I’m reading Steven Heine’s book, Bargainin’ for Salvation: Bob Dylan, a Zen Master? (Continuum, 2009), and I wanted to start off here with something clever about GPS, the Christmas album, and delusion and desire. Months ago, someone reports apocryphally that Mr. No Direction Youknowwhere himself has joked about selling his voice to a GPS system, and this atomic irony ends up months later as absurd *news*. . Then, we learn of Mr Dylan’s holiday album, and the impulses of charity, caprice, and/or amusement that could answer for anyone’s Christmas in the Heart, are immediately doubted and analyzed, and a lightweight/lighthearted project becomes absurdly freighted with speculation. Each of these incidents seems to reflect the irresistibility of conflict, pessimism, and fantasy in all our affairs.
Then it occurred to me that I’m way wrong here: the truer Zen window into this recent business is the *chattering monkey mind*, the Zen picture of our mental life. You pay attention to your inner life for just a minute, and what do you find but a cacophony of grievances, hopeless fantasies, self-recriminations, fearful daydreams, and the occasional glance at the sky to see if it really is going to rain. Our minds are a tireless and exhausting hive of illusion and discord and anxiety and inattention to reality. Like a roomful of Bob Dylan fans. As a collective, we are one hell of a chattering monkey mind, so let’s take a bow, all of us.
The cover of Heine’s book shows one of my favorite shots of Bob Dylan, from the Lynn Goldsmith photo shoot in NY in the early 80s. He looks like he’s standing on an ice floe, but is actually on a pier covered in snow and ice, behind him is the river very flat and white and bright in the winter light. His hatless head looking away from the camera, he is simply there in his inky cloak, in the cold air, patient and private and still ungrudging with his presence. The simple mystery of thereness is a good touch for Heine’s book, which, with great rigor and ardor, sets out to describe Bob Dylan’s “wide-ranging affinities with Zen Buddhism, which are in small part historical/biographical, and in large part spiritual/intellectual.” It’s the second pair in that sentence that justifies the book. As for Dylan’s historical/biographical Zen affinities, Heine intrepidly tries to use the liner notes of Live in Budokan as *evidence*, and then shrewdly gives that up and turns to examining the songs as enacting some of the principles of Zen. -“All and all can only fall with a crashing but meaningless blow,” “I’ll make shoes for everyone, even you, while I still go barefoot,” “The sound of one hand clapping”– If you’ve heard faint traces of Zen breezes blowing through lines like these, you will be immensely grateful to Steven Heine for giving real heft and gravity to your impressions.
If a person is going to attempt to baptize Bob Dylan into this philosophy, we’re lucky that Steven Heine has taken the plunge. He directs the Center for Asian Studies at Florida International University, has spent years studying the work of Dogen, a 13th century Zen master, and has had at least one epiphany listening to Dylan after getting high in Amsterdam. We applaud the recognition that the doors of perception have many knobs.
I can’t feign expertise in this topic, but I do appreciate the care that has to be taken to avoid boxing and labeling Zen as a system of religious belief and ritual. Thinking about whether Zen concepts are relevant to Dylan’s music isn’t the same as thinking about his Christian theology or Jewish theology. It’s not the same as asking, which side is he on? It is instead, I think, an intellectual practice which illuminates all questioning. Buddhism has been transformed from a philosophical orientation and practice into a religion complete with an institutional hierarchy, a pantheon of deities, and a supernatural cosmology. Outside this transformation it seems possible to identify and indeed practice the foundational philosophy. Heine does not take us into Hell Realms and Bodhisattvas, but into the constant work of Zen philosophy: the attention to contradiction, the refusal of consolation, the vitality of tension, that seem to characterize the Zen path to the fullest engagement of the self in the world. Heine writes about “a complicated dialectical process of embracing and renouncing seemingly opposite paths in pursuit of constructive compromise.” Or here: “A key parallel between Dylan, Blues, and Zen is that they all seek to navigate and find a balance between seemingly polar opposite possibilities of human experience as it seeks spiritual redemption.”
Heine’s discussion takes what we talk about when we talk about Dylan and then sets it into a framework that hasn’t been drawn this clearly and authoritatively before, as far as I know. There is not news of any kind in the numberless ways Bob Dylan’s songs yearn for and relinquish certainty, or pass through conflicting and vivid states of feeling, or fearlessly act out the delusion of an ongoing solid self. How many emotions can you name in Idiot Wind? In Highlands? In Beyond Here Lies Nothin’, the singer asks “the only love I’ve ever known,” to bless him as he leaves her. All of us who comprise the chattering monkey mind of Dylan listeners are already fluent in the language of desiring, seeking, confronting, and abandoning meaning. And in the relentless cycle of desiring then abandoning certainty. We already know about being seized, battered, and spent by feelings that we often can’t recall hours after they have done us in. Or wounds whose healing seems worse than the pain they cause.
