A flawless blend of Zen simplicity and literary richness
As a practice, Zen has always confounded me because it is so simple and yet so complex at the same time. Now I understand the principles better after seeing them played out so beautifully in the characters of Jake and Hank in “Jake Fades” by David Guy. You can read this short literary novel quickly, but you’ll want to take it slow and savor every insight.
Story: Jake is a Zen master and expert bicycle repairman who fixes flats and teaches meditation out of a shop in Bar Harbor, Maine. Hank is his long-time student. The aging Jake hopes that Hank will take over teaching for him. But the commitment-phobic Hank doesn’t feel up to the job, and Jake is beginning to exhibit behavior that looks suspiciously like Alzheimer’s disease. Is a guy with as many “issues” as Hank even capable of being a Zen teacher? And are those paradoxical things Jake keeps doing some kind of koan-like wisdom . . . or just dementia? These and other hard questions confront Hank, Jake, and the colorful cast of characters they meet during a week-long trip to the funky neighborhood of Central Square in Cambridge, Massachusetts. (From amazon.com)
Spiritual/metaphysical content: High. Ever wondered what a Zen retreat is like? In addition to basic Zen principles, the novel explores sesshin, a five- to seven-day retreat at which you do nothing but sit zazen and stare at a wall in the Soto Zen tradition. “On the one hand, it is a great relief to stop being yourself for eighteen hours a day. That was hard work. At the same time, it was that abandonment of self that was so fearful. When you can’t talk, can’t write, can’t read, give up everything that makes you you, who are you? It’s terrifying.”
My take: There is so much wisdom in this book; it illuminates Zen principles that cannot be easily captured with mere words through action and characterization. Paradoxically, Zen appears to be both the simplest and most complex form of Buddhism. You sit. That’s it. It’s that hard, and it’s that simple. As a non-Buddhist, that’s what struck me first as I was reading Jake Fades.
This spiritual novel perfectly reflects that principle of simplicity. The story is simple and plainly told, and yet there is so much going on beneath the surface. Guy’s writing style is plain, concise, multi-layered–prose haiku, in a way. In addition, Guy’s character development is superb, as shown in these examples: “Jake saw the person you deeply wanted to be. He treated you like that. Never failed to.” Later in the story, Hank notes that he had long since stopped of thinking of Jake as perfect. “It was because he was so human that I admired him: He had taken the raw materials of humanity and made something wonderful, with no tools other than sitting and watching it all, learning to accept.”
An interesting core notion in Zen Buddhism is that “once you started on the path, you never got off. You could neglect it all you wanted, quit altogether. You were still there.” I feel the same way about writing in general and about these articles in particular. Jake Fades delivers such rich rewards to the reader, it makes me glad I’m still on the path.
Jake Fades: A Novel of Impermanence, by David Guy
Trumpeter Books, 2007
Hardcover, 210 pages
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