An Introduction to Zen Training by Omori Sogen
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
This is a guidebook that explains how to sit for meditation—particularly in the Rinzai style. It describes all the fundamentals one needs to begin Zen sitting including: posture, breathing, where to look, what to do with one’s hands, and even how to get up after a long session. It also provides background information about what to look for in a teacher, what differentiates Rinzai from Soto Zen, and what the objective of practice is (and why it is sought after.) This makes it sound like a dry, technical manual, and to some degree it’s unavoidably so. However, the author does include stories here and there to make the book more engaging and palatable. Overall, though, it’s written as a manual for students.
The book is arranged into 7 chapters, but it’s only the first five of these that are the author’s introduction to Zen meditation. These five chapters are logically arranged to cover the ground from why one should practice to what effects it will have with consideration of the aims, technique, and pitfalls covered in between. The last two chapters are commentaries on (including text from) a couple of the key documents of Zen Buddhism: “A Song of Zen” (Zazen Wazen) and “The Ten Oxherding Pictures.”
There are black and white graphics. First, there are line drawings used to convey information about posture and the physical body in meditation. Second, there are a few photographs of the author, including his dōjō and in the practice of swordsmanship. The author was a skilled swordsman; hence my tagging of this book in “martial arts,” as there may be some interest among martial artists in the author’s take as one who straddled the two worlds of Zen and budō. Finally, there are also copies of the ten ox herding pictures that go with the verse.
I think this book is well-organized and provides a beginner an excellent introduction to the practice of Zen. I didn’t really note any major deficiencies, and will thus recommend it as a good resource for anyone considering taking up a Zen practice or wanting to learn more about doing so. I should point out that the book does also get into the philosophical aspects of Zen, but if one isn’t looking for information about how to practice then there may be books more oriented toward one’s needs. Despite the fact that the book is a translation, it’s clear and readable. As I said, it includes stories—including those about Japanese warriors as well as Zen masters—and that helps to break up the dryness of what is at its core an instructional manual.
Zen is similar to Fight Club. We don’t talk about Zen. Once you open your mouth to explain it you’ve already missed the mark. On the other hand, there’s been enough written about Zen that it would take 5 lifetimes to read it all.