BOOK REVIEW: Three Japanese Buddhist Monks by Saigyō, Chōmei, and Kenkō

Three Japanese Buddhist MonksThree Japanese Buddhist Monks by Saigyō
My rating: 5 of 5 stars Page

This book collects three essays composed between the twelfth and fourteenth centuries. They are in chronological order, but also in order of increasing length, i.e. Saigyō’s piece is a short excerpt, while Kenkō’s essay makes up the bulk of the book.

An excerpt from Saigyō’s Senjūshō tells the story of the monk’s meeting with a wise reclusive meditator on Mt. Utsu. Saigyō tries to talk his way into living / meditating with the hermit, but the sage convinces him that that wouldn’t be good for either of them. The monk goes away, planning on visiting the hermit on his return, but he wistfully tells us that he took another route.

“The Ten-Foot Hut” is about the benefits of a simple, minimalist existence. It discusses Impermanence, and takes the view that having more just means one has more to lose. A quote that offers insight into the monk’s thoughts is, “If you live in a cramped city area, you cannot escape disaster when a fire springs up nearby. If you live in some remote place, commuting to and fro is filled with problems, and you are in constant danger from thieves.” The author’s solution? Build a tiny cabin in the woods and – in the unlikely event it burns or gets robbed while one is away – what has one really lost?

The Kenkō essay makes up about eighty percent of the book. Its rambling discussion of life’s impermanence delves into morality, aesthetics, and Buddhist psychology. There are many profound bits of wisdom in this piece. Though it’s also a bit of a mixed bag in that some of the advice feels relevant and insightful, while some of it hasn’t aged / traveled well.

I enjoyed this book and found it thought-provoking. Some may be disappointed by finding how little of Saigyō’s writing is included (he being the author of greatest renown,) but I found each author had something valuable to offer.

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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 Page

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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BOOK REVIEW: Zen Buddhism by Christmas Humphreys

Zen BuddhismZen Buddhism by Christmas Humphreys
My rating: 5 of 5 stars Page

This overview of Zen Buddhism isn’t so much an instructional guide as a reflection upon Zen as a life philosophy and an artistic influence. While it does have a chapter on technique, it’s mostly a mile-high overview of koan (paradoxes and riddles) and mondo (a Q & A-based practice,) and doesn’t enter into the fundamentals of meditation. If you’re looking for an introduction to Zen practice, this probably isn’t your book. Even the book’s conclusion, which is meant to address pragmatic matters, does so in an abstract and philosophical way. But this isn’t meant to denigrate the book. There are plenty of books that fill that role, and this book has a couple of specialties that set it apart and make it well worth reading.

There are three areas into which this book delves that are sparsely covered in other books. First, there’s a chapter devoted to Zen in English Literature, and throughout the book there’s much discussion of how Zen influences art, more broadly. The Zen in English Literature chapter draws heavily on a work by R.H. Blyth that is hard to find these days. Second, there’s an attempt to relate how ideas of Zen Buddhism can be conveyed to a Western mind. Third, while it’s acknowledged as being futile, the author discusses Satori in great depth.

I found a great deal of food-for-thought in this book. The author draws from many and varied sources to convey his message. Though that can also be a bit problematic. For example, Humphreys sometimes launches into ideas that come from yogic or other Eastern philosophies without a great deal of elaboration. There’s a certain pretentiousness that’s not unexpected from a mid-twentieth century British writer, but the book is by no means a dense read.

If you’re looking for a philosophical look at Zen, or one which discusses Zen as an artistic influence, check out this book.

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The Immovable [Free Verse]

The Immovable,
said to lasso evil
vanquish it with
his flaming sword.

And I have so many

-can one vanquish evil?

-what material must a
sword blade be made of 
to fatally wound something 
so conceptual?

-why don't we see more
vanquishing these days?
[It seems to be an activity 
that's fallen out of favor.]

where can one obtain 
a conceptual blade 
to vanquish
a conceptual fault?

i conclude that it's
all made of mind.

BOOK REVIEW: What Makes You Not a Buddhist by Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse

What Makes You Not a BuddhistWhat Makes You Not a Buddhist by Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse
My rating: 5 of 5 stars Page

This book provides exposition of the Four Seals (not to be confused with the more well-known Four Noble Truths.) As the title suggests, the author believes that accepting the truth of these four propositions is what distinguishes Buddhist from non-Buddhist (rather than many of the more well-known teachings and practices of Buddhism.)

The Four Seals are easily listed, but are challenging to intellectually grasp (hence the need for a book.) 1.) All compounded things are impermanent. 2.) All emotions are pain. 3.) All things have no inherent existence. 4.) Nirvana is beyond concepts. While I came away from the book with largely the same views on the Seals as when they were presented in the Introduction, I did learn a great deal, and had one epiphany (re: an explanation of Samsara and Nirvana.) [My own views remained: 1.) True to the best of my knowledge; 2.) This remains the most controversial teaching of the lot for me, even with elaborations. I think it does just what we should strive not to do, which is attach a value judgment to things; 3.) & 4.) I don’t know enough to have any firm opinion on these.

