No Beginning, No End
The Ultimate Heart of Zen
Jakusho Kwong
Harmony Books, New York (USA), 2003
254 pages

Jakusho Kwon, a Chinese-American teacher of Zen Buddhism in the lineage of Shunryu Suzuki, is the head abbot of the Sonoma Mountain Zen Center, in California. Originally inspired by zenga, the ancient art of Zen calligraphy, experimented with alternative lifestyles before he began to study Soto Zen with Shunryu Suzuki in San Francisco, becoming one of his first students in the US. No Beginning, No End is a collection of teachings that aspire to teach some basic concepts of the Zen tradition through a series of anecdotes, stories and reflections.

Unlike most other books of spiritual theme, this one avoids the abuse of mystical notions and obscure but fascinating and seductive fantasies. Far from it, Kwon centers his attention on everyday life and events, which he proceeds to discuss in a very simple, unadorned manner, very much in what one would expect in the Zen tradition. This definitely makes it easier to read, although it could also make it somewhat disappointing for those who may take the book hoping to find some highly optimistic, starry-eyed discussion about celestial figures and guardian angels.

Most chapters are pretty short, a bunch of pages. There is no common thread, except for the presence of Zen itself. Kwon reflects upon Zen the Zen practice apropos many different issues. Other than that, this is not your usual non-fiction book, with a single, clear-cut, well systematized message. Here are a few excerpts from the book:

Seen from the outside, it may apear that the precepts are just a set of rules that we are expected to follow. "Don't lie. Don't steal. Don't do this. And especially don't do that!" But that's not the spirit of the precepts at all. The precepts are not just a list of ways to behave that someone else reads to you and expects you to follow. If you take a careful look at the very first precept, you will see what I mean.

The first precept is the most important of them all because it includes the others. Of course, in time you will come to see that each of the precepts really includes the others as well, just as one color reflects all the other colors, but the first precept makes this very clear. It says simply, "Don't kill." But don't kill what? In considering this precept, we should not limit its meaning to the killing of people or animals. It really means "Don't kill your Buddha Nature. Don't kill your life-force." Once you the depth of this precept, then of course you will have a different relationship to your entire environment; to people, to animals, to thoughts and feelings, and to everything. Then you will know that there's nothing to steal and that there are no lies to be told. But again it's not something that comes to you from the outside. It comes from that intrinsic part of yourself that longs to live in a full, deep, and meaningful way.

(Jakusho Kwon: No Beginning, No End, pp. 50-51)

We were sitting in the old Soko-ji temple, and our sesshins were attended by up to 125 people. After all the spots for sitting in the temple filled up, students sat all the way down the balcony and flowed downstairs into the theater. We had two family-size refrigerators —one was about three hundred feet away, down a narrow flight of stairs near the back of the temple— and we had only one five-burner stove. Formal oryoki sets that include the three bowls, special cloths, and utensils hadn't been introduced yet, so we ate on baby-blue plastic GI trays, one tray for each person, with regular dishes and utensils alongside a Buddha bowl. There was no special utensil, called the setsu, for cleaning our bowls at the end of the meal, so we cleaned with a pickled vegetable held by our chopsticks. In the kitchen we had done our best to provide a meal where the size and shape of the food, the color and texture, would add to its nourishment. Then each person was served rice, miso soup with tofu, pickles, sautéed vegetables, and whatever else we could put together, all for the sake of the spirit of practice.

That may not sound like very professional Zen, but it was good because I learned that if you think about something too much, it becomes bewildering, but when you "just do it," its not so bad. Maybe we should go back to the baby-blue trays and to improvising as we go along. That's a joke, of course, but there's a spirit that we shouldn't lose, and whether we're just making things up as we go along or someone is right there showing us the way, that spirit holds something important for us in our everyday life.

