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Zen Master – Scottish Review of Books
by Colin Waters

Zen Master

September 14, 2013 | by Colin Waters

It’s a long way from Govan to eighteenth-century Mount Fiji. Or is it? It’s the journey that Alan Spence’s fiction has made, one marked not merely by miles or years but by gradations of cosmic awareness, the author’s interest in Zen flowering ever more openly until it blossoms fully in his latest, Night Boat, a bildungsroman about one of the key historical figures in Japanese Buddhism, Hakuin Ekaku. It’s a far cry, one might think, from the early short stories that draw on his Glasgow childhood, tales fitted with the post-war iconography of grubby Scottish social realism: steamies, outdoor toilets, chibs, flute bands. But then Spence has spent his writing career reconciling where his mind is at with where he came from – a surprisingly cohesive match.

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He has inched towards writing Night Boat, which one suspects is his most personal novel, despite taking place in a setting far removed from our own in period, geography and culture. If you are possessed of some knowledge of Spence’s background, you might think that a curious remark to make. Born in Glasgow in 1947, he made his name with Its Colours They Are Fine, a collection of short stories published in 1977 that impresses readers with an authenticity that can’t be researched. His mother died when its author was 11-years-old. ‘I cried into my pillow and a numbness came on me, shielding me from the real pain. I was lying there, sobbing, but the other part of me, the part that accepted, simply looked on. I was watching myself crying, watching my puny grief from somewhere above it all. I was me and I was not-me.’ The extract is taken from ‘Blue’, the last story in Its Colours They Are Fine, which is narrated by a man remembering the death of his mother when he was a child.

Echoes of his life dot Spence’s fiction. After graduating from the University of Glasgow with a degree in English and philosophy, he spent time in London, the experience feeding into the capital-set sequence in Way To Go. He lived in New York in 1980, an era described in the final section of his first novel, The Magic Flute. Wanderlust is a recurring characteristic of his characters, uniting Hakuin and that otherwise dissimilar protagonist Thomas Glover, the Aberdeen-born trader who ran guns and imported opium into nineteenth-century Japan during a period of civil war, and whose life Spence dramatized in The Pure Land (2006).

Night Boat’s Hakuin spends a great deal of his life travelling, searching for enlightenment. Hakuin, who was famous for his poetry and art as well as his religious teaching, found, like Wordsworth, that walking, spirituality and creativity were linked. Before becoming a monk, he is the son of an inn-keeper in a village at the foot of Mount Fuji. Hakuin has a saintly mother who guides her child towards Zen Buddhism after a hellfire-preaching monk scares him with his sermonising. Despite his stern father’s disapproval, he leaves home at the age of 15, at the beginning of the eighteenth century, to become a Buddhist monk, thus initiating a lifetime of journeys, haiku and meditation.

Night Boat is subtitled ‘A Zen Novel’ but could as easily have been described as ‘Scenes From the Life of Hakuin’. The plot is as seemingly simple or clear as a haiku. Spence, in fact, has been refining it throughout his career – a combination of the coming-of-age tale with picaresque passages, whether it be the story of Neil McGraw, the ageing backpacker returning home to reluctantly run his late father’s funeral business in Way To Go, or of Thomas Glover, the adventurer who travels to the other side of the world to make his fortune, only to change the course of history by the force of his hunger to succeed.

Night Boat is, after The Pure Land, the least autobiographical of his novels – and most personal, for here we find the purest treatment of his spiritual concerns. Previously, spirituality was important in his books, but it was part of a range of a character’s interests. Tam in The Magic Flute is also a musician in a struggling relationship; Way To Go’s Neil has a spiritual side, but his personality is also weighed down with conflicting feelings about his father and undertaking.

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Spence isn’t a confessional writer; his use of personal material has been sparing and at the service of a grander scheme, a goal greater than the photorealistic depiction of a certain strand of Scottish life. He is in fact that rare thing, a religious writer, although we might not always think so. He is not, for example, a James Kelman figure with Zen trimmings. If readers haven’t quite come to terms with this aspect of his writing, it’s possibly because they don’t know as much about Buddhism as about other world religions; Buddhism is also not as obnoxious as its faith rivals, meaning a modern, secular readership doesn’t have to confront or even acknowledge the author’s beliefs in the way it does when, say, reading Graham Greene’s The End of the Affair or Minaret by Leila Aboulela.

With Night Boat, however, the reader encounters Spence’s most sustained dramatization of his beliefs. It’s certainly more meditative than The Pure Land, which was slick and cinematic but felt more like a ripping yarn whose dramatic narrative positively begged to be turned into a novel rather than a vehicle for the ideas that have propelled Spence’s writing since Its Colours They Are Fine. The story of Hakuin, who is as documented a historical figure as Thomas Glover, travels in a different direction from The Pure Land. The wars here are internal, the prize not money or power but enlightenment.

