Zen

“It Came From Beyond Zen,” by Brad Warner

It Came From Beyond Zen, by Brad Warner

Buy from Amazon or Indiebound.

“It Came From Beyond Zen” is Brad Warner’s follow-up to “Don’t Be a Jerk.” Both books are commentaries and paraphrases of the Shōbōgenzō, by the Zen master Dōgen, delivered in Warner’s characteristically irreverent, witty, pop culture–infused style.

Dōgen, if you haven’t heard of him, is a big deal. At the time “Don’t Be a Jerk” came out, NPR had recently published an article by Adam Frank, an astrophysics professor at the University of Rochester and self-described “evangelist of science,” who described Dōgen as “the greatest philosopher you’ve never heard of,” arguing that he deserved to be ranked alongside Heidegger and Husserl in terms of his contributions to philosophy. (Actually I think he ranks higher.)

Dōgen lived from 1200 to 1253, and founded the Sōtō school of Zen in Japan. His teachings are often couched in a paradoxical, dense, and obscure style that is often hard to translate, as evidenced by the wide variety of ways one passage can be rendered by different translators. It’s these characteristics — plus the great length of the Shōbōgenzō, that make books like “Don’t Be a Jerk” and “It Came From Beyond Zen” necessary.

Each chapter is in the same format: an introduction by Warner, a paraphrased and summarized chapter from the Shōbōgenzō, and then some explanation from the author, in which he tells us what the original text said, as compared to his paraphrases and pop culture references, and gives us his take on the teachings. Warner’s explanations about his paraphrases are a bit like a magician doing a trick and then telling you how it was done; it adds to the entertainment, makes you appreciate the skill involved, and is also informative. For example, he paraphrases “Has the disciple arrived at the state without doubt?” as the more approachable “Are you sure about that?” and “tea and rice” (medieval Japanese shorthand for something seemingly mundane) becomes “eating cornflakes and doing the dishes.”

Warner is mostly working from a number of translations, but he also knows at least some (I’m not clear how much) Japanese and sometimes takes us under the hood to show us the inner workings of the Shōbōgenzō — something I find fascinating.

The actual contents of the book are varied, because the essays the Shōbōgenzō comprises are varied as well. Some were presumably aimed at an audience with a very basic understanding of — well, just about anything. As Warner points out, many of the monks would have been uneducated young monks straight from the farm. Others teachings are among the most profound Buddhist texts ever written.

I was particularly interested in the chapters on ethics and compassion, since I haven’t seen much discussion of these topics from a traditional Zen perspective (as opposed to what modern Zen teachers have contributed, which is considerable). I found myself comparing teachings like Zen’s 10 Grave Precepts with the 10 precepts I follow, which come from the early Buddhist tradition. There’s some evolution evident in these teachings, as where abstention from slanderous speech becomes “No praising or blaming” and abstention from false views becomes “No abusing the Triple Treasure: Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha.” It’s kind of refreshing to see a familiar old teaching presented in new words, but also a bit disorienting, which is not necessarily a bad thing, of course.

I can’t leave without pointing out that the book’s title is actually very clever. For a number of years Warner worked in the Japanese film industry, with a company that made cheesy monster movies. “It Came From Beyond Zen” obviously refers to science fiction monster movies “It Came From Outer Space” (in which an alien spaceship crashes in the Arizona desert) or Stephen King’s “It.” The “it” in these movie titles refers to something so beyond our experience that it’s unnameable.

Buddhism too deals with the unnameable: reality, which can’t be adequately expressed in words. This reality defies description. As Warner very neatly puts it, “Any description of anything involves … mental measurement. But no possible description of this something — this it — will ever suffice, because there’s literally nothing else to compare it to.” This “it” (in Dōgen’s text it’s the Japanese inmo) is beyond Buddhism. It’s beyond Zen. It’s beyond any attempt to conceptualize it.

If you’ve never heard of Dōgen, read this book. If you’ve heard of him and want to learn more, read this book. If you’ve a Dōgen expert, you probably won’t learn anything about the original essays, but might (I’m just guessing here) enjoy the book for its entertainment value and for Warner’s perspectives.

Buy “It Came From Beyond Zen” from Amazon or Indiebound.

