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Religion | BOOK REVIEW

Weaving a Rich Tapestry of Zen Thought From Highly Individual Voices

April 20, 2002|PETER CLOTHIER | Peter Clothier is the author, most recently, of "While I Am Not Afraid: Secrets of a Man's Heart." He can be reached at www.Peter Clothier.com.

Wind Bell: Teachings From

the San Francisco Zen Center 1968-2001

Michael Wenger, editor

North Atlantic Books

220 pages, $14.95

*

Last year, I reviewed on this page "Shoes Outside the Door," Michael Downing's absorbing account of what his subtitle called "Desire, Devotion and Excess at the San Francisco Zen Center."

It offered a saddening view of the internal politics, the dubious business dealings and the exploitation of well-intentioned spiritual aspiration that, during the mid-1980s, threatened to undermine this effort to root Zen Buddhist practice in American soil.

Now, thankfully, comes "Wind Bell" as a lively antidote, presenting a broad spectrum of teachings and personal experiences from the same center over the last 30 years.

"Wind Bell" is an anthology of texts culled from the center's eponymous newsletter, which has been published with varying regularity since 1961. The book's editor, Michael Wenger, also a practitioner and teacher at the center, has edited or co-edited the newsletter on and off since 1984. He wisely chooses to anchor his selection in three key texts transcribed from lectures by Shunryu Suzuki, the center's founder, inspiration and presiding roshi, or spiritual leader, until his death in 1971.

Suzuki's well-known "Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind" is an indispensable guide to Zen thought and practice, and the lectures here reveal the subtle mind of a seminal teacher whose peculiar talent was to make both the uncompromising, self-evident simplicity of Zen and its subtle, sometimes bewilderingly obtuse sophistication accessible to the rational Western mind. "Form is emptiness," says its basic, now familiar paradox. "Emptiness is form."

For Suzuki, the purpose of Zen was to transcend the constantly shifting, illusory world of self by learning through practice "to be free from thinking mind and emotional activity."

Wenger next devotes a generous section to the center's other teachers. Many of the contributors will be familiar to those with anything more than a passing acquaintance with the literature: Richard Baker, Suzuki's successor as roshi, on mind-body awareness; Mel Weitsman on the four Buddhist views of love; Yvonne Rand on "Cultivating Beginner's Mind," in which she poses the question "How can I be a beginner in each moment, even in those situations where I am doing something that I have done many times before?"; and Reb Anderson in a wonderfully lucid exploration of the deceptively simple art of shikantaza, or "just sitting."

We get a sense, in these highly individual voices, of the depth of personal authenticity and the devotion to practice that form the spiritual guts of the center--an impression reinforced in a later section on sacred ritual, including the text of the "Lay Bodhisattva Initiation Ceremony" for those wishing to make a solemn commitment to the Zen path and personal accounts of the "Dharma Transmission" of the responsibilities of priesthood.

In addition to its resident teachers, the center has attracted as visitors many of the leading figures in the propagation of Buddhist thinking in the West.

They, too, are substantially represented here, including Robert Thurman, in a hip, meandering investigation of the Vimalakirti Sutra on the nature of non-duality; and Thich Nhat Hanh's gently lyrical teaching on "Watering the Seeds of Buddhism" in the simplest acts of daily life.

A final section, drawn mainly from the writings of lay practitioners, follows up on this theme by elaborating on the variety of applications of Zen to ordinary life experiences--from parenting to creative work, from the practice of healing to the gentle art of caring for the dying.

Is Zen a "religion"? Certainly some of the teachings here--including the introductory lecture by Suzuki on the relationship between the Nirmanakaya Buddha (the historical Buddha), the Sambhogakaya Buddha (the "Perfect One, or Truth Itself") and the Dharmakaya Buddha (the "fundamental, undeveloped Buddha Body")--suggest belief in an all-powerful being and a structural underpinning of dogma and ritual.

More than in other faiths, however, practice weighs significantly over belief in Zen Buddhism.

"Just sitting" becomes a way of living one's life in acceptance of suffering, impermanence and mortality.

Thanks to the work and example of the San Francisco Zen Center, more and more people today are engaged in the practice, and "Wind Bell" offers us a rich tapestry of individual voices--and some photos, mostly of a "family snapshot" variety--all contributing to the picture of a center truly back on mission.

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