The Circle of the Way by Barbara O'Brien – Behind the Scenes in Zen-dom (book review)

The Circle of the Way by Barbara O’Brien (Shambhala Publications)

The Circle of the Way by Barbara O’Brien (Shambhala Publications) is an ambitious attempt to accomplish two key approaches in understanding Buddhist history. as our perspectives of Buddhism have broadened (and hopefully also deepen). First, the re-telling of Buddhist history is marked by a dropping off unexamined stories as we acknowledge and cope with its romanticization and impact of its appropriation by the West. Second, as we become more aware of the complex intersectionality of our inner and outer environments, aspects of Buddhist philosophy and practices that may not address the issues in our times are being deeply questioned.

Academic and popular press publications in the last few years have been sharp examinations of what we think are the roots of Buddhism and reshaped what we believe are its principles. Author/scholars like David McMahan, Erik Braun, and Ann Gleig have provided incisive and insightful challenges to Western views and uses of Buddhism. Ira Helderman and Candy Gunther Brown have brought attention to naivete in thinking that the complex religious and sometimes political field of Buddhism can be neatly flipped into Western psychological practices with impunity.

This is a time of choppy waters and sudden storms whether one is a historian, researcher, practitioner, or student of Western Buddhism. In this context, O’Brien’s book is a brave one, especially if we place it in the lineage of previous authors who tried to make sense of the fables and enduring mythology of Zen history.

In the introduction, she confronts head-on the muddiness of Zen history, the knowledge we prefer to have avoided: broken lineages, (purposely?) muddied history, dogma, assumptions of a linear progression from Theravada to Mahayana – even the assumptions that the latter is the evolution away from a less developed form of Buddhism. Of course, there’s also the erasure of the feminine lineage, the wise women of Zen. (While searching for the published books on Zen women, I happened across this blog, Zen Women.) This is a lot to take on and I’m tentative about saying that O’Brien, despite being a scholar in the field, does it all to the degree that is required. Then again, I doubt any historian committed to a transparent investigation of several thousand years of the history of anything could do full justice to the topic.

The first two chapters offer a rich and complex story of Buddhism and then Zen. More particularly, it places “The Six (or so) Patriarchs” in the context of a wildly developing region whose political capriciousness is as much Zen-ish as are the teachings and teachers who cooked in that broth. When O’Brien describes Zen as it made its way through China’s geography and political turmoil, the going gets a bit rough. There’s too much to put into the chapters and the interactions become complex. It’s not a criticism of the author as an acknowledgment that trying to convey this part of history as a thick understanding is difficult for reasons that lie in the modern mind.

First, we do love our thin slices of Zen history, the dramatis personna and their perplexing statements of our quality of mind. The wild, often inebriated teachers, chopping off arms and fingers, cutting up felines and making perplexing exits with slippers as hats have appeal far more than the emperors, concubines, and their progeny who stymied or advanced Buddhism.

Second, we love a linear, logical progression in both our lives and those of others. We also love a Just World where the good are rewarded and bad punished. That it contradicts all manner of understanding of Buddhism in general and karma, in particular, is a cheap delusion. The messiness of Buddhism’s history means no one has the right view but it is, itself, a Right View. And that in turn means, we need to stop waving our mind flags and get down to the real work of Buddhist practice.

O’Brien has made a valiant effort and the challenge of getting through the middle part of the book is a personal one. I am too much a fan of the brazenness of Ikkyu and the morose Dogen. So, I do encourage you, Dear Reader, to persist through to the last chapter, Zen in the Modern World. Or perhaps, start there at the finish. If we can tolerate a different view of our perspectives of our present history, moving back in time may not be so discomforting. (Spoiler: O’Brien thankfully does not give the current cultism of secular or what a colleague calls “bubblegum mindfulness” any space. I’m grateful!)

Book Review: Just Enough – more than just a cookbook.

Gesshin Claire Greenwood, author of Just Enough: Vegan recipes and stories from Japan’s Buddhist temples and the popular blog , That’s So Zen, has put together a tantalizing book of practice disguised as a cookbook. Taking a page out of her blog post, How to Hack an Academic Book, I will admit I stayed close to the tasty parts of each chapter and tended the file the recipes away for a kitchen test in the future.

Greenwood writes with a delicious style, never pushing the components of her experience or expecting them to zap us with insight and release from suffering. But maybe they do because I did have several moments about broth, bamboo, and ramen noodles.

SIDEBAR: My Grandestdaughter called me on the “last evening I will be 5, Pika,” to explain that being six the next day would involve “rum and noodles!” I understand my daughter has taken her cooking skills to enviable heights but this modern parenting seems excessively licentious.

