The Book of Zen
Eric Chaline
Barron's, London (UK), 2003 128 pages, including index

This is a very nicely edited little gem, an excellent introduction to Zen Buddhism, as well as a good, enjoyable and easy read. It will definitely not open anybody's eyes, especially in the case of those who are already quite familiar with the topic. However, I'd highly recommend The Book of Zen to either people who are new to the world of Zen or those who, although already familiar with it, would appreciate a little volume to help them organize their ideas.

Chaline divides the book in a few chapters following the metaphor of Buddhism as a blooming flower: The Roots of the Flower, about the origins of the philosophy in the Indian subcontinent at the hands of Siddharta Gautama; The Stem of the Flower, about its journey from India to China, Korea and Japan; The Flower Blooms, about the form Buddhism takes in Japan after melding with its own native culture; The Petals of the Flower, about a few basic concepts of Zen; Plucking the Flower, about the practice; and The Ways of the Flower, about other activities also related to the practice of Zen (martial arts, the tea ceremony, ikebana, etc.). Altogether, it provides a very good overall view, which is supposed to be the goal of an introductory volume such as this.

Perhaps the most salient characteristic of Zen, when compared to other Buddhist schools, is its emphasis on meditation, exemplified by Dogen, founder of the Soto school of Zen Buddhism:

At the age of 24, Dogen went to China where he studied with Ju-ching (1163-1128) of the Ts'ao-tung school, who advocated extended periods of zazen meditation practice. He is said to have begun meditating at 2:30 AM and finished at 11:00 PM. Dogen adopted this grueling regime, but soon fell into the error of meditating passively rather than actively.

One day he overheard Ju-ching upbraiding another disciple who was not meditating, but merely dozing.

"The practice of zazen is not merely sitting!" Ju-ching said. "It is the dropping away of the mind and body. What do you think you can accomplish by dozing?"

This remark triggered a deep understanding in Dogen about the nature of zazen and enlightenment. He described the experience in the following terms: "Mind and body drop away. This should be experienced by everyone. It is like trying to fill a bottomless basket or fill a bottomless cup —no matter how much you fill it, it will never be full."

Returning to Japan, he set up a meditation hall, or zendo, in Kyoto. In Dogen's Zen, there is no need to struggle for enlightenment; in fact, the desire for it is itself an obstacle to its realization. According to the shikantaza form of zazen, enlightenment will come as a natural result of meditation.

(Eric Chaline: The Book of Zen, p. 53)

But, aside from the harsh regime of meditation that is usually followed by Zen practitioners, Westerners have plenty of trouble understanding other concepts too:

Zen presents particular problems for the Western mind, which is heir to two very distinct traditions. On the one hand, here is the rational mind, which seeks scientific evidence and proof for all phenomena and experience. Rationality has its roots in the materialism and logic of the ancient ancient Greek philosophers. This tradition believes in a world of very solid matter, governed by predictive laws. Although Relativity, Quantum, and Chaos have dislodged the old Newtonian certainties in the scientific community, for the man and woman in the street, if an object looks like a chair and you can sit on it, then it must be a chair. The world is real because we can touch it, move through it, and predict what it will do.

In complete contrast to this tradition is the Western concept of faith —"God moves in mysterious ways." He is ineffable and unknowable, and our only recourse is a blind, unquestioning faith in Him if we are to win salvation. There seems to be no way to reconcile these diametrical opposites. Our culture, more than any other, works in paired opposites: good and evil, masculine and feminine, "I" and the world. Our very identities are tied up by defining what we are and what we are not.

Eastern philosophies and religions, though they sometimes employ dualities such as good and evil, look beyond them to the undifferentiated substrata of human existence that is sometimes referred to as God. In Hinduism, Taoism, and Buddhism, we are all part of the One Mind, to which we are destined to return when we have reached the correct spiritual state. In Ch'an and Zen, that state is not deferred to some future life or other worldly paradise; it is achievable in the present. Enlightenment is a lived experience that requires both great faith and great doubt, and, although it cannot be comprehended rationally, it can be proved to exist by your own experience of it.

Before we continue to examine Zen principles in more detail, we should tackle the most common criticism that Buddhism and Zen have been subjected to in their history: that they are nihilistic in outlook —life-hating faiths. While Buddhists reject the suffering of the human condition, they do not reject the human condition itself. Zen, in particular, teaches us to live completely in the moment, and because no actions have more or less value, our work, pastimes, and daily interactions are all part and parcel of the Zen life.

