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Blowing Zen: Finding an Authentic Life
by Ray Brooks
H J Kramer Inc. Publishers, 2000

Reviewed by
Laurence M. gLonnieh Wiig (Lwiig@hotmail.com)
M.A. in Asian Studies, Hiroshima University, 1990

This review is primarily intended to inspire Westerners who wish to become functionally literate in Japanese. For such people, Blowing Zen is a "must read." It is a highly readable, autobiographical report by a British man who threw away years of his young adulthood experimenting with debauchery in London. Self-indulgent and dissatisfied, he linked up with a female partner, and the two set out as budget travelers to spend years exploring the planet. They first tasted the culture of Japan in the early 1980s as a side trip during a journey to the Himalayas.

"Although our visit was brief, Japan had caught our attention, and we filed away the possibility of living and working there in the future, "Brooks recalls. He later returned to the Land of the Rising Sun with a vengeance. Many Westerners, myself included, have paid a visit to Japan and later returned to find work there. Brooks, however, is a case study of a Westerner who goes far beyond gliving and workingh in Japan. He digs his way into the very soul of the country and then goes on to write a beautiful book about it.

The reason I am suggesting Blowing Zen to serious students of kanji is this: I have repeatedly noticed that successful Westerners in Japan often take up, and study intensely, a SINGLE aspect of Japanese culture. It might be karate, flower arrangement, Zen Buddhism, kabuki, judo, cooking or some other Japanese tradition. I would like to suggest that kanji study qualifies as one more such Japanese tradition or activity.

Japan is a country in which high school and university students generally only take up a single after-school activity or sport. Unlike American high school students--who regularlygletterh in two or three sports, and maybe even also run for student government office or try out for a part in a play-- Japanese high school athletes generally only select one sport: say, judo, soccer, baseball, or kendo, and concentrate on that activity alone.

Japan is not a culture that welcomes dilettantes with open arms. Although Japanese people might mouth praise for a Westerner who studies kendo or flower arrangement once a week, or even one who can write three or four kanji from memory, they seem to open their hearts to the rare Westerner who decides, like Ray Brooks, to excel, to move far beyond amateur-level ability, in a SINGLE Japanese art, whatever it might be. In Rayfs case it just happens to be shakuhachi, the simple Japanese bamboo flute connected to the Zen Buddhist tradition.

Blowing Zen is many things-- travelogue, pop sociology, religion, philosophy. In it, we walk along with Brooks as he hikes up Mt. Takao near Tokyo to practice the flute in public -- despite the rain and cold. We see the inside of Zen retreats, and visit the homes and studios of Japanese shakuhachi teachers. We are together with him when he is semi-forced to perform shakuhachi at a yakuza (Japanese gangster) party. Finally, we witness his unforgettable solo performances before Japanese audiences. Along the way, Brooks takes us into his thinking, his upsets, his doubts. This is, quite simply, a marvelous book by a gaijin who wants to gdo Japanh whole hog.

Ray Brooks is not a kanji specialist. (In fact, Brooksfpublisher might want to improve on the next edition of Blowing Zen by having someone correct Brooks' misspellings of Romanized Japanese words). What makes Brooks' book a gmust readh for serious kanji-ites is his determination to FOLLOW THROUGH WITH A SINGLE ASPECT OF JAPANESE CULTURE, in his case learning to play the shakuhachi, from his first meager attempts until ultimately performing solo before Japanese audiences.

This is the same kind of determination you will need if you aspire to become fully literate in Japanese.

To read other reviews of Blowing Zen, please go to Amazon.com., or type gRay Brooks Blowing Zenhinto a search engine.

To read a Kanji Clinic column on possessing your own kanji dream, go here.