BOOK REVIEW: Dropping Ashes on the Buddha by Seung Sahn

Dropping Ashes on the Buddha: The Teachings of Zen Master Seung SahnDropping Ashes on the Buddha: The Teachings of Zen Master Seung Sahn by Seung Sahn
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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This book’s one-hundred brief chapters mostly consist of interactions between the Korean Zen Buddhist teacher, Seung Sahn, and students of his. However, there are also some old Zen stories, and a few odds and ends: such as the transcript of a completely unproductive “dialogue” between Seung Sahn and a Hindu yogi. Some of the student-teacher interactions are epistolary, but others are face-to-face “dharma combat” or Q&A sessions (which also, ultimately, became dharma combat — given Seung Sahn’s teaching methods.) Dharma combat is a dialogue that resembles Socratic dialogue except that the goal isn’t to use logic and sound reasoning to persuade another, but rather to demonstrate a lack of attachment and proclivity to overintellectualize. It involves a lot of seemingly nonsensical answers and occasional shouting and slapping / hitting. It sounds unproductive, but the objective is to break established cognitive modes and to induce epiphany, rather than to build a rational argument.

It’s a thought provoking and informative book, if a bit repetitive. Most of the conversation revolves around less than a dozen ko-an [kong-an in Korean,] which are questions or statements that’re intended to provoke a kind of realization rather than to produce a straightforward / rational answer. It’s not a problem that there’s repetition, as these aren’t straightforward ways of thinking, and oftentimes it takes many varied looks at a ko-an to grasp what’s being conveyed. That said, I felt this book could’ve used some editing to streamline the dialogue a bit to make it feel a bit less punitively redundant.

If you’re interested in ko-an and dharma combat, this is a great book to look into. However, if you’re familiar with many of the popular ko-an and Zen stories, it may feel a bit redundant.


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BOOK REVIEW: A Stranger in Tibet by Scott Berry

A Stranger In Tibet: The Adventures Of A Wandering Zen MonkA Stranger In Tibet: The Adventures Of A Wandering Zen Monk by Scott Berry
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This book tells the story of a Japanese Zen Buddhist monk, Kawaguchi Ekai, who traveled to India, Nepal, Lo (now Upper Mustang,) Sikkim, and Tibet in the early years of the twentieth century in search of Buddhist scriptures and teachings. His ultimate goal was Tibet, which he’d heard had the complete Buddhist canon in Tibetan. However, at that time, Tibet (like some of the other nations he traveled through) was xenophobic and strictly controlled / prohibited movements of foreigners, sometimes under penalty of death. This necessitated Kawaguchi first spending a year-and-a-half in Darjeeling to become fluent in Tibetan, and then using a range of disguises to facilitate travel. There was a book published after Kawaguchi’s trip entitled, “Three Years in Tibet,” but there are reasons why one might prefer Berry’s work, reasons that will be addressed below.

Kawaguchi was an interesting figure, a skilled polyglot, a fast thinker, and an iron-willed pursuer of truth. He was also bigoted and held uncompromising moral beliefs upto which few could live. The travelogue is sometimes comic, sometimes tragic, but always interesting. Sometimes Kawaguchi comes across as a Buddhist Don Quixote, but other times he’s a valiant scholar / adventurer.

As for why one might enjoy reading Berry’s account better: first, “Three Years in Tibet” is rather bloated and wasn’t written directly by Kawaguchi but rather by way of journalists. Second, Berry explores the truth behind some of the intolerant and sectarian views of Kawaguchi. Third, Berry offers broader context into the intrigues and geopolitics of the times that led to the shunning of foreigners in the first place.

This book delves into a fascinating time in a little-known part of the world, and it’s a compelling read throughout. I’d highly recommend it for those interested in learning more about the region and its past.


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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: Bankei Zen by Peter Haskel [trans.] & Yoshito Hakeda [ed.]

Bankei Zen: Translations from the Record of BankeiBankei Zen: Translations from the Record of Bankei by Yoshito Hakeda
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This collection of sermons, notes, poems, and letters from the Zen monk Bankei present his iconoclastic views on Buddhism. Bankei’s central teaching revolves around a state of mind that calls Unborn Buddha Mind. The Unborn Buddha Mind isn’t defined neatly (perhaps it can’t be,) though Bankei does refer to the capacity to perceive without consciously directing one’s attention – that is, to achieve spontaneous perception of a sensory input without the error that one might experience in thought, when one’s mind is analyzing and judging.

Bankei presented a distinctive countercultural view, both religiously and culturally. In terms of the teachings and philosophy of Zen, this is most clearly seen in his rejection of many of Zen’s primary methods – e.g. koan (Zen “riddles”) and mondo (a conversational Q&A technique.) Even those techniques Bankei doesn’t reject (e.g. Zazen, seated meditation,) he does deemphasize in contrast to a more workaday focus. Culturally, one can see the difference of Bankei’s approach in his rejection of consensus views of the time, such as that women can’t achieve enlightenment.

