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: 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: The Beats: A Very Short Introduction by David Sterritt

The Beats: A Very Short IntroductionThe Beats: A Very Short Introduction by David Sterritt
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This is the most fascinating book I’ve read in the VSI (Very Short Introductions) series, and I read a lot of these books as a means to mainline the gist of various academic subjects. I should point out that the subject matter is more colorful than the average scholarly topic. The Beats were a 1950’s American countercultural literary movement that some may confuse with the hippies of the 60’s, but which was different in many ways. As is emphasized in the book, the Beats were more about revolutions from within than they were about upending society. In that sense, they might have more in common with the Transcendentalists (i.e. Emerson, Thoreau, etc.) than the hippies. That said, some Beats did flow pretty smoothly from one movement to the next, and were both interested in revolution from within and without – most notably, Allen Ginsberg.

The first thing that one finds compelling is the biographical sketches of key Beat figures (i.e. chapters 3 and 4 on Beat novelists and poets, respectively.) A disturbing number of Beats lived tragically short lives, owing to drugs, alcohol (e.g. Kerouac,) and sometimes just being around a violent contrarian. Even the Beats who lived long lives had their share of outlandishness, such as William Burroughs killing his wife, Joan Vollmer, in an ill-fate William Tell imitation. (Those who know Burroughs from later in his career may wonder why he even had a wife, being gay and all. That’s just one of the ways that hidden, latent, and repressed homosexuality plays out as tragedy in the Beat story of the socially conservative 1950’s.)

The second thing I found absorbing was the discussion of how these writers and poets made art. Like the aforementioned Transcendentalists, the Beats drew heavily on Eastern philosophies and psychologies – most notably Buddhism, and Zen, in particular. Beat authors not only looked to the East for subject matter and aesthetics, but also to help them achieve the spontaneity and nowness associated with Zen. However, this wasn’t wholesale conversion to Buddhism, it remained a uniquely American strain, and also sought to draw inspiration from that most American of arts, Jazz.

If you’re interested in the Beats or their approach to writing, I’d highly recommend reading this book.


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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 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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BOOK REVIEW: Zen Buddhism by Christmas Humphreys

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

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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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BOOK REVIEW: Cold Mountain: One Hundred Poems by the T’ang Poet Han-Shan

Cold Mountain: One Hundred Poems by the t'Ang Poet Han-ShanCold Mountain: One Hundred Poems by the t’Ang Poet Han-Shan by Hanshan
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This brief collection gathers one hundred poems from the T’ang Dynasty poet Han-Shan. Most of the poems included consist of a single eight-line stanza of unrhymed verse of varied meter. [With a few exceptions that had more or fewer lines (often four or twelve.)] I do like that they didn’t pad out edition that I read with a lot of inane babble [as publishers are want to do when a volume is on the thin side.] Part of the reason that they may not have done so is that there is virtually nothing known about the author. It’s not even known whether there was a Han-Shan (i.e. as opposed to a group of people whose poems were anthologized under one name.)

The poems reflect Taoism’s disdain for pretension, authority, or scholarship for scholarship’s sake. Many of the poems reflect Zen sensibilities (which became entwined with Taoist sensibilities.) That is to say, like Zen koan, they seek to interrupt the tendency to overintellectualize matters. That said, in places the poems take a bit of a mocking attitude toward Buddhism. Nature plays prominently among the poems. And some of the poems are humorous or irreverent.

There are footnotes that are helpful in explaining verse that references teachings and events that would have been known to Han-Shan’s readership back in his day, but which most individuals who aren’t experts on Chinese folklore, literature, or religious teachings wouldn’t be likely to get, otherwise.

I enjoyed these poems tremendously. While I can’t say how they related to the original text, the translations were — on their own – works that conveyed wit and wisdom. I’d highly recommend this collection for poetry readers.

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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.