IS ZEN FOR EVERYONE? Two book reviews

Saso, M. 2000 Zen is for Everyone. The Xiao Zhi Guan text by Zhi Yi. New Life Center, Carmel & Tendai Institute, Honolulu. ISBN 1-929431-02-3.

Haskel, P. 2001. Letting go. The story of Zen Master Tosui. University of Hawaii Press. Honolulu. ISBN 08248-2440-7.

The translation and interpretation of Zen texts from China, Korea and Japan continues apace demonstrating conclusively the wide range of views inherent in East Asian Buddhism. At first, when few works had been translated, interpreters tended, perhaps understandably, to produce simplistic understandings based on inadequate knowledge of the sources. Such mistakes are no longer so tolerable today.

In the first of the works reviewed here, Michael Saso provides a translation of a very early manual of meditation by the revered Tientai (j. Tendai) Master Chih I (j. Zhi Yi) who lived between 538 CE and 597. At this early date Chinese meditation was still strictly modelled on methods of Indian origin and lacked the later forms developed to suit Chinese culture. The Indian practices of Samatha (Calming the mind) and Vipasyana (Insight into the nature of mind) were known in China as the related activities of ‘Stop and Look’, terms summarising the nature of these twin approaches based in earlier Abhidharma literature. It was not until the Master Hung Chih Chen Chueh (1091-1157)1 combined these two approaches into a common system known as Silent Illumination (Mo chao) that the modern practice of Chan meditation developed, being taken later to Japan and reformulated as Shikantaza by Master Dogen.

Chih I's presentation of ‘Stop and Look’ is profound yet straight forward and certainly accessible to beginners, including lay practitioners. Indeed, using this text, it would be possible to start meditation without a teacher. He provides ten chapters detailing the manner by which a beginner can establish a good basis for meditation through purification of the senses and desires and harmonising body and mind through care in regulating eating, sleeping and breathing. He ends by relating meditational methods to teaching and by offering useful tips about meditation and health.

Essentially to ‘Stop’ means to examine closely a present situation without judgement and to come to rest in the present moment whether this be on the cushion or in everyday life. ‘Look’ means seeing experience in the light of the Buddha's teaching, especially the "Law of Co-dependent arising". This enables the practitioner to perceive in a heartfelt manner that all things are basically lacking in any inherent existence as entities but are rather all part of an ongoing process wherein cause leads to consequence under the influence of context. Such insight reduces the habitual tendency to attach to wanted things or people as if they were permanently available.

The text bases the practice firmly in the established thought of the Mahayana, particularly the Prajnaparamita and Madhyamaka literature. This creates a paradox when we find Michael Saso in his introduction arguing, as did Daisetz Suzuki early in the last century, that a Zen based in ineffable experience could be practised within any religion. Saso remarks, "Christians, both Protestant and Catholic alike, use and teach Zen methods in a purely Christian context. Zen is thus a contemplative method, not a belief system" (p xiii). It is this erroneous bias in Western understanding of Zen that has allowed so called Christian Zen to develop within a kind of philosophical vacuum- inadequate theology and non-existent philosophy adulating uninterpretable experience. To find Saso repeating this viewpoint is disturbing for, as post modern writers and contemporary Chan masters such as Master Sheng Yen, have pointed out, no practice can develop without a relationship to the ideas that sustain it.

Of course the mere process of Zen meditation, formal sitting and the regulation of mind, may be used by anyone of any religion and indeed has its parallels within most of the great world religions. And it is indeed beneficial. Yet the adoption of this method by Christians is a sign of a weakness that denies or overlooks their own meditative traditions. Chinese and Japanese meditation methods are rooted in the Dharma of the Buddha and cannot lead to an understanding of "enlightenment" outside that context. Whatever may be experienced by Christian meditators faithful to a deistic theology, however blissful or insightful, cannot be the same experience of liberation that comes through insight into sunyata (emptiness). It will be some other condition determined by the context of their faith. As Chih I himself says, the practice of meditation develops within reliance on the teachings of the masters.

Haskel’s translation of the story of the Japanese Master Tosui introduces a parallel theme in which the question of the relationship between an institutional life of monastic formality and the nature of Zen insight comes into focus. In an extended and historically fascinating forward, he describes how Buddhism during the Tokagawa period fell under government control and became organised hierarchically as a highly formalised 'church' system. The free and open style of interaction between master and disciple had already become rigidified through the use of formalised expressions in the solving of koans and in the understanding of Dharma so that the spontaneity and naturalness of Chan was being replaced by a ritualistic and authoritarian form of transmission.

These social contexts of Japanese Buddhism seem to have been one main reason for the appearance of highly rebellious monks who deserted the formal institutions of their time to recapture a sort of crazy naturalness that accepted transience and mortality as the natural run of things. Their subsequent notoriety, fame and appreciation showed that these men were well and truly genuine practitioners of Zen. Tosui (d:1683) seems to have been the first and perhaps the most extreme of such masters, perhaps becoming an exemplar for later revolutionaries such as Ryokan (1758-1832) and Ikkyu whose lives were in many ways similar to his. After severe training Tosui had become the abbot of a monastery yet he decided to leave and live simply as a beggar or cheap artisan, homeless and unkempt, among the ordinary people, shunning all who tried to trace his whereabouts and learn from him. So successful was he that relatively little is known about him.

None the less his notoriety as a great and exceptional master did not escape those remaining in more orthodox surroundings. The celebrated scholar and Soto Zen master Menzan Zuiho laboriously put together all that could be found out about Tosui and eventually published his Tribute (Tosui osho densan) which is the text translated here.