I found this book to be well-organized, highly readable, and to use humor and examples to good effect. While I remain “not a Buddhist,” the explanations in the book did move the needle on my way of thinking about a couple things. Along with Walpola Rahula’s What the Buddha Taught, I believe this book is an excellent means to gain greater understanding of an oft-misunderstood religion / philosophy. Check it out if you’re curious about whether you’re a Buddhist (whether or not your currently identify that way.)

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DAILY PHOTO: Lamayuru Monastery, Ladakh

Taken in Ladakh in August of 2016

BOOK REVIEW: Musashi’s Dokkodo ed. Lawrence Kane & Kris Wilder

Musashi's Dokkodo (The Way of Walking Alone): Half Crazy, Half Genius-Finding Modern Meaning in the Sword Saint's Last WordsMusashi’s Dokkodo (The Way of Walking Alone): Half Crazy, Half Genius-Finding Modern Meaning in the Sword Saint’s Last Words by Miyamoto Musashi
My rating: 3 of 5 stars Page

“The Dokkōdō” consists of 21 precepts written by Miyamoto Musashi in his last days. Musashi was solitary, a minimalist, and single-mindedly resolute as a swordsman – all to extremes few of us can fathom. [Imagine a cross between Diogenes and Muhammad Ali.] These twenty-one sentences barely fill a page, let alone a book. However, as with sutras of yoga and Buddhism, a book’s worth of material comes from elaboration and analysis. This approach is taken in this book by way of five commenters from different walks of life, though all with martial arts experience.

However, normally the explanations would be made by: a.) someone who understands the language (particularly the archaic form the author wrote in – i.e. Musashi’s lifespan overlapped with Shakespeare’s, so consider the changes in the English language that transpired,) or b.) someone with a depth of understanding of the worldview of the author (in this case, that would be someone immersed in a mélange of Buddhism, Confucianism, Taoism, the Chinese classics, and the influence of life in the wake of centuries of feudalism and militancy on a person’s psychology.) This isn’t the approach taken in this book. While the five commenters are clearly well-read and intelligent individuals, they are also firmly ensconced in a worldview that is Western, Abrahamic, and materialistic. [I suspect this was the editors’ intention – to relate to the lives of the likely readership, but it does have stark implications for how the book is perceived.]

If one is looking for a book that will explore what – if anything – from the legendary swordsman’s deathbed lesson aligns with a Western / Abrahamic / American-suburban strip mall dojo lifestyle, this is your book — 5-stars – buy it immediately. However, if one approaches the book from the assumption that Musashi was an exceptional person who must have had valuable insight into how to be exceptional, then one is likely to find this book presumptuous and dismissive of Eastern values and philosophies.

Much of the book is the commenters dismissing Musashi’s ideas as wrong-headed. In some cases, this is because Musashi was such an extremist that few could hope to live a life like his. [It’s not “the way of going alone” for no reason. Though that’s arguably why we are still interested in what Musashi has to say 400 years after his death.] However, in many cases, the commenters seem to be talking past Musashi’s ideas because their assumptions are inconsistent with the swordsman’s cultural milieu.

This is most often seen with respect to a fundamental difference between Eastern and Western psychology. In Buddhism, there are purely mental constructs that have no reality except within the mind, and which can cause suffering with no material upside. For example, in precept #6 when Musashi argues against regret, some of the resulting commentary was as if the precept was “Don’t learn from your mistakes. Never change.” For a Buddhist, not holding onto regrets does not at all mean that one doesn’t learn or make corrections – mid-course or otherwise. It just means that there is this cancerous mental construct that can’t help one because the past is the past, and so it is jettisoned. Another example involves not having preferences, which – again – doesn’t mean that one won’t make a choice (if the situation allows one a choice.) It means not holding onto a mental attachment. [e.g. If I like coffee more than tea, and a choice presents itself, I order coffee. What I don’t do is let my mind obsess about not being offered a choice.]

There are some beautiful insights peppered throughout this book, some that appear to be in line with Musashi’s thinking and others that I suspect the swordsman wouldn’t recognize as related to his own words. However, there is also a lot of commentary that sounds like college students railing against how bad Shakespeare is, in part because they are missing much of the Bard’s nuance and in part because his works seem unrelatable to their experience.

My recommendation of this book would be contingent upon where you fall on dichotomy that I mention in paragraph three. You might love it, or you might loath it.

P.S. If you’d like to know what differences can result from translation, you can find a scholarly translation that is done by a Japanese linguist (Terou Machida) and published in the Bulletin of Nippon Sport Sci. Univ. right here. You’ll note that most of the precepts are (for-all-intents-and-purposes) the same, except the conversion from first to third person. However, you will notice that several precepts (10-12, 15, and 20) are substantially different, and one (#16) is arguably of the exact opposite meaning.

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