left biblioblography: ZEN FLESH, ZEN BONES

Friday, April 14, 2006


I have promised to do the occasional book review here, and my guilty conscience is getting the best of me (Catholic upbringing, is the culprit here, methinks).

Compiled by Paul Reps and Nyogen Senzaki.

This is a book I've owned three different times. Kept losing the bloody thing. No, not an omen, fate, or whatnot. Human carelessness, is all.

Anyways, it's a small compilation of many anecdotal examples that give the Westerner a bit of insight into what is known as Zen (Chan) Buddhism.

Let's qualify that a little:

Buddhism in its original form is by no means a religion. Not in the sense we occidentals hold it. Rather, it's an original format of Mahayana (Greater Vehicle). There's Mahayana, and there's Theravada (Lesser Vehicle). The lesser vehicle holds that it's okay to kiss the beads, light incense, pray in a temple, etc. (Any of that sound familiar?) Greater Vehicle stipulates that one must walk the same road as the Buddha.

Now, there's the rebirth cycle. Heavily vested in the concept of karma (let's remember that Hinduism was a major factor in the birth of Buddhism). There's three distinct forms of karma: vikarma, karma, akarma. Vikarma are the acts that make one go backwards in the rebirth cycle, karma is what keeps one in the cycle (samsara), akarma is what enables the adherent to rise above the cycle, thereby attaining Nirvana. Deeply bound by the concept of maya, the illusion of the world. Ultimate goal is to transcend the cycle, ergo, freedom from the illusion (nirvana). Which colors the mindset of said disciples.

That having been said, this tiny book is Mahayana (from my eyes).

The concept (as I see it), is that the adherent is given a number of koans, which are "A puzzling, often paradoxical statement or story, used in Zen Buddhism as an aid to meditation and a means of gaining spiritual awakening." In other words, the individual is presented with counter-intuitive, often wonky concepts that run contrary to logic, in order to free him/her from the constraints of common logic.

It's a great little book. Some of the stories can actually be used as a joke. For instance:

A farmer walks into a village, pulling a cart that holds a dancing pig. A villager stops him, says, "Wow! That's amazing! How long did it take you to teach the pig to dance?" "Thirty years," replies the farmer. "Thirty years!" exclaims the villager. "Sure, what's thirty years, to a pig?"

I find that incredibly funny. So shoot me.

Others are a little more...odd. "Does a dog have buddha-nature?" The answer is 'Mu' - which does and doesn't mean no. Or, "If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him." Trust me, read the book.

Another of my favorites is this one:

Provided he makes and wins an argument about Buddhism with those who live there, any wandering monk can remain in a Zen temple. If he is defeated, he has to move on.
In a temple in the northern part of Japan two brother monks were dwelling together. The elder one was learned, but the younger one was stupid, and had but one eye.
A wandering monk came and asked for lodging, properly challenging them to a debate about the sublime teaching. The elder, tired that day from much studying, told the younger one to take his place. "Go and request the dialogue in silence," he cautioned.
So the Young monk and the the stranger went to the shrine and sat down.
Shortly afterwards the traveler rose and went in to the elder brother and said: "Your young brother is a wonderful fellow. He defeated me."
"Relate the dialogue to me," said the elder one.
"Well," explained the traveler, "first I held up one finger, representing Buddha, the enlightened one. So he held up two fingers, signifying Buddha and his teaching. I held up three fingers, representing Buddha, his teaching, and his followers, living the harmonious life. Then he shook his clenched fist in my direction, indicating that all three come from one realization. Thus he won and so I have no right to remain here." With this, the traveler left.
"Where is that fellow?" asked the younger one, running in to his elder brother.
"I understand you won the debate."
"Won nothing. I'm going to beat him up."
"Tell me the subject of the debate," asked the elder one.
"Why, the minute he saw me he held up one finger, insulting me by insinuating that I have only one eye. Since he was a stranger, I thought I would be polite to him, so I held up two fingers, congratulating him that he has two eyes. Then the impolite wretch held up three fingers, suggesting that between us we only have three eyes. So I got mad and started to punch him, but he ran out and that ended it!"

And we complain about the inadequacies of the written word, ey? ;)

And a parting shot:

A university student while visiting Gasan asked him: "Have you ever read the Christian bible?"
"No, read it to me," said Gasan.
The student read from Matthew: "And why take ye thought for raiment? Consider the lillies of the field, how they grow. They toil not, nor do they spin, and yet I say unto you that even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these...Take therefore no thought for morrow, for the morrow shall take thought for the things of itself."
Gasan said, "Whoever uttered those words I consider an enlightened man."
The student continued reading: Ask and it shall be given you, seek and ye shall find, knock and it shall be opened unto you. For everyone that asketh receiveth, and he that seeketh findeth, and to him that knocketh, it shall be opened."
Gasan remarked: "That is excellent. Whoever said that is not far from Buddhahood."

So it's a funny, easy, short read, giving a bit more than a bird's eye view into a very odd, very illogical mindset.

Note that I will be wailing on Buddhism some time in the near future, as a religion it's got a few black eyes as well, and nowhere near as atheistic or as pacifistic as Westerners believe it to be.

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Thomas said...

Hi from Seattle.

udonman said...

Hi tom got the red swingline

Anyway Ra think koans will help me meditate just cant seem to allow my self to go I start thinking about things instead of not thinking about anything

Krystalline Apostate said...

Hello back atcha.

Well, Tai Chi is taoist, not buddhist. Don't sweat the 'emptying the mind' biz. Just try: if it doesn't happen, just keep trying.
But don't try TOO hard. That's just as bad as not trying at all.

udonman said...

i tried again tonight and it was weird i dont even think i could describe it everthing around me i could feel i could hear but i was so relaxed i had my hands together
and it felt like electricity running from finger to finger very weird and even weirder feeling of not thinking (now I know what church must be like)plus i did the opening 7 moves in my yard and my neighbors gave me even dirtier looks than usual this time