BOOK REVIEW: Singing and Dancing Are the Voice of the Law by Busshō Lahn

Singing and Dancing Are the Voice of the Law: A Commentary on Hakuin's “Song of Zazen”Singing and Dancing Are the Voice of the Law: A Commentary on Hakuin’s “Song of Zazen” by Bussho Lahn
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Release Date: December 20, 2022 [In India, may be out in your area.]

This book consists of a collection of essays inspired by the poem, “Song of Zazen,” written by the 18th century Zen master, Hakuin. Hakuin’s poem is brief (about forty lines,) and the essays composed by a present-day Zen priest (Lahn) offer commentary on a stanza-by-stanza basis. The book is divided into fourteen chapters, though the final chapter isn’t a stanza commentary.

I enjoyed reading this book and learned a great deal from it. The book benefits from the fact that the author is not rigidly sectarian. Therefore, the book is not doctrinaire, which warms the reader to the teachings. It’s also useful because it allowed the author to freely draw examples and quotes from a variety of sources, some of which may be more familiar or relatable to neophyte readers.

The last chapter offers a discussion of the fundamentals of zazen (seated meditation) as well as some other ancillary information that may be useful to readers new to Zen Buddhism, its practices, and its sutras. If you’re interested in Zen Buddhist meditation and philosophy, you may want to give it a look.


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BOOK REVIEW: Walking Meditation by Thich Nhat Hanh & Nguyen Anh-Huong

Walking Meditation (With DVD)Walking Meditation by Thich Nhat Hanh
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This brief guide to walking meditation lays out a basic practice linking breath and stride, and then explores such topics as: how to apply the practice to varied environments, coping with emotion through [and during] walking, the social dimension of walking meditation, and a few thoughts on applying the practice to jogging. The book is nominally attributed to the beloved Vietnamese Zen Buddhist monk who recently passed (i.e. January 2022,) Thich Nhat Hanh, but it seems the bulk of the book was written by the co-author (Nguyen Anh-Huong.) That said, it’s a clearer distribution of labor than usual for mega-guru books; not only does the author get a co-author credit but the words of Thich Nhat Hanh are presented as textboxes with bylines.

The book is less than a hundred pages of text, but the edition I have came with a CD and DVD (if anyone still has a player for these antiquated technologies. If you’re paying full price, I’d make sure you have some means to play the CD and DVD. I obtained a used copy at a low price, so it wasn’t a concern.) The book’s brevity has both pros and cons. On the pro side, it keeps things simple. The practice is a straightforward one of linking one’s breath to one’s stride, and there’s no tedious elaborations or variations with which to contend. On the con side, if one is looking for insight into improving alignment or biomechanics of walking, that’s not covered in this book. That is probably for the best, because it’s hard to avoid overthinking the practice if one is given extensive directions on stride and the like. This isn’t so much a criticism as an attempt to temper expectations for those who may feel they would benefit from some sort of anatomical or biomechanical insights on walking or physiological insights about the breath.

If you’re looking for a quick and straightforward guide to practicing walking meditation, give it a read.

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BOOK REVIEW: Breathe! You are Alive [i.e. Anapanasati Sutta] Trans. & Commentary by Thich Nhat Hanh

Breathe! You Are Alive: Sutra on the Full Awareness of BreathingBreathe! You Are Alive: Sutra on the Full Awareness of Breathing by Thich Nhat Hanh
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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One evening at the end of a rainy season in Shravasti (present-day Uttar Pradesh near the Nepali border,) the Buddha taught a practice using awareness of breath to quiet the mind. This is a translation with commentary by the Vietnamese Zen monk, Thich Nhat Hanh [RIP, FYI – he passed away on January 22nd.] (To clarify: Annabel Laity translated the book from Vietnamese to English, Thich Nhat Hanh translated versions of the sutra from Pali and Chinese.) The teaching is called the Anapanasati Sutta (i.e. “Sutra on the Full Awareness of Breathing.”) It consists of sixteen variations on the theme of “Breathing in, I know I’m breathing in. Breathing out, I know I’m breathing out.”

The sutra itself is only a few pages long, leaving commentaries and appendices to stretch the book to its barely one-hundred-pages. This isn’t a criticism; the commentary is beneficial because the sutra is bare bones. Even being somewhat aware of basic Buddhist concepts (e.g. impermanence, emptiness, liberation, etc.) I still found that the commentary offered some valuable insight about how to understand these ideas as well as how they relate to the practice. The Appendices consist of a variation on the practice and a translation of Chinese version of the sutra. The latter is a bit redundant, but one can also see little differences in translation that may be informative for some.

Besides presenting the practice, the book explains how it relates to (and is built around the principles from) the “Sutra on the Four Establishments of Mindfulness.” This book outlines the Four Establishments clearly enough to see how the Anapanasati practice is shaped by them. However, it’s worth noting that Thich Nhat Hanh also produced a translation and commentary on the Four Establishments that is entitled “Transformation & Healing.”

