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How the West was Won

Lawrence Sutin: "If you want a cardboard saint, go find one"
Nathan Grumdahl

Lawrence Sutin
All Is Change: The Two-Thousand-Year Journey of Buddhism to the West
Little, Brown

Nothing gets past Fluffy. The woman behind the Book Trader's counter seems to know that I'm here to interview Lawrence Sutin even before I introduce myself. Maybe it's the tape recorder I'm holding as I enter the densely stocked south Minneapolis book and curio shop, one of Sutin's favorite haunts for more than a decade.

"I am Fluffy," she tells me solemnly, "mistress of books." Sixtyish and bespectacled with a regal air that partakes more than a little of '30s screwball comedies, she raises an eyebrow, continuing: "I made bars for the interview." Fluffy produces a tray laden with chocolate-covered Rice Krispies squares, each about the size of Fridley.

Fluffy's deputy is a real stuffed chipmunk with white fake wings, who stands vigil like a Wal-Mart greeter in a Guy Maddin film. The fantastic creature is perched angelically at the end of the long glass counter—beyond a profusion of ancient bottle stoppers, miniature flags, animal figurines, an emu foot, and a conch shell bearing a delicate, hand-carved cameo. I'm pleased to see it: One of the frequent complaints one hears about the ailing American literary scene is that booksellers don't offer the contemporary reader nearly enough taxidermy. "So whaddya doin' talkin' to Larry?" she asks (Fluffy, that is, not the chipmunk).

A blur in a blue oxford shirt and faded jeans, Sutin bounds into the shop a minute later, bearing a coffee for the booksmistress and getting me off the hook. Wheeling toward the celestial rodent, he fishes a packet of antique postcards from the dizzying collection on the counter. Clearly, he's a regular. "Can you hold these for me?" he asks.

Sutin's interest in postcards is more than casual. The author and Hamline professor used them to enhance the autobiographical A Postcard Memoir, published by Graywolf in 2000. "I've led a pretty ordinary life," he says, "much of which has happened in my head. I've always been a great admirer of William Blake—a wonderful writer and a wonderful artist who combined his talents to maximum effect. Since I don't paint, I thought using postcards of some importance to me might be the next-best alternative."

A little over 6'2", with broad shoulders, red hair, and matching full beard, the 54-year-old Sutin radiates a robustness rarely encountered among middle-aged academics. This temperament may owe something to Sutin's bent for lively topics.

The good professor's latest work, All Is Change: The Two-Thousand-Year Journey of Buddhism to the West (Little, Brown), boasts a healthy complement of incredible adventures and lurid interludes—all grounded in serious scholarship. (Sutin will discuss the book at the Twin Cities Book Festival at 4:00 p.m. on Saturday, October 14 on the MCTC campus.) While Sutin largely performed his research at the University of Minnesota's Ames Library of South Asia—"I was very lucky, living in Minneapolis," he says—he has previously gone to great lengths in pursuit of hidden lore. His first book, 1989's Divine Invasions: A Life of Philip K. Dick, took him to Glen Elm, California, where he spent weeks in a rented room poring over the science-fiction visionary's archive, then housed in writer Paul Williams's garage. "God, I wish I'd written that book now," Sutin says.

His regret makes perfect sense, given that Dick is bigger now than ever before. Currently in production is Next, an adaptation of The Golden Man—the seventh Dick vehicle committed to film since 1990's Total Recall—and a biographical picture, directed by frequent CP contributor Matthew Wilder. The author, a longtime amphetamine enthusiast who often questioned his own sanity, is widely lauded as a major 20th-century literary figure—at least now he is. But back in '89, he was still ensconced in the genre-fiction ghetto.

To the best of his knowledge, Sutin is the only person to have read the Exegesis, Dick's 10,000-page metaphysical manifesto. "Much of it is reworkings of a few central ideas, not at all interesting to the general reader," says Sutin, who went on to edit In Pursuit of Valis: Selections from the Exegesis, published by Underwood in 1989. "I think I pretty much got all the good stuff," he says—a claim that only Dick could really contest.

