Review: zion earth zen sky

Charles Inouye has written a remarkably beautiful book.

zion earth zen sky is by far the most personally enjoyable book I have read in some time. It is a profoundly spiritual and theologically rich book, but contains little by way explicit theological argumentation. It does not attempt to prove its theological points by reasoned syllogisms from premises, nor does it, for the most part, proceed from a close reading a scriptural text. It is, rather, grounded in insights won from the author’s highly personal application of simple, familiar, perhaps even unremarkable points of latter-day saint belief, in the context of a life heavily influenced by personal and familial Buddhist beliefs and practices.

zion earth zen sky is roughly autobiographical, but it is not an autobiography. Rather than a single autobiographical narrative, it proceeds in stripped down vignettes. Inouye opens with a few spare vignettes of his early life as the son of Japanese-American parents, survivors of both the official racism of the federal government’s interment camps and of the informal racism of individual Americans, facing the paradox of opportunity and unfairness with a stoic zen-like resolve (“Since my family is relatively new to America, we have to work harder than other people. We accept this as a premise of life in a country that was founded on the three realities of hope, slavery, and genocide.”)

The non-Mormon Inouyes move to Utah to make a living farming in “the real ground zero of our faith”–not Salt Lake City, but the “string of towns along the muddy river” of the Sevier River Valley. It is in this place of surpassing, but also “lethal” beauty that Charles becomes in his childhood a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, starting a path that will blend his heritage of Buddhist practices and insights with the teachings of the restoration and the atonement of Christ. “There is little here to lure and distract us,” writes Inouye. “There is only the quiet, the dry air, and the constant wind to deal with day after day. Living in that silence, we either find god, develop an addiction, or kill ourselves.” Incidentally, I read this line the same weekend that Pressure Machine was released, which seemed to add to its resonance.

This kind of stark, perilous earthy beauty lends itself to an theology that is, like the best haiku, grounded in practical, earthy reality—the givenness of the physical world and of the human relationships that are right there in front of us–rather than in abstract reasoned propositions about metaphysics beyond this physical reality. Inouye describes a soteriology of kenosis and double conversion. The first conversion is familiar to anybody with a grasp on Christianity: we leave behind the disaster of a sinful world full of harmful illusion—“the burning house,” Inouye calls it—and then “enter the realm of justice” where “we learn the difference between right and wrong” and “learn to choose the right.” But then we are surprised to learn that this realm of justice, “where everyone gets what they deserve, is not what we want.” Our sorrow at this discovery obscures the way ahead, and if we do not push through that sorrow, “we remain trapped in the realm of justice” and “become judgmental, cynical, proud, bitter.”

It is at this point that we must experience the second conversion, where we leave the path of “justice-as-truth” and enter the path of “compassion-as-truth, the covenant path that requires us to follow Jesus back to the burning house where “our goal becomes not escaping from sin, but engaging with a sinful world”—not because we think that by paying the price of suffering we will earn a reward in heaven, but because we are trying to be like Jesus who “doeth not anything save it be for the benefit of the world; for he loveth the world, even that he layeth down his own life that he may draw all men unto him” (2 Nephi 26:24). Our goal on this covenant path of compassion-as-truth is to empty ourselves, and to embrace the sorrow and nothingness of the world for the benefit of those we love: “we return to the burning house for the most obvious of reasons. What good is salvation if those we love are not saved?”

Most of zion earth zen sky is a series of vignettes that singly, and together, attempt to work out this path, through appreciation for the holiness and grace of the mundane natural world, through care for the poor, and through devotion to relationships and community, serving and being served. Home teaching in particular plays an important role as a grace that provides opportunities to serve and bless.