(Jakusho Kwon: No Beginning, No End, pp. 62-63)

As I've mentioned before, in Zen there are different schools, dealing with sudden enlightenment and gradual enlightenment. I'm supposedly from the Soto schoo, the gradual enlightenment way. But actually I don't really consider myself just Soto. Zen will do. You can follow your master: Be the Soto way, kind of quiet and calm and very detailed. But a shout once in a while or hitting the floor is okay, too. Anything that works is what I'm interested in. The Rinzai school is the school of sudden enlightenment. You practice, and all of a sudden —ta da!— you've got it! The whole thing makes me laugh because all of this is just our conditioned idea, and we fail in this are over and over again.

In actuality, what happens is like night and day. There is no sudden enlightenment. There is not even gradual enlightenment. Those are just words, like Zen dust. There have been big debates throughout Zen history. People ask, "Are you from the sudden school or the gradual school?" We shouldn't get involved in those kinds of debates. We should know through and through what is practice.

Debates like these are not in the Zen spirit because, as you can see in the quote from Dogen, even as we just begin to practice zazen, enlightenment is already there. It's like starting at zero when you're in a circle. You go around the circle 360 degrees, and you're back at zero. So really you don't go anywhere. You don't become any purer than you originally were. You don't become any more enlightened than you were. You just return to where you came from. So maybe some of you will want to just get off your cushions and go home right now. But in some other traditions you might say, "Well, maybe if you stay here a couple more years, you just might get it."

We think we're going to go from zero to 180 degrees all the way to 360 degrees. Wow! That's great. But actually you're already there. All your have to do is just realize it as you are. And that's you, vividly here. Where else could you be? That's the whole thrust of Zen.

(Jakusho Kwon: No Beginning, No End, pp. 89-90)

An important par of Zen practice is study. Of course, we study the self through meditation and other activities, but we also study the world, as well as some of the abundant and profound literature that has come out of Zen practice. In each of these ways we are always studying the self. It is a big mistake to think that when we read writings on the lives of some of our ancestors, we're studying about someone besides ourselves, because each phrase, letter, and even the space between the letters is actually pointing toward ourselves. This is the underlying meaning of what we call intimate study. Actually, we might say that intimacy itself is at the heart of all of Zen. When we are intimate with anything, or with everything, we are simulatenously being intimate with ourselves.

(Jakusho Kwon: No Beginning, No End, p. 111)

As I've mentioned before, the first teacher you will meet at a Zen center is the schedule. No matter what you may want to do or not to do, the schedule provides a kind of natural pressure that pushes you past your hindrances, past your ideas of yourself and your fears or inhibitions. It pushes you to do things you may not like: stopping work at a certain time, going to meetings, eating food that may not have the taste you particularly enjoy, going to sleep early so you can wake up very early, sitting long hours. All of this pressure begins to accumulate like frost gathering on snow; it functions like the pressure that transforms coal into diamond.

(Jakusho Kwon: No Beginning, No End, p. 141)

His Holiness the Dalai Lama has said many times that it is not the Buddhist way to just accept something on faith. We should put everything to the test and decide for ourselves whether to have faith in it. So there is a relationship between action and faith in the Buddhadharma. That's why I encourage you to put this practice to the test. You can start by taking a look and seeing for yourself where you spend most of your life. In bed? On your feet? On your seat? And while you're there, what is it that you are doing? What do you long for? Everything to change? Nothing to change?

(Jakusho Kwon: No Beginning, No End, p. 159)

Most people get caught when they think they know what they are actually doing, what the purpose is, or the goal. If you think you really know these things, you may still be doing things in vain, because for most people the purpose is still dualistic. It's based on your evaluation of what's good and what's bad, what's effective or cost efficient or useful or useless, big or small. We get fooled by all these labels, all these names, and it brings a self-consciousness to our activity. Part of the reason we do this is that we want to be good. We want to be real good people. But you already are good, you practice so you can see the basic goodness that you already have. You dont need anyone to tell you that you are a good person, or a good father, mother, sister, or brother. Suzuki-roshi told us, "If you do things because you should do them, then this is real practice." When you hear this, you may say, "That's it? Do things because you should do them and this is real practice?" But whatever you think, it is so.

(Jakusho Kwon: No Beginning, No End, p. 179)

Entertaiment: 6/10
Content: 7/10