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: Grass Flute Master Yokoyama & the fragrance that spread a thousand ri

I saw zazen as a posture bestowed upon me by the Buddha
Sodo Yokoyama

The Grass Flute Zen Master: Sodo Yokoyama is a long-awaited work by American author and translator, Arthur Braverman. Epitomizing the essentialist philosophy of Zen, Yokoyama is known for his ascetic life, living in a bamboo grove of Kaikoen Park in Komoro City, Japan, writing calligraphic teachings for any passerby who wanted to receive them. Braverman wrote of his connection to Yokoyama in 2005 and the undertones of his longing to pass on the ineffable beauty of Yokoyama’s life are compelling.

“I sit here every day with the exception of three, when I go to Antaiji in Kyoto for my teacher’s memorial ceremony,” he told me when I visited him at the park some thirty years ago, and he added, “It’s an easy life.” I never forgot that “It’s an easy life.” His zazen was “easy” because he left everything to the posture. He said, “Zazen is an ordinary person as he always is, becoming a buddha.” (Lion’s Roar, July 1, 2005)

Later Braverman’s interview with Yokoyama’s only student Jôkô Shibata offered further insight into his diligent if austere practice.

Antaiji, a small temple in the northeast corner of Kyoto, was under the charge of Uchiyama Kôshô Roshi, a long time disciple and dharma heir of Sawaki Roshi, when Jôkô joined the practice there. He had read Uchiyama’s first book and decided to become a monk and study under the master. Yokoyama Roshi had lived together with his younger brother disciple Uchiyama Roshi at Antaiji for eight years and then in 1957 moved to Komoro. He visited Antaiji once a year from then on for the memorial celebration for Sawaki Roshi. It was during one of these visits that Jôkô met his future teacher for the first time. ‘I saw my teacher in zazen posture,’ he said, ‘and made up my mind immediately to study under him.’ (from: Hey Bro! Can You Spare Some Change)

Yokoyama appears to have this effect as both Braverman and Shibata feel drawn to him because of the utter simplicity of his life. I wrote about this attraction in a review of The Zen Teaching of Homeless Kôdô by Kosho Uchiyama and Shokaku Okumura (Wisdom Publications).

Yokoyama and (his teacher) Sawaki Kôdô lived very different lives. Who is to say which is better or which had more impact. What is more relevant is our attraction to one or the other. Or neither. Experiencing that moving towards, pulling away is the essence of Buddhadharma, the kindling point of our transformation. Not because we land on one or the other’s way of life – that way lies guru adoration and the cult of personality. To experience that desire for homelessness, for simplicity, for a life struck through with offering is also to experience our desires, motivations, and intentions in all its fallibility and unexpected mercies. (108 Zen Books, June 17, 2015)

Braverman’s book begins his arranged meeting with Shibata in Komoro City and in good zen style, he begins with the waiting. Waiting for his order of noodles as he waits for Jôkô. Waiting for the memories to flow in their typical unordered way, waiting for pockets of sensibility to fall into. Waiting for a teacher is the underlying theme, running parallel with the searching and the longing. In Braverman’s words there is a longing to understand – how was Yokoyama influenced by his own teachers, by artists and poets of his time – and to understand only that the wanting is neither sufficient nor satisfactory. However, the side trips to the poet Toson and the various people who populate the surroundings of Kaikoen Park give life to the container in which Yokoyama lived his practice, literally outside in the park and outside of the institutions of Zen. In that, Yokoyama is not different from his teacher, “Homeless” Kodo Sawaki and other lineage teachers Hakuin and Bankei. For them, the marrow of practice is the only requirement for living. Braverman writes:

Truly creative teachers can do nothing else. So it was with other great teachers like Hakuin and Bankei, to name two from the other major Zen sect in Japan. What eventually happens, once institutions are formed to follow the ways of these masters, is a slow decline of the original spirit and a dependence on forms and dogmas that water down the true teaching of the founders (p. 39).

The Grass Flute Zen Master is a slowly winding journey through Braverman’s connections and memories of Yokoyama, interspersed with his views of Zen. However, the heart of the book is in his reproductions and exploration of Yokoyama’s waka.

Years ago
meditating in the mountains
a pheasant appeared
and stared
at my zazen.
p. 83

Braverman notes that “my”, being assumed in the Japanese version, is an insertion for (Western) clarity. I wondered if that is the subtle cause of the myriad problems Western Buddhism has.

Yokoyama also brushed poems for his dharma brother, Kosho Uchiyama, a poignant humbling of what he may have felt were his shortcomings

Mother and Father
Brothers and Sisters 
Forgive me
A child without a home

More than mother
More than father
More than brothers and sisters
I love the mountains and rivers
How pitiful!
p. 85-86

Still, the question Braverman takes us to, the question that hangs over all our heads as we sit zazen in all our postures, is perhaps the heart of practice: Why bother? What does a homeless monk, an itinerant teacher in a park, a wandering mendicant contribute? It is reassuring to see the answer is no different from Bodhidharma’s to the Emperor: No merit.

