A Reading List

Books

Eastern philosophy can be a tricky thing for a mind fed on a Western diet. Eastern schools of thought seem to embrace change in a way the West does not. The focus in Eastern philosophy is one’s own internal state more than the external world. In the East, what we call reality is spoken of as an illusion, as nothing more than the upwelling of a fluid, interconnected essence that resists expression through words. “The way that can be spoken of is not the constant way,” reads the opening line of the Tao Te Ching.

As true as this may be, that didn’t stop some very wise people from writing some very illuminating texts in an effort to capture and convey the deep philosophies of the East, from Hinduism to Buddhism to Shintoism, Jainism, Taoism, Zen and the like. I have read and taken much from some of these works (all in translation), and since a few people have asked me what texts I’d suggest for someone interested in such topics, I’ve compiled the abridged list below, very much fragmentary and shaped by a mixture of personal biases and pure happenstance.

I feel it is important to approach these texts with an empty cup. When speaking of the Eastern philosophical tradition, we should remember that words are used more as bridges, and vanishing ones at that, that can help make a connection between the reader’s consciousness and the essential nature of reality. It can be tempting to grab on to a catchy quote and assign it literal meaning, but as the Zen saying goes, “Don’t Mistake the Finger Pointing at the Moon for the Moon.”

Do you have any books you’d like to add to this list?

Tao Te Ching – The world of the named is the world of opposites (light and dark, high and low, male and female); meanwhile, the tao (“the way”) gives rise to all of these but cannot be named or described. The tao is the essence at the heart of all things, like a flowing river, ever changing, that brings life to the trees and animals. A short book of verse dating to the fourth century B.C.E. and attributed to the Chinese scholar called Lao Tzu, the Tao Te Ching instructs the reader to live in accordance with the tao. The low is held up as the root of things, inaction is praised over action — as such, it is the opposite of the Western way. “One who knows does not speak; one who speaks does not know.” Although those of us trained to strive for more and bigger and better will balk at the riddle-like teachings of the Tao Te Ching, I think many of us could use a little more of the yin (feminine/dark/passive) to our yang (masculine/light/active). Two nice English translations are the D.C Lau version (Penguin, 1963) and Lao-tzu’s Taoteching: with selected commentaries from the past 2,000 years, translated by Red Pine (Copper Canyon Press, 2009).

Zen Flesh, Zen Bones: A Collection of Zen and Pre-Zen Writings, compiled by Paul Reps and Nyogen Senzaki – My first exposure to Zen, my dad read from this book at the dinner table when I was young. It has turned out to be one of the most consistently meaningful texts I’ve ever read, although the stories seem to take on a different meaning every time I read them. Zen Flesh, Zen Bones contains 101 short stories, most centering around a moment of sudden realization or enlightenment. They convey the spirit of Zen in very simple, concrete way, avoiding the didactic tone of more technical texts. The book also contains a series of koans, paradoxical mind puzzles intended for the meditating student, and a series of 10 illustrations representing the stages of enlightenment.

The Tao of Physics, Fritjof Capra – Written in the 1970s, this book was admittedly inspired by consciousness-expanding use of psychedelic substances. The central theory that Capra seeks to illustrate throughout is that the view of the world defined by what he calls Eastern “mysticism” is in surprising accord with that described by modern particle physics. “The two basic themes of this conception are the unity and interrelation of all phenomena and the intrinsically dynamic nature of the universe,” Capra writes. In addition to offering layman’s primers on both modern physics and Eastern thought, Capra reinforces his arguments with quotes from famous physicists like Niels Bohr, Werner Heisenberg, and Albert Einstein — to the latter he attributes this line: “As far as the laws of mathematics refer to reality, they are not certain; and as far as they are certain, they do not refer to reality.”

