Tom Montag, The Big Book of Ben Zen. MWPH Books, Fairwater, WI. 2003. $12.50 plus $2.50 s&h.
from the prologue:
To say there is nothing new under the sun is nothing new. To speak simply without being simple-minded is not simple. You cannot speak the truth from inside the truth.
Ben is an alien, a foreigner, an outsider. He stands outside our usual truths, speaks simply of what he sees. He is a teacher not afraid to talk of God but he is not an angel. He is not afraid to laugh, nor to be laughed at. He is not afraid to fall.
Where he comes from we do not know.
We are told he is Chinese. He is well-traveled: not only Mongolia, Tibet, and India, Central Asia and the Middle East, but also Australia, Patagonia, northern Canda. Bowling in Wisconsin.
We are told Ben is Chinese. He appears well-read: not only the Chinese poets and Basho, but also Ezra Pound and Charles Olson, western science and the Sermon on the Mount.
If the threads are removed from the cloth, what are we left with? How much context can be stripped away before an observation disappears? When the mutually-contradictory are equally true, are we paralyzed? It is at this pooint that Ben speaks.
About Ben Zen: An Interview With the Poet
Q. Who is this Ben Zen?
A. You know as much as I do, I'm afraid. The evidence of the poems is all we have.
Q. He is a teacher?
A. We are all teachers, Ben would say, and we are all students.
Q. Is he a wandering monk?
A. He is a wanderer, yes. He is a wonderer, too. He may be a monk.
Q. Are you as religious or philosophical as these poems make you sound?
A. No. I am not the holy man; Ben is. I am the poet reporting what I hear. Some say poets are radios picking up whatever rides the ether. The gift of these poems was offered; the sin would be refusing them.
Q. You are not Buddhist, then?
A. No. I should be, I suppose, if I'm going to publish a book with "Zen" in the title. However, I do not know enough to say I am a Buddhist. I am a seeker. I listen, I try to learn. I do think the middle western farmer and the Buddhist monk would find much to talk of; and I think each would understand the other's silences.
Q. Why do you call these things poems?
A. I don't know what else you'd call them. I am, after all, a poet; you'd expect that what I produce would be called poems, yes?
Q. Will there be more of them in the future?
A. I don't know. I don't think so. Ben has wandered off to another place, it seems. It's possible he'll come back, but I don't expect it. It is the nature of gift to be given, it cannot be ordered like an appetizer.
Q. If you had to identify one of them as closest to what these poems attempt, which might it be?
A. It might be:
You can't always go
To the cave of a thousand Buddhas,
Ben says, and you can never
Come back the same.
Tom Montag was interviewed about Ben Zen and The Big Book at Slow Reads.