Greenwood was an ordained nun in a Japanese temple and writes with an ease and flow that speaks well of her embodied practice. To my joy, she begins with oryoki – likely my favourite part of a sesshin and the most challenging for someone with an approach-avoidance relationship to food. In her hands, the ritual of eating from three (or five) bowls becomes a practice of experiencing “just enough” and an art of finding freedom in ritual. In Broth, she walks us through the very potent sense of the “stink of Zen”; I emerged too afraid to check the miso paste in my fridge. Still, it is a powerful truth that if your Zen practice dominates the landscape of your life, it’s likely not your life anymore. And, much of Just Enough – as with any cooking – is about reclaiming our life slice by slice.

So, we “practice in secret, like a fool, like an idiot”, freeing ourselves of the chaotic circumstances of mind and environment. Then, as she instructs the cooks in Bamboo, we learn how to transform the ingredients of our life that are by nature poisonous into nourishing delicacies. Relationships are prominent in Greenwood’s book. Naturally. After all, what is Zen if not relational. What is any practice if not relational. How else can we adapt without an irritation, a bruise, a graze of whatever will scrape the peel off, soften the tough shell of Self.

Just Enough Lust is delightful if only for the deep truth that “life is too short to eat plain cabbage dumplings.” No, seriously. It’s not long enough to wash out the bland of spiceless, limp, dough boiled to imperfection. (Try some harissa or Korean red peppers, btw!) And it’s about balance. Circling back to Broth, Greenwood teaches the value of using ingredients in a way that they are almost “too much but not too much.” Now that’s a lifetime practice.

SIDEBAR: My mother eventually became an amazing cook. None of us could replicate her dishes no matter how much time she spent showing us what to do. Her instructions were always “just put a teaspoon” of (whatever spice) into the (whatever dish it was). She used a plastic spoon from some picnic we must have gone to, clearly a magic spoon, and coveted by all the generations. When I decided to calibrate it – yes, I’m that obsessive – everyone laughed, until we discovered the “teaspoon” actually held a tablespoon of spices.

Greenwood’s point is not to make us terrific Japanese vegan cooks. That would be lovely but perhaps an unrealistic expectation. In Ramen, she argues* for a “throwing away” of our preconceptions of how a dish should turn out or how our life should turn out. It touches on that sense of entitlement we all have about our right to have X-Y-Z because we did U-V-W. As if life is ever that linear and compliant.

Life, like practice and cooking, is best approached with abandon, spiced with an apprentice-mind and a willingness also to let go of incompatible ingredients. When Zen, recipes, and personality become a protective gear against being vulnerable and open to that one continuous mistake, it’s time to find fire the the stove and cooking.

*In How to Hack an Academic Book, Greenwood writes: “2. Hunt for the phrase “I argue” in the introduction.” I didn’t put this in the Introduction.

Quintessential Watts

Zen – A short introduction with illustrations by the author by Alan Watts (New World Library) is unbelievable at many levels. Small – actually tiny – yet huge in what it promises. Can Zen be compressed into a short telling? Most important, can it be introduced?

Or perhaps Zen only has this formidable mythology of something one drowns in, surrenders to, arises within. The brilliance of Watts writings is so clear and precise, unstintingly sharp and demanding. Still, it’s hard to imagine Zen captured in a slim volume one quarter a thumb’s length.

Prefaced by Shinge Roko Sherry Chayat, Zen (originally published in 1947 in England was published in 1948 and in the US at the same time as the second edition The Spirit of Zen. Watts intended Zen to be a “corrective to the first edition” and, as Chayat notes, it was also an expression of his growing disenchantment with Christianity. What we are left with then is a journey through the evolution of Zen through the eyes of a teacher, at once at ease and discomfited by the profound awareness Zen can evoke.

There is nothing that men desire more than life – the fullness of life, Reality itself.

And, this desire easily slides into a craving that kills the life as “(l)ife drawn from the stream is no longer living water, for it ceases to flow.” Watts recognizes that all religions are a way of trying to grasp this mystery and the paradox is to release the hold on that desire.

Watts outlines the influences out of which Zen emerges. A short line drawn from Brahminism to Mahayana prompts a quick dismantling of our thin understanding of non-dual reality. Through Taoism, Watts highlights the flowing power of wu-wei. Contrasting Indian Buddhism with Chinese, there’s an implication of shift from a desire to transcend life to freeing the life to be what is it. Out of this “Momentous Harmony, Zen emerges as the “finger pointing to the moon”. Not a set of beliefs on how to be but a way of being fully alive.

