POEM: Rambling on a Koan

“What is your original face?”

Original? Does that mean I have one now?

Perhaps when I mirror gaze.

Otherwise, if I have a face, it resides in the minds of those who look upon it.

He who takes a scaffold built of patches of matter, varying distances from his eye

and reflecting various spectra of light, and fleshes it out in subjectivity owns the face.

That mean thing,

thing of glee,

that by which cantankerousness is displayed

thing of sorrow,

thing of madness,

that ugly-pretty, disheveled topography of flesh

is a faceless face,

or — perhaps — a thoughtless thought.

BOOK REVIEW: Bring Me the Rhinoceros by John Tarrant

Bring Me the Rhinoceros: And Other Zen Koans That Will Save Your LifeBring Me the Rhinoceros: And Other Zen Koans That Will Save Your Life by John Tarrant
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This book is an examination of fifteen classic Zen koans selected by John Tarrant, founder of the Pacific Zen Institute (PZI.) Koans are statements or stories that are designed to help students of Zen Buddhism escape their usual ways of thinking because the absurdity of koans cannot be meaningfully answered with the usual approach based in logic and reason. Even if the concept isn’t familiar, readers are sure to have heard the famous koan: “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” [Though one may have missed the value as a tool of the mind, and dismissed the koan as a sage’s attempt to be abstruse and esoteric.]

Each chapter addresses one koan in great detail. First, the koan is presented in a simple fashion. It should be pointed out that some of these koans are a single line and others are as long as several paragraphs. Next, there is a sort of introduction to the concept or point being addressed in the koan. Tarrant knows the value of story, and this frequently involves a narrative approach. Next, there is a section describing the koan in more detail than in which it was first introduced. Here the author elaborates and provides background. The final section of each chapter is about “working with the koan” and offers a bit of insight into how to start considering the lesson of each koan.

I enjoyed this book. It’s a good selection of koans that cover a wide range of styles and approaches. As I mentioned the author uses stories and anecdotes – both historical and contemporary – to help get his point across. The titular use of a particularly absurd koan “punchline,” gives one a taste of the author’s willingness to engage in the whimsical.

I’d highly recommend this book for those who are seeking to better understand koans, either as students of Zen or as individuals interested in the workings of the mind more generally.

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BOOK REVIEW: Cave of Tigers by John Daido Loori

Cave of Tigers: The Living Zen Practice of Dharma Combat (Dharma Communications)Cave of Tigers: The Living Zen Practice of Dharma Combat by John Daido Loori
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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This book is a collection of transcripts of what are called dharma encounters, dokusan, or dharma combat. It’s a practice in Zen Buddhism involving a verbal interaction between student and teacher. Each of the twenty chapters takes a teaching of some past master of Zen (mostly Master Dogen), and explores it through these student-teacher interactions. The chapters begin with an introduction to the teaching at hand, conclude with a wrap up paragraph, and in between are an assortment of transcripts.

There’s a clear pro and con. Because information is presented in an unconventional format, there’s potential to gain insights that one might not otherwise. The students are trying to interact with the teacher in an unorthodox and outside-the-box manner. That’s part of the training. So as they relate the teachings to events in their own life or their own unique way of viewing the world, one gains access to those off angles of insight.

On the other hand, reading the transcripts can be repetitive as the teacher is trying to make sure that all students have some common understanding. It’s also not clear whether there was much selectivity in picking the encounters that were presented. Some readers might enjoy that it’s like being there at the monastery, but others might find reading the book a little bit like watching sausage making. While there are clever and insightful students, there are also individuals who seem to just be trying to get there turn over with, who appear to have no interest in the topic at hand, or who think some random action like a war-whoop will be evaluated as a deep and meaningful insight on the subject by the teacher (spoiler alert: it almost never is.) One should also not assume factual correctness in the student’s commentaries (e.g. at one point one of the students incorrectly identifies Vishnu as “the destroyer,” but [in Hindu mythology] Vishnu is the preserver / maintainer and it’s Shiva who is the destroyer. This error is of little consequence to the point being made, but the reader should be aware that the priority was to be faithful in conveying the transcripts rather than to accurately convey information.)

