The Zen of Paul Reps

William Segal

When Paul Reps was asked what kind of Zen he practiced, he answered: “Reps Zen.” This poet-painter-philosopher who died last year at the age of ninety-six not only followed his own Zen but influenced generations of Americans. Zen Flesh Zen Bones, a collection of Zen stories complied by Reps, was published in 1952 and continues to introduce new audiences to the tradition.

I first met Reps soon after World War II. He had been sending me articles for Gentry and American Fabrics, magazines which I published at the time. In one accompanying note, he suggested that we go to Japan together. Our first encounter was at the old Spanish colonial airport in Los Angeles, en route to the Far East.

Although Reps enjoyed strong personal friendships with a number of Japanese Zen masters, he persistently rejected “official Zen.” To my suggestion that we train at a Zen monastery, he replied: “Don’t go. They’ll spoil you.”

Reps maintained that "one sound penetrates the whole creation." But until recent years the world has paid little attention to this one sound. He truly lived by the idea that human beings are Unknown Beings and could enter into the silence—their true nature—in this instant. For him, the idea of being able to touch other world in oneself was an every-moment possibility. He insisted that the Buddha mind is in everyone, that the timeless, spaceless element exists in every creature. No matter that the phenomenal world is unable to express adequately the world of noumena, the fact that THIS cannot comprehend THAT did not bother him. Like Bankei he said: “Don’t worry, just look into yourself.”

Born in the Midwest and educated at Dartmouth College, Reps was part of New York’s Greenwich Village scene following World War I. He learned about Ramana Maharshi and found his way to the hermitage Laksmanjoo, in Kashmir. There he absorbed and transcribed the 4,000-year-old manuscript “112 Ways of Centering,” which is probably the finest guide to meditation practice. In 1952, some of his English renderings appeared in Gentry magazine, and in Letters to a Friend, a collection of writings, drawings, and letters addressed to me.

Meeting Reps was always an event, for he sensed that any encounter was “evidence of things not seen.” As he put it: “It is probable we meet only the persons in this world we deserve to meet, or are supposed to meet, or are drawn to meet, like certain water drops down a stream gliding over certain stones on their way to the sea.”

William Segal, writer and painter, divides his time between New York City and Paris.

Image: Paul Reps and William Segal, courtesy of Lee Lewing.

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