And yet… there is a fragrance that spreads a thousand ri – everywhere.

Zazen is becoming a Buddha while you are a deluded person.
Sodo Yokoyama

Book review: Watts still luminous after 46 years

84564Psychotherapy East & West, published in 1961, has been re-published by New World Library, looking refreshed and rather smart in an orange-is-the-new-seduction cover. Considering the social frame of The Sixties, one would expect Watts to have aged poorly into the 21st century with its dramatically different technology and psychological views. In fact, my aged and faded copy bought in the late ’60’s seems a strange throwback, though quite iconic.

However, like the eternal Dharma, Watts has not only aged well but also now serves as the “message in the bottle” from past wisdom, prescient and uncompromising. Of course, it’s hard to know if the impact of reading Watts today is an inevitable destination of being human or whether our journey was shaped by the thoughts and critiques of people like Watts and the Beat Generation he later influenced. In Psychotherapy East & West, Watts is clear that using this lens of duality only leads us astray and further into a socially-constructed blindness. The explicit theme throughout the book is the “inseparably interconnected patterns” of our bio-psycho-social-ecological systems. In effect, we do not and cannot be in any sense of the word outside this frame. The intention of the “East” is to make visible these interconnected patterns in the process of becoming liberated. The catch however, in Watts’s view, is that Eastern liberation as a shift in connectedness is different from Western “liberation” through psychotherapy – by which he mainly means Freudian and Jungian psychoanalysis (and, ironically sets up a dualism).

Watts’s reliance on Freudian and Jungian psychology is consistent with his time. The cognitive therapies of Aaron Beck and Albert Ellis, which grew from their disillusionment with the psychodynamic therapies, were still in the early days of their methodologies and psychoanalysis was to hold sway for at least another decade. Still, the concept is familiar to us now: we are blinded to our inherent inseparability, not from, as part of the vast intricate pattern of nature by a social structure that is best served through our ignorance. We become “disturbed” when we fall into the social control of organizational “brainwashing”.

The role of both Eastern and Western liberation practices is to experience being “disturbed” and to see it as a point where contradictions in the social frame break through. Although sharing some commonalities of liberation theory, psychotherapy (read psychoanalysis), according to Watts, is incomplete liberation, filled with potential to be social criticism but limited by the blindness of its equally-seduced practitioners. The disturbed individual then is only brought back into line with the oppression in the culture. This seems to parallel the conversations and debates around spiritual and secular mindfulness.WWAWD – what would Alan Watts do? Equally, though I hesitate to read back into his writings through the privilege of hindsight, Watts’s argument that ignoring the context of our lives is the very seed of ignorance, and the arising of being separate, forecasts the work of Thich Nhat Hanh and the socially engaged Buddhism of the next decades.

Watts is cautious about the power of psychotherapy to liberate and I suspect this has much to do with his enchantment with Buddhism in general and zen in particular. At one moment he is forgiving of psychotherapy, allowing it to be a partner in the mutual clarification of itself and Eastern liberation practices; in another, psychotherapies are at risk of becoming another insipid compromising version of the middle way. A messed-up Mādhyamika. It’s in his attempts to critique yet line up psychoanalysis with Buddhist liberation practices that he tends to spiral out into expansive thoughts (and run on sentences). And, much like psychodynamic concepts, the arguments become somewhat self-gratifying. Of course, throw in his foray with Jay Haley’s “prescribing the symptom” and “strategic therapy” and one loses both figure and ground. It would be generous to say that is what Watts intends, a psychotherapeutic dokusan, but Haley’s concepts can be a mental labyrinth of “who’s on first in the prefrontal cortex.” (Personally, I love Haley’s work but it’s sneaky and one has to be really good at the pretence of going with the symptom.)

Despite all the meanders, Watts offers much to consider, not the least being whether we’ve come any further along this path than we were in 1960. He ends with an appeal we are all familiar with by now: if true liberation is the overthrowing of a self-serving authority that blinds us to who we are (reiterated in The Book: On the taboo against knowing who you are), then it must come through the challenges to the ethical constructs that authority places on us. It begins with seeing ethics as the language by which we get to know each other. It is not only code law that points to the oughts; it is, perhaps more crucial to our relationships, the organic process of common law, an intuitive felt sense of what is needed beyond self-interest.

Although Watts addresses the ethics of survival, he doesn’t take it to the next step of the ethic of care. Psychotherapies, mindfulness or otherwise, are meant to unblind ourselves to who we have been told we must be, more about who we are becoming than who we want to be. They are relational practices with a moral arc of caring for each other and the world we inhabit, not stages of achievements for self-promotion.