Hakuin is an appealing character who tells his story in a first-person narrative. In addition to being a monk and a painter, he is, like Spence, a poet. Haiku, chiefly. ‘Sometimes it seems the fragments contain the whole; and every moment is eternity, every little thing is infinite. And the moment itself is its own significance, its own meaning.’ That quote, from Spence’s short story ‘Auld Lang Syne’, reads like a description of haiku. One master whose wisdom Hakuin seeks, Bao Rojin, runs a retreat that is as much a poetry workshop as it is a monastery. ‘Poetry is what is happening here, right now, in the moment,’ Bao says. What is being observed is less important than the act of observation, of being and remaining in the moment. Hakuin frequently finds it useful to teach by way of haiku.

Sick on a journey −

my dreams go wandering

across a withered moor.


The incense stick burns down −

a heap of ash,

the fragrance.

I’m troubled by the haiku. The thought expressed often strikes me as banal –

The winds blow −

the mountain

is unmoved.

– or odd enough to make me think something has gone awry in translation:

Here’s the cure

for your haemorrhoids −

a little fire!

These haikus are found in Night Boat and are – I presume – versions of Hakuin’s work. Perhaps the English language itself is resistant to the form. I’ve not been able to take English-language haikus seriously since reading Ian Bell’s criticism of Kenneth White’s in the first issue of the Scottish Review of Books: ‘Some day, sooner or later, someone will get around to admitting that you cannot write a haiku properly in English. It doesn’t work. The language does not take well to syllabic verse-forms, not least when filched from ideographic Japanese, even if we can all count out the 17 syllables required. What looks easy is, in fact, all-but impossible in a culture whose poetry, whose natural voice, is stubbornly accentual.’

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Haiku is not enough for Hakuin either. ‘Becoming a poet was all very well, but even if I surpassed the greatest poets, Li Po and Tu Fu, it would not save me from the fire or grant me that poise in the face of it.’ Despondent, Hakuin takes to the road again. After suffering ‘zen sickness’ (some scholars believe it was in fact a nervous breakdown), he found some equilibrium once more by retreating to the mountains by himself to work on his self and his salvation through meditation. As characterised by Spence, Hakuin is insistent that this will in turn better humanity, but – and I acknowledge that this may be a consequence of a less than comprehensive knowledge of Buddhism – I can’t see how isolating oneself from mankind can help it (save for if you’re infected with a highly contagious and dangerous disease). When told that his father is dying, Hakuin believes it is ‘ludicrous’ to leave his retreat to be with him. ‘The best thing I could do for my father, and for all humanity, was to stay in the mountains and continue my meditation. Set things in order!’

One detects in Hakuin at this point something of the post-Sixties thinking of disillusioned baby boomers looking to find a focus for their energies in the wake of the death of the hippie dream. Can’t change the world? Change yourself! And if enough of us do that, we change the world! That turn inwards is charted in The Magic Flute.

The Magic Flute begins with its four protagonists auditioning to join an Orange Order marching band, the boys’ characters revealed in how they handle for the first time a flute. Over the years, as the boys grow into men against the backdrop of the 1960s and 1970s, music and metaphysics come to the fore, the pair joined, not always in constructive ways – the use of drugs as popularised by rock stars proves destructive after initially promising a Blakean revolution of the self and society, as well as being a shortcut to nirvana, ‘a couple of pounds’ worth of eternity’, that Hakuin surely wouldn’t have approved of – although Spence’s occasionally equivocal feelings about music fall far short of the chilly examination of its destructive aspects seen in The Piano Teacher, both the Elfriede Jelinek novel and Michael Haneke film. He pulls back because, despite some qualms, Spence is essentially committed to the idea encoded in the book’s title: ‘the idea of music as a magic power’. The novel closes in 1980, just after the murder of John Lennon, a totemic figure throughout The Magic Flute. It was the day the music died, and, with it, some part of his characters’ better selves. Mark Chapman’s pistol wasn’t just a murder weapon; it was a starting pistol, beginning the 1980s race to the bottom. One character attending a course on selling insurance is advised to use Beatle John’s death to help sell policies. In Way To Go, Neil McGraw’s nemesis is the logical conclusion of a decade that swapped an interest in alternative philosophies for an all-trumping obsession with the bottom line: an uncaring undertaking conglomerate, their callousness underlined, perhaps a little heavily, by their treatment of a young man who has died from AIDS.

Spence didn’t publish a book of fiction during the 1980s (he did write plays and poetry). Presumably a great deal of his time was taken up by running the Sri Chinmoy Meditation Centre in Edinburgh. It’s interesting to speculate that this was Spence’s equivalent of sitting it out on a mountain, the very grain of the decade proving inimical to his and Hakuin’s prescription for the soul. Hakuin did eventually come down off the mountains. He returns, as the novel describes, to restore a monastery with a family connection and is installed as abbot of the ruin of Seiken-ji. Spence too returned, with The Magic Flute in 1990, which reaffirmed and reworked some of the themes and characters seen in Its Colours They Are Fine. The Magic Flute concludes with Tam, its musician character, who is returning to Scotland, reading a short story (very much like one you might encounter in Its Colours They Are Fine) written by his friend Brian, a teacher and a poet. The conclusion’s atmosphere, post-Lennon, pre-Thatcherism, is somewhat despondent. If one thinks art might provide some sort of comfort in the years ahead, one should recall Hakuin’s words on the relationship between art and the soul: ‘There are those who say … that when Zen teaching is flourishing, it has little to do with art. But when the teaching is in decline, the reliance on the arts increases. So instead of monks we produce poets and painters and tea masters.’ Art, in this light, is just displacement activity during spiritually arid periods.

