Here is a comprehensive introduction to Zen Buddhism for those who don't know how or where to begin, nor what to expect once they have started practicing. It includes the fundamentals of meditation practice (posture, technique, clothing), descriptions of the basic teachings and major texts, the teacher-student relationship, and what you will find when you visit a zendo, plus a history of Zen from the founding of Buddhism to its major schools in the West. In addition to answering the most frequently asked questions, it offers a listing of American Zen centers and resources, an annotated bibliography, and a glossary.
Jean Smith's enormously practical approach ensures that The Beginner's Guide to Zen Buddhism will become the book teachers and students alike will recommend.
Smith, author of several anthologies of Buddhist writings, sets out in her latest work to equip the curious beginner with the basics needed to practice Zen. She successfully anticipates a novice's questions and problems by including sections not only on how to meditate but on what to expect and how to behave when visiting a Zen practice center. This book has the potential to bring Zen to a wider audience; Smith excels at providing simple, clear explanations and packs a parcel of basic information into a small book. However, this work also epitomizes some of the problems attending Zen's recent popularity in America. Smith shies away from calling Zen a religion, sugarcoating the more religious aspects of Zen practice, such as making offerings or paying respect to one's teacher, in an effort to make them palatable to the Zen consumer. She eschews literal translations of Buddhist verses for liberal ones and skims over the differences between Zen and other Buddhist traditions, leaving readers with a Zen whose complexities and contradictions have been neatly rationalized. One hopes that readers will not be disappointed by the actual practice of Zen communities after digesting the idealized portrait presented here. The book's strong point is its popularization of Zen, but here popularization flirts with oversimplification. (Feb.)
Copyright 2000 Reed Business Information, Inc. -- PUBLISHERS WEEKLY.
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February 21, 2000
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Excerpt from The Beginner's Guide to Zen Buddhism by Jean Smith
Why Choose Zen?
It's very important to find the tradition and the center where you are comfortable. The aspect of Zen that appeals to most people is its emphasis on zazen and the experience of meditating in a zendo, which we'll investigate in chapters 2 and 3. The word Zen comes from the Sanskrit dhyana ("meditative absorption"), which was transliterated into ch'an in Chinese, then into zenna, or Zen, in Japanese. The practice has come to this country as Zen; zazen literally means "seated mind."
Another attraction has to do with Zen teachers, discussed in chapter 4. Zen Buddhism emphasizes a strong, ongoing relationship between a student and a teacher. When you work with a Zen teacher, you're not just in a room with a hundred other students, but you have the opportunity to meet one-on-one with a teacher. And a quite wonderful aspect of Zen teachers is the freshness, the broad sense of humor, and the unpredictably bizarre methods they sometimes use to teach. The rhetoric of Zen, like that of all traditions, promises freedom. But Zen's reputation for being especially free goes back to irreverent, rebellious kinds of "crazy masters" found throughout Zen history. For this reason, spontaneity is a good word for the accepted norms of teaching and learning in Zen.
A special characteristic of Zen is a kind of intimacy with what you see and hear, which leads to a practice distinguished by its simplicity. When you meditate deeply, you become acutely mindful of just what surrounds you, and you develop a keen awareness of its aesthetics. Zen has been criticized as being excessively formal, but the teachings themselves are right within that form. People often have a moving experience arising out of their familiarity with form: Coming into a zendo -- where all the cushions are lined up, everything is spotless, everything has a particular place, and you bow in a particular way -- is like being enfolded in a safe and still container. It may seem paradoxical that this intimacy with form occurs within the same context as crazy teaching. But they go together, because without that form the wild teaching wouldn't be so wild.
Finally, although storytelling is also part of the teaching approach within the Tibetan and Vipassana traditions, what sets Zen apart is koans, story-riddles whose every answer seems to be paradoxical, examined in chapter 2.
The Benefits of Practice
When you first begin to meditate -- in any tradition -- you suddenly become awestruck by all the things going on in your mind. With practice, an incredible empowerment takes place as you begin to recognize and even to stop the constant chatter of thought. During the early months, you may experience this awareness of and ability to have some control over your thoughts as a honeymoon period.
After you've been practicing longer, perhaps during a retreat, all your ideas -- the rigidities -- about practice abruptly drop away, and you first experience intimacy with form. In this remarkable transformation, you recognize not just the form of Zen but also the form of your life. It's as if you suddenly can affirm, "Yes, this is my life."
Many advantages of Zen often are ballyhooed in the media under the all-inclusive term stress reduction. American Zen teacher Charlotte Joko Beck, in Everyday Zen, has succinctly deflated such notions. She insists that practice is not about producing psychological or physical change or bliss states, not about knowing the nature of reality or gaining special powers, not even about being "spiritual," although all of these things may happen as a by-product to meditation practice. It's about becoming acquainted with ourselves. Nevertheless, many other straightforward benefits do come from meditation. You can concentrate better and put your mind where you want it. You can see yourself as you become attached to a thought -- whether that thought is fear, despair, anger, or delight. Very slowly, over the years, the places where you get stuck emotionally and mentally are worn away by your practice of awareness. You come to be more resilient. Ultimately, as you become more aware of your nature -- of who you are -- you become more compassionate.
The most powerful aspect of Zen practice is the freedom it gives you. Zen goes directly to your own experience of the oneness of the universe, of your interconnectedness with all things. You learn to distrust whatever you clung to in your old sense of separation, and that realization can be the most liberating thing in your life, a freedom beyond anything you could have imagined.