Pop! Goes The Dharma: Liberation Day and the paradox of exclusive love

:: Post submitted by Jūken Zach Fehst ::

Welcome to the first installment of what is intended to be a monthly feature on the Clouds in Water blog, Pop Goes the Dharma, which takes a contemporary work of popular art as a springboard for a discussion about an element of Zen thought or practice.

The work is likely to be a book, album, show, or film, as live events are quickly outdated, possibly even by the time the blog posts. (Having said that, go see The Little Prince at the Guthrie if you get a chance; the former Theatre de la Jeune Lune veterans involved can still make magic!).

I’ll be your conductor for this ride, Jūken Zach Fehst. I’ve been a member of Clouds since the summer of 2021. That was when I returned home to the Twin Cities after twenty years away, during which time I lived in every region of the United States and traveled (and occasionally lived and worked) in dozens of countries across the world. My constant companion throughout nearly all of this has been my wife, Heather (a novelist, biographer, and writing coach who also happens to be the administrator of this blog!).

Those who know me at Clouds might know that I am an English Language Development (a.k.a. ESL) teacher at an alternative high school in the South Metro, and that I am a sincere Zen student who received jukai in the fall of 2022 and is currently discerning an ordination path. Fewer people have probably heard about the things that might qualify me to write a “Zen and popular culture” blog. Like: when I was younger, I was a professional performer (most notably, I hosted an Emmy-nominated show on the Discovery Channel, “The Ultimate Guide to the Awesome”). Or: my undergraduate degree is from the University of Southern California’s film school (“Cinema-Television Critical Studies,” if we’re being precise). I’m also a published author (my debut novel, the speculative thriller American Magic, was published by Simon & Schuster) who was interested enough in thinking and writing about religion and spirituality to complete a Master’s in Theology.

For this first post, I’d like to talk about a book that is one of the most original, hilarious, moving, and humane things I’ve read in a long while. Liberation Day is the latest collection of short stories by master of the genre George Saunders, and its nine tales offer wry, startling, sometimes absurd dissections of an array of modern American insanities. One story in particular, “Sparrow,” the shortest of the bunch, captured my attention because of its surprising poignancy. Its subject is love, and it manages to show us a great deal about that vast topic in a mere handful of pages.

In my experience, “love” is a word not often used in Zen, though other Buddhist traditions tend to place more emphasis on it. A look through the indexes of a random sampling of my Zen books turned up a few hits for the word “compassion,” but zero for love. Each Sunday at Clouds, the Ino begins announcements by stating that the mission of our sangha is to awaken the heart of great wisdom and compassion, not love. The distinction is important. “Compassion” connotes selflessness, feeling the suffering of another and coming to their aid—the Bodhisattva work par excellence. Compassion is necessarily outward looking, potentially boundlessly so. Mere “love,” by contrast (especially romantic love) can sometimes seem too particular, insular, fickle. Compassion is open to all; love takes sides. No wonder compassion tends to get pride of place in our services.

But “Sparrow” makes a quietly compelling case that love, even the exclusive love between romantic partners, can be just as much a force for positive transformation for those outside the relationship as those inside it. It investigates the questions of where the love between two people comes from, and what impact it can have on the rest of the world.

The story is simple: in a certain small town there lives a woman named Gloria who, local opinion has it, is agreeable but dull. When she falls in love with her coworker at the small local grocer, the townspeople keep expecting she’ll get her heart broken—except that keeps not happening.

The narrative point of view is the first person plural (“It was a small town, and we did a good deal of talking about such things”). The “we” can be understood to represent the town’s gossipy consensus on Gloria, and her crush, Randy (who the crowd sees are “no font of originality himself”). Gloria’s various overtures to Randy—starting to wear perfume, laughing at what he says—are seen by the townsfolk as clumsy and obvious, and destined for failure (“we could all see a fall was coming”), all the more so because Randy’s mother, who is also the store’s owner, “finds all of this amazing and laughable and disappointing.”

Yet the two continue their headlong plunge into love, such that by a few pages later, the whole town is attending their wedding:

            And all of us would go to that wedding, because how could we not? And

            because the new couple looked so naïve, happy, and clueless, standing there at

            the altar of the church with no bell in its tower, we would think: ‘Oh, this is not

            going to end well.’

But popular opinion is again wrong. The marriage doesn’t fail. Quite the opposite. Gloria and Randy now float around the store newly transfigured by their love. The townspeople who once believed that Gloria didn’t have “much to recommend her” have to grudgingly admit that “seeing her now, one does not think ‘looks like bird’ but ‘small, glowing lady.’” Randy, too, now “moves around the store with a theatrical beneficence,” taking “fastidious pleasure” in helping customers. Even Randy’s mother changes her tune and is now “adoring of the couple they have become, and, whether they are nearby or not…will sing their praises.”

The story demonstrates how real love—yes, even the exclusive kind—necessarily ennobles a human being. And, further, that even witnessing that nobility, that exalted dignity of committed partners loving and being loved, can be life-enriching to those fortunate enough to see it. Saunders is a Buddhist himself, and while I have no way of knowing his intention, it struck me as a quietly revolutionary suggestion that the fiercely partial and devoted love of one person for a specific other (or others)—and not only universally non-attached compassion—might also be a bodhisattva act.

Jūken Zach Fehst, a Minnesota native, is a graduate of the film school at the University of Southern California and holds a Master of Theological Studies from Boston University. His novel, American Magic, was a Library Journal “Summer Best” pick. He is on the path toward ordination as a Soto Zen Buddhist priest.

Jūken is also an undisciplined piano and guitar player, a world traveler who has explored dozens of countries, a fluent Spanish speaker (gracias a la previsión de sus padres), an English teacher, and the former host of the Discovery Channel’s Emmy-nominated show, “The Ultimate Guide to the Awesome.” He has been married to author Heather Demetrios Fehst for at least a few lifetimes.

Clouds in Water Zen Center is a vibrant urban community in the heart of Saint Paul, Minnesota. We practice in the Soto Zen Buddhist tradition, dedicated to awakening the heart of great wisdom and compassion. We welcome people of all backgrounds and faiths.

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