Book Review: Zion Earth, Zen Sky, by Charles Shiro Inouye
As a historian, Ive read many biographies and autobiographies from people, both famous and obscure. As with most autobiographies, this one generally occurs in chronological order. But that is where the similarities end.
This is the first autobiography I’ve ever read filled with Haiku. Inouye, a Japanese American, shares his life’s story in vignettes that share with us his deepest feelings, learnings, trials and triumphs. It begins by telling us a little bit about his grandparents, born in Japan, moving to America to work. His parents grew up in two different states, but were brought together into one Japanese interment camp during World War II. Release from the camp after the war, and marriage, led them to abandon their former states and settle in (of all places) southern Utah!
He tells of growing up on his father’s farm: hard work, long hours, and his decision to go his own way, rather than take over the family farm. He talks of his mission, college, marriage, divorce, children, remarriage, and many other events in his life.
And while many of these brief stories are interesting in and of themselves, what is of greater worth are the lessons he learned and shares with us that really are impactful. His world view is unlike mine and most Latter-day Saints in the United States. He joined the Church as a youth, but he still was planted firmly in Japanese culture, food, and religion (Zen Buddhism). For this last reference, he shares insights that are useful to members as we grow into an international church with a variety of cultures and backgrounds that are quickly changing the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints from a predominantly white Anglo-Saxon faith in the Great Salt Lake Basin, to a world-wide church with more members in other nations.
As I noted above, the vignettes are interspersed with Japanese poetry, or Haiku. Each of these poems connect closely and directly with the stories. These are contemporary poems that share with us the feelings tied to events in Inouye’s life. After telling about his young adult life, he shares:
a world gone to hell
John Lennon gets murdered and
Mick Jagger goes grey
He compares connections between gospel and Zen teachings. I was surprised at how many important issues are shared: taking care of the poor, focus on doing good things, etc.
In talking about caring for the poor, he notes that Zen Buddhism helps the follower to let go of greed and possessions, and give all one’s excess to those in real need. Comparing this to Zion’s lofty goal of caring for the needy and having “no poor among them,” we learn how short we come to God’s ideal society for us:
the hands that hang down-
my stake president drives a
I’d hate to be Inouye’s stake president after reading this Haiku, but there is no mistaking that sometimes in our search for “personal self reliance,” we go beyond taking care of our needs to indulging in excessive creature comforts, while many in the world suffer due to famine, poverty, war, pestilence, plagues, slavery, and destruction.
Another important concept has to do with raking. Inouye discusses the peacefulness one finds in a Japanese garden. Many of these gardens are little more than a few carefully placed rocks with sand surrounding them. They seem to be a place of quiet perfection. But, as the author notes, perfection in this temporal world is fleeting. All it takes is for a leaf from a nearby tree to gently fall upon the sand, and suddenly, chaos disturbs the perfection and order. All one can do is rake and re-rake the sand, hoping to be able to keep up with the entropy continually being introduced in the world.
And so, he calls many things he does in his life, raking. These include scripture study, prayer, service, enduring to the end. We may think we’ve achieved a perfect little world at some point in our lives, but then comes the unexpected storms that shift the sands in our garden. Again, we must rake.
The book is entertaining and interesting. It is also very personal, as Inouye speaks of the spirits that have visited him, his divorce, and trying to break out of his introverted and isolated shell. Again, the Haikus entertain and lay bare the heart of each story.
The last several chapters focus more on spiritual thoughts that touch on both Latter-day Saint doctrine and Zen Buddhism. His views on Satan and those demons who followed him:
“Evil is surprisingly simple. Satan has no body. He and his followers only have pretend legs, arm, mouths and eyes that we give them. They like to make believe they are us. But there is not much to be gained by our believing we are them. They have no drink or food to give us, certainly no fruit or cookies.”
Of course, this insight is followed by a wonderful poem:
seething with envy-
the dancing bears of Satan
have no hips or lips
Again, he shares his thoughts on the importance of believing in God. A lecturer spoke on the foolishness of those who believe in God. As he listened, he thought,
“Why do we not believe? Why turn that part of our minds off? If someone can sing, what does he or she gain by not singing?”
In other words, if believing in God brings you peace, joy, hope, and happiness, why stop believing simply because some intellectual mocks belief? What do you gain by not believing in God?
Inouye’s experiences often come as if through a child’s eyes. When something different comes to him, he is elated at the new knowledge. At one point in his university career, a science professor brought him some text books. In one book was a picture of the heliosphere. It is the “atmosphere” of the sun that extends beyond Pluto, and includes the solar winds and radiation that gives life to earth. For the author, the thought that the earth not only goes “around” the sun, but also “through” the sun (its heliosphere), brings new life to both our experience in the cosmos and also in the world of prepositions.
I did note a few throwaway thoughts and stories. I’ll share here.one here.
He asked a group of Buddhist monks why they did not encourage the people to study their holy writings, as we do with the Bible here in the West. The monks were surprised by the question, discussed it among themselves, then finally said they didn’t want to confuse the followers. Inouye notes he thought about it and decided it was a good thing, noting that Paul chastised the Greeks on Mars Hill for seeking knowledge but still not knowing the “unknown god.”
As I thought about this, I felt entirely different regarding knowledge. D&C 88 tells us to “seek out of the best books” and to learn by “study and by faith.” We are encouraged by prophets to study the scriptures daily. Even Inouye rejoices in the things he’s learned through decades of study and research. Only recently in Western civilization did we have religious leaders forbid the study of scripture by the average person, claiming they did not want them confused. Tyndale and others lost their lives for translating the Bible into English, wishing that the plow boy could be as versed in scripture as the priest. Such study splintered Christianity into a variety of beliefs – confusion. Yet, it also opened the door to greater light, knowledge, and the very Restoration that Inouye loves.
Yes, there is a risk of confusion. However, the risk comes from not enough study. As Alexander Pope wrote,
“A little learning is a dangerous thing; Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring: There shallow draughts intoxicate the brain, And drinking largely sobers us again.”
Overall, I really enjoyed the experience of reading “Zion earth, Zen sky.” As I noted, it was different, very different, than any other autobiography I’ve ever read. I liked how the stories are laid out in short vignettes, each bringing an important life lesson for Inouye and for the reader. I loved the Haikus. The poetry tied stories, themes, and teachings together. Often, they screamed truth, other times they brought a laugh. They illuminated the book.
I hope you will give “Zion earth, Zen sky” a fair reading. Like me, you’ll come off better and from the experience.
Available August 31, 2021