Undoubtedly the social conditions of Buddhism in Japan were the seed bed for the activities of these sensational masters who took the daily life of the poor as their environment of practice far from the securities of monastic or 'church' establishments. The fact that they manifested profound practice under conditions of an often quite pathetic daily life is a lesson for contemporary practitioners. Perhaps they show a way out of the sentimental New Ageism and self-comforting idealisms of many contemporary Westerners and suggest a View and a Way whereby the Dharma may confront the destructive trivialities of consumerism. These lives should be read and carefully considered by all of us who live so comfortably attending our sitting groups once a week and believing we know something of Zen.


1) Ladakh: Mountains, Monasteries and Space

Dr John Crook, Vice President of the International Association of Ladakh Studies, will almost certainly be attending the biennial conference of this society in Leh, Ladakh between July 21st-27th, 2003. Following the conference he may be prepared to lead a small group on a tour of the remarkable monasteries, art treasures, landscapes and villages of this Buddhist land. Apart from the main Gompas, we will probably visit a remote monastery where yogins practice, some mountain-ringed lakes only recently open to tourism, and penetrate north into the little visited territory of Nubra where we may do a short trek.

The tour is open to fellows of the WCF and others interested in Himalayan culture. The logistics of the tour will be organised by our old friends Tanu and Zorab Rigdzin of Highland Adventures, Delhi.

Approx dates: July 30th - August 12th. Guesstimate price around £2000

2) Trek to Mustang

In a remote corner of northern Nepal a highland valley extends into Tibetan territory. Although politically part of Nepal, it remains largely under the jurisdiction of its own monarch of ancient lineage who lives in the little walled capital of Mustang known as Lo.

Unlike our tours to ancient cities in China, where most traces of anything older than thirty years is fast disappearing, Mustang remains totally medieval: no roads, no airport, no sewerage, no Western comforts -- starkly original and almost "untouched" by the crudity of the modern world. To go there is to go back many centuries into the cultural world of ancient Tibet.

The only access is by a long, quite strenuous five-day trek up the gorge of the Kali Gandaki river.

Although this is a demanding journey even at moderate altitudes by Himalayan standards (10-13,000 feet), it offers a quite unique experience which will probably not be possible within a few years as "development" moves ever onwards.

John and Elizabeth Crook plan to attempt this journey in the Autumn, approximate dates:

21 Sept - Oct 12th. London-London 22 days. Trekking 15 days. Strenuous. Max altitude about 13,000 feet. They will be using ponies for part of the trek.

The trek will be organised by Himalayan Kingdoms and led by a Sherpa team. If sufficient persons apply the tour will be restricted to our own members. The cost will depend on whether one is sharing tents or going as a singleton and on whether a pony is requested.

Minimum participation 4. maximum 12. Basic trek: approx £2850

Pony hire on trek: £20 per day. £300

Single room/tent supplements available. Approx £70.

Please note: if you wish to travel with John to these lands on which he is a cultural expert you should apply this year. 2003 may be the last year he will lead visits to these altitudes.

If seriously interested please put your name forward IMMEDIATELY so John can get an idea of numbers. Write to John at Winterhead Hill Farm, Shipham, Somerset, BS25 1RS.


Haus der Stille, Hamburg

July 4th-12th 2003

Led by John Crook with assistance from Simon Child and Max Kalin

Our retreat will endeavour to recapture the inspiration of two periods of traditional Chan training led in recent years by the Venerable Chan Master Sheng Yen in Berlin (1999) and in Gaia House, UK, (2000) and will be led by his senior Western disciples each of whom has received transmission from him to teach as Dharma heirs in the Linchi (Rinzai) and Caodong (Soto) lineages of China.

The retreat will take place in the beautiful retreat centre of the Haus der Stille in wooded country south of Hamburg. The setting and the accommodation are exceptionally attractive and comfortable. We hope for an international gathering of Shifu's Dharma followers yet all meditators are welcome.

Silent illumination is a key to understanding the deeper reaches of the self. In a gentle process of calming the mind and watching one's illusions at play the participant gradually enters a world of clarity and insight leading to the development of compassionate wisdom. Needless to say this is no easy matter. Practitioners need to be strongly motivated and willing to experience both physical and mental confrontation with their engrained self- concern. In our strife-torn world Silent illumination opens a way to personal peace that does not avoid the problems of modern life.

The retreat is silent but includes interviews with the teachers. The programme begins in the early morning and continues till ten p.m. The method of practice will be carefully presented for beginners and adepts alike and will be supported by physical exercise, work periods, ritual and chanting.

Each day will include a Dharma talk. Food is vegetarian. Languages: English and German

The retreat will be led by John Crook who is Master Sheng Yen's first European Dharma heir. He is the Teacher of the Western Chan Fellowship in the UK and leads Chan retreats regularly in the UK, in Warsaw, Berlin, Zagreb etc. He is the creator of Western Zen Retreats and Koan Retreats designed for Western practitioners. Together with Simon Child he recently led a Western Zen Retreat at Master Sheng Yen's centre in upstate New York.

Simon Child is secretary of the Western Chan Fellowship and co leads with John as well as presenting his own retreats.

Max Kalin is the teacher of the Chan Group in Zurich and edits the Chan Zeitung. He will be the main interpreter (English-German) on this retreat.

Interpretation into Polish may also be provided if required. Interviews can be in English, French or German.