There is only one place where we are truly alive, where we come into immediate contact with Reality and that is now
the present moment.

While Watts is precise in his description and explanations of the complexity of Zen, he is also cautious – frequently reminding us that these words too as prone to mislead us, quickly and easily.

The book closes with a commentary on the cultural impact of Zen in poetry and art. Haiku, brush painting, tea, and gardening are only a few domains of its influence. In all, Zen allows for an experience of harmony in asymmetry and a creative, wordless pointing to life as it is.

Zen is a welcomed re-addition to our shelves. It reminds us through its simple presentation that our striving is an unnecessary waste of the power of life. It tucks itself into the shoulder bag and heart easily – as easy as taking a breath; as easy as putting down the weight of desire.

Final thoughts: Because of the excellent work by scholars like Ann Gleig (American Dharma) and Ira Helderman (Prescribing the Dharma), I’ve become more aware of the origins of Western approaches to Buddhism and how we have filtered it through our cultural and psychological needs. While Watts’ Zen opens a window into the origins and practices of one aspect of Buddhism, it is a product of its time and culture. And, briefly, his need to fit Buddhism/Zen into a Christian template surfaces. Still, I think he does better than most in allowing Zen to be Zen. Without apologizing for his perspective (as it arises from his own zeitgeist), I am sympathetic of it and remain attentive to how mine evolves.

Book Review: American Dharma by Ann Gleig

Book Cover American dharma by Ann GliegJust when I thought I had caught up with the winding path Buddhism took from Siddhartha to Asoka to Buddhist Modernism via McMahan and Braun, American Dharma adds another step in the evolution of Buddhism in the West. Author and scholar Ann Gleig brings an incisive and insightful examination of Buddhism’s adaptation, shapeshifting, and co-creation by Western perspectives of its root philosophy. In fact, Gleig’s reading of this path (as with McMahan and Braun) questions whether there was ever a root philosophy. And that takes us directly to the anxiety-provoking thought: Is Buddhism only what we decide it is?

Here, I need to disclose that Gleig includes our work in confronting the misconceptions of the psychologized form of Buddhism called Mindfulness. More specifically, my colleagues and I have attempted to address the self-identification of Mindfulness-Based Interventions/Programs (MBIs) with Buddhism/not Buddhism. (I will forebear jokes about self/not-self.) Gleig is generous in covering our concerns that MBIs while attempting valiantly to siphon in Buddhist concepts and practice, fall short of what is required to be Buddhist teachings in spirit if not exactly in design. I’ll have more to say about that further down.

For now, let’s take an overview of Gleig’s incisive thoughts about Buddhism and the shapes it took in Western culture. Drawing from McMahan’s and Braun’s extensive work, Gleig carefully describes the cultural (and political) imperative that shaped Buddhism from the time of Ledi Sayadaw which placed meditation at the heart of Buddhist practice. The passing on of the torch is traced further from U Ba Khin, Mahasi Sayadaw and their own students, with the most influential being Goenka who (aling with Thai Forest monks) eventually influenced the American phalanx of Buddhism: Jack Kornfield, Joseph Goldstein, Sharon Salzberg, Sylvia Boorstein and the founding of the East and West Coast Insight Meditation Societies.

Gleig explores, with a remarkably balanced perspective, the explosion of Buddhist-based practices with Chapter Two: From the Mindfulness Revolution to the Mindfulness Wars. This is a particularly important chapter because it lays out the reality that it doesn’t matter whether we have subverted Buddhism to support our Western consumer-mind. If we have yet to address issues of disadvantage that are misogyny, racialization, and abuse, Buddhism qua mindfulness is only a mirror of our corrupted values. And, it becomes a weaponized approach to maintaining the status quo. This topic of disenfranchisement is powerfully explored in Chapter Five: The Dukkha of Racism, Gleig unmasks the attempts to change “racial rearticulation” which is

the acquisition of the beliefs and practices of another’s religious tradition and infusing them with new meaning derived from one’s own culture in ways that preserve the prevailing system of racial hegemony (From Cheah quoted in Chapter One).

Chapter Five is sad to read yet from the undertones of disappointment in our limitations to understand how we hurt each other through erasure, there is some hope that with pain comes insight into the suffering caused. Personally, I deeply resonate with “The Empty Seat” (that painful space left on either side of me when I sit at any table – meeting, gathering, socializing) and felt seen by the reading of it.

