Wednesday, October 19, 2011

"Dropping Ashes on the Buddha": Book Review

"If you say yes, I will hit you thirty times. If you say no, I will hit you thirty times" will repeat often. Here's the type of "dharma combat" as carried out by Sahn. This collection of dialogues, dharma talks, letters exchanged, and a bit of biography by Stephen Mitchell of Seung Sahn's valuable for its exposure of this type of training, taken from Korea and Japan westward.

An apple is red, an apple exists, but how to capture the essence of an apple in a world of impermanence, and how can non-thinking be realized by those caught up in categories, binary oppositions of form and emptiness, and step-by-step ways to enlightenment? People cited herein keep getting these breakthroughs it seems in the old days, but even if Sahn did nowadays, it appears the Western students at Cambridge and Providence and NYC and LA heard here asking Sahn for advice and dueling with him and often failing come away as baffled by his gnomic, stand-up routine, childlike, and plain puzzling responses as often as many readers, I reckon. Part of the point.

But, in the venerable tradition of iconoclast Bodhidharma, the riddling kong-an (he studied Rinzai Japanese Zen, which translates this as "koan") give-and-take with master and student is a way of forcing students off the "discriminating path." Zen requires a direction that leaves behind discursive thought, and language itself, as a way to grasp the meaning of Buddhism. I find it a welcome counterpart to the "just sitting" zazen approach of Soto Zen explained by Sahn's contemporary, Shunryu Suzuki, in a similar collection, "Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind" (see my review).

If you've read earlier reviews [on Amazon], you can see how short they are. At first, I'd no idea how to sum up this collection. I thought it might defy commentary. Not the first place to start (I've reviewed David Fontana's "Discover Zen" which directed me), but a fine destination for those already meditating, I'd hazard.

It's difficult to write at length about a book that challenges linear thinking. The elliptical nature of much of the contents may tire readers. It may be opaque or infuriating to some; the dialogue here with "Swami X" shows well the frustrations a guru had with this enigmatic style. It may weary some readers for it returns to the same images and phrases, but in this repetition, one glimpses what it's like to hear a Zen master, day after day.

Mitchell does not step forward in these pages to interpose himself between Sahn and himself as the compiler and editor, so this means you feel as if witnessing student conversations, letters, and talks firsthand, with a transparent, hidden transcriber. This can be off-putting as the lack of a framework or preface sets you in his formidable presence right away. On reflection, however, this verisimilitude may best capture the uneasy, unsettling feeling of being there as an unpredictable, off-beat teacher starts challenging and testing you.

P.S. In light of subsequent revelations starting in 1988 of charges by some of Sahn's female followers that he engaged in secret relations with them despite his celibate status, this complicates the depiction of Sahn here. However, one of the hundred chapters presciently included (this book came out originally in 1976) has a well-known ancient monk learning by a night "on the town" at a bar-brothel how even the monastic precepts can be broken in the quest for meaning, so...enough said. (Posted to Amazon US 9-30-11)

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