The first Buddhist masters to come to America at the turn of the century did so because they felt that Zen had entered a period of decline in Japan; although monasteries remained open to all, those who applied were interested in the logistics of running the family temple more than in attaining enlightenment. Whether these teachers' faith in American practitioners is justified is the most important question raised by this latest of Peter Matthiessen's books.
The Nine-Headed Dragon River runs beside the Temple of Eternal Peace, the monastery of Dogen (1200-1253), the founder of the Soto school of Zen. Like the river, Matthiessen runs beside the eternal peace he seeks, glimpsing it once in a while--just often enough to keep running. He knows he has but to recognize that "all of reality is in the is --the now of every moment," but this is a challenging peak to scale even for a veteran explorer like Matthiessen.
The first part of "Nine-Headed Dragon River" is frank, fascinating, almost confessional, consisting of Matthiessen's notes from a series of Rinzai Zen sesshins (weeklong meditation intensives punctuated by private interviews with the Zen master). This is the most interesting part of the book, precisely because it is the most personal, revealing many of the incentives and pitfalls that await an ardent traveler on the Zen path. For example, Matthiessen really does work to see through the "I" that wants enlightenment so badly; in the process, he naturally becomes more aware (sometimes painfully so) of just how persistent his writer/father/husband self is.
The second part of "Dragon River" is excerpted from Matthiessen's immensely successful "Snow Leopard" (an account of his 1973 pilgrimage to the Himalayas). The excerpts provide a choppy transition between the Rinzai sesshins and the Soto Zen studies that Matthiessen began in Los Angeles in 1977. (Soto is distinguished from Rinzai in that it traditionally emphasizes "just sitting" over the study of koans --i.e., riddles that the student must ponder and answer to the satisfaction of the Zen master.) But this section does let Matthiessen show that, although his Rinzai teacher has advised him to "expect nothing," he persists in clinging to the ambition of spiritual attainment itself.
Chastened but still interested, Matthiessen discovers and comes to a sort of peace with Soto Zen. This last part of the book is a fairly impersonal travel diary of Matthiessen's 1981 trip to Japan with his Soto Zen teacher, a young mathematician from Los Angeles, and is interspersed with a detailed history of the Soto and Rinzai schools.
In "Dragon River," Matthiessen attempts to tackle the subject that eluded him in "Snow Leopard"--namely, what an enlightened state of mind is and how to attain it. But enlightenment defies him once again. Despite wanting desperately to follow the Buddhist path to its conclusion, he acknowledges (much to his credit) that "after years of Zen practice, I am still woefully deficient in that simplicity of spirit, that transparency of heart, that is evident in many people who have never heard of Zen at all."
Matthiessen is torn between his desire for enlightenment and his recognition that he is not yet there. He even admits that his American Zen teacher--one of the handful who learn the language of their Asian teachers and serve as translators and mentors for the next generation of American Buddhists--"inevitably was more steeped in Japanese Zen tradition than I would ever be, or felt like being ." This statement says much about the ambiguities and difficulties of transplanting Buddhism to American soil.
"Dragon River" is an ambitious work but an incomplete one. It does not misrepresent Zen, and it certainly provides important insights into the process of seeking enlightenment as a 20th-Century American. But it is not compellingly written, except in the first (and rawest) section, and for all its accuracy, it appears to have been put together piecemeal. Thus it is a prime example of the growing pains of a uniquely American form of Buddhism.