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.

2019: A Year Finding Out How Weird the Mind Gets, Pt I [The Mushroom]

For the past five years, since I moved to India, I’ve been studying what my mind is and what it’s capable of. I’ve used tried and true methods, including: yogic dharana (concentration) and dhyana (meditation) techniques, Vipassana meditation,  dream yoga/ lucid dreaming [albeit, with limited success,] and the practice of self-hypnosis.

In 2019, while continuing the trend, I’m going to get into the weeds and see how strange the mind gets. I was originally going to entitle this “My Year of Exploring Varieties of Conscious Experience,” but that sounded punishingly boring. The current title may come off as frivolous, but I hope is more intriguing as well.

The year has begun, and so has my year of exploration. January was the month in which I first experienced psilocybe cubensis — what the kids call “magic mushroom” or “shrooms.” I should point out that — besides alcohol and caffeine — this was my first experience with any mind or mood altering substance. [With the exception of one afternoon thirty years ago when I was prescribed Tylenol with Codeine after having all four wisdom teeth pulled — an event that probably remains the most bizarre mental experience of my life.]

I’d like to be able to say that I’m the type who boldly tries out new things with derring-do, but those who know me know I’m the kind who reads hundreds of pages of research and commentary and then cautiously dips a toe into the waters. Among the extensive pre-experience reading I did was Michael Pollan’s excellent book, How to Change Your Mind and a study finding psilocybin mushrooms to be the safest of the mind and mood altering substances. (Yes, that includes being much safer than alcohol — a finding, the veracity of which, I have not a doubt. Those curious about this topic are encouraged to see Drugs without the Hot Air by David Nutt, which delves into how society’s approach to such substances can be absurd and without merit in logic. Nutt was famously fired from a government position in Britain for openly stating that alcohol and nicotine are both considerably more dangerous /damaging than a number of prohibited substances)

What was my experience like? Strange and fascinating. However, even at the time, I found myself wondering whether I was cursed with knowledge. How much did all that reading and research influence my experience for the good, the bad, or the indifferent? I don’t know, perhaps a lot, but maybe not at all. I’ll give some examples. One of the early and persistent effects was seeing the world overwritten in prismatic geometric forms. The closest I could describe this is to imagine the shapes seen in jaali — the latticed windows seen in Indo-Islamic architecture — but with a repeating “echo” of lines and a kind of rainbow prismatic effect.

Jaali

I suspect this is a neuro-chemical effect of the substance on one’s brain, but I couldn’t help but wonder whether my experience was trained by having read Aldous Huxley’s descriptions of “sacred geometries” during his own experience. (Of course, it also makes me wonder what Indo-Islamic craftsmen and architects might have been taking.)

As I mentioned, I could see where prior knowledge could have both positive and negative influences on the experience. I’ll start with an example of a possible positive effect of prior knowledge. One thing the reader needs to understand is that the physicist’s conception that things at rest will stay at rest and things in motion will stay in motion doesn’t hold in the mental world of psilocybin — everything goes into motion. It could be the breathing letters of a word on the page or the gentle writhing of a house plant, but not much just sits there. As I stared up at the ceiling, the staples that held the cable to the ceiling fan in place became blocky ants on the march, and soon any dot anywhere became an ant on the move. Now, I can imagine how this might stir in some people a “bad trip,” freaking out about the infestation. However, my mind always somehow recognized that the animation of those still objects was in my brain and not in the room. I was trained to think of these experiences as the effect of a serotonin mimic going hog-wild inside my brain, and I never thought that maybe I’d kicked open Huxley’s famed “Doors of Perception” and something real was now on display to me that I couldn’t ordinarily see. [Though I can’t eliminate that possibility.]

