John Crook’s most prominent qualification for his Buddhist teaching was his Transmission in the Chan lineage in 1993, becoming the first Western Dharma Heir of Chan Master Sheng Yen. But he also had a serious interest in Tibetan Buddhism, receiving many teachings and practices and permission to teach some of these. He also explored and took from other forms of Buddhism, particularly Soto Zen following his training with Roshi Jiyu Kennett of Throssel Hole Abbey. His approach was not at all sectarian, and while emphasising the Chan approach he promoted what he called ‘Open Buddhism’, openness to all traditions. This extended to non-Buddhist traditions, with an interest in Christian mysticism, and also in Krishnamurti with whom he spent time in India in the 1950s.
John also drew from his academic background, bringing to his Buddhist teaching his psychological and anthropological understanding, and related explorations such as his involvement with the encounter group movement in the 1970s. Furthermore he travelled extensively. During the Korean war his army national service took him to Hong Kong where his connection with Chan was established. His research on weaver birds took him all over the world, and his studies on baboons took him to Africa. His later anthropological research took him repeatedly to the Himalayas, to Ladakh and Zanskar, and he also visited Tibet Bhutan and Nepal, taking every opportunity to encounter hermits and to visit monasteries, reinforcing a connection to Tibetan Buddhism which started when he first learned to meditate at Samye Ling, a Tibetan Buddhist monastery in Scotland.
He loved teaching the Dharma and did so in various ways. He regularly led intensive meditation retreats, most often at his own isolated cottage ‘Maenllwyd’ in mid-Wales but also other venues in UK and in Europe and USA. As well as teaching on retreats he also enjoyed speaking to other groups when opportunities arose. His talks were lively and energetic and included story-telling and poetic imagery interweaved with instruction in meditation and Buddhist theory. He valued and enjoyed individual instruction and dialogue, both in the format of the one-on-one Zen interview with the master and in general conversation.
Most relevant to this volume, he also liked to write and publish, expressing his teaching in a wide range of formats, styles and topics: transcribed Dharma talks; presentation of meditation methods and Buddhist teachings; commentaries on texts; reports of events, meetings and travels; poetry; social comment; book reviews; and more.
Other than his books the journal New Chan Forum, published approximately twice per year, was his primary vehicle for publishing his Buddhist writings. New Chan Forum was founded in 1990 by John with Hilary Richards and Jake Lyne of the Bristol Chan group. The early issues were quite thin pamphlets, but soon John began to provide more and more content and the issues became more substantial. He was not the only contributor, and each issue contained several articles of various types by others, but his was the dominant content for over twenty years.
I became involved in the publishing of New Chan Forum in 1997, which was also when we founded the Western Chan Fellowship to support and continue these teachings. Initially my role was primarily as picture editor but later I took over management of the process of publishing the roughly presented compilation of articles that John would draw together to create an issue. Often it would be the case that I would remind him, or he would comment to me, that it was time to compile another issue of New Chan Forum, but he wasn’t sure he had enough submissions. Then, only four or five days later, he would send me a compiled issue, often including three or four long articles which he had written especially, each completely different in content and style.
To the casual reader some of these articles may appear to be pieces of general prose and not specifically ‘Buddhist’ in content. In these John was often presenting what he referred to as ‘Chan attitude’ - a response to the world around us informed by his understanding and practice of Chan Buddhism, and his concerns for such issues as social justice and the environment. He was also drawing on his rich and varied background to produce writings which would engage the readers, both Buddhist and non-Buddhist, on many levels.
This is a massive body of work, and not a book that you will read from beginning to end like a novel. Just dip in and read a few articles selected at random. You will sense the breadth and depth of the man and his writing and will return for more. You may even pick up some ‘Chan attitude’ along the way, which of course was John’s intention all along.
Simon Child, Jing-hong Chuan-fa
Dharma Heir of Chan Master Sheng Yen
Successor to John Crook, Jing-di Chuan-deng, as Teacher of the Western Chan Fellowship