Dick isn't the only challenging subject Sutin has tackled: The year 2000 saw the publication of Do What Thou Wilt: A Life of Aleister Crowley. And then there's Jack and Rochelle: A Holocaust Story of Love and Resistance, Sutin's account of his parents' escape from Polish ghetto work camps and their subsequent resistance against the Nazis during World War II. "The story was theirs; I just helped with the words," he says. "In no way was it an easy project for me."

Living in postwar Poland, a hotbed of violent anti-Semitism, wasn't exactly easy for the writer's parents, either. In 1949, they made their way to St. Paul, moving to St. Louis Park nine years later. "I really enjoyed growing up in St. Louis Park," Sutin says. "I was one of those rare kids who really liked the 'school' part of high school." After attending a few different colleges, Sutin ultimately collected a law degree from Harvard and made his way back to Minnesota.

"I've never sat down and gone, 'what can I do that's unusual?'", he says as we settle into a pair of director's chairs in the very back of the labyrinthine shop, on the far end of a few fox stoles and within easy grabbing distance of The Rumsfeld Way and The Worst Case Scenario Survival Handbook. "There's no sense writing about something unless you really care about it. Buddhism has been a pleasure read of mine all my life. To a certain extent, I felt that I had lived through a period of great Buddhist expansion in the West. I noticed that, whenever people talked about Buddhism in the West, they talked about the last 40 years or so. I had inklings that the contacts went back way farther. I wasn't the first person to address the subject, but it was like a big box of candy to me."

All Is Change certainly doesn't lack for confections. The book touches briefly on East/West interactions dating back to the days of the historical Buddha, Siddhattha Gotama—who, by most accounts, lived between 563 BCE and 483 BCE. But Sutin's survey hits its stride when Catholic missionaries start traveling to China, Japan, and India during the Middle Ages. Given their intent, it's not surprising that the accounts of Buddhist life they brought back to Europe were tainted by prejudice and, often as not, a profound lack of comprehension. The same shortcomings persist even now, when, according to the author, Buddhism has approximately two million adherents in the United States alone.

The practice, for instance, does not necessarily match the placid and harmless image it enjoys in the West. Sutin recounts the exploits of India's first Buddhist king (originally dubbed "Akosha the Wicked" for his early fratricidal tendencies), who had extensive contacts with the Greek world. And he reminds the reader of the escapades of Vidyahara Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, the brilliant Tibetan teacher and unabashed lush who founded Boulder, Colorado's Naropa Institute back when the 14th Dalai Lama was still working on his English. "Trungpa was amazing for how quickly he adapted to the needs of Western students," says Sutin; he also, it should be said, fulfilled his own sexual appetites. "He was a great teacher," Sutin says. "If you want a cardboard saint, go find one. Trungpa became sort of a scandal-sheet item here, but within the Buddhist tradition he wasn't doing anything that hadn't been done before."

In a similar spirit, All Is Change recounts the experiences of 16th-century Singon monks who caught holy hell from Xavier Loyola for regularly bonking their students. Every time the Catholic theologian exhorted them to abandon their sinful ways, the monks would giggle profusely.

While unaffiliated with any particular belief system, Sutin respects them all—including Aleister Crowley's system of ceremonial magic. But extensive knowledge of esoteric lore hasn't prevented him from leading a relentlessly normal life, complete with wife of 18 years, three kids, and an enduring love of baseball.

"I often listen to baseball while writing," he says. "I love the slowness of the game, its elegance, the fact that players come in all shapes and sizes. I like that you don't have to be 6'10"."

Bearing the remaining bars, Fluffy catches up with us at the end of the aisle, in a zone rich with animal-related doodads and liquor decanters. She sets them down on a brass serving tray with an elephant foot base. "What kind of hors d'oeuvres do you serve on an elephant-foot hors d'oeuvre tray?" she asks. "Dodo ears? Pygmy toes? I'm not sure. But if I look hard enough, I might be able to find some in this place."

"I've noticed that the value of bric-a-brac is very stable in the long run," says Sutin as we head down the aisle beneath a draping of fox stoles. "That's all I ask for: stability and a little laugh every now and then."


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