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Watch SIT, a short documentary

SIT – Short Documentary Film from Yoko Okumura on Vimeo.

Chris Ruiz, one of the producers of SIT, a short documentary by Yoko Okumura, suggested that I might want to share this video. Yoko Okumura is the daughter of Shohaku Okumura, a Zen abbot and Eihei Dogen translator. Confounding stereotypes of Zen strictness, Shohaku is a really easy-going guy. Her brother, Masaki, lacks direction, and although he’d like to go to college to learn to cook, he’s perpetually “not ready” to take any concrete steps, seeming to have retreated into a world of video games and finding interaction with the world to be scary.

As Ruiz said to me, the documentary helps “dispel myths about the traditionalism, closed-mindedness, and rigidness attributed to Asian families.”

It’s a very short documentary, and slow moving. It’s rather interesting and surprising, though.

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The neuroscience of suffering – and its end

Jeff Warren, Psychology Tomorrow Magazine: It was 1972, and Gary Weber, a 29-year old materials science PhD student at Penn State University, had a problem with his brain. It kept generating thoughts! – continuously, oppressively – a stream of neurotic concerns about his life, his studies, whatever. While most human beings would consider this par for the course, par for the human condition (cogito ergo sum), Weber wouldn’t accept it. He was a scientist, a systematizer, a process guy. He liked to figure out how things worked, and how they could be tweaked …

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“Don’t Be A Jerk,” by Brad Warner

“Don’t Be A Jerk” is a kind of summary-plus-commentary on the 13th century Japanese Zen teacher Dōgen’s Shōbōgenzō, or “Treasury of the True Dharma Eye.” If that statement has you yawning, then let me add that it’s written by Brad Warner, who is a witty, engaging, and quirky author. “Don’t Be A Jerk” is stimulating, informative, and entertaining.

But let’s start with why this book is necessary.

First, Dōgen is a spiritual/philosophical genius. Just recently, on National Public Radio’s website, Adam Frank, an astrophysics professor at the University of Rochester and self-described “evangelist of science,” described Dōgen as “the greatest philosopher you’ve never heard of,” and argued that he should be ranked in the pantheon alongside Heidegger and Husserl. But you may have come across his name before without realizing it, since there was a character named after him on the cult TV show “Lost.”

Second, Dōgen’s masterwork, the aforementioned Shōbōgenzō, is humungous, often difficult to translate, and sometimes difficult to read. This is one of the reasons why I’ve only ever dipped into it, despite finding it fascinating.

Brad Warner’s task has been to make the Shōbōgenzō more accessible, by condensing and paraphrasing its teachings in a more easily digested form, along the lines of Mark Russell’s “God Is Disappointed In You,” which is a summary of the Bible.

Brad Warner strikes me as a good person to undertake this task. He loves the Shōbōgenzō and has been steeped in it, both as a text and as a guide to his own spiritual practice, for decades. He has a good sense of what people need to know in terms of practice. For the most part he writes well, and always entertainingly. The very title, with its colorful use of the word “jerk,” gives a sense of his playfulness. There are also plenty of pop-culture references to Twinkies, Star Wars, Dustin Hoffman, etc. Dōgen’s insulting terms for people with inferior spiritual understanding are rendered as dimwits, jackasses, dumb-bums, bullshitters, etc. This makes “Don’t Be A Jerk” a fun read.

As far as I can tell (not being well-versed in Dōgen’s writing), Warner has done a good job. He provides context for Dōgen’s teachings in the introductory parts of the chapters, and in the chapter conclusions he presents his own understanding of them. He often shows us what actually Dōgen said (or what various people think he said — sometimes he’s hard to fathom him) so that you know what the 13th century Japanese original of “beer and doritos” is, for example. Many times he gives the Japanese characters, and a word-by-word translation.

Often Warner gives little biographical accounts of his own history with the text. So you learn a bit about the author, and various scholars and practitioners he’s encountered over the years. There’s also some history given of the text — not just how Dōgen came to write it, but how it’s been regarded in Japan (at one time it was banned!) and how it’s come to be translated into English.