The organization seems sound enough. The book begins with rudimentary topics such as zazen (sitting meditation) and progresses into more philosophical and esoteric topics. As mentioned, there are twenty chapters, each built around a specific teaching and with the same organization. The only ancillary material besides the front matter (a Forward and an “Invitation to Dharma Encounter”) is a glossary (which is a worthy addition given the wide-ranging terminology in English, Japanese, Chinese, and Sanskrit, as well as the many names of individuals and documents that may be unfamiliar to the uninitiated.)

I enjoyed this book. As I say, it has its positives and negatives, but—on the whole—it was insightful and interesting. I’d recommend it for anyone interested in Zen, particularly anyone who intends to spend time at a monastery or meditation center.

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BOOK REVIEW: Turtle Island by Gary Snyder

Turtle Island (Shambhala Pocket Classics)Turtle Island by Gary Snyder
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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If you’re not a reader of latter-20th century American poetry, then maybe you’ve heard of Gary Snyder’s fictional doppelgänger, Japhy Ryder, even if you haven’t heard of Snyder, himself. Ryder appears in Jack Kerouac’s “Dharma Bums” as a friend and mentor to Kerouac’s own fictional persona, Ray Smith. If you do remember Ryder, you have some insight into the themes that recur throughout this collection. Said themes include reverence for nature and an appeal to Eastern philosophical and religious traditions–most specifically Zen. Though there are other themes that you might not be expecting, such as fatherhood and the overarching theme of North America.

This collection consists of 63 pieces divided into four parts. Except for those of the last part, the pieces are all poetic. In other words, there are 58 poems and five short prose essays. The poems cover a lot of ground, though they are all free verse. Some of them are spare and others are prose poetry. They range from a few lines to a few pages. The vast majority of the poems put nature at the fore. Some have the tone of haiku—though not its form. By that I mean the tendency to describe without letting in analysis or judgement, attempting to offer a pure reflection of scenes from nature. There are some points at which Snyder veers into political commentary, e.g. with lists of statistics—some of which have no meaning as written (see: “Fact” the first piece in the section “Magpie’s Song”) and rants against the Liquid Metal Fast Breeder Reactor (LMFBR)–a technology that one suspects the poet knows no more about than does the reader. But for the most part the poems are portraits of North American wilderness, and can be enjoyed as such.

I found this collection to be enjoyable and evocative. Snyder transports one into North America’s great outdoors. I’d recommend this work for poetry readers.

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5 Thoughts on the Conscious Mind in Martial Arts Training

In recent years I’ve spent a lot of time trying to quiet the conscious mind in order to let the subconscious do what it does best. There’s a lot of terminology that’s used to describe the mind state in which one’s actions are effortless and one can adjust swiftly to unforeseen challenges: e.g. “in the zone,” the Flow, Zen mindset, and (in the Kotler and Wheal book I just reviewed) ecstasis. However, regardless of the name, one key to this state is a reduced activity of the part of the mind that’s self-critical and overly cautious, and that requires not letting the conscious mind do what it’s prone to do.

 

However, taking a course on mauythai advanced fundamentals recently has reminded me of the important roles the conscious mind plays in learning. The challenge is to use the conscious mind effectively–without letting it running amok.

 

The conscious mind is largely driven by anxiety about uncertainty. This makes the conscious mind a planner and worst-case scenario generator extraordinaire. (In meditation, I’ve begun to not only note what thought popped into my head before I dismiss said distraction, but I also have a classification scheme of kinds of thoughts, and “planning thoughts” are probably the most common type of thought to hijack my mind.) This planning / forecasting  proclivity can be beneficial if one is doing a job that requires such planning, anticipation of possible hazards, and the need to adjust to complex difficulties. However, it can also make one neurotic, overly risk-averse, and pessimistic.