This Is It: and Other Essays on Zen and Spiritual Experience, Alan W. Watts – A collection of essays by the British-born philosopher Alan Watts, this book focuses on the idea that the present moment is infinitely sufficient and that the present and the past are mere constructs of our consciousness. Watts’ writing in this book bears the indelible mark of his time and place (California in the 1950s and ’60s), and the collection includes essays with such quirky titles as “Beat Zen, Square Zen, and Zen” and “LSD and Satori.” Still, there is something special about Watts’ figuration of Eastern thought for a Western audience. He brings a simple clarity to questions that we tend to make very complicated. This video, containing an excerpt from one of Watts’ lectures, made the rounds on my social media feed a few months ago and it is worth a watch: http://youtu.be/1RyvYSV41t8. Watts suggested that Buddhism, with its focus on internal states, is a form of psychotherapy, a concept reinforced by the fact that Carl Jung wrote the introduction to the 1950 Princeton University Press edition of the I Ching.

Zen Mind, Beginners Mind, Shunryu Suzuki  – Focused on the idea of “beginners mind,” or the true nature that we all contain and must only recognize to become enlightened (easier said than done!), Suzuki explains both the practical side of Zazen (seated meditation) and the larger philosophical underpinnings of Zen philosophy. The book begins with the popular quote, “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few.”

Japanese Death Poems, Yoel Hoffmann – Death seems to be less of a taboo in Japan than it is here in the West. One interesting tradition was the writing of a poem as a farewell to this world. Japanese Death Poems collects hundreds of examples of short verse written by Zen masters and haiku poets. Their sentiments range from defiant, to accepting, to abstract. Many of the poems never mention death at all, but are laden with a sense of finality: “The longest winter night / plum petals fall and finally / the western moon.” The book recounts the story of the great haiku master Basho who, when asked by his students near the end of his life to write a death poem, argued that any of his poems could be his death poem, revealing something profound about the Japanese approach to life and death.

The Book of Tea, Okakura Kakuzo – As much about the history of aesthetics in Japan as about a beverage derived from leaves, The Book of Tea draws parallels and connections between Taoism, Zen, and the traditions surrounding tea. For example, “In the tea-room the fear of repetition is a constant presence… If you have a living flower, a painting of flowers is not allowable. If you are using a round kettle, the water pitcher should be angular…” This fear of repetition extends beyond decoration. The author Okakura Kakuzō writes of the Western tradition of commissioning portraits of oneself, “We find it trying to talk to a man while his full-length portrait stares at us from behind his back. We wonder which is real, he of the picture or he who talks, and feel a curious conviction that one of them must be a fraud.” Kakuzō was raised speaking English around the turn of the century, and he wrote the book in English for a Western audience, as a way of perhaps preserving a tradition in the face of a rapidly Westernizing Japan.

Zen in the Art of Archery, Eugen Herrigel – Fewer than 100 pages long, this little book offers a behind-the-scenes look into the life of a Zen archery student in 1930s Japan, where art of drawing and loosing the unique Japanese bows was developed to a spiritual level that required decades to master. When the author, a German philosophy professor, was having trouble, he asked his teacher for some pointers. In typical Zen fashion, he received a response that would make sense only after he’d answered his own question: Only by “leaving yourself and everything yours behind you so decisively that nothing more is left of you but a purposeless tension,” the master explained, would Herrigel succeed in loosing the arrow properly. In his introduction to the book, the Zen scholar D.T. Suzuki summed things up nicely: “In the case of archery, the hitter and the hit are no longer two opposing objects, but one reality.”

Hagakure: The Book of the Samurai, Yamamoto Tsunetomo – Written by a masterless samurai at the tail end of Japan’s Warring States Period, Hagakure, which translates as “hidden by leaves,” is a loose collection of thoughts centering around Bushido, The Way of the Warrior. Influenced by Zen, Hagakure suggests that the samurai must not cling to material possessions or to life itself. “The way of the Samurai is found in death,” Yamamoto writes. “We all want to live. And in large part we make our logic on what we like. But not having attained our aim and continuing to live is cowardice.” Like Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations, Hagakure is uneven and full of both brilliant and bizarre commentary. One example of the latter: “When faced with a crisis, if one puts some spittle on his earlobe and exhales deeply through his nose, he will overcome anything at hand.” 

Climbing Is (Not) The Best

Everyone is first

When Banzan was walking through a market he overheard a conversation between a butcher and his customer.