However, I also must wonder whether I might have had a grand breakthrough or experience of enlightenment (probably little-e) — as many claim to have had — if my experience wasn’t so grounded. I scribbled about seven and a half pages while I was “tripping,” and I was very curious about whether it would be gibberish or pure illumination. It was neither. About half my sentences broke off about 2/3rds of the way through, but those that I could make out were not wide the mark of my day-to-day philosophy. It reflected the diminished self and euphoria of the experience (which I’ve  also experienced in meditation), but wasn’t otherworldly. I will say, my psilocybin self was a wee bit bolder, realizing that — like a dog chasing its tail — if I ever captured the understanding I seek, the fun would be blanched from life. The closest thing to a revelation was that I needed to embrace my ignorance — a conclusion my sober self had already come to acceptance of in its bolder moments.

What are my recommendations if you plan to partake of a cup of mushroom tea? Make sure your environment is not overstimulating. Make sure there is nothing fear or anxiety inducing in the area (perhaps including knowing the legal status where you are.) Have a calm state of mind. Realize that for about 30 for 45 minutes you will think the tea had no effect upon you and the strangeness will come on gradually. Some people say you should have someone around. I don’t know that I’d say it’s necessary, (unless you have anxiety issues and then you might not want to partake without seeking medical advice)  but if you do make sure it’s not someone who gets on your nerves.

So what is next? February will be the month in which I try out a sensory deprivation float tank. In yoga, one of the legs of practice is pratyahara (withdrawal from the senses.) I’m fascinated to see what effect the body temperature Epsom salt water has — if any — over and above closed-eye meditation in a dim room.

My tentative schedule is:

January  —  Mushroom — check

February — Sensory Deprivation Float Tank

March — 30 days of hour-long meditations

April — Hypnosis (attending an intensive workshop)

May — EEG feedback meditation

June — Tummo / Wim Hof Method / Holotropic Breathwork

July — extensive Yogic dharana  and dhyana practice

August —  resumption of dream yoga / lucid dreaming practices

September — periodic fasting (and, maybe, controlled sleep deprivation)

October — Biofeedback pranayama (breathing exercises)

November — Poetry of the Subconscious Mind

December  — mixed practices, putting it all together

I plan to keep up documentation of my practice, and hope you’ll follow along when I post something. I’m also interested to hear about the experiences of others regarding these and other consciousness related practices. I don’t know how strange it’ll get, but things might get pretty weird.

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: 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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BOOK REVIEW: An Introduction to Zen Training by Omori Sogen

An Introduction to Zen TrainingAn Introduction to Zen Training by Omori Sogen
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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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.

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BOOK REVIEW: When Buddhists Attack by Jeffery K. Mann

When Buddhists Attack: The Curious Relationship Between Zen and the Martial ArtsWhen Buddhists Attack: The Curious Relationship Between Zen and the Martial Arts by Jeffrey K. Mann
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Mann’s book considers one of Asian history’s intriguing little questions: How is it that one of the most pacifistic of world religions, i.e. Buddhism, came to be integrally connected to some of the world’s most fearsome and devastatingly effective warriors? Specifically, the author looks at the connection of Zen Buddhism to warrior traditions like the samurai of Japan and—to a lesser extent—the Shaolin monks of China. It should be noted that while Zen was one of the most firmly established intersects of Buddhism and martial arts; it’s not the only one. Branches of Vajrayana (esoteric) Buddhism had their own warrior-monk traditions—which he mentions as well as Shugendō’s (combines Buddhist, Shinto, and Taoist elements) warrior connection. The book is heavily weighted toward the Japanese martial arts. This may be in part owing to the author’s particular background, but also because many of the works that establish this firm connection between Zen and martial arts are Japanese (e.g. works by Takuan Sōhō, Yagyū Munenori, and even Miyamoto Musashi.)

It’s worth noting that both Buddhists and modern martial artists have tried to downplay or outright deny the connection between these traditions. However, Mann suggests the connection is undeniable in the face of historical evidence, and that it even has a logic that belies the apparent contradiction. (Note: Presumably many Buddhists deny this connection because they want to distance themselves from the taint of violence, and many modern martial artists deny it so their religious students won’t ditch the art because it isn’t 100% secular [or based entirely in the student’s religious belief structure.])

