book review: the bodhisattva's embrace by alan senauke
December 1, 2011
In 1998, I attended a workshop by the Buddhist scholar Rita Gross. I don’t remember the title of the workshop, but I do remember that it included the word “sex,” because at the beginning it was busy, filled with people who apparently hoped it would be dirty. It wasn’t, and a few people left in disappointment.
One of those who didn’t leave was social activist and Zen priest Hozan Alan Senauke, who at the time was executive director of The Buddhist Peace Fellowship. I remember Senauke because of his response to another workshop participant who gushingly praised Hillary Clinton, and quoted the title of her book It Takes a Village. Senauke laughed and said, “I think Hillary’s being disingenuous.” He then explained why.
I was impressed by his warmth and by what seemed like a sort of compassionate pugnacity. In laughing at naive praise of Clinton, he didn’t seem to be mocking or putting the other person down. He wasn’t going to let ignorant statements go unchallenged, but he spoke as an opponent, not an enemy, and so what followed was a discussion rather than an argument.
That is the tone of The Bodhisattva’s Embrace, a loosely-structured collection of personal essays, complemented by Senauke’s haunting photography, covering his experiences in Burma, in prison ministry in the U.S., commentaries on the death penalty, global warming, consumerism and social injustice in general. You don’t have to be interested in Zen or Buddhism or meditation to be inspired and informed by this book — you just have to be interested in caring, and in taking responsibility for this interdependent universe, and in healing instead of harming.
Even when Senauke’s writing is personal to the point of nakedness, it is never self-involved. Even when angry, he seems, in Orwell’s words when describing Dickens, “generously angry.”
This is not a book you’ll find in many bookstores, since Senauke published it himself through his Clear View Project. I hope many people will order it, because, along with David R. Loy’s Money, Sex, War, Karma, it is is one of the most vital books on politics, and Zen, and both.