“Give me the best piece of meat you have,” said the customer.

“Everything in my shop is the best,” replied the butcher. “You cannot find here any piece of meat that is not the best.”

At these words Banzan became enlightened.*

Many moons ago, a friend of mine with a hankering for a good, chewy argument asserted that climbing is the best sport. (I’ll use “sport” here, even though we all know that climbing is a “lifestyle,” or a “way of life,” or even a “metaphysical journey” — it’s just easier this way.)

“That’s a ridiculous thing to say,” I said. “Climbing is only the best sport for those who love it. What about all those people who prefer surfing, or football, or golf? To them, those are the best sports.”

“Those people are wrong,” he said.

“You can’t be wrong about something that’s totally subjective!” I cried.

“Climbing is, objectively, the best sport.” He stated, and then proceeded to tell me why: Climbing is not a competition with others or with a clock; it is a battle against one’s own limits and fears. Climbing combines intense physical and intellectual challenges into one activity. Climbing is inherently dangerous, requiring fortitude and focus in the face of ultimate consequences. Climbing often requires an understanding of physics and weather. Many forms of climbing embody the ideals of exploration, adventure, and self-reliance. As descendants of primates, we have climbing in our DNA. Climbing is a form of communion with the natural world. And so on…

I couldn’t argue with one thing he said. I could only explain that none of that changed that fact that many people – most people – don’t care about much about climbing. You could easily build similar arguments to elevate a thousand other pursuits.

“Whatever. You know I’m right.” He said.

But I didn’t know he was right. I only knew I loved to climb. Over the past 20 years, it has played a role in my social life, my identity, my job… Still, I just couldn’t believe in the intrinsic superiority of one pursuit over another. After all, even within the climbing microcosm we can’t agree: Mountaineering is just glorified hiking. Climbing on plastic isn’t real climbing… come to think of it, neither is aid climbing. The only pure climbing is done naked, free solo, and without shoes or chalk. Bouldering is just practice for full-sized climbs. Friends don’t let friends climb crack. Sport climbing is neither… . If climbing is the best, as my friend suggested, which kind in particular? The farther one follows such an argument, the larger the logical holes become, until there’s nothing left but opinion and empty space.

At the root of this disagreement was something we seem sadly unable to escape in this world: the idea of mutual exclusivity — for one thing to be right, the other must be wrong. If climbing is the best, well, then, something else can’t be the best, too, now can it? Our society, with its irrational fear of relativism and its “unhealthy obsession with winning” does little to dispel this troubling belief.

Here’s a common example a very powerful and subjective feeling against which no one would argue: My wife thinks I’m the greatest guy in the world (or at least, I hope she does!). Obviously, I am not the greatest guy in the world to those billions of women who have never met me, nor to the handful of fine ladies who have dated and dumped me. These differing opinions, luckily, have not the slightest bearing on my wife’s feelings for me or mine for her. We each hold the other to be the best for us.

Most of us are pretty good at accepting the subjective nature of love and relationships. But sometimes – too much of the time – we have a hard time recognizing the subjective in our tastes. Religion plays on this very human weakness – there can be only one truth, say the holy texts of nearly every belief: Our Truth. This is without doubt religion’s most dangerous aspect. Invested in such misconceptions, people of one religion have oppressed and killed people of other religions for millennia. Likewise, belief in the supremacy of one race or nationality over another has spurred genocide. Luckily, in the case of climbing debates, things rarely turn violent… although I have heard tales of punches being thrown and threats being made over issues as objectively piddling as bolting, red-tagging, and chipping.

Looking back, I’m sure my friend was playing the role of devil’s advocate, deadpan as he may have been. Even if some part of him believed that climbing was truly the best of human pursuits, he accepted the fact that not everyone agreed. Just like my wife’s love for me, he knew his admiration for climbing wasn’t mutually exclusive with other people’s equally fervent love for other things.

And in a way, my friend and I were both right. Climbing is the best… but so is mountain biking, ice skating, and sure, why not, cup stacking. As long as there are people to love them, there is no sport that is not the best, thus rendering moot the very idea of “best.”