The book consists of eight chapters as well as front matter and an Epilogue that explores the question of whether the Zen of samurai lore is truly Zen Buddhism. The first couple chapters give the reader an introduction to Buddhism and, specifically Zen. There are then chapters that show the linkage between Zen and the martial arts of East Asia. The book then considers the nature of the advantages offered by Zen to martial artists that made it so appealing to warriors like the samurai. It also considers the interpretation of violence that allows for the dichotomy under discussion, and explores the degree to which the connection between Zen Buddhism and martial arts is relevant in the modern era. The book is a mix of history, religious studies, philosophy, and the art and science of fighting systems. So if one’s interests are eclectic, there’s a lot to take away from this book. If you have narrow interests, you’ll want to make sure they include the aforementioned central question (i.e. Why pacifistic Buddhism has helped produce some of the world’s greatest fighting systems.)

The book is well-researched and documented. There are many interesting and informative stories throughout the book. For example, I’d never read about the 19th century jujutsu murders until this book. This is a fascinating case in which several experienced students of one particular school of jujutsu were found dead with the exact same wound. While the murderer wasn’t captured, investigators quickly discerned his (or her) method. That is, the killer knew the trained responses of this school and made a feint to draw a certain defense and then exploited a vulnerability the response presented. How is this story relevant? It speaks to the perceived advantages of Zen, which emphasizes avoiding habituation and residing in the moment.

I’d recommend this book for martial artists who are interested in the history and cultural context of their arts [and of the martial arts in general.] There’s a class of martial arts student who may want to avoid the book. If you’re a devout adherent of a Western religion who practices a traditional style of East Asian martial art and think that there isn’t an imprint of the local religion on that art, your delusions may be shattered by this book. Buddhists may find the discussion of the less absolutist interpretation of ahimsa (non-violence) to be illuminating (or—for all I know—infuriating.) It’s a short book, coming in at around 200 pages, but is end-noted and referenced in the manner of a scholarly work. It has a glossary and bibliography, but no graphics.

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BOOK REVIEW: Crow with No Mouth: Ikkyu Translated by Stephen Berg

Crow With No Mouth : Ikkyu : Fifteenth Century Zen MasterCrow With No Mouth : Ikkyu : Fifteenth Century Zen Master by Ikkyu

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Ikkyū Sōjun was the Howard Stern of Zen masters. Born in 1394, he lived through most of the 15th century. Ikkyū served as a temple’s abbot for less than two weeks before he quit in disgust, vowing to move into a red-light district—apparently he wanted to live among people he found more honest and less hypocritical. The Zen master despised the corruption and snobbery of monastic politics.

Crow with no Mouth is a collection of Ikkyū’s verse, which is largely in the Zen tradition–featuring natural subjects and simple wisdom in a sparse style. Of course, as per my comments in the preceding paragraph, there are a few poems on topics such as cunnilingus and debauchery—so it’s not what one would call a child-friendly collection (unless one enjoys explaining the sexual exploits of a lecherous monk to one’s child.) The more explicit poems may seem like a diversion from the Zen path, but perhaps not. Maybe Ikkyū offered them as a way to train the mind, to observe one’s reaction to shocking commentary as a means of changing one’s way of thinking.

A few of my favorite lines of a more traditional nature include:

-“you can’t make cherry blossoms by tearing off petals to plant; only spring does that”

-“sometimes all I am is dark emptiness; I can’t hide in the sleeves of my own robes”

-“it’s logical: if you’re not going anywhere any road is the right one”

-“the edges of the sword are life and death; no one knows which is which”

-“even in its scabbard my sword sees you”

-“a flower held up twirled between human fingers; a smile barely visible”

-“in war there’s no time to teach or learn Zen; carry a strong stick; bash your attackers”

Here are a few of those jarring lines that I mentioned above:

-“that stone Buddha deserves all the bird shit it gets”

-“all koans just lead you on but not the delicious pussy of the young girls I go down on”

-“ten fussy days running this temple all red tape; look me up if you want o in the bar whorehouse fish market”

-“my dying teacher could not wipe himself; unlike you disciples who use bamboo; I cleaned his lovely ass with my bare hands”

-“don’t hesitate get laid that’s wisdom; sitting around chanting, what crap”

-“who teaches truth? good/bad the wrong way; Crazy Cloud knows the taste of his own shit” [Crazy Cloud was Ikkyū’s name for himself.]

