POEM: The Zen of the High Mountain Pass

Each step through the scree field must be judged on: angle, stability, slipperiness — but the flat, dry, and robust rock is the one that will roll on you — heaving you headlong, rolling over brick and boulder.

Crossing the glacier, each step is taken both like it won’t fail and like it inevitably will.

The former because one can’t fear one’s hips will slip out from under one, but the latter because one needs to be ready to stab an axe into the snowpack without the other end puncturing one’s ribs. 

When you reach the altitude at which stepping is a series of singular activities — not a seamless sequence — you will love breathing like you haven’t since that time you were dangling upside-down outside the womb being smacked on the bottom by a masked man.

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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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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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: Zen and the Brain by James H. Austin

Zen and the BrainZen and the Brain by James H. Austin
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Dr. Austin’s 900-page book looks at what the brain does during (and as a result of) the practice of Zen, and is a great resource for those interested in the science of meditative practices. It’s easy to sum up the strength and weakness of this book. With respect to the book’s greatest strength, it’s that the author—like the book—straddles two widely divergent worlds. He is at once a scientist and a practitioner of Zen. This gives him rare insight into both halves of the equation. This isn’t one of those books written by a spiritual seeker who uses the word “science” and “scientific” very loosely (and in a manner that shows a lack of understanding of the central premise of science.) On the other hand, it’s not one of those books by a scientist who got all of his understanding of meditation from other books.

As for the weakness, it’s that the book was written in the late 1990’s. Ordinarily, I would say that wouldn’t matter much, but concerning our understanding of the brain, it might as well have been the Stone Age—hyperbole duly noted. One doesn’t put together a book of almost 1000 pages overnight, and so much of the references for “Zen and the Brain” are actually from papers from the 1980’s and earlier. The fMRI (functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging) machine didn’t even come out until the early 1990’s, but—of course—it took a while for the studies featuring this powerful technology to reach publication.

The book is arranged into a whopping 158 chapters divided amongst 8 parts. Some of the chapters are pure neuroscience, and there are detailed descriptions of the brain and the functions of its various parts. Other chapters are designed to give one an insight into the practice of Zen and aren’t technical at all. The author has a reasonably engaging writing style when he’s not conveying the minutiae of brain science. He tells stories of his experience as a practitioner of Zen, and passes on the wisdom of past Zen masters.

I have an unconventional recommendation for this book, which I got so much out of. I recommend you first check out the book “Zen-Brain Horizons” put out by the same author and press (MIT Press) in 2014. While I haven’t yet read that book, it seems to hold three advantages. First, it’s only one-third as long and seems to cover similar material. Obviously, it goes into far less detail. (But you may find that a plus.) Second, the 2014 book is reasonably priced. “Zen and the Brain” is one of the most expensive books I’ve bought in recent years. I’m not saying I regret paying as much as I did, because it was a useful book, but cheaper would be better. Finally, the 2014 has the benefit of access to a lot of great research from the past couple decades. If you read the 2014 book and think you need more detail about the brain, then—by all means—get this book.

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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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