 

not-zen, not-memes

A quick round-up for this week:

James Ford lists his favourite Zen blogs – and in true Zen fashion includes those Zennish and those not-quite-Zen but nice enough to read. I’m touched to be in the list and somewhat relieved to be a “not Zen specifically”. It’s actually an awakening to the truth that I’ve lost the zap of Zen and am quite happy hanging out here in the fourth jhana, chillin’ with my pups.

As you know, Facebook is a magic land where your actions are given immediate reward. No sooner had I posted something about equanimity – i.e., hanging out in the 4th jhana – when this post from Jack Kornfield appeared on my feed (they call it a “feed” for good reason).

“Spiritual life takes courage : Equanimity is not indifference, and compassion is not pity. True spirituality  requires us to be fully present for life. For us to begin to look directly at the world situation is not a question of ceremony or of religion. Meditation helps us to look deeply at the sorrow that exists now in our world, and to look at our individual and collective relationship to it, to bear witness to it, to acknowledge it instead of running away. Without mindfulness and compassion the suffering is too great to bear. We close our minds. We close our eyes and our hearts.”

So… about meditation: in a discussion with someone about their resistance to mindfulness practice and meditation, I said: You can’t substitute memes for meditation! No sooner had I posted that on my FB feed (they call it a “feed” for a reason, ya know!) when some smarty-pants posted a meme…which I improved upon:

memes-mindful

No promises about the New Year and whether I will discover my Zen mojo.

However, do have an awesome Holiday Celebration!

Book review: Choosing Buddhism

Choosing Buddhism: The life stories of eight Canadians by Mauro Peressini (published by University of Ottawa Press 2016) offers an interesting mix of socio-anthropological information of Buddhism in Canada wrapped around narratives of eight living Canadians who converted to Buddhism. Specifically, the domain of the book is the phenomenon of conversion rather than cultural or heritage Buddhism. The arc of the book however is a study in coming to Buddhism through a variety of life choices, many of which appeared to move away from Buddhism rather than towards it.

Peressini begins with a detail description of his own process in writing the book and a heavily detailed description of the way the book is set up. It’s only 13 pages but it’s a bit of a slog unless research methodology and census data is something that intrigues you. Nevertheless, it was interesting to learn about the intricacies of tapping into the actual numbers of Buddhists in Canada and even more so for the conversion to Buddhism. The chapter on Buddhism in Canada (p53-61) was particularly fascinating especially noting the differences before and after 1967 being related to the political lines drawn between those of European races and the “undesirable” Asian races. (We arrived in 1965 and I recall my parents saying with some awe and anxiety that we were one of 19 families accepted from “the East”.)

The heart of Peressini’s book however beats in the narratives of the eight Canadians (some naturalized):

Ajahn Viradhammo (born Vitauts Akers in Germany),
Jim Bedard (born in North Bay ON),
Albert Low (born in London England),
Taigen Henderson (born Ian Henderson in Toronto ON),
Zengetsu Myokyo (born Judith McLean in Aylmer QC),
Louis Cormier (born in Rogersville NB),
Kelsang Drenpa (born Christine Ares in Longueuil QC), and
Tsultrim Palmo (born Anna Szczygielska in Ostrow, Poland.

Their stories are not the typical sorry tale with a flash forward to some moment of enlightenment after which all is well. The very poignant human struggles and challenges of faith are helpful to know for anyone who thinks the Path smoothly rises up to greet us. And of course, it just continues after (their self-reported) enlightenment. Peressini offers a commentary at the end of each life story which rather nicely ties together his intent in the methodology and the narrative itself.

Personally, I was fascinated to read the life path of Ajahn Viradhammo and Albert Low, having met both as teachers and practice briefly with Low. Ajahn V. is a towering individual in the Buddhist community in and around Ottawa. I recall meeting with him when he was living in Ottawa and caring for his mother. Our conversation was warm and wide-ranging but it was very clear that he, as a traditionalist, was going to have no truck with this beast called ‘secular mindfulness’. I learned a lot in that conversation, not the least was to hold the integrity of the Dhamma close in anything I was going to do.

Albert Low’s narrative was astonishing probably yet so consistent with his clear vision of who he is (was?). Of all my teachers, I knew him for the shortest time but was most deeply affected by his gentle and quiet presence. He left me with a simple instruction: Be gentle with your breath, don’t be afraid to always start over. When I wrote to tell him I could no longer make the 4-hr return trip to Montreal every week, he wrote back (I paraphrase here): We are only given the privilege to walk with each other for short spaces. But stay with each other for an eternity.

Choosing Buddhism is really not about how these practitioners decided what path to take. It is about the what they chose in each moment of their lives. If it was to suffer, they chose to suffer fully. If it was to stop, they stopped fully. If it was to move on, they did so whole-heartedly. Like Ajahn V., they heard that very quiet call that could have easily been lost in the noise of whatever drama was playing out in their life at the time.

The book itself is a resource to understand both the development of Buddhism in Canada and how we come to create the path we walk. If that’s not your bag, the life stories make a lovely fireside read.