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The Wisdom of Solitude: A Zen Retreat in the Woods by Jane Dobisz

Candace N. Beck

Soon, however, I realized the two books are companions, both asking one question: What is suffering and how does religion or philosophy or a person's own reality shape his or her suffering?"

The Wisdom of Solitude

Publisher: HarperSanFrancisco
Length: 160
Subtitle: A Zen Retreat in the Woods
Price: $21.95
Author: Jane Dobisz
US publication date: 2004-01
I recently asked a Tibetan lama friend, 'Who seems happier - the nomads of Tibet or the people you have met in America?' He told me that since America is famous for its wealth and technology, in the beginning he was sure that he would find happier, more cheerful people here. But after the initial phase of simple awe for what the West has accomplished, he began to see people as people, and he had no doubt that the simple nomads of Tibet are happier and more cheerful.
� Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche, Shambhala Sun (November 2003)

I recognized small but enduring similarities in the beginning. The chopped wood, hunger, suffering. I was no longer in The Grapes of Wrath but in a voluntary 100 days of solitude, in a secluded cabin in the woods of New England with a Zen master, Jane Dobisz, away from the impoverished field camps of 1930s California.

It is always difficult for me to lay down one book and pick up the next one. This time, it was particularly difficult. This time, I began reading with a touch of cynicism. I had just read the realities of true human suffering. Soon, however, I realized the two books are companions, both asking one question: What is suffering and how does religion or philosophy or a person's own reality shape his or her suffering? And then, I thought, wouldn't it have been a good thing for the Joads to have had a Buddhist foundation. It is a harsh contrast, I realize. But I think an interesting one.

Raised in the Bible-thumping, hypocritical universe of Alabama, I know how Christianity can also massage the spirit during times of suffering. This was Casy's role in The Grapes of Wrath. But that Christian comfort can be only external. And, when the consoler walks away, as Casy does from the Joads, those left are who they were before. And their upbringing returns them to a bog of guilt and spirit depletion. Thus returns a feeling that God is responsible and must be making the decisions against them because of some wrong they have done. As the "brown woman" says in The Grapes of Wrath before telling Rosasharn that she was going to lose her baby because it was tainted by the Devil, "You let me warn you now. They ain't but a few deep down Jesus lovers lef'. Ever' Sat'dy night when that their strang ban' starts up an should be a-playin' hymnody, they're a reelin' don't let my kin go near."

When people are suffering, guilt should never be invited, should never be let through the door, yet, with the Joads and most people crossing the United States during the Great Depression searching for better work and a more comfortable life, central to their struggle was their guilt, their belief in the world of punishment. This is true, I guess, for most of us. When we are down and things are not going "our way," we begin to blame ourselves, our family, our decisions. It is no wonder from whence the "wrath" comes, is there? The wrath of God. And, doesn't there have to be a reason for it?


Jane Dobisz, as so many students of Buddhism have done, decided to live a solitary life with nature for a time, 100 days to be exact, during the winter and spring months so that she could experience the harshness of winter and then the jubilation of spring. As I allowed myself to enter her world and release my cynical ponderings, the book began to calm me. Each of us has a journey to take and Dobisz' journey in those months was to enter a world that required great suffering and hard work; it required practice, it required discipline.

In the woods, Dobisz had to do some of the things we do when we camp, some of the "fun" things we used to play as children. She chopped wood, she made a fire. But she wasn't pretending to be alone in the woods with only one jar of peanut butter, some tea and miso soup. This was her reality and a constant for 100 days. Much of the book is about how difficult it was for her. At times, she became angry. She was hungry. She was cold. She was bored and lonely and tired. She stole some cookies from some picnickers' car. Her practice and revealing humanity centers the book. And, there is abiding comedy throughout as only a woman alone in the woods for days without any human contact can create.

The most comical moment is towards the end of her journey when her excrement freezes in the chamber pot and as she attempts to melt it under the warmth of the sun for days, a mouse finds it. "I open the lid to add a fresh contribution and what do I see? A little gray mouse snuggling up and rolling around in the melted top layer of my shit. His whiskers covered in brown, he is reveling in it. A day at the spa for him." Every chapter in the book begins with a quote from one of Dobisz's teachers and the one from this chapter is: "This utmost master is a lump of shit." Zen Master Un Mun. Dobisz's relationship with the mouse is very real and visualizing her eyes meeting those of the mouse, the "most eye contact I've had with any other being thus far on the retreat" is wonderful to ponder as most of us have more contact than we can ask for on a given day. Dobisz does not kill the mouse, she does not run it out of the chamber pot, she lets it enjoy its day at the spa. She lets it be. Gentleness.

The need for fellow beings is precious. The suffering of the Joads, I think, is only abated by the sweet company of others. Whether it was Tom present for Casy, Ma there for Pa, Ruthie for Winfiel, or Rosasharn for the dying father in the final chapter, other beings are undeniably a gift to the soul during times of suffering. (They are also another mouth to feed and when resources are depleted, people are too. "The great companies did not know that the line between hunger and anger is a thin line," Steinbeck writes.)

This is not really a book to be read in one or two sittings. It is one of those books, not unlike the Joads' feeling about verses of the Bible and preachin', I guess, that you leave by your bedside. You pick it up, and randomly choose a chapter. The quote, the lesson of each small chapter will embrace you, and provide you with a small Zen moment to relax with after a long hard day in the fields.

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