When he left the monastery, Ikkyū shredded the certificate that served as his monastic credential. Some of his students found it, and pieced it back together. That led to the following verse:

-“one of you saved my satori paper I know it piece by piece; you pasted it back together; now watch me burn it once and for all”

Ikkyū’s verse asks us to reevaluate what it means to be sacred or profane. The orthodox view would be that Ikkyū fell from the sacred life of a monk. However, Ikkyū tells us that one can degrade what is important by raising the wrong things to sacred status. Conversely, some of what we believe to be profane is just rooted in habitual and ill-reasoned ways of thinking.

I’d recommend this work for those who love the spare form of Japanese poetry, and who don’t mind a hard jolt to their psyche occasionally.

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BOOK REVIEW: Zen in Motion by Neil Claremon

Zen in Motion: Lessons from a Master Archer on Breath, Posture, and the Path of IntuitionZen in Motion: Lessons from a Master Archer on Breath, Posture, and the Path of Intuition by Neil Claremon

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Amazon page

When one thinks of Zen, one thinks of stillness. Sensory and motor deprivation is what scientists call it. But stillness is a favored term among Zen Buddhists. Being someone who is fascinated by movement and activities at the body-mind intersect, this title immediately snagged my attention despite the narrow print on this thin book’s spine. The value of a Zen state of mind in the practice of movement arts is clear and well-established. Zen in Motion recounts the lessons of the author as a student of the Japanese style of mounted archery (kyūdō.) Claremon studied with a Japanese Kyūdō master residing in New Mexico.

It will be clear to many why mounted archers might take allegiance in Zen. Charging down a trail on a horse towards a small, round target, there’s no time for conscious thought in calculating pull and release. Furthermore, there’s stillness in motion (sounds like a koan) that must be maximized because the slightest imperfection in movement can send an arrow astray.

It should be noted that this is neither the first nor the only book written on the nexus of Zen and Kyūdō. (Though it’s the first one I’ve read in full.) Probably the most famous book on the subject is Eugen Herrigel’s Zen in the Art of Archery, but there’s also a more recent book by John Stevens, entitled Zen Bow, Zen Arrow that tells the story of Awa Kenzō (who was Herrigel’s teacher.) The logical question is what is the value-added of Claredon’s book. If we have two books by more famous authors on seemingly the same subject, why should one read this one? I believe Claremon carved out a good niche with this book that makes it sufficiently different from the books of those other authors.

What is Claremon’s niche? The body portion of the mind-body equation is at the forefront in this book. Claremon directs most of his energies to topics such as breathing, posture, grounding, walking, and balance. While I haven’t read Herrigel’s book completely, I did skim through it. Zen in the Art of Archery seems to focus more heavily on the mind portion of the equation—i.e. the philosophy / psychology of Zen, if you will. This may make it sound like Claremon’s book isn’t much about Zen, which is widely considered a mental pursuit. However, one must remember that postural alignment and breath are crucial in zazen, and that Kinhin, walking meditation, is a well-established practice in Zen Buddhism. Furthermore, I don’t want to imply that Claremon leaves out the mental piece altogether, just that the balance of the discussion is toward the physical. (Whereas, it seems like the balance of Herrigel’s discussion is in the realm of the mental—but Herrigel gets into physical topics as well.) Having said all that, an argument could be made that a more appropriate title might be “Ki (Chi) in Motion” as the author devotes a great deal of space to discussing life energy (Ki in Japanese or Chi in Chinese.)