(Eric Chaline: The Book of Zen, pp. 62-63)

The criticism is, indeed, quite superficial. Yes, Zen Buddhists do talk about emptiness as something positive. However, when they talk about "emptiness" they don't refer to "nothing", which is how we interpret it in the West. As the author explains:

One of the central concepts in Buddhism is "emptiness" (sunyata in Sanskrit, ku in Japanese), which states that all forms or appearances in the universe are empty. To explain what this means, let us take a common object such as a chair. The common sense view of the phenomenal world —the world of things and events that makes up what we call observable reality— is that all objects have permanent and unique natures. So, common sense says, a chair is always a chair.

However, if we take larger and larger microscopes to examine our chair, the greater the magnification, the less separate it becomes from its surroundings. At the molecular level, the boundaries of the chair, the air around it, and the person sitting on it are blurred. We cannot tell where one begins and the others end. At the atomic level, matter looks like solar systems, with vast empty gulfs separating the spinning electrons orbiting the atomic nuclei. At the subamotic level, distinctions between matter and energy are themselves abolished. Particles, which sometimes behave like minute packets of matter and, at others like oscillating waves, wink in and out of existence.

Even on the macroscopic level of everyday life, however, a chair is always a chair. If you were to look at a chair in time, you would see that it was once a piece of wood from a tree. Where in the tree is the chair that will be made from it? During its existence, wear and tear on the chair will change its appearance and structure: losing some of its wood and gaining deposits of dirt. In time, the chair will break, and the wood will decay, rot, and, finally, fall to dust. The chair, then, was a very temporary manifestation and its materials in themselves never possessed any innate "chairness".

Our failure to accept the idea that all things are empty and transient is the main cause of human suffering. The intellectual understanding of "emptiness" is a relatively straightforward exercise, ut the aim of Zen training is to make someone both know, and personally experience, emptiness.

(Eric Chaline: The Book of Zen, p. 66)

In other words, Zen Buddhists don't see everything as "empty" (in the sense of unimportant, or "nothing"), but rather as transient, dynamic, constantly in flux (and, therefore, lacking a permanent essence). In this sense, they connect directly with the old Heraclitean approach, according to which we could never swim twice in the same river:

Emptiness, however, is not synonymous with the void. Buddhism is not a nihilistic religion that leaves men and women stranded on the edge of the abyss of hopeless absurdity. There is an underlying principle in the universe, although it is devoid of form. This concept, which comes closest in Buddhism to the ideas of the Christian soul, the Holy Spirit, and God, is Buddha-natureBuddhata in Sanskrit and Bussho in Japanese. Buddha-nature is neither neutral nor amoral, but embodies the virtues of compassion and wisdom.

(Eric Chaline: The Book of Zen, p. 68)

Or, to put it differently, there is indeed an unifying force, something that holds it all together. This is precisely the reason why Zen Buddhists emphasize the concept of "emptiness". According to them, all our concepts and ideas (yes, presumably the concept of "emptiness" too) are truly not there. They don't have a reality of their own (quite the opposite of what Plato, the father of Western philosophy maintained). They don't exist. In that sense, they are truly "empty". There is no there there. All there is is a constant flux of energy that never stops. In that sense, Zen Buddhists have more in common with some pre-Socratic philosophers, such as Heraclitus of Ephesus.

Obviously, all this makes for a very different religion (if Zen Buddhism, perhaps even Buddhism altogether, can even be considered a religion at all). In Zen, there are no sins or excommunications, no eternal punishments handed down by some all powerful figure and, as a matter of fact, not even one single path or dogma to follow:

Zen recognizes that there is more than one kind of enlightenment experience. While the student is meditating, he or she may experience power of mind (Japanese: joriki), an essentially positive state, in which the mind balances itself, bringing great joy and energy. Some believe that joriki gives access to supernatural powers, such as levitation and telepathy. Joriki, however, is merely a stage toward enlightenment. Less desirable are evil phenomena (Japanese: makyo) —hallucinations, which, though harmless, can be disturbing. Again, the sitter is instructed to ignore them. The first experience of enlightenment is known as kensho (seeing nature), and is the prelude to further experiences, which will deepen the seeker's understanding. The ultimate experience of satori is called mujodo no taigen (the embodiment of the unsurpassable way), which is the permanent experience of satori during one's earhtly life.

(Eric Chaline: The Book of Zen, p. 72)

So, what does Zen Buddhism have to say about good and evil, the classic dualism so cherished in the West?

