On the list of things you can do to spark joy (to use a phrase that has infiltrated the zeitgeist), few people would think to include writing a book.
From conception to writing and revisions, right through to publication, when the final product ends up on a shelf (virtual or real), it’s a lengthy and often lonely journey that’s riddled with a full spectrum of emotions. A way to spark frustration, more like.
But against those odds, author Alex Kerr thoroughly enjoyed the process of writing his new book, “Finding the Heart Sutra.” That’s probably because the book is dedicated to exploring an age-old Buddhist sutra that muses on wisdom and enlightenment, and it’s been a project in progress for the better part of 40 years.
“I had such fun with this book” Kerr tells me from his home in Bangkok. He’s been in the Thai capital since late March, and most likely will be there until March 2021. It’s the longest stretch of time he’s been away from Japan in decades, and he’s itching to be on the road again. Particularly the one back to Japan, where he has lived more or less full-time since 1977.
Writing while having fun is a new experience for Kerr. Readers of his books on Japan, including “Lost Japan” and “Dogs and Demons,” would have found heavy doses of anger and finger-wagging from his iconoclastic takes on Japan’s destructive path over the past 50 years.
But, “Finding the Heart Sutra” is different for many reasons. For one, Kerr found humor in his subject.
“You can see it as a poem, as a great philosophy, as a Zen meditation, as a mystical path, as a spiritualist power, but you could also see it as a joke,” Kerr says.
Take, for example, one of the sutra’s most famous stanzas:
The material world does not differ from emptiness.
Emptiness does not differ from the material world.
The material world is itself emptiness.
Emptiness is itself the material world.
“The first reading is gobbledygook, you’ll never get anything out of it,” Kerr says with his trademark forthrightness. It’s this tendency to call a spade a spade that makes Kerr a compelling writer and well-suited to write an ode to a Zen masterpiece. While there are likely many scholars of the sutra that would take exception to describing the sacred text as comical, Kerr is insistent:
“It’s ridiculous,” he says. “It’s humorous and outrageous, and so on top of everything else, I treated it as a joke with punch lines.”
Key to Kerr’s approach is that he writes for the reader who is not steeped in Buddhist knowledge. In essence, what he’s done with “Finding the Heart Sutra” is taken a wide-angle lens to an ancient verse, zoomed in on the significance of each character and deployed anecdotes and liner notes to unpack the gibberish.
“What I’m trying to do is, one by one, phrase by phrase, and sometimes kanji by kanji, get deep into (the sutra). What does this thing really mean and what have they said over 1,000 years about it?” Kerr says.
One way he gets at the heart of the sutra was to highlight its relationship with calligraphy. Sprinkled throughout Kerr’s book are brush strokes of Chinese characters, all of which are taken from the Buddhist text.
“That’s critical,” Kerr says. “It’s the essence of the Heart Sutra, because it’s been involved with calligraphy from day one.”
It also provides readers with a new view of the author: Kerr the calligrapher.
A few years ago, while interviewing Kerr in his home in Kameoka, Kyoto Prefecture, I noticed beautiful hand-drawn characters on display and later found out much of it was written by Kerr.
“The original plan was for it to be a visual book,” Kerr says. He was meant to be the calligrapher while French novelist Marguerite Yourcenar would write about the sutra. That plan, hatched in the 1980s, never panned out; Yourcenar died in 1987, but Kerr never stopped thinking about and re-reading the Heart Sutra.
The sutra is short, which magnifies the significance of each character. Kerr reproduces it in English, Japanese and Chinese. It comes in at under 60 lines, many of which are just two characters long.
Kerr says the brevity of the sutra is why it has survived for so long and influenced so many. As he writes in the book: “The Heart Sutra is so short you can recite the whole thing in about a minute. It’s a haiku of wisdom, wisdom you can carry in your back pocket.”
It’s also intense; it covers a lot of ground in what it surveys, especially emptiness, which the sutra arrives at almost immediately.
“You have to be aware of the emptiness,” Kerr says. “One of the things I harp on a lot about in this book is equanimity so that you can rise above all the nonsense and the troubles. Because you have to realize these things are small, they are blips in the cosmic scheme of things, and so are we. Then you can find a bit of peace.
“Someone asked me what they should do after finishing the book. I said they should read it again. This is a book you can read and read again.”
Much like a poem you can ponder again and again. Each time it says something new or different. Or nothing at all. And that’s OK, too.
Alex Kerr discusses sustainable tourism and “Finding the Heart Sutra” in episode 74 of The Japan Times’ Deep Dive podcast. Listen now at jtimes.jp/podcast.
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