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September 27, 2012: Zen Through the Mountain

September 27, 2012

Digging through my bookshelf the other night looking for something to read, I found a terribly old, very thin, volume called “The Ronin” by William Dale Jennings. Mmmm…a book written by a Westerner based on a Zen story. This is one that should have been a good read for me. I remember starting this a long time ago, but I could not remember why I never finished it.

The term “ronin” applies to a masterless samurai. A warrior outside the code of bushido, the law of ethics that true samurai lived their life by. Bushido is analogous to the Western “chivalry” the code of ethics of Western knights.

The Story
The ronin of this book is truly an outlaw in every way. Literally, his immoral and sadistic behavior is “outside the law.” At the start of this story, the ronin is the worst of men, as he commits just about every form of violence that can be done to his fellow-man. The ronin behaves this way because he is naturally prone to violence, but mostly because he fears no consequences for his actions. To make matters worse, the victims of the ronin are mostly innocents or opponents weaker than him. He terrorizes village after village until three youths, newly trained by an elder sword master, impetuously challenge the ronin and are mercilessly slaughtered by him. As the ronin goes on, he finds a lesser kingdom, ruled by a weak overlord and insinuates himself as the lord’s vassal. The ronin then proceeds to kill his lord, steal his wife away, and leave the lord and lady’s young son an orphan. The ronin and the lady live a mean existence outside the law and society, shunned by even the lowest levels of class. The former lady becomes a miserly prostitute to support them. The ronin eventually sickens of her company and he abandons her. He also is sickened of his own company, throws away his sword and searches for a better way to live. He comes upon a group of travelers struggling on a narrow mountain path, and after rescuing them, decides to dig a path through the mountain to prevent such dangers to other travelers. As the life and behavior of the ronin is changing, the young son of the lord and lady has grown to learn of the shame and crimes of the ronin against his parents and goes in search of a someone who would train him as a sword duelist in order to wreak revenge on the ronin. The young man finds the very same sword-master that trained the young men vanquished by the ronin in the beginning. After a period of long training, the young man follows the trail of the ronin, estimates the time it should take for the ronin to finish burrowing through the mountain, and plans to return in time to take the ronin’s hands just before he is able to finish his task.

The Analysis
It was easy to see why, long ago I stopped reading “The Ronin.” I was so disgusted in the brutish and violent behavior of the main character in the beginning of the book and I could not imagine such awful actions ever being redeemed. I guess I needed my main characters to be noble, polished, and free of flaws, back then. I also tend to read far too fast. I was reading “The Ronin” as if it were pulp, which indeed, in its first couple of chapters, essentially IS pulp. What my earlier self failed to realize that any book based on a Zen story probably has more than what appears on the surface. Also, racing through a book on Zen is antithetical. This time reading, I thought the violent beginning was perhaps like a movie plot to hook the reader (how close I was, here, I could not imagine) and then to slowly spoon feed the better ideas later on. My patience, this reading, revealed a commentary on many human values worth addressing: the wages of sin; the value of service; how we are able to change but must ultimately accept the incontrovertible nature of our being; as well as generosity, good parenting, a life of service, heroism, justice, vengeance, money, and religion. Jennings is able to interject a small measure of humor: watching the ronin dangle on the line he has trapped himself with, as well as the student/teacher relationship between the son and the swordsman (which seems cliché these days, as the Swordsman out-Miyagis Mr. Miyagi, in his “wax-on/wax-off” moments…but this was written well before all versions of “The Karate Kid”…and might possibly have been an influence.) I also found a great deal of delicious symbolism in the book, which in itself warrants a rereading.

“The Ronin” is not an easy book. It has the most abrupt and unexpected endings I have ever remember reading (which makes me think, that perhaps, this too, is a Zen-like move, necessitating a rereading.) In addition to the ending, Jennings writing is generally confusing to the Western mind, which tends to like concepts spelled out. For example:

“Seeing that the fear had returned, he began to practice kendo in his mind. He spent hours in moveless meditation, hours in practice as he slept, and the untouched sword upon the tokonoma rack never left his hands by day or night.”

The Author
William Dale Jennings has studied martial arts: Tai Chi in China, Judo and Aikido in Japan, so understands this concept of practicing a movement without moving, as much of Asian martial arts is ultimately a “mind over matter” exercise, stressing a heightened pre-awareness of one’s movements. This is just one example of the tonal shift needed for the Western mind to understand this book. Another, as my earlier self failed to realize, is to slow down and think, while reading it. Jennings has also studied the Cha-no-yu (Japanese tea ceremony) and Zen, with Rinzai-Zen master Nyogen Senzaki. Jennings based “The Ronin” on Senzaki’s stories from “Zen Flesh, Zen Bones.” Finding out that Jennings was a writer for Hollywood made me research what he may have done. It was a surprise to find he was the writer for “The Cowboys” one of my favorite John Wayne films of my childhood, making William Dale Jennings a true “East meets West” author if there ever was one!

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