Greed, lust, and anger —sins in the Christian faith— are seem in Buddhism as errors keeping us trapped in the phenomenal world. But good actions are also sometimes to be avoided because they, too, tie us to the world. The emphasis in Zen is not the action itself, but the intention behind it. Only actions or intentions free from desire, hate, and delusion have no karmic consequences.

(Eric Chaline: The Book of Zen, p. 74)

So, those who criticize Buddhism for promoting the agenda of an absolute relativism simply miss the point. The difference is one of degree. Buddhism, like Christianity, does not recommend or promote lust, greed, anger and many other behaviors that are considered to be sinful in the case of monotheistic religions, but it does so for a completely different reason: the sky will not fall on us, we will not be sentenced to eternal damnation and will not suffer from God's wrath. Rather, we will just find it quite difficult (as a matter of fact, impossible) to be happy. They are not "sins", but rather just "errors". The difference is subtle, but huge.

But how does Zen Buddhism promote its objectives? What is the path that we ought to follow? In the case of Zen, its most central components is perhaps meditation:

Zazen (sitting meditation) is so central to Zen practice that the two are often thought to be one and the same. In Soto-shu Zen, it forms the bulk of training, and zazen itself is equated with satori, or enlightenment. Dogen, the founder of Soto-shu, gives detailed instructions for the correct performance of zazen —after describing the sitting position (...), he goes on: "Now that your posture is in order, regulate your breathing. If a thought arises, take note of it and dimsiss it. If you practice in this way for a long time, you will forget all attachments and concentration will come naturally. That is the art of zazen. Zazen is the Dharma gate of great rest and joy."

(Eric Chaline: The Book of Zen, p. 90)

Sitting meditation, though, is nothing but a tool. The objective, as in the case of Buddhism at large, is to promote non-attachment. As such, and contrary to what plenty of people believe, Zen does not promote a particular clothing style for our everyday life. The key is not in the outside, but rather in the inside. That is why meditation is the tool of choice. The intention is to slow down and be able to live in a mindful way, to do things because they are what we ought to do at each moment, and not because that is what everybody does. But, in order to do this, we need to pay attention to our surroundings and ourselves. We need to be aware of time and space.

Zen is not one of those Eastern religions that asks you to transform yourself from the outside in. You do not have to change your clothes, shave your head, or learn a foreign language; at most, you might need to invest in a couple of cushions. Zen, of course, will transform your life, but it will do it from the inside out. The insight you acquire through meditation and study will change the way you think and, by degrees, will transform the way you live, work, and conduct your relationships.

(Eric Chaline: The Book of Zen, p. 103)

Finally, although Zen has become quite intertwined with Japanese culture to the point that certain elements of that culture are definitely an intrinsic part of the Zen experience, we should also guard ourselves against worn out clichés that are used to promote a crass commercialism:

The paired concepts of wabi and sabi are at the very heart of the Zen aesthetic. Notoriously difficult to translate into English, the meanings of these words overlap. Wabi (from the Japanese verb, wabu, "to languish," and the adjective, wabishi, "lonely and without comfort") is an aesthetic and moral principle that advocates living a quiet, leisurely life, free from wordly concerns. Its spiritual dimension is an implied liberation from all material and emotional attachments. Sabi, fostered by the poet Matsuo Basho and his followers, has associations with old age, desolation, and loneliness. Again, while these feelings might suggestive negative connotations, they are viewed in a positive light from the perspective of someone who has transcended transient worldly attachments for a gar greater prize.

Zen "style" has become a cliché of Western design. Where its advocates have retained the simplicity of line, stripped of all ornament, and the functionalism of Zen, creating the minimalist style, they have lost sight of the rich spiritual dimension that is the true foundation of the Zen "ways."

(Eric Chaline: The Book of Zen, p. 110)

The Zen style, with time, extended to many spheres of life: martial arts, ikebana, rock gardens, the tea ceremony, Noh theatre, calligraphy...

In contrast to Western monastic calligraphy, with its slow laborious copying and elaborate use of ornament, color, and gold leaf, East Asian calligraphy is spontaneous and immediate. The master interprets the chosen Chinese character (Japanese: kanji) on the empty white ground in a single movement. Again, there is no sketch or correction. Favored subjects in Zen calligraphy are the character ichi, the number one, signifying the unitary nature of reality, and the circle, representing emptiness.

(Eric Chaline: The Book of Zen, p. 118)

Altogether, this book is quite good as a quick and easy introduction to the topic at hand.

Entertainment Factor 6/10
Intellectual Factor: 6/10