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BOOK REVIEW Sage Sapien, From Karma to Dharma
by Joshua Irvine
2019-09-17

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By Johnson Chong, $24.95; Koehler Books; 172 pages

It's never clear who exactly Sage Sapien: From Karma to Dharma is for.

The book, written by yoga impresario Johnson Chong, leans toward a number of potential audiences—yoga enthusiasts, Chong's fellow Chinese-Americans, the LGBTQ community—but never offers much in satisfactory material for any parties.

Sage Sapien tracks Chong from his upbringing in New York City to the beginnings of spiritual enlightenment in acting school to his settling in Singapore as a yoga guru. The narrative is too sparse and scattershot to be classified as memoir; the book instead reads like a collection of meandering essays on a vaguely linear series of encounters and experiences.

Friends, gurus and relatives flit in and out of the 16 chapters, usually introduced by Chong with a few perfunctory words and then dismissed so he can pontificate about obscure Buddhist tropes or Jungian archetypes. It's a particularly jarring treatment exacerbated by his tendency to pepper his thoughts with out-of-order anecdotes. When the narrative does get going, Chong clogs what other authors would recognize as pivotal scenes with his unending commentary.

It would be a less egregious offense if Chong's prose had any spark to it, but he remains thoroughly unengaging. Stylistic clichés abound among clinical and pedestrian language ( the book opens and then expands unnecessarily on the "apple doesn't fall far from the tree" idiom ) that makes the stream-of-consciousness-adjacent chapters even harder to follow. Chong doesn't even seem to like his own writing, given he often gives over entire pages to block quotes from a grab bag of yogis and gurus. One goes on for more than five pages.

The closest thing the book has to a unifying plot is the relationship between Chong and his Chinese immigrant parents, the latter of which Chong offers allegedly detached psychoanalysis while also indicting them with tales of childhood domestic violence and homophobia.

There is sympathy to be had for both parties—Chong's parents fled the Cultural Revolution, and their traditionalist panic over their gay son is understandable, if wrongheaded—but Chong butchers his chance to give his book a heart with bloodless language and what increasingly feels like a synthetic attempt at empathy.

This ivory-tower attitude is an issue throughout Sage Sapien, as Chong's combination of self-important yogi jargon, surface-level take on basic psychological concepts and the occasional airheaded statement give the impression of someone whose path to self-actualization mostly involved oblivious narcissism.

Chong delivers mediocre personal revelation after revelation while failing to give much reason as to why we should care about him or his seemingly implausible globe-trotting. ( the book never gets to explaining how a theater major of modest means ends up a shamanic international traveler. )

The book may not have much of a climax, but the author's self-love does: After 12 chapters beginning with quotes from Shakespeare or Buddha, chapter 13's wisdom is credited to Johnson Chong.


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