Apr 26, 2008
“Gesture of Awareness,” by Charles Genoud
How useful can books be in stimulating spiritual realization, when such realization must be grounded in experience? Paramananda takes a skeptical — yet appreciative — look at a new book attempting to pointing the way to non-duality.
It seems a little ironic that I find myself in two minds about Genoud’s book — ironic because this slim volume is all about “being” in one mind. It is not that I in any way disagree with what Genoud is trying to point the reader towards, which is the essential non-dual nature of reality. It is more that I am just a little skeptical that such “pointings” are of much use when they appear in a generalized form such as a book.
We all love those Zen stories along the lines of the Master giving the student a sharp whack and the student waking up from his deluded state. What we tend to forget is that the student has in all likelihood been sitting zazen for eight hours a day for the last ten years, with the Master observing him closely, before he administers the “enlightening” blow.
What concerns me then is the effect of such “direct” methods on those that are not ripe for the blow. Here I am of course risking being thought of as some sort of spiritual elitist, which particularly in our modern culture is often viewed with much disdain.
As I have started on this track I might as well nail my colors to the mast: I, for instance, felt the incredible popular “The Power of Now,” by Ekhart Tolle, probably sent people up the garden path. It might be that someone could attain “insight” if hit over the head with the book at just the right time but I do not think that they will do so by reading it. There is not only a paradox at the heart of spiritual “truth,” there is also one at the heart of such books, which is along the lines of: Those who think that they have “got it” have certainly not got “it.” Moreover I fear that what they have got is just a more sophisticated ego.
Genoud does, however, attempt to avoid appealing to its readers’ tendency towards inflation (a tendency we all have) and his approach is both subtle and intriguing. His book is probably as good as a book of this sort can be. In fact it is very good. It is elegantly written with a visual and poetic form. What is most appealing to me about it is that it attempts to help the reader realize the truth of “emptiness” through direct experience of the body. Here Genoud is, I feel, on to something very important.
As I feel that the majority of people in the West who take up spiritual practice are dis-embodied: that is they are not in an intimate feeling relationship to their own bodies. If I am only partially correct any spiritual approach that does not address the body is unlikely to bear fruit.
However there is an aspect of the book that I did find problematic, besides the general point I have made above, and this is to do the relationship between the body and the imagination. Genoud seemed to have no place for the imagination. It seems to me that it is the imagination that links the felt experience of the body to the “thought” experience of the mind. This being the case there is no spiritual life, no compassion, without the imagination, Our ability to feel compassion depends on being able to feel our own suffering and then through an act of imagination, put ourselves in the shoes of others. I am not sure where the imagination is in Genoud’s approach. For a book that displayed such imagination in structure and form I felt that Genoud too readily dismisses, or at least neglects, the imagination.
However the book did make me feel that a retreat with its author would be a challenging and worthwhile experience. The style of the book is such that I feel a little like I was on retreat I do hope that people read it and then go and sit with its writer, who is clearly a teacher worth experiencing further.
Paramananda has been a member of the Western Buddhist Order since 1985, and is a widely respected meditation teacher.
He was chairman of the West London Buddhist Centre 1988–1993, and chairman of the San Francisco Centre 1994–2002.