As someone who has found breath practices to be among the most effective tools for improving the mind, I benefited from this book tremendously. Besides its discussion of the practice and variations, I learned a lot from the philosophical elaborations that were made. I’d highly recommend this book.

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Flame Mind [Common Meter]

His eyes take in the dancing flame
until his mind is flame.
He anticipates its flutter,
its flareups, just the same.

There's nothing in his mind or eye
that is not set ablaze.
He knows not whether it's been like
this for hours, weeks, or days.

Others think it will devour him,
leaving a pile of ash,
taking him from this world at once,
in one big, blinding flash.

POEM: Insight: Or, The Benefits of Meditation

Once, tsunami waves crashed ashore,
catching me off-guard.
In wonder of just what’d hit me,
I’d sit – soaked and scarred.

The more I’d sit, watching my world,
the more I’d see storms howl.
I’d still get drenched, but, sometimes,
I could reach my towel.

Often, when I’d witness my mind,
I’d see the squalls approach,
and I could pack my things and go
before the surge encroached.

I never learned the magic to
turn the winds away,
but I could see the distant clouds
and shelter from the fray.

BOOK REVIEW: Catching the Big Fish by David Lynch

Catching the Big Fish: Meditation, Consciousness, and CreativityCatching the Big Fish: Meditation, Consciousness, and Creativity by David Lynch
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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This book consists of a series of topical micro-essays – the shortest being a simple sentence and the longest being a few pages, with the average being about a page. Lynch is most well-known as the director who created such works as “Eraserhead,” “Mulholland Drive,” “Blue Velvet,” and “Twin Peaks.” As the subtitle suggests, the overarching theme of the book is the nexus of meditation and creativity. While many of the essays explicitly touch on how meditation influences consciousness, which in turn influences the creative process, not all of them do. Some of them are more biographical or about the filmmaking process – including discussion of technical considerations (what is the optimal type of camera and how high definition can be too much definition for its own good) and what a neophyte such as myself might call the managerial considerations of movie direction (how to best get one’s vision across through the actors.) Along the way, one glimpses how Lynch shifted from his first artistic love, painting, into the world of cinema.

Lynch is a long-time practitioner of Transcendental Meditation (TM,) which is a mantra-based meditation in which the meditator silently repeats a mantra given to him or her by a teacher. The central analogy posed by Lynch is that meditation expands the consciousness and this allows one to catch bigger fish (more profound and creative ideas) through one’s art. He’s not suggesting that the ideas come directly within the process of meditation, but rather that meditation facilitates one’s ability to deepen the pool and pull up bigger creative fish.

He does engage in a fallacious form of thinking that I’ve critiqued in other books, and so I figure I should mention it here as well – even though I found it a little less troubling because of his free flowing “artsy” approach to presenting ideas. But this fallacious bit of reasoning goes something like this: “See how science is talking about this confusing issue and admitting that no one fully understands it yet? And see here how these scriptures are describing this nebulous idea with a few kernels that sound vaguely similar to what the scientists are talking about? From this we can conclude that they are – in fact — talking about the same thing, and that the ancients actually understood this all in much greater detail than we do today.” He does this mostly with reference to the unified field theory (which still hasn’t unified gravity into its ranks, let alone establishing some kind of oneness of all things.) It’s what dear old Dr. Sherrill used to call the “firstest-is-bestest” fallacy, which is thinking that back in the day they knew everything any we are presently just stumbling around in the dark trying to get back on track. [One should note, there is an equally fallacious counterpart that he called the “outhouse fallacy,” which assumes that because people in the past didn’t have indoor plumbing that they were complete idiots.]

For cinephiles, the book provides a lot of interesting tidbits about Lynch’s filmography. [For non-cinephiles such as myself, some of this will make sense, and some of it won’t. I occasionally had to make a Google run while reading the book to figure out some obscure reference about one of his movies.] For those interested in meditation, there is a great deal of fascinating thought about how creativity happens and how it’s advanced by having a meditative practice.

The most notable ancillary matter is an appendix of interviews with Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr. Lynch has a foundation that works to bring meditation into the educational process and the two former-Beatles support its efforts enough to do an interview. The McCartney interview stays more on the topic of meditation — particularly the Beatles’ interaction with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, the creator of TM and a guru who taught the band both during a visit to the United Kingdom and in his own home base of Rishikesh. The Ringo Starr interview is actually much more about the musical history of Starr and the band.

I enjoyed this book. It’s a quick read. It’s a little all-over-the-place, but not in a bad way. A lot of the writing has a stream of thought feel that seems appropriate to the subject matter. If you’re interested in the films of David Lynch the book definitely has some inside insight for you. If you are interested in the meditation and the mind, you’ll also receive some good food for thought. If you are just looking for a way to spur creativity, it’s also worth a read.

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