But back to Chapter Two where Gleig addresses the surge of mindfulness in its multitudinous forms of psychological programs, wellness movements, and “woo-vending”, a fantastic term coined by Philip Theofanos in his article here. The central criticism of mindfulness as a secularized and psychologized process (not practice) is repeatedly that “ethics are stripped” from its content. I’m stepping out of the container of this review by inserting my ongoing stance to this criticism: ethics are both implicit and explicit in the teachings of mindfulness. Dare I say in teaching anything. As such, the battle lines of ethics-protectors (ethics must be included in MBIs) and ethics-dismissives (ethics are implicit in MBIs or would be oppressive to teach) are missing the point. It’s impossible to teach any concept without immediately hoisting the flag of one’s inclinations as well as value-ridden approaches, and that requires full transparency (see Gunther Brown’s chapter in this linked page) as well as self-awareness. However, there is much gold to mine in the hills of conflict, even if generating that conflict is somewhat in conflict itself with the essence of Buddhist thought. And that essence is living a life that is congruent in its intention to do no harm and to test one’s actions against its consequences.

One interview mentioned in Gleig’s impressive references is between Edo Shonin and Jon Kabat-Zinn. Although Gleig uses it to support the view that secular/psychologized mindfulness has value, the interview points directly to the many reasons the discussion of MBIs are so confusing. Kabat-Zinn, both in this interview and innumerable other sources continually dances between “it’s Buddhist” and “it’s not-Buddhist” – I would add there is a hint of “it’s not-not-Buddhist” too. However, this chapter is worthy of a careful read if we hope to understand the convulsive route secular mindfulness has taken to ensure it doesn’t offend anyone.

Of course, the most reliable evidence we have that ethics-in or ethics-out requires more than posturing is this evidence of sexual predators within Buddhist communities. Chapter Three: Sex, Scandal and the Shadow of the Roshi is an excellent dissection of yet another way Buddhists fail to see their dismissal of secular/psychologized mindfulness because of its “stripping away of ethics” begs the question. Further, the connection Gleig makes between Buddhist Romanticism and Buddhist Modernism is crucial to understanding the reasons Western Buddhism has taken on the allure of self-help and the mantel of psychology. This is also covered in Chapter Four: Meditation and Awakening in the American Vipassana Network where we meet the varied branchings out of the vipassana practices into addiction, pragmatism, emotional and relational health, and so on.

In Chapter Seven, aptly titled From Boomers to Gen X, Gleig sets the stage for future generations. Noting the heavy lay slant in the Gen X cohort of young teachers, I wonder about the possible loss of historical memory of what Buddhism is and how Buddhism is to become (though they just need this book to ensure fidelity to the path). However, despite its efforts to rise above the previous generation’s missteps, it was noted in the first gathering of Boomer/Gen X teachers that Gen X may be creating its own blindspot of a “progressive America”. Time will tell.

In all, Gleig has dug deep and carved thick slices of understanding the historical evolution and societal forces that created Buddhism.America. It’s a powerful and unstinting gaze leveled at our misunderstanding of how Buddhism came to be in the West and what it represents in American culture (I can include Canadian culture to some degree because so much of where we train and what we learn comes from south of the 49th parallel). This is a book for the person who wants to strip away the illusion that is currently Buddhism so that they can discern whether it’s self-improvement, awakening, or therapy that they seek.

For the academics of MBI trainers, the look on your students’ and trainees’ faces is worth gold when you talk about the long and winding road that is Western Buddhism! I’ve already made it required reading for my University of Toronto course on Buddhist Mindfulness approaches to Mental Health!

Book Review: Zen Beyond Mindfulness – Folding the Abhidhamma into a Western psychology I

Zen Beyond Mindfulness: Using Buddhist and modern psychology for transformational practice by Jules Shuzen Harris (Shambhala Publications) presents some very intricate Buddhist psychological concepts interwoven with a Western psychological model of Mind Body Bridging.

Shuzen Harris is a Zen teacher and dharma heir of Roshi Pat Enkyo O’Hara and a psychotherapist trained in the MBB approach of psychotherapy. In Zen Beyond Mindfulness, he brings together an in-depth exploration of a select set of concepts from the Abhidhamma and the psycho-educational framework of MBB. The approach, ironically, flips the usual East-West weave by setting the Abhidhamma as the cognitive process with the MBB as the body-centered, experiential approach. It takes a moment to see that are the infrastructure of Shuzen Harris’ model.

With the glut of Buddhist-W.Psychology integration books, there is a risk that the essence of either or Buddhism or Western psychology becomes a makeover, not a crossover. Zen Beyond Mindfulness manages to avoid the makeover; yet, it perhaps sets up strong boundaries between the two that is not as easily bridged as one would hope. Still, the book offers an interesting start point that is rarely seen in this genre.