I learned a lot about Dōgen’s teachings from “Don’t Be A Jerk.” The Dharmic content is very varied because Dōgen’s writings are varied. He wrote the 95 chapters of the Shōbōgenzō over a long period of time, and for differing audiences. Sometimes he deals with the minutiae of monastic behavior, so that there’s a chapter on “Zen and the Art of Wiping Your Butt” (literally this is about going to the toilet as a spiritual practice) and another on monastic rules. Sometimes he deals with social issues like women’s equality (“Was Dōgen the First Buddhist Feminist”). And many of the chapters, of course, deal with deep spiritual issues, like how you’re already enlightened but aren’t really, and how time and existence are inseparable.

You’ll probably have picked up that I’m a fan of this book. It’s spiritually and philosophically interesting to read, and it’s also fun. Many people might well read it, and then go off and try their hand at understanding the Shōbōgenzō. Others may think, “OK, I know a bit about Dōgen now,” and that’s fine too.

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The greatest philosopher you’ve never heard of

wildmind meditation news

Adam Frank, NPR: Let’s be honest. When most of us talk about philosophy — the hard-core, name-dropping, theory-quoting kind — we’re talking about a particular lineage that traces back to the Hellenistic Greeks.

But consider, for a moment, the fact that over the last few thousand years there’ve been a whole lot of smart people born into a whole lot of highly sophisticated cultures. It is, therefore, kind of silly that we limit “philosophy” to mean “philosophy done by dudes who lived in Europe a long time ago.” That gripe was the main point of a very pointed piece in The New York Times last month titled: “If Philosophy Won’t Diversify, Let’s Call It What It Really Is.”

Of course, given how much my field of physics owes to the rich philosophical tradition of “The West,” I do count myself as a big fan. From Plato’s Doctrine of Ideals to Spinoza’s Ethics, Western philosophic perspectives laid bare core issues that were transformed into really good things, like science and democratic political thought. But as The Times piece shows, it doesn’t do much good imagining that Europe cornered the market on creative thinking about being human.

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Eight ways not to think about meditation

wildmind meditation newsBarry Morris, The Practical Buddhist: In Zen, meditation is about sitting, standing, or walking in total awareness. Steve Hagen, Lead teacher at the Dharma Field Zen Center in Minneapolis, MN and author of the best book on meditation I’ve ever read, Meditation Now or Never, puts it this way:

“Meditation, and it’s Japanese translation ‘Zen,’ is the practice of awareness, openness, and direct experience of here and now.

That’s what we need to know about meditation. It’s not about becoming more relaxed, healthy or even enlightened. In fact, the moment we think we’re going to get something out of meditation, we take ourselves …

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The Zen predator of the Upper East Side

Mark Oppenheimer, The Atlantic: Nearly 50 years ago, a penniless monk arrived in Manhattan, where he began to build an unrivaled community of followers—and a reputation for sexual abuse. The ongoing accusations against him expose a dark corner of the Buddhist tradition.

I. “That was the beginning of the sangha”

Eido Shimano, a Zen Buddhist monk from Japan, arrived at New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport on December 31, 1964, New Year’s Eve. He was 32 years old, and although he had just spent four years in Hawaii, part …

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“The Zen Programmer” by Christian Grobmeier

zenprogrammerPerhaps you are a programmer, or you work in the software industry. If you are reading this blog, it’s pretty sure that you have some interest in meditation or buddhism. If these statements are true for you, then it’s also quite likely that you’ve heard of Christian Grobmeier, his blog, and his 10 Rules of Zen Programming. His book The Zen Programmer, which has grown out of his programming, his blog and his practice, is a personal story of burnout and recovery. It describes the kind of mistakes we can make in our programming careers, their consequences, and how we can find a new way of doing our jobs that does not require us to pay with our peace of mind.

This is not a very polished book from a stylistic point of view. The English can be a little quirky as the writer is a fluent but non-native speaker. I personally enjoyed hearing Grobmeier’s German cadences coming through the pages. The unexpected turns of phrase can even act as mindfulness bells to the reader. But for all that, the book does flow. It has direction and it engages from start to finish. All this without losing its sense of being a collection of blog entries. In part this is down to Grobmeier’s unpretentious language and his straightforward message. I imagine his writing technique is informed by the famously sparse nature of Zen aesthetics.

