Book Review: Bow First, Ask Questions Later by Gesshin Claire Greenwood

by Dogo Barry Graham

October 2018

It’s disappointing that this incoherent mess of a book was written by one of the better contemporary writers on Zen Buddhism, Gesshin Claire Greenwood, author of the excellent blog That’s So Zen.

This book is so different in style, tone and content from her blog, I suspect the fault is more with her editor at Wisdom Publications — although, if I hadn’t read her blog, I would have assumed that her book didn’t have an editor at all. The prose in her blog is usually careful, serious and consistent, while this book reads like disjointed pieces of a very young person’s private journal, or letters to a friend. Much of what she’s saying is hard to understand, because, like a private journal, knowledge about the author’s personality and prejudices is assumed rather than imparted.

Gesshin Osho says she and her teacher fell in love with each other, but declines to say what happened, though their student-teacher relationship continues for years after she moves out of his temple, and he eventually gives her Dharma Transmission, making her a Zen teacher. But, though she skips over the details of that relationship (which would be important to this attempt at memoir for both narrative and Dharmic reasons), she goes into gratuitous detail about a casual sexual relationship she entered with a man she “despised” and considered “evil.”

Throughout the book, she repeatedly says what an honest person she is, but one reason this book is so weak is that she would rather brag than tell a truthful story. So, while there is little in the way of narrative, she makes sure to say she is “intelligent,” “attractive,” “pretty,” “beautiful,” and how men think she’s “cool,” and that, if she were a man, she would consider having sex with her. She says she’s rebellious, while admitting she fears authority and obeys rules. She says: “I can talk to most men about things that most women are not interested in talking about.” And, in a bit of casual racism, she says of Japan: “All the women there are five feet tall, have no hips or breasts, and weigh fifty pounds less than I.”

Little, if any, of this seems to be intended humourously; when she does joke, she takes on the voice of the Zen monk and author Brad Warner (she devotes a chapter to their friendship), in lines that read like outtakes from the books he wrote after Hardcore Zen. For example, she imagines Dogen Zenji saying, “We have all this beautiful nature and mountains around us, and like, there are monkeys swinging from the trees, so what more do you guys want? This is a Zen monastery, not a freakin’ IHOP!” She does this perhaps half a dozen times, and the switch to what is more like a parody of Warner than an imitation is jarring.

But, because of a lack of narrative consistency, or even consistency of tense, most of the book is jarring. That this wasn’t fixed by an editor is astonishing. Although the book is written in the past tense, she says she is (present tense) not interested in getting married… even though she is married. She says when brushing her teeth in the monastery, she learns to cover her hand with her mouth. We don’t have to guess that she means cover her mouth with her hand, because she’s told us so a few pages earlier.

Early in the book, she says its first draft was a novel. “It was a good novel,” she says. “It was sexy and dark. It was intelligent, vulnerable and kinky, kind of like Franny and Zooey meets Fifty Shades of Grey.” She should probably have written that novel, because this book lacks intelligence, vulnerability, kinkiness, and, more often than not, competence. And it contains little of substance about Zen. For that, again I recommend her blog.

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