Suzen Harris’ teachings on the skandhas are insightful, definitively showing them as the formation of consciousness by which we connect with our inner process rather than heaps we should be diving into. Tying in the five common factors, he draws a rich picture of how we relate to the world through our ego, patterns, and desires.

Understanding the dynamic of skandhas and common factors is an important system for the beginning practitioner whose impulse in seeking out the Path is to find a way to relate to the external world. Granted, it’s often because we have a misunderstanding that by knowing how we relate to the external world, we can then control that world and by extension, control our reactivities to it. It’s the bugbear of all psychotherapies – and Buddhist practice.

Zen Beyond Mindfulness then incorporates the twelve links of dependent origination as the granular view of the creation of our cyclic patterns of suffering. Of particular note for me was his description of ignorance which moves the term away from lack to a process we can shift through observation:

Normally ignorance means a lack of knowledge, but in Buddhism, it is closer to “ignoring.” p. 51

Once we enter the six realms, I was wishing we had an interactive map that showed the interactions of the skandhas, common factors, dependent origination, and now, the six realms! However, the book is meant to be read slowly, allowing consolidation of the concepts and not as a “quick give me the answer to my woes!” For the sake of transformation, I appreciated the time Shuzen Harris took with each chapter: laying out the model, showing its connection to fundamental Buddhist teachings, tying it back to the previous models, and moving it forward.

Having laid the foundations, we are moved into the Mind Body Bridging model, which in my reading seems to be a way of using the Body Scan with written reflections that explore our assumptions and self-made rules of how the world should serve us. The I(dentity)-System was developed by physician Stanley Block and is intended to uncover that ways the identity we developed to survive developmentally have become obstacles to healthy relationships. The I-System overactivity becomes the cause of our symptoms of distress.

m the MMB page

The latter half of Zen Beyond Mindfulness is the reflective exercises (many written) that open us to the ways we get in our way. I found it hard to link back to the Buddhist framework so carefully set up, although it is there in the chapters themselves. Experientially, it takes a bit of (non)doing. In Shuzen Harris’ own words, some of the concepts may be artificial delineations of this-that and sometimes those divisions can be misleading for readers less familiar with Buddhism’s core foundation of emptiness/sunyata.

I can certainly recommend the book for practitioners (zen or not) who want to spend some introspective time exploring their edges. However, the words “beyond mindfulness” beg the question of anything being “beyond” in the Buddhist worldview – except just plain going beyond. Svaha!

authors & publicists

I’m willing to consider reviewing books that are in line with the theme of this blog. Books about mindfulness, Buddhist practice, compassion, or mental health are welcome. I do not review books that promote violence, racism or make unsubstantiated claims about the Power of X. But I do run out of firestarters for the wood stove, so thank you for that.

Please be generous. If I review your book, pass it on in your social media. Even if I didn’t like your book. It’s your chance to write a better review.

Please use my correct name when contacting me: Lynette. Depending on how we may know each other Dhammaji, Chân Diệu Thi or Genju are all acceptable.

Not Lynn, Lynne, Lyn, Lime, Lise, Linet, or any of the 108 variations available.

Thank you, Lynette

The Day the Buddha Woke Up: A handful of words from a handful of leaves

Note bene: This book was received from the publisher for review.

The Day the Buddha Woke Up by Andrea Miller is a surprisingly delicate presentation of a story every Buddhist has heard over and over. (I was about to write that it is a story Buddhists have heard but I wonder if we’ve ever really heard the story.) I knew Miller’s book was a board book when I agreed to review it, despite reservations about a genre I associate with my daughter’s early bedtime stories or – more often – her early attempts at training as a pitcher for the Blue Jays baseball team! I was tentative.

Miller is an editor at Lion’s Roar and the author of what seems to be a delightful book, My First Book of Canadian Birds, and lives in Nova Scotia. One does not simply walk into a book review of an editor with these chops though I feel a bit more reassured now as I write this.

The Day the Buddha Woke Up is a delightfully written and illustrated book. The back cover says it’s “the heart of the Buddha’s story in a handful of words.” The direct and unsparing writing suggests it’s the handful of words containing the handful of leaves the Buddha held up when he said, “this is what I have taught you.”

The story of the Buddha’s life from birth to enlightenment is told in simple words accompanied by rich and incredibly textured illustrations that form the container of the script. From the sweet drawing of the baby-to-be-Buddha held in maternal arms to his journey through ascetic practices, from the sadness of home-leaving to sitting down under a tree, the story fills out and overflows into your imagination.

Sometimes, I think we read things with too many words.

This little book can be enough.