Zen Practice in books by Tony Shinro Doubleday

Keizan Sensei asked me to write about some of the books I’ve read and found helpful, so that hopefully, we can spark off a forum on useful reading.

There are now so many books on Zen and Buddhism that I doubt anyone could know more than a few of them. I certainly cannot claim any comprehensive knowledge of what’s available, and I can only write about my own response to the relatively limited number I’ve read.

I will be more than happy for anyone to thoroughly disagree with me about any comment I make, and since I am sure that others will have favourite books I have never opened, it would be wonderful if they were to respond to what I write here.

I thought I would tackle this subject in stages, without being very sure, at this moment, what each stage would cover! My first contribution, though, has to be a reflection on my own ‘essential’ list of practical books on Zen.

Where does anyone begin? I bought my first book on Zen when I took a Christmas gift token into WH Smith, Sheffield, in 1977. It was Teach yourself Zen, by  – appropriately enough, I thought – Christmas Humphries!  It was the only book on Zen in the shop. Some years later, I wondered whether this was the same book that Van Morrison sang about reading in his lunch break (Cleaning Windows; Beautiful Vision; 1982). If it was, I wondered what he learned from it.  I didn’t learn much. Had I been looking for erudition I wouldn’t have been disappointed; but back then I needed something very simple and practical, and this really wasn’t it. As I recall it now, the book contained no practical information at all, which seemed ironic, given its ‘teach yourself’ title!  There is now a revised edition, by Stephen Hodge, which for all I know may fill in the gaps. As it was, I was rather put off by Teach Yourself Zen. Nor did I find myself any more at home leafing through Daisetz Teitaro Suzuki’s Essays in Zen Buddhism or Manual of Zen Buddhism in the library, in which books instructions for meditation were also noticeably absent. Both Humphries and Suzuki seemed content to write philosophical essays about the essential ‘Zen experience’ or Satori, the fundamental point of which seemed to be that until one had Satori, Zen was unapproachable.  It all felt chicken-and-egg. I don’t think Suzuki even mentioned zazen, still less explained how it’s done.

DT Suzuki had a pivotal role in popularising Rinzai Zen in the English-speaking world.  In the 1970s, his name was closely associated with Zen that it seemed to me he was Zen. Yet he presented a Zen that to me, as a complete beginner, was something unimaginably alien. His more genial and practice-based Rinzai Dharma brother, Nyogen Senzaki, was scarcely in print at that time (discounting his book with Paul Reps, Zen Flesh; Zen Bones, which is not a ‘how to do it’ book either); and if Alan Watts and the Tao Te Ching were not instruction manuals they were at least far more understandable than anything available from Messrs Humphries and Suzuki.

Looking back, I think that most of what was readily available 30 years ago (Zen Flesh; Zen Bones included) made a sterile fetish out of so-called  ‘encounter dialogues’, in which one could read that Zen master so and so once shouted at some nameless and dim-witted monk who appeared (to me, at least) to have asked a pretty fair question! However playful it all seemed, I was always an outsider looking in on these stories, vaguely aware that the joke was on me.  None of this would have mattered had there been temples and teachers to go to; but there weren’t.

In the UK there really was not all that much Buddhism outside London in the 1970s, and what there was very hard to find. In the end, it was at University that I met the first teachers able to show me how to meditate, and bought books that explained something I could understand and work with.  This happened to me in the context of the Friends of the Western Buddhist Order, and consequently the first books I read on Buddhism that I found remotely helpful were not Zen books. In fact, with the exception of Sangharakshita’s Essence of Zen (which is, in truth, yet another book that looks at Zen from the outside) I didn’t find anything useful on Zen until 1979, when, by a piece of extraordinary good fortune, I found a copy of Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind by Shunryu Suzuki Roshi in Applebaum’s bookshop, back in Sheffield. I’d dropped by to say hello to an old school friend (now my wife) who was working there, and the cost of that book might have been the best £2.25 I have ever spent! They’re both classics; and if there were one woman and one Zen book I was allowed to take to a desert island, these would be they!

The talks transcribed in Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind were given in the Soto Zen tradition, something that was new to me. Those confusing encounter dialogues, so beloved of DT Suzuki, were few, and the book was full of wonderfully direct, common sense about meditation practice. Even now, I find that this book has a depth to it that is refreshing every time I look at it. I’ve lost count how many times I’ve read it. 

When I found Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, I had already been meditating for a couple of years. However, I was doing it in a way that felt as if meditation was very much a means to an end, rather than being an expression of an end in itself. So here was a book that challenged me to re-examine what I was doing during meditation and to think about my practice in new ways.

