Antony Osler’s Zen Dust takes you on the road in South Africa
Poetry, politics, mindfulness, laughter, tears, the story of the Buddha and Zen wisdom weave through Antony Osler’s journey ‘home’ along the backroads of South Africa.
By Wanda Hennig
Antony Osler. Human rights lawyer. Sheep farmer. Husband and dad. Zen priest. First resident meditation instructor at the Buddhist Retreat Centre near Ixopo, South Africa back between 1979 and 1983. Still one of the most popular teachers on the BRC’s annual schedule. One-time monk at Mount Baldy Zen Center in California, made famous when Leonard Cohen moved in, in 1994, by which time Osler had returned to South Africa.
And, most notable right now, author. Most recently, of Zen Dust (Jacana), Osler’s second book (his first, Stoep Zen, was published in 2008).
The geography of Zen Dust takes the reader on a journey along some of South Africa’s lesser-known backroads via stories that made me laugh out loud and sometimes cry, observations that made me wake up and look with new eyes and reflections that compelled me to stop, breathe and regroup.
… I chew slowly on my eggs and sip mindfully on my coffee under the caress of the pepper tree. A ditch at the side of the road is full of water from the rain storm. A frog begins to call, letting me know I am accepted in his world.
There’s also a great deal of honesty and, at times, self-deprecating humor. It’s part travelogue, of both outer and inner worlds. And there’s a lot of really good writing. If comparisons weren’t odious I might suggest you think Herman Charles Bosman meets Jack Karouac On the Road. Except there’s nothing folksy and — no drugs if you discount the compelling, centering “drug” of mindfulness.
Just a lot of honesty, playfulness, appreciation, insight, wisdom, compassion — and diamond mind, for want of a way to describe laser perception.
However far we travel, our true home is always right where we are.
The book’s coverline calls Zen Dust a journey “home.”
“However far we travel, our true home is always right where we are,” Osler writes, which probably has something to do with the fact that as he journeys and shares, for the reader it’s like we’re right there with him; part of the conversation.
“Literal” home, meanwhile, and where he’s headed, is Poplar Grove, a small farm in the middle of virtually nowhere near Colesberg in the Karoo. This is where Osler lives with his wife, Margie; where their two daughters grew up; and where a stone shearing shed has been converted into a zendo for meditation, workshops, retreats and a haven for “broken” children and other things, as you’ll see if you read the book.
Meditation. It’s what we do to recover our natural wakefulness.
I have a magazine story in my files, dated 1994, from when I visited the Oslers’ at Poplar Grove and stayed over.
(See Zen and The Art of Sheep Farming.) At the time, Antony had established the landmark Karoo Law Clinic, then the only fully fledged rural human rights legal practice in South Africa.
“Lawyers for Human Rights wanted to set up something round here, but they hadn’t come across anyone qualified who was nutty enough to settle in the area,” he said then.
When it opened, the clinic was the only recourse to the law for about 200,000 people. He was also lecturing part-time in Buddhism at Rhodes University.
In his professional life, Osler still works as an advocate doing mainly human rights work and arbitrating labor disputes. Margie runs the farm and trains rural school teachers.
The different parts of his life flow seamlessly through Zen Dust.
“Advocate and long-time human rights activist” accounts for stories about people like Beyers Naude and Archbishop Desmond Tutu; places like Orania; tales depicting racism, apartheid’s legacy and attacks on human dignity.
“Longtime Buddhist practitioner” (he began studying Tibetan Buddhism in England the early 1970’s and his practice has diversified and continued to flow ever since) means that while there is no religiosity, this is a Zen book.
Sometimes we say the word Zen means meditation. Maybe a better word is awareness. Zen means being aware. Being awake. Being aware is the most natural thing in the world…
But we have a lifetime of distractedness to deal with, a habit of not paying attention that seems to block this natural awareness. So we undertake a discipline. This discipline is called meditation. Its job is to loosen the habits of inattention so that natural awareness can flow like a river.
Unhappy with how the story of the Buddha is sometimes portrayed, Osler gives his own interpretation, which flows in segments through Zen Dust and can easily be skipped by those who aren’t interested.
Then dip back in.
Because this is a book you can pick up anytime you want to center yourself; to become present; to breathe.
If you’re not going to physically go do a retreat with Osler at his Stoep Zen practice center in the Karoo, you can travel with him and Margie via the book to the Furnace Mountain Zen Retreat Center in eastern Kentucky, where he goes to study with Zen Master Dae Gak.
He talks a lot throughout the text about learning from ancestors; which I took to mean that anyone and anything in life can be a teacher.
He also takes us back several times, memoir style, to his Mount Baldy days; one of them recounting the tribulations of going into the markets of Los Angeles as a monk, eyes downcast, carrying your traditional begging bowl, hoping for a meal.
You want to know what the Buddha taught?
Osler will tell you.
At the same time, flowing through the whole book it is clear that the man — nephew of legendary Springbok rugby flyhalf Bennie Osler and son of former Springbok centre, Stanley Osler, is to his core a South African.
Thus we have the heartfelt glad-sad stories; the many characters that weave through the pages with their uniquely South African stories; some of them he’s met through his work at the courts; others because they are neighbors, petrol attendants — and just being who they are along the side of the road.
It’s about giving yourself to every situation you’re in and every person you meet.
When I asked Osler back in 1994 to define Zen Buddhism, he said: “It’s simply about being awake, in touch, earthy, light, compassionate. It’s about allowing oneself to be touched by the world. It’s about giving yourself to every situation you’re in and every person you meet.”
It’s what Osler has done on each page of his book.
Someone described his first book, Stoep Zen, as a love story.
And so is Zen Dust. You read his words, you feel his love — for Margie, for the Bushmen, for the land, for the environment, for the Karoo (and yes, he talks about frakking), for the people who live within and parallel to his world. All under the umbrella of Buddhist stories and wisdoms.
Zen Dust: A journey home through the back roads of South Africa by Antony Osler (Jacana).
Story © Wanda Hennig 2013