Zion Earth Zen Sky is a memoir written by Charles Shirō Inouye. He grew up in Singurd, Utah with parents who met at an internment camp in Heart Mountain, Wyoming during WWII. He came from a long line of Pure Land Buddhists (p. 4) and from his ancestors he learned the art of being what he calls a “raker, to be constantly practicing our values” (p. 13). Throughout the book he uses raking, referring to the practice of raking sand in zen gardens, as a way to highlight the constant attention and diligence needed to maintain our values in life.
The book is not written in a format that was familiar to me. As it states in the forward by J. Scott Miller, “the haiku poetry interspersed throughout the work, the seemingly random changes of focus, and the nonlinear nature of the narrative may first seem out of place, even jarring to the readers expecting either an autobiography or novel. Yet that jarring is precisely the point of Charles’s choice to write in the manner he does, effecting the kind of shock to the rational mind that is invoked by the Zen practice of using unanswerable riddles, kōan, to disrupt logical expectations and invite questions about where the tale, or life, is going” (p. XII).
That perfectly describes my experience in reading Zion Earth Zen Sky. Initially I found the format a little frustrating. I wanted more, I wanted it to be more linear, I wanted it to have more resolutions, but as I kept reading I recognized that if my desire to have everything wrapped up in neat little packages was fulfilled, the memoir wouldn’t be nearly as genuine or thought provoking. The reality is, life is messy and full of unanswered questions. Inouye doesn’t try to guess at the answers to those unanswered questions and instead honors the space of uncertainty that all of us live in.
One of the princilpes I really connected with in his book is Inouye’s constant struggle to resist the desire to withdraw into himself and ignore the people and needs around him. After he returned home from his mission, he recognized that in all his effort to do good, he may have missed the point. Speaking of the relationships he left at home, he said:
Missionaries are told to forget the world, to focus on the work at hand. But did I go too far in my need to please god? I began to wonder if my search for purity was just another excuse to separate myself from other people. … In trying to reach perfection by obeying all the rules and working hard to stay clean, I’ve been going the wrong direction – not into life but away from it.p. 83-84
This is a weakness I see in myself as well. In my desire to draw closer to my Heavenly Parents I often want to leave my complicated relationships behind rather than do the hard work of creating heaven within those needed and vital relationships. Eternal life isn’t just about what we become as individuals, but who we are within the context of our eternal relationships. Although we are only held accountable for our own choices and actions, we cannot separate ourselves from our relationships and become who God is helping us become. Inouye speaks of the danger of this type of separation in his experiences as a home teacher (now ministering brother) when he says:
Our designated connection is a godly way to help people like me learn to overcome a tendency to avoid others. I know that, left alone, my life would become increasingly limited. Not knowing God’s gentle commands, I would seek association with those who share my values and experiences. I would avoid all others. As a result, my life would steadily become narrower and more impoverished. I would slowly lose real human interaction and understanding.p. 124
This is a very eye opening and important principle to understand! If we begin to limit ourselves to people and situations that don’t ask us to grow, our lives shrink down to nothing. At least nothing meaningful. This is a temptation all of us constantly face. Relationships are hard, but the burden of loneliness is even heavier. We have to be willing to engage in connecting with others for our own lives to have meaning.
This reflects what Inouye says about commandments in general, “we aren’t smart enough to live without commandments. Without a little help, it doesn’t occur to us to do the things that are necessary for our growth and for the salvation of others” (p. 129). I can readily admit that the difficulties I’ve faced in life would have turned me into a completely selfish person if I didn’t have God constantly reminding me to engage in relationships. It’s not that my selfishness would truly stem from a desire to think about myself above others, but out of a desire to protect myself from the potential pain that comes from the vulnerability of opening myself up to others.
Of course, this isn’t the only principle Inouye covers in the book. He also talks a lot about the importance of education, respecting religious traditions, cultures, being a minority, missionary work, and more. He doesn’t shy away from tough topics and he doesn’t try and project himself as a perfect person. He does a fantastic job of portraying himself as a diligent disciple whose journey of growth was much more circuitous than he may have initially expected.
On a personal note, I saw a lot of my father in this book. He died when I was nine and I don’t have many memories of him. Though Inouye and my father had many differences, they were born in the same year, were at BYU around the same time, served overlapping missions in Japan (Inouye in the Sapporo mission and my father in the Osaka mission), both had an older sister who died as a child, and both got so discouraged that they attempted suicide (though my father was successful). Reading Inouye’s experiences helped me to better understand the context of some aspects of my father’s life. It was completely unexpected, but I was grateful for it!
I really loved reading Zion Earth Zen Sky. I found it spoke to my soul and brought peace. It helped me to consider my own struggles in different ways and asked me to consider the perspective of someone different than me. I will continue to think about some of the things Inouye talked about for a long time and I hope I can use what I’ve read to become a better person.