lover of Zen (and Buddhism to an extent), and I’m a practicing artist, so really is up my alley. JREF thought I would feel comfortable reviewing it. I was apprehensive upon flipping through the book. Still, the introduction won me over quite a lot with two points:
- He talks of being in Japan and asking about Zen to Japanese friends, and they couldn’t answer. While Zen is still practised in Japan, this is how it is. Japanese by and large have no interest in the topic, much less relevant info to share. In the same way, lacrosse is the national sport of Canada, but please don’t ask me about it, my attempt to answer would only mislead you. I can feel this is an honest journey he’s undergone.
- He ends the intro with the words, “as I know it,” which is the key when talking about this whole topic. There is a lot of writing on the subject, and while I wouldn’t say there are so many conflicting statements, there are a lot of ways to interpret things. By not claiming to be an authority on the subject, it left my mind open to his vision of it, without getting frustrated that he was setting down ground rules for Buddhism and Zen.
The book has different sections on Buddhas, Koans, Gate Guardians and others, and finishes with an introduction to meditation. While some of the book focuses on ancient ideas, in a lot of places he introduces modern interpretations of these ideas. At first I was put-off by an image of a Bodhisattva with a hair drier (and it’s not my favourite, to be honest), in other places it really works and illustrates the way Greenblat has integrated Buddhist ideas in his life. A page about Buddha vacuuming, doing it in service of the dirt on the floor, so that it can fulfil a higher role mixed in the soil of the world, rather than being disliked on the floor; it says a lot about harmony and how you can view the actions you do in the world. Later, in his section on Jatakas Tales, old Buddhist fables of sorts, he adds his own that might echo into the 21st century. The only confusion I had was that in some places I know he’s taking from old ideology, but in other places, I don’t know if he’s making it up or simply remixing the past. It doesn’t really matter, and Buddhism has a tradition of building upon itself, so maybe it’s suitable. I particularly liked the section on Koans, where he presents koans, and also some philosophers interpretations of the them. I enjoy them in general, but sometimes they can be quite obtuse, so the interpretations were illuminating.
The art changes a fair amount throughout the book, but it seems to have been assembled over five years or so, and Greenblat would have gone through many phases in that time. His underlying style stays the same, a kind of Sunday funnies google-eyed characters. It’s a little off-putting to me personally, but his overall aesthetic carries it through. He has line drawings, computer coloured works, paintings, and more. Though there aren’t a lot in there, he has some brush and ink work which is absolutely beautiful, and for me gets to the feeling of zen for me than anything tightly drawn. I think for him, the feature of the book are his highly detailed paintings of Buddhas, life cycles, temples and more. These are packed with details, often broken down on the following page; have a strong sense of symmetry; and are filled with meaning. These are colourful paintings, which literally use all the colours. They very much are accessible versions of what might be in an ancient Buddhist temple, friendly and inviting where the ones of old might be daunting.
The book is quite dense. I liked much of what he was doing, while less excited about other pages. But it’s a lot like a comedy like the movie Airplane! If one joke falls flat, there’s another one immediately along that will hit. In this book, if one page doesn’t resonate with you, quite likely the next might. And so, I enjoyed this book, and got something from it. Greenblat’s made something quite attractive, personal, and informative. If he keeps at it for another 1,000 years he may be very good!