Book review: Night Boat by Alan Spence

Alan Spence is no God botherer in his attempt to turn the life of a Zen master into a personal quest for enlightenment, writes Hannah McGill

Night Boat

Alan Spence

Canongate, £14.99

ENGAGEMENT with the spiritual realm isn’t esp­ecially fashionable among today’s intellectually en­lightened; even less so the declaration of a serious religious commitment.

Share the information that you’re studying a religious text in the interests of finding yourself, or considering a trip to a holy site, and you’re liable to be labelled a crackpot rather than a broadminded soul.

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Many young people who have grown up amid evolution-denying, anti-choice, right-wing American Christian fundamentalism, extreme interpretations of Islam and religious conflict from Ireland to the West Bank have responded by becoming vocally suspicious of any religious belief or practice – however theoretically “tolerant” they might think they are. Someone I know mentioned on Twitter recently that he attends a church. “I’m sorry to hear that particular virus has got to you,” carped a follower. “I hope you recover soon.” Meanwhile, the BBC feels able to refer to crime suspects as being “of Muslim appearance”; and the broadcast of the call to prayer on Channel 4 as part of its Ramadan coverage is branded “provocative”, “insidious” and even “wicked” by AN Wilson in the Daily Mail.

So while the serious exploration of religious themes by serious writers – from John Milton and John Donne, to the allegories of CS Lewis, to the embrace of Buddhism by the Beat poets of the 1960s, and the exploration of British engagement with Christianity and Paganism by Wilson’s great friend Iris Murdoch – used to be a de rigueur expression of intellectual curiosity, a writer taking faith seriously now is arguably a little taboo. There were many reasons to attack Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight series, but a very frequent swipe was that the books push her Mormonism; Marilynne Robinson’s Christian faith makes some critics similarly uncomfortable, as if her readers are going to “catch” religion from her.

And then there’s the thriving culture of taking offence. Over decades that have seen histrionic responses to Monty Python’s Life Of Brian and Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation Of Christ, the fatwa on Salman Rushdie and the Danish furore over political cartoons depicting Muhammad, the potential cost of making art out of what people actually believe in has increased.

An interesting time, then, for the warmly admired Scottish poet, playwright and novelist Alan Spence to publish what is essentially the story of a spiritual quest – and one told essentially straight, albeit with an eye on character and humour. Night Boat is a life of Hakuin Ekaku, who lived roughly between 1686 and 1769 and remains one of the most influential figures within Japanese Zen Buddhism. From an early childhood crisis in which a lecture on divine punishments by a Nichiren monk stimulated a crippling terror of going to hell, via intense study, quests, self-doubt and rebellion as a young monk, to enlightenment and widespread fame as a priest, teacher, storyteller and artist/calligrapher, Spence gives us a complex and fiery character, whose faith is a matter not of submission or subjugation, but of hard-won personal confrontation with the world’s complexities.

If the current secular criticism of faith is that it represents an evasion of reality, a passive surrender of one’s subjectivity to a dominant power, Spence shows us a different interpretation: religion as a struggle with the self; a brave, often testing engagement with life’s biggest questions.

I once saw a documentary about an order of Carmelite nuns, and was struck by how un-mousy they were, and how very active and feisty their engagement was with their God. They spoke of breakdowns of communication, of falling out with Him; it really was like a relationship.

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Spence’s book shows Hakuin’s journey as one of similarly rough surfaces. Giving up one’s personal power isn’t the point. Accessing it, directing it to where it’s most usefully deployed, and using it to work on such conundrums as thwarted desire, impotent compassion and uncontrollable anger – that’s the point, and that’s relevant to all of us, whether we bother a specific God or not. And so Night Boat becomes a sympathetic, thoughtful chronicle of how we grow and change, how we deal with what makes us suffer, and how our creativity can play in. It’s a slow, gentle book that might be too mythic and whimsical for some, but Spence’s elegant prose, subtle wit and clear passion for his subject make it a rewarding undertaking. (Also, to be inappropriately materialistic, Canongate have presented it in a ravishingly gorgeous edition. A lovely gift for the closet spiritual quester in your life.)

Twitter: @HannahJMcGill

Alan Spence is at the Edinburgh International Book festival on 16 August.