Another valuable piece of Claremon’s work is that there is plenty of value to individuals who don’t practice archery, but who are interested in discovering how these lessons might apply to other movement arts. For example, I found the topic of the 10-point “Diamond Being” that is a central concept in the book to be quite thought-provoking. The 10 points that are roughly arranged in a diamond shape (vertical alignment of 3 nodes down the left side of body, 4 nodes down the body’s centerline, and 3 nodes on the right side, and all these nodes connected by edges (line segments)) and map to the human body. While much of what Claremon said about this construct was esoteric and not of much use to the scientific-minded reader (i.e. sending ki between the various nodes), the construct had value in thinking about postural alignment, for example. There is an entire chapter devoted to healing that, of course, has a value to non-archers as well as archers.

Some of the concepts that are mentioned can be thought of in terms of the modern-day construct of “Flow,” which is related to Zen states of mind and which has gained a following among modern practitioners of high-speed / high-risk sports.) For example, the idea of perceiving time at a slower rate, which is an established part of Flow states valued by skiers and skydivers, would be a valuable state of mind for shooting an arrow from a moving horse toward a small target. Another example is discussed on the chapter of the fear of falling. Whatever one calls the mental state, avoiding an adrenaline dump and the fear associated with it is critical.

The only graphics are drawings, but they seem adequate to the task.

I enjoyed this book. For me the book’s greatest weakness was a tendency to be ethereal and esoteric. While the author denied believing in magic, there was a fair amount of explanation that no scientifically-minded person could hang his hat on. To be fair, this may in part be because the science of some of these experience isn’t yet well-established. (I recently watched a clip from a Discovery Channel program called “Human Weapon” in which there were some Chi related activities that the technicians and experts said they couldn’t explain for all of their state-of-the-art equipment.) However, it could also be that false experiences were arrived at by the leading statements of a trusted teacher.

I’d recommend the book particularly for those who have interests in activities at the intersection of body and mind.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Novice by Thich Nhat Hanh

The Novice: A Story of True LoveThe Novice: A Story of True Love by Thích Nhất Hạnh

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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The Novice is the retelling of a Vietnamese folk tale about a young monk who is repeatedly wronged, but who always does the virtuous thing. As I read this book, I thought the story seemed familiar, and I realized that I read the same story as The Martyr by Ryūnosuke Akutagawa. Akutagawa does a much better job of story building. The Japanese writer doesn’t reveal to the reader that Lorenzo (his novice and the equivalent of Thich Nhat Hanh’s Kihn Tâm) is a female until the end—thus definitely resolving the claim that the young monk fathered a child out-of-wedlock and in contravention of vows f0r the reader at the same time as the characters in the story learn it.

Thich Nhat Hanh tells us that the novice is a female at the beginning, and he does so via backstory that serves both to give justification for why Kihn Tâm chooses to disguise herself and become a monk and to pile onto the injustice. We learn that Kihn Tâm’s female alter ego had been married, but the marriage ended with a false accusation of attempted murder of her husband. This backstory probably isn’t worth the drag for either of the aforementioned purposes—but the former is more justifiable than the latter.

What Thich Nhat Hanh lacks in gripping narrative structure, he gains in provoking thought. The Zen monk and poet gives the reader insight into how Kinh Tâm manages to be preternaturally virtuous. In The Martyr this is a black box affair. Hanh also encourages the reader to see Kihn Tâm’s accusers as the novice does, i.e. with compassion. Akutagawa does what any writer would do; he vilifies the accusers so as to make the story resonate with the average, petty, martyr-complex prone reader—as opposed to the enlightenment-aspiring reader. Hanh leaves the other monks in Kinh Tâm’s corner, i.e. when everyone else is condemning the novice, they still believe in her. In Akutagawa’s story, monastics are not inherently so perfect.

The book offers some interesting back matter. The most substantial of the appendices is an account by Sister Chan Khong of the works of Thich Nhat Hanh and his followers both during the war and afterword when they tried to establish a monastery in Communist Vietnam. The essay echoes the themes of loving-kindness and compassion that form the core of the novella, as does the essay by Hanh that brings the book to a conclusion. While this back matter is filler to make up for the fact that the story is not novel length, it nevertheless makes for interesting reading.

I’d recommend this book for those with an interested in Zen. If you’re looking for a good story, read Akutagawa’s The Martyr, but if you want to be inspired to compassion, read Thich Nhat Hanh.

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