Zen in 10 Simple Lessons
Anthony Man-Tu Lee & David Weiss
Barron's Education Services, Lewes, East Sussex (UK), 2002 (2002)
144 pages, including index

Simple manual introducing the most basic ideas of Zen Buddhism. Nothing extraordinary, but it does a pretty good job at what is tries to do. Divided in ten simple chapters, it offers an overview of the history of Zen, its main precepts, how to apply its tenets to home and work, the self and others, the garden, design... in other words, to our daily lives. A somehow innovative method is that each chapter is followed by 10 simple questions and answers that do a good job at summarizing the contents of the chapter and can easily be used as a quick reference.

The authors emphasize the experiential basis of Buddhism, which sets it apart from other faiths:

Many religions place heavy emphasis on the memorization of laws and precepts; often this aspect alone is considered "spiritual observance." Unlike such religions, Zen places the highest emphasis on experience as spiritual observance. This does not mean that serious Zen practice scorns ritual &mdas;far from it— but that ritual is constantly referred to as a vehicle for focusing the mind and body, never as a mode of worship in itself. One Zen master, Kubota Juin, has said that "Zen practice begins with belief and ends in actual experience".

So far "Buddha" has referred to Siddharta Gautama. But the word buddha in Sanskrit simply means "one who is alive to the fundamental meaning of existence." The Buddha was just one of the many buddhas who have existed, both before and after the historical Buddha. Thus, in other contexts, a buddha can be anyone who has achieved Awakening. An object's buddha-nature is its "true" nature.

(Anthony Man-Tu Lee & David Weiss: Zen in 10 Simple Lessons, p. 24)

Buddhism, in its essence, can be summarized in he following three precepts, which do not require any sort of religious faith in the supernatural or any divine entity:

  • All things in life —objects, thoughts, and feelings— are ephemeral; they are born, live, and then die according to unpredictable patterns.
  • All life is inherently painful, because people base their lives around desires, and thus the root of suffering; our unceasing longing for wealth, status, children, power —and even life itself— is the root of our misery in this world.
  • The third precept is harder to put into words and can only be perceived directly by experience. It states that there is a fundamental illusion behind all reality (like Descartes' character "Evil Genius," in his discussion on "What Is Reality?"); everything springs out of a common Great Void and returns to it in an endless cycle. But this Void is not a nihilistic black hole, which is how many outsiders understand the term "Void." Rather, it is vibrant and positive.

(Anthony Man-Tu Lee & David Weiss: Zen in 10 Simple Lessons, p. 25)

It is just another take on the old (and well known) Four Noble Truths, which then lead (according to the authors) to a series of abstentions (they call them the "10 Abstentions") that should not be understood as sins:

  • The taking of life.
  • Theft.
  • Lack of chastity.
  • Lying.
  • Selling or buying liquor.
  • Speaking ill of others.
  • Praising oneself.
  • Giving spritiual or material aid grudgingly.
  • Anger.
  • Disparaging Buddhist doctrine.

Now, the reason why these should not be understood as sins is because Buddhism does not believe in a divine entity that will punish us if we do not behave as indicated. In other words, these are not commandments, but rather rules or precepts, recommendations that we ought to follow if we choose to avoid suffering and be happy.

But how is Zen different from other approaches to Buddhism? The authors explain:

Zen shares the basic doctrines and tenets of Buddhism. While it believes that all beings can escape samsara and achieve nirvana, it differs in its beliefs as to how Awakening can be achieved. Other strands of Buddhist thought have (according to Zen teachings) more or less departed from the original idea of a perfect Transmission without words, forms, or distinctions. It seems to be human nature to surround mystical ideas with ritual, canon, and dogma. Zen Buddhism seems to have succeeded remarkably well in keeping these at bay by using shock tactics and humor. One famous Zen saying translates as "What is Buddha? Buddha is toilet paper." In other words, where other Buddhist sects have tended to put the Buddha on a pedestal, Zen —by means of juxtaposition— reminds us that what is sacred is profane and vice versa.

There is another Zen saying that "The finger pointing at the Moon is not the Moon," Yet another states, "If someone comes to you screaming, 'I'm starving,' do you hand him a menu?" The point these sayins are trying to illuminate is that truth can only be perceived directly. Studying it, or talking about it, or praying for it —all of these are often confused with the real thing. People get caught up in memorizing laws and precepts, and arguing about minor theological points, and in the process they forget their original purpose: to achieve Awakening. That is why the Buddha often avoided words in his teaching; words are part of the curtain of illusion separating us from the truth.

(Anthony Man-Tu Lee & David Weiss: Zen in 10 Simple Lessons, p. 28)

From that point, the authors go on to talk about the Rinzai and Soto schools of Zen, as well as some hybrids, such as the one founded by the Harada Roshi in the United States. They also describe zazen more or less in detail, including clear directions on how to practice it, an introduction to the concept of koans, etc. The rest of the book (chapter 4 until the end) are dedicated to the practice of Zen, from the family home (chapter 4) to the workplace (chapter 5), as well as the garden (chapter 6), personal relationships (chapter 7), daily activities (chapter 8) and design (chapter 9), before it closes with a chapter titled Moving On that offers some overall information about temples and the Buddhist community.

Altogher, Zen in 10 Simple Lessons is a good introduction for beginners.

Entertainment Factor 6/10
Intellectual Factor: 6/10