This type of open thinking underlies Alex Lowe’s ever-popular (and much-debated) quote, “The best climber is the one having the most fun.” If we all spent less time worrying about who or what was best, and more time doing what we love best, well, I believe we’d all be a happier and more fulfilled lot.

I’m also willing to admit you might not see it that way.

 

*This story, called “Everything is Best,” and many others like it can be found in the exceptional Zen Flesh, Zen Bones, by Paul Reps and Nyogen Senzaki. 

 

 

Zen Story: Every-Minute Zen

Sandals and umbrella

Every-Minute Zen*

Zen students are with their masters at least two years before they presume to teach others. Nan-in was visited by Tenno, who, having passed his apprenticeship, had become a teacher. The day happened to be rainy, so Tenno wore wooden clogs and carried an umbrella. After greeting him Nan-in remarked: “I suppose you left your wooden clogs in the vestibule. I want to know if your umbrella is on the right or left side of the clogs.”

Tenno, confused, had no instant answer. He realized that he was unable to carry his Zen every minute. He became Nan-in’s pupil, and he studied six more years to accomplish his every-minute Zen.

It is easy to live in your head. I have been doing it nearly every moment of my existence, for some 30-odd years. The average human only lives “in the moment” for brief flashes, when facing overwhelming joy, fear, pain, or exhaustion, or during other intense moments of engagement. This “nowness” is one of the things I seek when rock climbing — the singular focus when physical and mental engagement overwhelms my self-awareness, my thoughts of the past and future, my insecurities, my anxieties… .

But living in the moment is not only a function of extreme circumstances. When you practice anything extensively, you can access “flow” states and feel that sort of unconscious action. Athletes frequently speak of it, but artists or the spiritually minded might describe it as a kind of inspired or ecstatic state. Still, it never lasts for long. Many a gifted individual has spent his or her life seeking a longer stay in the perfect moment.

In “Every-Minute Zen,” Nan-in reminds Tenno that understanding Zen is all well and good, but what good is it if you cannot keep it with you always?

After you brushed your teeth this morning, which way did the head of the brush face? When you received change from the cashier, how much was there, and in what denominations? When you drove to work or to school last week, how many blue cars did you pass? If you cannot answer these questions, you do not have every-minute Zen.

Don’t worry, I don’t have it either. I always strive for greater awareness in the moment, but end up loosing track of the simplest things: I forget to put the wet laundry in the dryer and leave my keys dangling in the front-door lock.

The world I inhabit seems very distant from the monastic world of Nan-in and Tenno. I monitor Facebook and Twitter. I send text messages and check my calendar for appointments. I think of things I want to write and then work to create them, slowly and with much hand-wringing. At every turn, something asks for my attention to be directed to somewhere else and to some other time in the past or the future. I am not certain this is so wrong, but to the extent that it causes me anxiety, lack of focus, and confusion, it is something I seek to change.

*      *      *

I kick off my sandals and take note of how they fall, on which side of my umbrella, straining to think of nothing else. But even before they hit the floor, I am adrift — What would it feel like to be enlightened? I ponder. Already I have failed.

But failure lives in the past, which is no longer my concern. We have only to let each moment follow the next as it will; so simple yet so difficult.

Luckily, there is another moment coming — here it is, just now — in which to start the long journey into the infinitesimal nucleus of existence. My thought is, let’s start with one-second Zen and go from there.

*If you find this story to be interesting, please consider purchasing the masterful Zen Flesh Zen Bones: A Collection of Zen and Pre-Zen Writings, by Paul Reps and Nyogen Senzaki. I have owned and given away three or four copies of the book already. It’s pretty damn good.

Zen Story: A Cup of Tea

A cup of tea

A Cup of Tea
Nan-in, a Japanese master during the Meiji era (1868-1912), received a university professor who came to inquire about Zen.
Nan-in served tea. He poured his visitor’s cup full, and then kept on pouring.
The professor watched the overflow until he no longer could restrain himself. “It is overfull. No more will go in!”
“Like this cup,” Nan-in said, “you are full of your own opinions and speculations. How can I show you Zen unless you first empty your cup?”

