the endless training of zen: book review of A Guide to Zen

Zen training is without beginning and without end.  Some days, when the petty ego takes over and the arbitrary lines are drawn between past and future or gain and failure, that’s a bitter pill to swallow.  On those days, it’s helpful to have a guide that takes the sting out of whatever thought may drift by about gaining and failing.

Katsuki Sekida, author of Zen Training and Two Zen Classics, a translation of the Mumokan and Blue Cliff Records, was a teacher of English and trained in monasteries in Japan.  Editor of this condensation of Sekida’s earlier work, Marc Allen was one of his students at the Maui Zendo and has distilled Sekida’s teachings in a compact, helpful book for beginner and more advanced students of Zen.

Sekida starts with practice.  Acknowledging that Zen is “concerned with the problem of the nature of mind,” he makes it clear from the outset that the workings of mind (speculation and reason) are not separate from personal practice which arise from our body and mind.  Unlike most books on Zen practice which give slight service to posture and breathing, Sekida begins with two chapters detailing posture and breath work.  It’s not just about sitting and different poses; he digs deep into the experience of the breath and unravels the questions we have about the relationship between sitting immobile and the nature of mind.  More than any other book I’ve read, he digs deeply into the physiology of breath and there are some useful practices that surface from this part of the book.

I particularly liked the chapter on Samadhi,

the cleansing of consciousness,
and when consciousness is purified,
emancipation is, in fact, already accomplished.

Complicated words.  Sekida slowly and deliciously unpacks them through his definitions of absolute and positive samadhi and the phases of each. Using Linji’s categorization of the conditions of mind, Sekida describes the permutations and combinations of inner and outer focus (concerns) in clear and easily comprehensible terms.  He also makes an important point of self-mastery as the difference between true samadhi and false samadhi.   This, of course, is my hobby-horse – that litmus test between mindfulness based in ethics and mindfulness as a utilitarian strategy for the petty ego.

Sekida also clarifies the experience of kensho in one simple sentence (underlined below):

It may be, therefore, that the sound of a stone striking a bamboo trunk, or the sight of blossoms, makes a vivid impression, and you experience the wonderful moment of realization we call kensho. In this moment, you seem to see and hear beautiful things, but the truth is that you yourself have become beautiful and exalted.  Kensho is the recognition of your own purified mind.

It doesn’t get more transparent than that.

The book ends with a chapter on the Ox Herding Series.  I found it lovely but too much of a shift away from the dropping deep process of practice and realization of mind that marked the previous chapters.  Nevertheless, Sekida does offer some interesting links of his concepts of the physiology of practice and the spiritual metaphor of herding the Ox as steps in cultivating samadhi.  At times it seems prescriptive or predictive of what might happen as practice progresses.  At times it is reassuring that even on the journey of finding and mastering the Ox, there are ebbs and flows of gaining and failing.  I appreciated this the most in Sekida’s teaching: the Ox Herder is not simply a master of the capture and taming but truly the Everyman, vulnerable yet full of potential.

Finally, kudos to Marc Allen for putting together a very portable book packed full of generous teachings.  It’s one I will certainly stick in my pack and pull out often.

7 thoughts on “the endless training of zen: book review of A Guide to Zen

  1. Pingback: Zenful Reminder at Bedtime | Navigating Vita

  2. Katsuki Sekida was so sweet and modest and unassuming — he wouldn’t even let us call him a teacher, saying he was “just a layman.” Yet he was a powerful teacher, no doubt about it, with every word and deed. He reminded me of Suzuki Roshi and also (maybe this is odd…) of Eckhart Tolle: Each of those three men had/have an ocean of calmness and serenity about them. You get the feeling that nothing could ever possibly upset them or destroy their piece of mind. And Sekida was a BRILLIANT writer — his English was impeccable, needing no editing at all. His enthusiasm about his favorite subject — ZEN — was unbounded, and his two books are classics.

    • Thanks for sharing your love for such a wonderful teacher, Marc. I am touched by any teacher who refuses to be caught by the idealization and elevation of the role. I chuckled at your side bar of Tolle. I may have to come to terms with him. 😉

      I look forward to more books from you!

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