It will raise a smirk, or perhaps roll some eyes, to suggest that programmers live a dangerous life! We don’t fight fires (at least not real ones) or deal with armed sociopaths every day (though perhaps a few unarmed ones). But every occupation has its hazards, and software development is no different. Programmers work in abstractions. Not the standard everyday abstractions that we all lean on to navigate this world – but another layer again. In order to code, we push abstractions beyond a point that is normal, healthy and useful in everyday life. And because we do it all day every day, we are in danger of living further away from direct experience than most people. Grobmeier points out the various stresses and strains involved in working at the software coalface every day. Although most or all of them are common to other professions, he frames them in a way that software developers can recognise. And then he explains how these factors can lead to burnout.

After a few introductory chapters explaining what the author means by Zen Programming, the body of the book contains a great number of sections with high-minded titles but very practical content. Titles like Egoless Programming, You Cannot Separate Your Mind from Your Body and Karma Code might seem to indicate self-indulgent philosophical conjecture, but instead each of these headings is followed by some very simple advice that can be put into practice by anyone. Egoless Programming, for example, points out the difficulties of doing code reviews, and points out how much easier and more enjoyable this process would be if we could avoid identifying ourselves with the code we produce.  Karma Code points out the dangers of hiring ‘brilliant jerks’ – something every developer (except perhaps ‘brilliant jerks’!) can relate to.

The book closes with a section that reiterates Grobmeier’s original post on the 10 Rule of a Zen Programmer. The ‘rules’ combine productivity advice of the kind you will find elsewhere (Focus, Keep a Clear Mind), tips on how to stay mentally healthy when practicing software development (There Is No Career Goal, There is No Boss) and some salutary warnings on how not to be a pain in the ass for your colleagues (Shut Up, There Is Nothing Special). Each one has value and they complement and balance each other nicely.

Zen Programming can be practiced without becoming a buddhist, or learning the bamboo flute, as the rules stand up to secular scrutiny and are accessible. I believe that the more developers who grasp Grobmeier’s message and put it into action, the happier and more productive our work environments will become. And for this reason, among others, I recommend this book.

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Thich Nhat Hanh: is mindfulness being corrupted by business and finance?

wildmind meditation newsJo Confino, The Guardian: The Zen master discusses his advice for Google and other tech giants on being a force for good in the world.

Mindfulness has become an increasingly popular topic among business leaders, with several key executives speaking publicly in recent months about how it helps them improve the bottom line.

Intermix CEO Khajak Keledjian last week shared his secrets to inner peace with The Wall Street Journal. Arianna Huffington, editor in chief of the Huffington Post, discussed mindfulness in Thrive, her new book released this week. Other business leaders who meditate include Aetna CEO Mark Bertolini, Salesforce.com CEO Marc Benioff …

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Zen in America: a documentary

Adam-TebbeI’m always very happy to encourage Buddhist creators, and Adam Kō Shin Tebbe‘s project to document the history of Zen in North America seems well worth supporting. Please head on over to his Kickstarter page and support this excellent documentary.

Zen in America is a multi-part series which will cover the history and practices of Zen in North America. Funding is the first major obstacle in getting any documentary off the ground and a detail every filmmaker wishes they could hop right over. The reality of fundraising is quite real, however, leaving many independent filmmakers like Tebbe to turn to sites like Kickstarter.com.

“Zen in America” tells its story through a patchwork of interviews with teachers of all North American Zen lines, recollections and experiences of practitioners, analysis by scholars and academics, archival footage and photographs, and footage shot on location.

Over the coming years, the director will travel throughout North America to talk to the leaders and practitioners of the tradition. Having only begun shooting for the film in July of 2013, the film already includes interviews with the following American Zen teachers:

Sojun Mel Weitsman, Hozan Alan Senauke, James Myoun Ford, Myoan Grace Schireson, Myo Denis Lahey, Jay Rinsen Weik, Karen Do’on Weik, as well as many other North American Zen practitioners.

Tebbe expects to be filming for the next 3 years of his life, estimating that the full DVD series will be available at some point in 2017. To learn more about the film, readers can head over to his project’s pitch page here.

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