The above story is the first in the book Zen Flesh Zen Bones. It sets the tone perfectly, reminding the reader that before the page is turned, it is important to empty one’s mind as completely as possible.

This is very hard to accomplish in our day-to-day lives, because we cling with every ounce of our being to our assumptions, possessions, and desires. The value we place on material things or accomplishments or the opinions of others is gravitational. It is in our genetic code and our cultural code. But as we all must die, and not one scrap of these things can accompany us, it is really for the best that we understand our desires and fears in this larger perspective.

At the end of the 1990 movie Jacob’s Ladder, there is a scene where a sage chiropractor (Danny Aiello) offers advice to the protagonist, Jacob (Tim Robbins). Jacob has been having terrible hallucinations — men with faces distorted and blurred, eyeless doctors operating on him against his will, his girlfriend being molested by a demonic lizard at a party — and we’ve learned that he was a soldier in Vietnam. [Spoiler alert] At a certain point, we come to realize that Jacob was actually killed in Vietnam, and that the entire movie is comprised of the last moments of his tortured consciousness, played out in his expiring brain. The fantastic hallucinations make sense in this context, and the context of the chiropractor’s words: “If you’re frightened of dying, and you’re holding on, you’ll see devils tearing your life away. If you’ve made your peace, then the devils are really angels, freeing you from the Earth.”

In this sense, the entire movie is the efforts of Jacob’s brain to make peace with his life and his death. This is something we all must do, whether we are young or old, sick or in fine health. We should always operate with the understanding that our time is limited. It gives us a certain sense of urgency about things. That we must not pass our days feeling afraid, anxious, or full of regret. Better to fill our time with things that bring us and others happiness. Better to treat every moment as the start of an existence filled with infinite potential.

Although I don’t know if Steve Jobs was a happy or well-balanced man, I do know that he was a powerful thinker, capable of seeing through to the inner kernel of a matter. In his 2005 Stanford Commencement Address, now very famous, he offered this statement, a bare, resonating filament of truth:

“Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything — all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure – these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.”

When Jobs gave this commencement (view it here), he had already been diagnosed with the cancer that would claim his life. He spoke as a great mind, but also as one who is forced to look his own end square in the eye. Such an encounter can leave a person hopeless and depressed. (And it is likely that Jobs felt these things, at times.) But ultimately his message was one of acceptance and understanding. More, he saw death as necessary — a thing that actually gives meaning to life.

We are all headed this way, and we have all always been headed this way. Will you attempt to ignore that truth? Will you let it drain the marrow from your life? Or will you use it as a source of energy and meaning, powering you to make the world greater than when you entered it? Every day, we must empty our cup and approach life full of excitement for the time we have. Humbled. Naked.


Zen Story: Not Far From Buddhahood

Buddha and The ScripturesA little Saturday night Zen.

“Not Far From Buddhahood” is one of my favorites. When I was a child, my father used to read to us after dinner from both the Old Testament and from Zen Flesh Zen Bones (the source of the story below; you can purchase a copy here, if you like it). At the time, any similarities between Western and Eastern wisdom were lost on me. Now, I’ve come to believe that a universal kernel of truth resides at the heart of our many human philosophies.

Organized religions always seem loathe to acknowledge that truth is not exclusive to one belief system. Zen tends not to have this problem. I do not think it’s fair to say I’m a Zen Buddhist or Zen practitioner, but certainly Zen is the closest thing to the constantly evolving Open Source Philosophy that I’ve created and live by. This story does a good job of expressing the Zen belief that truth can be found anywhere, from the petals of a flower to the Christian Bible.

-TBL

Not Far From Buddhahood

A university student while visiting Gasan asked him: “Have you ever read the Christian Bible?”

“No, read it to me,” said Gasan.

The student opened the Bible and read from St. Matthew: “And why take ye thought for raiment? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow. They toil not, neither 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 the 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, is shall be opened.”

Gasan remarked: “That is excellent. Whoever said that is not far from Buddhahood.”