An American student seeks Zen's main aim

July 14, 1996|By Brenda L. Becker | Brenda L. Becker,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

"A Zen Romance: One Woman's Adventures in a Monastery," by Deborah Boliver Boehm. Kodansha International. 288 pages.$25.

This reminiscence of an erstwhile hippie chick seeking enlightenment in Japan may belong to a nascent genre: the Baby Boomer Collegiate Travel Memoir. Just as the sight of one's countrymen abroad can yield startling insights into our national character, the lush and quirky Japanese travelogue is -- most memorable for its evocation of being young and American.

The literature of year-abroad reminiscences can't help but alternate between torrents of wide-eyed description and dreamy bouts of self-discovery, and Boehm is still gushing 20 years later. Picture a Wendy Wasserstein alter-ego - a smart, funny, and mordantly self-conscious, post-adolescent - footloose in Kyoto, determined to penetrate the mysteries of Zen Buddhism while swooning over inscrutably sexy monks and devouring the sensual paradoxes of Japanese culture.

It's pleasant reading, even if Boehm does go heavy on the high-octane adjectives for sunrises and sunsets (a travel writer's occupational hazard). In Japan as an exchange student, not a spiritual seeker, she happens upon picturesque digs within the precincts of a venerable monastery, and winds up chanting at dawn, the lone woman and Westerner, with 60 shaven-headed monks.

Infatuated with the spare esthetics of rock garden and tatami mat, she's also entranced by the monks' earthy cheerfulness. ("The ultimate aim of Zen is laughter," quips one.) In addition to offering such epigrams, they also sneak cigarettes and other vices, and tolerate her dogged attempts to figure out the sound of one hand clapping.

Supporting herself as an English tutor, Boehm studies everything from traditional Japanese flute playing to classical Indian dancing, and hangs out with relentlessly colorful characters. She falls in love simultaneously with an Argentine-Japanese gaucho and a dashing monk, and agonizes over whether to lose her virginity or become a Buddhist nun. She samples Japanese delicacies, even those odd dessert things. She's a busy girl.

But for all her fevered cultural immersion, Boehm is no E.M. Forster heroine being served up as snack food to pagan gods. She punctures her earnestness with rueful wisecracks and detailed fashion recollections. After all her spiritual rigors, she admits that she remains as she began: a clueless gaijin (foreigner) who can spout arcane Zen tenets but can't avoid botching a mundane social visit with her Japanese hosts or the rescue of a litter of orphaned kittens. She eventually moves on, back home, humbled, and hoping that some Zen-ness resides in that very humility. Writing at a distance of 20 years, the author of "A Zen Romance" seems frozen in that particular girlish moment of self-knowledge.

To her surprise and delight, Boehm reports that the monks grew genuinely fond of her, despite her social faux pas and philosophical pestering. No doubt they did; despite our complex about the "ugly American," foreigners find unlikely things to love xTC about us, like conscience-stricken generosity.

An American college girl traveling abroad is an open-hearted and fearless creature, inspiring both protectors and predators with her epic naivete. Boehm reports that "while I didn't really expect to become officially enlightened, I did hope to be clarified, focused, and improved." Who could resist?

Brenda L. Becker, a former staff editor and contributor to Travel/Holiday, is a medical writer and editor for consumer and clinical magazines and co-author of "Week by Week to a Strong Heart."

Pub Date: 7/14/96

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