In 2006, Bill Porter traveled from Beijing to Hong Kong to visit -- and revisit -- sites important to the foundation and spread of Zen Buddhism. "Zen Baggage: A Pilgrimage to China" (Counterpoint, 352 pages, $26) offers his readers the opportunity to vicariously ride the buses, sample the food, track the history and converse with monks, nuns and drivers. Porter is fluent in Mandarin, and this is an engagingly chatty book.
A longtime student of Zen, Porter is devoted to the formless teaching of the masters, to "wearing down the resistance of the delusional self" through meditation and so relieving the suffering of life and death. His interest extends as well to practical matters such as how monasteries operate and support themselves and how they survived periods of governmental suppression (and -- always -- what the food is like). The monasteries today, in fact, are alive and well, attracting large numbers of those who are out of tune with China's governing political and commercial philosophies.
We learn about how Bodhidharma brought Buddhism to China around A.D. 475 and how "Buddhism's inner sanctum" evolved several hundred years later. Porter's travels take him through a string of provincial cities where he meets old acquaintances, visits shrines and temples and matches the geography before him with ancient tales of the local Zen masters. A caution: Porter is definitely on a mission. Not all readers will share his curiosity about which terrace a 16th-century monk lived on, and he puzzles over many such historical details. Yet his meandering account of China's past offers an oblique introduction to the precepts of Zen, perhaps an appropriate means of broaching a discipline that mocks the notion of teaching.
What makes this book consistently enjoyable is the dialogue between Porter's devotion to Eastern thought and the workings of his American mind. One moment he is seeking the grave of a musician who died several centuries before the birth of Christ. The next he is complaining that "the Chinese still haven't learned how to make a decent cupcake." Perhaps Zen devotee and American visitor come together in their interest in the here and now: the condition of roads, the fragrance of tea, the pleasures of dinner.
Zen aims toward the erasure of the line that divides the mind of the individual from the world. So it is hardly surprising that Porter offers us few autobiographical glimpses, these appearing in a brief final chapter. Appended to the text is a Chinese lexicon (how you write "Arbor Day" in Chinese characters, for instance) and an index. My favorite index entry is "Self, 330."
Thomas Zelman is an English professor at the College of St. Scholastica in Duluth.