 

So, here are my five thoughts on the conscious mind in martial arts training.

 

5.) Feed the right wolf:  There’s a well-known story about a Native American man telling his grandchild that inside each person there are two wolves at war, one good and one evil.

The child asks, “Which one wins?”

The old man replies, “The one you feed.”

 

This is a variation on the theme–not so much about good and evil as about positive and negative outlook. In martial arts training there are often competing emotional states. On one hand, there is often anxiety about either being injured or even about the embarrassment of being bested. (Surprisingly, it seems like the magnitude of the latter is often greater than the former.) On the other hand, there is an intense thrill that comes with making progress. For those who don’t understand how martial artists can put themselves through what they do, this is the part for which you’re probably not understanding the intensity of the high. When it clicks and you’re getting it right more often than you previously did, the feeling is transcendent.

 

So, when one sees either of these two feelings arising, choose the latter. If one notices the anxiety, remind oneself the promise of that awesome feeling of having it fall together.

 

4.) Scanning for lapses in form: The process of learning a martial art–like any movement art–is repetition of the movements until they become ingrained in one’s procedural memory. Early in the process, this feels clunky as one has to scan for imperfections in form with one’s super-intelligent but slow and cumbersome conscious mind. However, increasingly, the body begins to incorporate these movement patterns and they start to become second nature. The trick is to keep this in the moment and not let one’s thoughts linger on what one just got wrong, or any perceived ramifications of getting it wrong.

 

3.) Try visualization: This once would have been thought hippie guff, but now it’s entered the mainstream. Of course, the advice from #5 must be kept in mind. When I think of the technique of visualization, I’m reminded of a story that Dan Millman told about a girl that he was coaching in gymnastics. He came to check on her only to find her repeatedly cringing and grimacing. He asked what was going on, and she said she kept falling off the balance beam whenever she visualized her routine. It sounds silly, but attitude is a powerful thing, and I lot of people sabotage themselves in ways not much different from this. It’s your mind, you have the power to do the move perfectly every time, if you take the proper mindset.

 

2.) Conscious mind as governor of action and agent of trust: The subconscious mind can be feral. As one spars, one has to match speeds with one’s opposition so that learning can take place. While sparring looks reminiscent of fighting, the goal of sparring is learning, whereas the goal of fighting is winning (or–as a minimum in actual combat–not being destroyed.)

 

This is another role for the conscious mind. It can keep reminders to the fore to keep one’s movement appropriate to the occasion. It can inject an awareness that there’s a relationship of trust rather than warring competitiveness between. That one needn’t respond at the same magnitude that one would under attack.

 

1.) Dropping the Conscious Mind Out of the Equation: While the conscious mind is critical in the learning process, eventually one must do something that feels uncomfortable, which is shifting subconscious operations to the fore and quieting the conscious mind. Overthinking can be death in tests, competitions, not to mention, I’m told, actual combative situations. At some point you’ve got to have some trust in what you’ve trained to do up to that point. It might fail you, but not necessarily as spectacularly as if you let your conscious run amok, getting caught in a death spiral of self-criticism and futile guesswork.

 

Since I’ve been watching quite a few muaythai fights recently at the Rangsit Boxing Stadium, I’ve begun to wonder just how useful corner advice is. I know that people think it’s beneficial because it’s done in droves. Not only is the fighter’s trainer trying tell them what to do, but also his parents, his siblings, his granny, and a hundred random people who may or may not have put money on him. It would be interesting to see a scientific study of how fighters performed who tuned everything out between rounds versus those who tried to take in all the advice. I tried to look up whether any such study had been done, but a cursor Google search came up empty.

 

What comes of all the corner talk?

What comes of all the corner talk?

