Encouraging Words: Zen Buddhist Teachings for Western Students

Sam Hamill

ENCOURAGING WORDS: Zen Buddhist Teachings for Western Students
Robert Aitken
Pantheon: New York, 1993.

231 pp., $23.00 (hardback).

Sam Hamill

ALTHOUGH the introduction of Zen Buddhism in Western culture begins with the appearance of Soyen Shaku at the World Parliament of Religions in Chicago in 1893, its influence really begins with the publication of D. T. Suzuki's Essays in Zen Buddhism in London in 1927. About the same time as Suzuki:.. essays appeared, Nyogen Senzaki, the first Zen teacher to take up residence in the United States, began teaching meditation. And ever since that time, Westerners have struggled to adapt Zen Buddhist dharma teaching to Western cultural situations. As Robert Aitken points out in his introduction to Encouraging Words, we Westerners are often confronted with traditions, from the monastic male-dominated traditional teaching methods to the absence of any specific Buddhist moral code, that challenge our more egalitarian social order, including dealing with the particulars of feminism, family structure, and jobs, to say nothing of Buddhist experience in the realms of politics and economics.

Aitken notes that where Asian teachers rely on aspects of Confucianism for daily guidance in social affairs, we who are often ignorant of such practical philosophy

are left with the task of fonnulating and presenting a code of daily living as lay people that is in keeping with the basic teachings of Zen Buddhism.

And it is with this context in mind that Aitken addresses aspects of Zen practice in the West.

Aitken reminds the student that zazen is anything but a form of sensory deprivation, that in his Honolulu zendo one hears doves, cardinals, thrushes, and geckos. "Birds and geckos and bullfrogs guide us," he says, and emphasizes the importance of being "open to these natural teachers, wherever you are practicing." He stresses the significance of realizing that "ordinary mind is the Tao," and that "ordnary, everyday mind is the mind that has nothing extraneous." Only when one transcends preoccupations can one realize

the sacred nature of people, animals, and plants. But almost everyone is preoccupied with protecting and expanding the self, and thus excluding or even exploiting others.

While many beginning students come to Dogen's observation that "we study the self to transcend the self," Aitken notes that

individuality, uniqueness, and variety of persons, animals, plants and things-this is the wealth of the universe. I offer my riches, you offer yours.

He emphasizes Paul Shepard's observation that

when species die out, metaphors die with them and no longer inhabit the mind. Our children become mentally handicapped and our species become impoverished. Protecting the environment and saving plants and animals is thus more than just avoiding the greenhouse effect. It is preserving human sensibility and the sensibility of the world.

At the heart of Aitken's homilies is the idea that

Our practice must in a real sense be the practice of our descendants. Somehow we must find the American equivalent of the monastic system, and develop sangha organization that is participatory and egalitarian within and involved with the broader community outside. We must experiment, use what seems to enhance our practice, take stock periodically to evaluate our direction, test it with the Buddha's own teaching, and then experiment some more. All this takes commitment and flexibility. . . . Responsibility for our practice, individually and together, is the only way we can cope with the problems of maintaining true dharma in a sangha of householders.

Throughout these pages, Aitken stresses patience and practice. But part of Zen practice must include responsibility for participating in the Great Sangha that encompasses all life. In a 1983 talk, he notes the American invasion of the tiny island of Grenada and says,

I find that I am thinking about American foreign policy more than about encouraging people to pay attention to their spiritual purpose. I suggest that all of us inform ourselves about Grenada, beginning with the fact that it is smaller than the island of Lanai, and then write about it, to newspapers, to friends, to congress-people. The situation is so bizarre-so likely to trigger a larger conflagration-that somebody must speak out and say how grotesque it really is. This is one way we can use the energy of innocence we cultivate during sesshin

Through several volumes of essays, especially The Mind of Clover and Taking the Path of Zen, Aitken has proven himself to be among the most articulate and engaging advocates of Zen practice in the West, 92 and his translation of the Wu-men Kuan (The Gateless Barrier) presents the classical koan study in translation and commentary that is nonpareil. When we remember that it took eight generations of Chinese masters to perfect their adaptation of dhyana (ch'an or zazen practice), we might also remember that Aitken represents the second generation of North American teachers. Encouraging Words invites us to experiment, to adapt traditionally Asian methods to accommodate our Western social and economic realities. This is a book that sparkles with compassion, good humor, deep insight, and welcome encouraging words.

Sam Hamill, a Contributing Editor to Tricycle, is a poet, translator, and editor of Copper Canyon Press. His most recent book is Endless River: Li Po and Tu Fu, a Friendship in Poetry (Weatherhill).

 

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