Other works by Shunryu Suzuki Roshi are now in print. More of his talks are included in Not Always So; practising the true spirit of Zen and his commentary on the Sandokai (‘Identity of Relative and Absolute’) is available as Branching Streams Flow in the Darkness: Zen Talks on the Sandokai

Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind might lay claim to be the first in a genre of Buddhist writing: transcribed practice-based talks by an authorised teacher in a traditional Buddhist lineage for his or her European, north American and increasingly international Sangha (i.e. those people who want to practice Buddhism rather than merely study it intellectually). It is however a genre that is really aimed at people who have, as it were, already ‘bought into’ practice.  Thus, generally speaking, books of this kind do not give detailed instructions on how to sit. Nor do they explain exactly what to do in a zendo.  These are things one is expected to learn in person at a Zen centre. On the other hand, these books demand no specialist knowledge from the reader, as a rule. Anyone with an open mind might get something from them. Over the years, the talks of many Zen and other Buddhist teachers have become readily available in this format.  Anyone who has practised for a few years will have favourites; and I can’t possibly discuss all the choices that there now are.

For my part, I did not find anything else of value until around 1981, when I read two books by Trevor Leggett: A First Zen Reader and The Tiger’s Cave; Translations of Japanese Zen Texts.

As well as being a translator, Leggett held an eighth Dan black belt in Judo. I began to study the Japanese martial arts around that time, and was immediately attracted by Leggett’s background. As one would expect of a martial artist, his writing style and the selections translated in his books, were practice focused. However, like Humphreys and DT Suzuki, Leggett had a tendency to present Zen as somewhat out of reach, geographically, culturally and, some extent even, historically. So, I imagine these books are not for everyone. Nevertheless, I remember being particularly impressed by A First Zen Reader, which included a very fine commentary on Hakuin’s Song of Zazen that I read on a solitary retreat in North Wales. It is a book that does discuss zazen. Both books contain material from both the Soto and the Rinzai traditions.

I first came across the work of Robert Aitken Roshi after reading Colin Fuko Barber’s review of his book The Mind of Clover; Essays in Zen Buddhist Ethics, which Colin wrote for the Middle Way in 1984. This was a year or so after I had the great good fortune to find Zen Practice Centre, in Dulwich, and encounter Genpo Merzel Sensei (as he then was).  The Mind of Clover is a collection of essays covering the ten grave precepts taken in the Jukai ceremony. It also explores other themes relating to social engagement from a Zen perspective. Like other books I will mention, it bears repeated reading, and I’d recommend it to anyone who has taken, or is thinking of taking, Jukai.  

Robert Aitken has remained one of my favourite modern writers on Zen. I immediately liked his fluidly authentic and authoritative style of writing.  His explanations of Zen practice, and his uncompromising radicalism when addressing environmental and social issues, are lucid and engaging. I would recommend his 1983 book, Taking the Path of Zen, as one of the best introductions of Zen practice on the market. It is hard to imagine how it could be bettered, in my opinion. There may be no substitute for learning meditation practice face to face with an instructor, but this book leaves nothing out.

Aitken Roshi also wrote an excellent book about the ten paramitas in 1994 (The Practice of Perfection, the paramitas from a Zen Buddhist perspective), and his commentary on the Mumonkan koan collection repays careful study as well (The Gateless Barrier, the Wu-men Kuan  (Mumonkan)).

Like Aitken Roshi’s Taking the Path of Zen, The Three Pillars of Zen, by Roshi Philip Kapleau, is aimed at the beginner. I didn’t open this book until about 1985; and have never read it from cover to cover. Nevertheless, I do remember wishing that I could have found it a few years earlier.  I was not much interested in the material on students’ ‘enlightenment’ experiences (which are probably best read with a healthy dose of scepticism anyway!), but the 12 introductory lectures by Hakuun Yasutani Roshi made a very big impression on me.  I went on to re-read those lectures many times with my Zen group in Exeter, in the late 1980s and early 1990s. They’re an excellent introduction to Zen practice, particularly for anyone studying within the White Plum teaching lineage, which he helped to shape.       

Around the same time I discovered that, in the late 1970s, the Zen Center of Los Angeles had published a series of volumes on Zen practice, edited by Maezumi Roshi and Tetusgen Glassman Sensei (as he then was). When I first saw these they made a big impression on me. They are available today as On Zen Practice: Body, Breath and Mind and The Hazy Moon of Enlightenment.  They include a series of fabulous talks by Daiun Harada Roshi, Koryu Osaka Roshi, Hakuun Yasutani Roshi, Ku’un Yamada Roshi and, of course, Taizan Maezumi Roshi.  They are excellent, in my opinion; and I would have said they are essential reading for anyone training in Maezumi Roshi’s lineage. I will also mention here that, in 2001, an excellent collection of talks by Maezumi Roshi was published as Appreciate your Life, the essence of Zen practice. There is also The Teaching of the Great Mountain; Zen Talks by Taizan Maezumi, which came out in the same year. I particularly value that book because it contains some brilliant talks that I was fortunate enough to hear Maezumi Roshi give in 1987.

