Zen Master Don Gilbert
Blue Dolphin, Nevada City, CA; paperback, 164 pages.

The Upside Down Circle helps to successfully bridge the yawning gulf between Eastern source-works in Zen and Western interpretations of it. Gilbert's book is an unusual and charming bridge to cross, due to his creative combination of original cartoon panels paired with penetrating and seasoned Zen commentary.

The Zen messages emerge from an illustrated story line in which all the characters are endearing animals who reflect human proclivities in ways that provide humor and promote appreciation and understanding. Journeying with them, the reader is treated to a remarkable variety of vistas, all potentially offering insights into the essential paradoxes of the human condition. These paradoxes are presented in a way that would seem to be immediately engaging to readers of many different backgrounds. Gilbert has thus succeeded in creating a fresh teaching approach that is both entertaining and lighthearted on one hand, and imbued with the enormous profundity of Zen on the other.

The disarming simplicity of his approach is made more effective by both the plot and characterization that he uses. The major animal characters are not just types but develop through the course of the book. The principal ones are Unk, a bloodhound who is a bumbling and yet determined seeker after the truth; his loving friend Pepito, a little mutt; Foxy, a con artist and opportunist who continually takes advantage of Unk's earnest-seeking nature for his own personal gain, and Master Woof, a bulldog who is the Zen master guiding Unk on his quest for enlightenment. In creating these characters, Gilbert has tapped into powerful archetypal forces, and through these four figures the reader can enter the mythic and eternal time beyond relative time and space.

Gilbert's story, mythically, is a classic quest narrative, the most universal and penetrating type of literary form that has for millennia moved and empowered people of virtually all cultures in the world. Unk is the questing hero, Pepito his faithful supporter, Foxy the tempter and distracter, and Master Woof the wise old man who provides guidance and inspiration to the hero on his search. The reader has the opportunity to be both vicariously involved on this story level, and also to be a more detached observer on what may be called the teaching level.

On the teaching level, the book goes through six major sections: the quest, meditation, mind, time, reality, and enlightenment. The specific Zen teachings of each section are illustrated by the episodes of Unk's path which Gilbert illuminates with a sparing and incisive commentary. What emerges is a rich artistic verbal tapestry of several layers and dimensions that points gently and yet unremittingly to the mind that is awakened to the natural state of enlightened awareness, beyond the interference of the deluded and self-centered ego. This teaching comes from a thoroughly American perspective that has drunk deeply from the universality of the Zen experience. It is a refreshingly earthy approach that places spirituality squarely in our world of relationships, and yet does not limit it in any way. Humor provides the underlying connective strands that hold it all together.

In this second book (his first being entitled Jellyfish Bones), the eighty-year-old Zen Master has brought together the best of his artwork and his teaching and created a work that is one of the first approaches to Zen that is true to the spirit of Zen and that is also an authentic American voice, unleashed from the constraints of Eastern patterns of thinking. Thus, one lasting significance of The Upside Down Circle may be that it helps mark the beginning of a new era of Zen in the West that is urgently needed today. This new era will be one in which Americans forge new ways of articulating the Dharma that are congruent with Western culture and enrich it from within, not as a foreign importation. Master Gilbert's sixty-five years of intimate involvement with Eastern teachings make him eminently qualified for this bridge-building task, and his effort, in the form of this remarkable new book, shows his capacity to bring it forth-with a hearty laugh!


Winter 1989