BOOK REVIEW: Zen Bow, Zen Arrow by John Stevens

Zen Bow, Zen Arrow: The Life and Teachings of Awa Kenzo, the Archery Master from Zen Bow, Zen Arrow: The Life and Teachings of Awa Kenzo, the Archery Master from “Zen in the Art of Archery” by John Stevens
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Awa Kenzo is variously known as an archer without compare, a Zen master, or as the teacher of Eugene Herrigel. Herrigel was a German philosopher who wrote a thin book entitled, “Zen in the Art of Archery” that gained a global following. Herrigel’s book was about his time as a student of Kenzo and the insight that he gained into both Zen and Kyūdō—Japanese style archery—through his studies. Kenzo lived from 1880 to 1939, a period during which arts like kyūdō were used more for development of character than as fighting arts, and Kenzo was important figure in this transformation.

Stevens’ book is a thin volume (< 100 pages) consisting of three parts. The first is a short biography of Awa Kenzo. One shouldn’t expect a thorough treatment, but that may be for the best (i.e. Kenzo’s life is of interest because of his mastery of archery, but probably only his most ardent fans would want to read a 400 page biography on his life.)

 

The second part is a set of lessons and aphorisms attributed to the master archer. This section includes a few pages by the author to put Kenzo’s brief statements in context. The lessons themselves are sometimes in prose, sometimes in poetry, and occasionally in the form of lists. These lessons offer insight into archery, mindset, and life in general. Archery is portrayed as a lifestyle.

The third section consists of three short (very short) stories in which archery as a means to develop one’s character is at the forefront.

In addition to the three sections, the book includes front matter, annotations, a bibliography, and a few photos.

I enjoyed this book and would recommend it for those seeking insight into the nexus between Zen and the martial arts.

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BOOK REVIEW: Zen in the Art of Archery by Eugen Herrigel

Zen in the Art of ArcheryZen in the Art of Archery by Eugen Herrigel
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Herrigel’s book is part autobiography of his experience learning Japanese archery (kyudo) from the distinguished master archer Kenzo Awa (and through archery, Zen,) and it’s part philosophical treatise on how archery can help one achieve a Zen state of mind.

The book is less than one hundred pages and has a Zen feel itself. Exemplary of this, the book’s divisions aren’t labeled or numbered into chapters—i.e. there’s a general trimming away of the extraneous features of a book. That said, there’s a clear organization to the book, and most of it follows the chronology by which the author (and others) progress in developing deep insight into the mind through the practice of archery.

There are nine sections:
The first section helps the reader understand why one might consider Zen and archery in the same thought–something that will by no means be obvious (even to many Zen Buddhists.)

The second section explains why Herrigel took up Zen and decided to use archery as his vehicle to understand it.

Section three describes the early learning process, and focuses heavily on the importance of breath.

Section four takes place after Herrigel has been practicing about a year, and the theme of purposeless action is at the fore. This idea is one of the recurring central ideas in the book.

Section five is Herrigel’s introduction to withdrawing from attachments, and—in particular—letting go of the ego. It’s not the point at which Herrigel masters this difficult practice, but he’s made aware of it.

The next section is one of the longer chapters and in it Master Awa tries to teach Herrigel the importance of letting “it shoot” rather than making the shot. This is clearly a challenging idea.

In the seventh section, Herrigel has been practicing for five years and Master Awa recommends that he take a test to help him move on to the next stage in his practice.

Section eight is a brief elucidation as to why kyudo is still relevant and how its relevance has long been tied to what it teaches about the mind.

The final section shifts gears into the relation between Zen and swordsmanship. There have been many works written on this subject, and Herrigel’s purpose may have been to convince the reader that kyudo isn’t uniquely a vehicle for Zen. One can engage in many activities (arguably any activity) with the mind of Zen, be it flower arranging, tea ceremony, calligraphy, or spearmanship.

I’d recommend this book for those interested in the mind / body connection. It’s short, readable, filled with food for thought, and is a classic on the subject.

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