If I’m not too far off, Zen is a philosophy that exercises awareness of these relentless cycles of yearning and frustration, then exercises awareness that all humankind rides out these cycles, and ultimately exercises a particular presence of mind characterized by endurance and compassion. Heine hears the panorama of Dylan’s work as exemplary of this vision. He writes:
The mutability that characterizes Dylan’s career trajectory reflects his lifelong experimentation with diverse spiritual paths, while navigating between the wings of a deep certainty of finding a resolution or a specific answer to life’s burning questions through prophecy, family life, or the gospel and the profound uncertainty of being disheartened and disillusioned with the quest for truth (89).
This is eloquent and it is also sound. There’s nothing to argue with. And let me tell you, Heine knows his Dylan. Not for him the 3 or 4 phrases most writers use to illustrate a claim central to their argument–he’s got just about every page peppered with the songs, careening through the years: you actually hear Bob Dylan all through this book as so often we don’t. I can’t say I agree with every interpretation here (I don’t hear “anxiety” in “horseplay and disease,” e.g.) but my disagreements were productive and enjoyable, rather than maddening.
I can appreciate that from a certain distance, in a quiet space, the mutability and questing look like “experimentation,” but up close, experiment seems exactly wrong for the completeness of each mutation, and for the surrender to whatever affliction of loss or frustration or fear or confusion or pessimism is true for that mutation. And we keep coming back to share the afflictions and relish the pleasures as momentary as they are. The round-and-round is the corkscrew to my heart, and not the wheel of dharma. I respect that a person practiced in Zen Buddhism may gently and kindly remind me that corkscrewed hearts are the very nature of human life. But I think I want more revolutions of the corkscrew, and not the skills to surpass it.
And something else. Heine writes “Dylan’s temporary sojourn in the realm of born-again faith makes a great deal of sense for the way it contributes to the dialectical movement of his overall approach to spirituality” (172).
Now I have a problem: I feel certain that Zen’s rational description of humankind’s persistent struggle to master delusion, manage passion, and endure mortality is valid. And I feel equally certain that I personally will never be available to the answers to what is real, what is good, and what is enduring, that are offered by Christianity, nor by the Judaism of my forefathers in their bone-filled graves. But I know that Heine’s sentence above is deeply wrong: it’s not inaccurate, and it’s not superficial, it’s just wrong. When I hear the recording of I Believe In You from my own favorite gospel show (Santa Monica, ’79), I’m listening to something I can never agree with, never remain unmoved by, never be bored by–and something that in no way contributes to a “dialectical movement of [an] overall approach to spirituality.” It is spirituality: awe-ful and painful and impossible and magnificent and sufficient unto itself. It’s not that Heine’s statement intellectualizes feeling and belief, it’s that in order to occupy the space from which I Believe In You or Trouble in Mind make a great deal of sense, I have to take them as parts contributing to a whole, rather than take them as impossible and magnificent wholes. Steven Heine might say I’ve got the wrong end of the stick, and I can and should take them as both? But I don’t want to, and finding out why is worth the effort for me. I’m at least honest enough to admit that I don’t want to look at this from the more spacious awareness that I know all people can locate and inhabit. I just don’t want to ascend to that spaciousness. I want to stay here in the bloody rocky shallows and relish the pain of loving I Believe In You while being certain that it is false. Relish the pain of loving that illusion. And I offer many thanks to Mr. Heine for offering such valuable GPS on the journey. He is absolutely a person I would want to sit down and talk Bob with, although I’d have to warn him, my dope smoking days are over.
[Postscript: I very much hope that the paper towel dispenser, or jumbo box of coffee filters, that Continuum International Publishing Group apparently traded their entire proofreading staff for, is working out well for them. On p. 28 we’ve got the Halloween concert taking place in Carnegie Hall; on p. 71 there’s a reference to the album “Red Sky At Morning;” on p. 68 we’ve got a reference to “Don’t Look Back;” p. 38 includes a reference to “When The Ship Comes In” and dates the song “(1965);” pp. 62 and 63 transcribe Eliot’s poem as “The Wasteland.” OK that’s enough. Mr. Heine deserves better care.]