Book review: writing with great heart about discovering African Zen

Antony Osler - from 'Mzansi Zen'. Jacana Media

Buddhism has been adopted by many diverse cultures. In the process it has often changed its form quite radically. Comparing Pure Land practises of China with Japanese Zen and Tibetan Vajrayana, these can appear like entirely different religions. Perhaps Zen has been more adaptable to modern western cultures given its iconoclastic nature. But what an African Zen will look like has yet to be discovered.

In this third collection of reflections and photographs by Antony Osler (the others are “Stoep Zen” and “Zen Dust”) there’s confirmation that he’s found his own particular metier. The trilogy has already found a dedicated following with its distinct blend of warmth, humour and openhearted observations of everyday South African realities.

At the start of the book, there’s a citation from the eccentric Sōtō Zen poet and monk Ryokan (1758-1831), which includes the line:

… if you don’t write of things deep in your own heart / What’s the use of churning out so many words?

And Osler writes not only with great insight, but also with great heart. Zen is part of the Mahayana tradition, which is not self-seeking. According to Mahayana, it is only by opening one’s heart to all beings (the Bodhisattva path) that one will be able to alleviate one’s own suffering.

Small stories of great contradictions

In this book, Osler has been present for many “small stories” he’s encountered in daily life – births, funerals, marriages, deaths – and stories populated by a myriad different South Africans: Afrikaners, Basotho, Indians, English, amaXhosa, taking place in hospitals, shops, filling stations.

Many of these stories are heartbreaking, but there are no easy answers to the problems they present, no quick fix solutions to South Africa’s difficulties. Instead, these are reflections distilled from a lifetime’s practise of working with heart and mind.

South Africa is a country of many contradictions, surrounded by paradoxes. On the one hand there are daily examples of arrogance, resentment, jealousy, pride, anger and hatred. Alongside these are examples of love, connection, kindness, equanimity, forgiveness, tolerance and compassion.

There’s a heartbreaking story of a mother’s advice to a son who has been insulted by a racist shopkeeper. She tells him:

If you get cross then the world has one more angry person in it.

Osler encourages one to try to find a way “beyond reaction, into compassion, very clear, very gentle, very strong …” For him, transformation comes about not when people are bullied or shamed, but when they come to realise their vulnerability and their connection to other people.

In search of equanimity

And yet, how does one deal with real inequality and injustice? Our institutions – municipalities, universities, police – are in crises. Will being present with what is happening in the moment really be enough to effect systemic changes? Osler writes that:

It is easy to think that our moments of togetherness are cute but distracting islands in the ‘real’ life of politics, economics and responsibility. But what about turning this on its head – that it is these very intimacies that are the heart of the matter?

At the launch of the first book in this series, “Stoep Zen”, at South Africa’s annual National Arts Festival a few years ago, somebody asked him whether his life practise of Zen had brought him happiness. “Yes,” he smiled expansively, but then he went on to say that if it had brought him “immense joy” it had also brought him “immense sorrow”.

Osler explained that the practise of waking up to the world around us means becoming more aware of everything – the joy and beauty of the world, as well as the enormous suffering which we habitually try to shut out or distract ourselves from, the suffering of others to which many of us have become inured. Osler writes that “there is no outside to a Zen life” and that it includes “wherever we are, whatever we are doing”. He goes on:

Because I have nailed my flag to the mast of the way things are, I can’t pretend that all is well when it isn’t. I can’t run away from the suffering or deny it; I can’t invent a silver lining. No going forward, no going back. I am stuck. So what now? How do I find my life in the midst of this? … I walk beyond argument into my Zen practise.

Some people may be more adept at meditation than others, but as with any talent, there is also a component of skill that can be nurtured, and Osler provides a few guidelines to begin practising. Besides anecdotes, citations and stories, the book also includes the daily programme for the retreats Osler runs with his wife, Margie.

There are also encounters in the book with a number of people considered geniuses in their field, such as author Breyten Breytenbach, playwright Athol Fugard and musician David Kramer. These are all exemplary individuals who’ve each made their mark in their respective arenas.

In some way, Osler also deserves to be seen as one of these. His chosen medium is meditation and he’s spent a lifetime developing his heart. In this sense, Osler has also managed to master a skill – the ability to be present, to remain aware, awake. He is a genius of kindness. His lifetime’s work as a human rights lawyer, a protector and defender of the powerless, combined with his Zen practise, has allowed him to encourage reconciliation, and to strive to find the middle way between harsh realities.

On the one hand, “Mzansi Zen” might be picked up as a novelty item, a gift book collection of photographs and small stories about observations and interactions on a farm near a small town, a beautifully produced holiday read or an attractive coffee table book.

On the other hand, the secrets and truths it reveals could be seen as monumental: addressing our darkest fears and our deepest longings for happiness and connection. And if Zen does find a foothold in Africa, this will also be the one value on which it must be built. Compassion.

Mzansi Zen, by Antony Osler (2016) is published by Jacana, Johannesburg.

The Conversation

Anton Krueger has been for three short retreats to Antony Osler's Zen centre.