Another book, dating from the 1970s, I’d often see in bookshops and libraries in the 1980s and 1990s was Zen Training: Methods and Philosophy, by Katsuki Sekida. I understood that there was a certain amount of controversy surrounding this book; largely, I think, because Sekida’s ideas about breathing in zazen were idiosyncratic. The controversy put me off looking at his book until recently, when I began thinking seriously about zazen as a somatic practice, rather than merely a study of the mind. Now that I have read it, I am not at all sure that the reservations I’d heard were  justified. Certainly, the discussions of breathing I’ve read by Suzuki Roshi, Koryu Roshi and Maezumi Roshi are more orthodox; and much of what Sekida said about breathing is more consistent with the teachings of Qi Gong and the so-called internal martial arts than Zen. Therefore, I suppose, it will objected that ideas about focussing breath energy in the Seika Tanden are Daoist cultivation methods, unlike the Shikantaza of Soto Zen. Nevertheless, I do not think it hurts to experiment; and I am more and more convinced that there is much to be learned from a study of breathing. Sekida’s  approach to his subject was anyway original and thought provoking; and I think that he came up with some lucid and stimulating ways to explain how the stillness of zazen emerges. His explanation of three ‘nen-actions’, or three kinds of thought-impulse, is also deserving of attention.  Although I would not recommend his book to an absolute beginner ahead of more orthodox accounts, such as those mentioned above, I think it is worthy of the attention of anyone who has a few years’ meditation experience.

When I lived in Devon, I sometimes had the opportunity to visit Sharpham House and to sit weekend retreats with Stephen Batchelor and Martine Fages, from whom I had a taste of ‘meditative questioning’ in the Korean Zen style, as taught to them by Kusan Sunim.  In 1988, Genpo Merzel Sensei was encouraging his students to sit with the question, “what is it?” Martine had translated and published an excellent book of talks by Kusan Sunim called The Way of Korean Zen in 1985, which explored the practice of working with this question. Stephen, who has published a number of well-known and very stimulating books exploring his own understanding of Buddhist practice, also published, The Faith to Doubt: Glimpses of Buddhist Uncertainty, around then. The Faith to Doubt is not presently in print, and in my opinion it really ought to be. It has some very valuable things to say about meditative questioning as a practice. I found it very helpful in my koan study.

Since we are StoneWater, I must mention The Elements of Zen and Way of Zen! The Elements of Zen was published in 1992. When Keizan Sensei first asked me to help with research, I wondered why we were writing it. It seemed to me that there were already some excellent books available about Zen practice and I wondered what we could usefully add. How little did I know? The book sold well enough to be reprinted; and it was translated into about six foreign languages. Occasionally people still tell me they learned a lot from it, and I know that Sensei sometimes hears the same.  It did seem to fill a niche in the market. If it were ever to be republished, it would need to be updated in some respects, but if anyone wanted to buy an old copy it could be bought for a penny on Amazon, the last time I looked! Way of Zen (2001) by Sensei and Tenshin Fletcher Roshi covers some of the same ground and can also still be found. It is better printed and contains a much richer explanation of the origins of Zen than does The Elements of Zen.

Essential written works for a Soto Zen Sangha cannot leave out Dogen Zenji’s instructions for beginners, contained in his Fukanzazengi (recommendations for the practice of zazen). There are many published translations of Fukanzazengi. One, to which I refer quite a lot, by Carl Bielefelt, appears in On Zen Practice, together with a commentary by Taizan Maezumi Roshi.  Another one that I like is to be found in How to Raise an Ox; Zen practice as taught in Zen Master Dogen’s Shobogenzo, by Francis Dojun Cook (which also boasts a forward by Taizan Maezumi Roshi). 

I first encountered Fukanzazengi in 1983, when I went to sit once in a while with a Zen group in Chesterfield, affiliated to Throssel Hole Priory.  It’s my impression that, at the Priory, people learn what they call the “Zazen Rules” by heart and recite them regularly. Listening to the Chesterfield group do this, I was struck by Dogen’s uncompromising argument that the practice is the goal and the very act of taking the full or half lotus position is Satori itself. My feeling today is that Dogen wanted us to understand that what he wrote in Fukanzazengi is literally the case. If practice is the goal and the practice is the posture of meditation, then the posture of meditation is also the goal.  I feel that this is Dogen’s open secret; and I would say that I overlooked it in my original enthusiasm to understand Zen to the extent that I didn’t spend enough time working with my meditation posture. This of course is bodywork, and not discursive study of the kind to be learned from books. However, I have found it helpful, in working with posture, to read Balance of Body: Balance of Mind; A Rolfer’s Vision of Buddhist Practice in the West (1993) and The Posture of Mediation, a Practical Manual for Meditators of all Traditions (1996), both by Will Johnson, and more recently, Touching Enlightenment by Reginald Ray, who studied with the Tibetan teacher, Trungpa Rimpoche (and whose book I would especially recommend). 

Tony Shinro Doubleday