The book uses stories, straightforward statements, and poetry to convey a unique approach to practice. The book can be a bit dry and repetitive. (Different media – e.g. sermons and letters – discussing the same teachings will lead to repetition.) That said, if you’re interested in Zen and mindfulness, there is much to be learned via this book. There are even a few teachings directed towards martial artists, and how they can apply the lessons of Zen.


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BOOK REVIEW: Zen Art for Meditation by Stewart W. Holmes and Chimyo Horioka

Zen Art for MeditationZen Art for Meditation by Stewart W. Holmes
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This is a clear and insightful exploration of what puts the Zen in Zen art. Zen Buddhism has long been associated with mind states conducive to peak performance in everything from tea making to swordsmanship. This book examines how Zen philosophy and mindset shows up in paintings and haiku poetry.

Fifteen tenets of Zen are presented, and for each of them two paintings (i.e. sumi-e) and several poems (i.e. haiku or tanka) are shown that have subject matter exemplifying the precept in question. The text points the way to understanding how the art is informed by Zen ideas.

I’ve read other books on the nexus between Zen and art, but this one became my favorite. It is concise, well-organized, and illuminating. There are a number of classes of people for whom I’d highly recommend this book. If you are studying Zen meditation (or peak mental performance more generally,) this book is for you. If you are a poet interested in Japanese forms, this book is for you. If you are an artist or a student of Chinese and Japanese painting styles, this book is for you. And, if you are interested in philosophy, be it Buddhist philosophy or aesthetics, this book is for you.


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BOOK REVIEW: Zen in the Art of Writing by Ray Bradbury

Zen in the Art of WritingZen in the Art of Writing by Ray Bradbury
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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I rarely re-read books, but I’m glad that I revisited this one. I think I read it more smartly on the second go — more in a way that benefited from Bradbury’s style and message. The book’s nine essays, capped by a small collection of poems, convey lessons on writing, and – specifically – creativity in writing. Bradbury was among my favorite authors because he combined brilliant language with clever stories – i.e. he was creative on both levels. That’s a rarity. There are many excellent storytellers whose language lacks poetry or finesse. And, there are writers who are eloquent and evocative with language, but who either care little for, or have limited gift for, story.

While Bradbury claimed no expertise in Zen and doesn’t hide that he cribbed his title from a popular work by Eugen Herrigel entitled, “Zen in the Art of Archery,” it remains an appropriate title for the book and its eponymous final essay. Throughout the book, one can feel the Zen in Bradbury’s writing. He lets his words and analogies flow without becoming obsessively analytical about them – or at least appearing not to have been. Bradbury uses a lot of short, punchy sentences and a great many poetic applications of figurative language. He practices what he preaches as he both gives lessons and simultaneous demonstrations on how to write. His advice ranges from using single word writing prompts to shake one out of writer’s block, to the very Zen idea of avoiding thought – i.e. letting the words come from the subconscious. Lest one think that there is a conflict in a book on creativity that draws from another book’s title, there’s a recognition that creative writing is never wholly novel.

This book is well worth reading, not just for writers but for other artists and creative types as well. I highly recommend it.


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Tea Master [Free Verse]

drink the wisdom --
you'll find it more in the heat
than in the liquid

subtle - 
like the flavor of tea

in drinking it 
you'll discover:

there is no tea,
but the tea --
a tea-less tea

the life in you
the life in me
melted into a mound
of unity

BOOK REVIEW: Zen Buddhism and Its Relation to Art by Arthur Waley

Zen Buddhism and Its Relation to ArtZen Buddhism and Its Relation to Art by Arthur Waley
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Project Gutenberg (FREE)

This essay reviews the history and key personalities of Zen Buddhism, and then has a quite brief discussion of Zen influenced art. The thin book at its most interesting when it discusses Zen Buddhist teachings by way of the life events and sayings of its historical figures (e.g. Bodhidharma.) It does have some nice straightforward explanations of concepts.

What’s not to like? First, it’s just an essay, so if you’re expecting a full book, you might be displeased. Second, the opening discussion about the sectarian divides of Buddhism is very biased in favor of Mahayana Buddhism and against Theravada. (Of course, if one is reading about a Mahayana sect, e.g. Zen, one probably expects as much.) Finally, the title might lead one to think the book will help one understand the Zen mind’s influence on creativity, but it’s not a great source for that.

If you know what to expect, this little piece has something fine to offer. Waley was a prolific translator and a renowned expert on things Asian (particularly poetry,) and he has an insightful way of communicating difficult concepts.


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