But how does obedience to commandments come into all this? If we embrace this-worldliness and give up the idea of earning a heavenly reward, then do we also give up on obedience? “God forbid” (Romans 3:31). Obedience, and constant repentance are what Inouye metaphorically describes as “raking.” This refers to the meditative practice of raking sand or gravel in a Zen meditation garden. The sand is neatly raked, removing fallen leaves or pine needles, and creating the clean, neat, distinctive geometric lines of the Zen mediation garden. But these pristine lines are temporary. The gardener does not rake with the idea that his work will last. He knows that it will not. The lines are constantly destroyed and must be constantly remade. Raking is not raging in futility against the forces of entropy and chaos; it is rather an acceptance of those forces as a fact of life. Constantly trying to keep the commandments, constantly failing, and constantly repenting and continuing to try, is the work of raking our lives. Not because we believe that our obedience will itself build a righteousness or purity that will last, but because it is the act of trying that invokes the holy spirit’s power to sanctify us.

Raking is hard work. It is discipline and obedience and self-mastery. But the end goal of all this raking is not self-built righteousness, but mercy. “Being moral and strictly obedient to God’s commandments should fill us with ‘love and goodwill.’ Fascists seek purity, but they do not have pure hearts.” The best reason to obey is to be a better instrument in God’s hands to bless others. “Of all the things we can experience in this world,” says Inouye, “nothing compares to the feeling of helping others receive God’s love. Of all the reasons not to sin, this is the one I find most compelling. “Raking,” he says, “is a surer way” than study “to the kind of knowledge that matters most. The truth is something to practice, not something to think about.” For Inouye, grace and sanctification and enlightenment are best experienced and conveyed not through reasoned propositional truths or even through symbol and metaphor, but as moments of being truly present in the world as a result of raking. “The sensation is nearly impossible to describe,” he says, “It’s like suddenly walking into a forest of beech trees and seeing the light filtering through the leaves. Or like being on the ocean when the fog lifts and the sky meets the water. These moments–these haiku moments–connect me to what is truly real.” And “anyone who does the will of God, anyone who makes and effort to rake, is blessed with such moments.”

Raking–obedience to God’s commandments—will teach us how to tell right from wrong, but it will do more than that. “The sadness that flows from a well-developed sense of right and wrong is also meant to teach us not to judge others,” says Inouye. The gospel of repentance teaches us that our “deeper purpose” is not to “appeal to justice” but to rather to be like Jesus and plead “for all sinners (ourselves included) that they might be forgiven and restored.” Inouye compares justice to food: “We can’t do without it. But too much kills us. The purpose of justice is to get us beyond justice.”

This is perhaps not a very good book review because I am repeating Inouye’s words more than I am critiquing them, but I believe I can only do justice to this book by extensively quoting as I have done. And there is much that I have left unsaid.

If there is a weakness in this book, it might be argued that Inouye’s attempt to merge Zen Buddhism and restoration theology departs too far from both to be properly either one. I do not know Buddhism well enough to offer such a critique, but I can imagine that there are those who would say that the restoration’s concept of exaltation and a bodily resurrection is at odds with the goal of truly embracing nothingness. And I can imagine that some Latter-day Saints might be uncomfortable with the idea of the second conversion, turning away from heaven and back to the world to engage fully with the world and embrace nothingness, rather than to hope for a heavenly reward. But for my part, I think there is sufficient justification for Inouye’s theology in Jesus’s paradoxical saying that we must lose our lives for his sake in order to find them, because what better way to lose our lives for his sake—rather than for the sake of a hoped-for reward—than to embrace the transience of our own mortal righteousness and just keep raking with Jesus, feeding his sheep.

And besides, rather than judge zion earth zen sky for what it is not, it would be better to take it on its own terms for what it is. To borrow Tolkein’s metaphor, Inouye has constructed a tower in this book, built from stones taken from two different sources. If we tear his tower down and look at the stones from which it was made, we might argue that there is a gap here or there where the stones do not fit together perfectly, or where they are put to a different use than they served in the older structure, but we should not lose sight of the fact that in this book, Inouye has built a tower from which he can see the sea.

“this is life eternal
hauling firewood and
washing dishes”


  1. I heard about this book from the Faith Matters podcast (September 5th 2021); after reading this review, I’m more eager than ever to get my hands on a copy. Thanks!

  2. Holly Miller says:

    Thanks for the review.

  3. Hates poaching with a passion says:

    This site ^^^ deletes Jared’s name and slaps its own name on as author, publishing the entire post without, I’m sure, permission.

    The comment should be deleted so as not to send clicks to such a poacher site.


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