After reading Brian’s story, Tam picks up The Bhagavad Gita, where he reads ‘Be thou an instrument.’ In his next novel, Way To Go, Spence takes this image to an extreme conclusion. A man contracts its narrator, Neil, to turn his corpse, when he dies, into musical instruments; his thigh bone becomes a flute. Neil himself is born from death, having killed his mother in childbirth, which his father can’t forgive him for. Spurning the chance to take over his father’s undertaking business, he begins to travel, like Tam and Hakuin: ‘To keep moving, not settle for less. To live. Cheat death. Or at least not settle for death-in-life, the grind. Keep moving. A moving target. What the travelling was about.’

Finally, Neil is called home by his father’s death and finds himself, against his will at first, becoming a funeral director – with a difference. Having seen the various ways in which death is marked and celebrated around the world, he decides to inject some distinctly un-Scottish colour into the service he provides. His coffins are works of art, built to order: a Star Trek fan is buried in one shaped like the SS Enterprise, a woman buries her abusive, alcoholic husband in one that resembles a whisky bottle. Gaudy as these creations are, Neil sees his service as spiritual in so far as he refuses to allow death to be swept under the carpet. If you don’t pay attention to death, what will you?

From his childhood, Neil asks over and over, ‘What happens when you die?’, acknowledging it as his own particular koan. Koans are questions or short tales that sit somewhere between parable and riddle, that don’t have a correct answer or interpretation to be figured out so much as they are meant to provoke thought that guides Buddhists towards enlightenment. Some koans are famous: ‘What is the sound of one hand clapping?’, for example, a line that appears in several of Spence’s books. Even an arch-materialist like Thomas Glover is, in The Pure Land, intrigued. ‘Some of it was baffling, enigmatic,’ Glover thinks of koans, ‘some of it outrageous, ferociously illogical. It was often very funny, and much of it … seemed grounded in a kind of enlightened common sense.’ Hakuin teaches largely through koan. ‘Once you became a monk, everything, everything was a koan.’ When an earthquake and tsunami devastate the area he was brought up in, he thinks, ‘This too was a koan, beyond comprehension.’ Soon after, he falls into a spiritual crisis that elicits the Beckett-esque line: ‘I couldn’t go on. I had to go on. Life itself was a vicious koan I couldn’t solve.’

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On occasion I found myself thinking Zen Buddhism as presented by Night Boat was itself a koan. There aren’t a great many concessions made to those not familiar with the tradition. It isn’t merely that there is no glossary of terms, for one can work out, for example, what a koan is (or consult the internet, failing that). What, though, is one to make of passing references to ‘the lower tanden, the cinnabar field’ (which, apparently, wards off demonic attacks) or conversations where the following advice pops up: ‘Your illness arises from letting your heart-fire rush upward. This is against the natural flow. The energy has to be directed downward, otherwise you will never regain your health and composure’? I described Night Boat as Spence’s most personal book, and it is, although I fear there are moments when it is so personal, so keyed to his beliefs, that I wasn’t sure I was following.

Hakuin himself remains an approachable figure, humanly grappling with his faith, no saint but instead an artist, an eccentric, a man struggling to perfect his faith and who doesn’t, like other Spence characters, ignore or attempt to domesticate the cosmic: ‘Billy pulled on the trousers of his best (blue) suit, hoisting the braces over his shoulders, and declared that without a doubt God must be Protestant.’ Hakuin can be wily too. The title of the book is taken from a story the monks tell, ‘Night Boat on the Shirakawa River’, which is about a man who lies about travelling by night to Kyoto on a river which is in fact, if he had but known it, a stream. There is more than one hint that Hakuin might not always have been entirely truthful during the recounting of his own tale. ‘Some illusion leads to liberation, some just leads us deeper into the mire.’ Hakuin is quite sure which camp his tales fall into. ‘If they dupe one human being into wakefulness, they may just be worth the paper they’re printed on.’

One wonders whether this duality, this openness to the universe while acknowledging that earthly powers may be required to sustain it, isn’t another manifestation of that standby of Scottish literary studies, the proverbial Caledonian antisyzgy. With that in mind, perhaps Night Boat should have had the alternative title of The Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Zenner. Okay, as puns go, it isn’t the best, and it doesn’t match for concision and humour a haiku by Spence that neatly summarises the philosophy worked out in his fiction:


‘On the oneness of self and the universe’



Night Boat

Alan Spence

Canongate, £14.99, PP448, ISBN 978 0 85786 852 7

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