The Difficult Ease of Zen: A Review of Zen Beyond Mindfulness by Jules Shuzen Harris

As a Vajrayana practitioner, I came to Zen Beyond Mindfulness with a little trepidation. A lot of Zen teachings seem to me like those Magic Eye pictures (stereograms) where you stare at a page of wavy lines and then at some point (maybe), if your eyes relax just right, you’ll see a sailboat. There’s a learning curve to the heart of Zen you can’t force or control. In fact, the more you squint and try to understand Zen, the less likely you are to get there.

 

By Kellie Schorr

The minute a person uses the phrase “Oh, that’s so Zen” to describe something that is minimalist, easy-going or calm, I know instantly that person has never studied Zen.

It is a mix of discipline and freedom, generosity and scrutiny, and riddles that don’t seem to make sense in a system of clear thought. For all its simple, graceful ease, there’s nothing easy about Zen.

As a Vajrayana practitioner, I came to Zen Beyond Mindfulness with a little trepidation. A lot of Zen teachings seem to me like those Magic Eye pictures (stereograms) where you stare at a page of wavy lines and then at some point (maybe), if your eyes relax just right, you’ll see a sailboat. There’s a learning curve to the heart of Zen you can’t force or control. In fact, the more you squint and try to understand Zen, the less likely you are to get there.

You have to relax into it.

I thought it possible that I would wind my way through this whole book and never see the sailboat. I was wrong. Accessible and friendly, Zen Beyond Mindfulness shows you the sailboat right off the bat, then proceeds to describe the wavy lines that make it work and show how you see through them.

Don’t Skip the Intro

As surely as there are those people (you know who you are) who open a mystery novel to the last page and read the ending first, there is an equal and opposing group of people who skip the author’s forwards and introductions to just get started on the main text. In the case of this book, that would be an error.

The long introduction is a guide and a foundational premise of everything there is to come. It is also where the author makes the most important point in the book. You can’t change your life by reading a book or by doing an exercise. You’ll have to commit to more than that. The author writes:

“I believe that, in order to have a successful practice, students must dedicate themselves to a particular style of Buddhism and practice with focus and dedication. One of the unfortunate side effects of our easy access to knowledge is that many people want to dabble.  They want to take what they believe are the best parts of several systems and build something that fits individually…I have never seen this approach lead to actual change.”

The book frequently derides “mindfulness culture,” which has been cut loose from the rigors of Buddhist study and work with an ordained lineage holder or authorized teacher, as an exercise in confirmation bias more than life changing possibility.

Come for the Concepts, Stay for the Exercises

To empower students for transformation in their thoughts and lives, the author has combined two models—systemic analysis of Buddhist thought (The Abhidharma) and a modern psychology tool commonly called “Mind Mapping” (the I-System). The best part of the book is the first half that explains with great care some of the most important concepts in Buddhism: The Skandhas, The Omnipresent Factors, The Twelve Links of Dependent Origination and the Six Realms.

Through examining those lists the author expounds on subjects ranging from internal narrative to emptiness and everything in-between. It’s a powerful education.

The book weakens when it gets to the back half where the concept of mind mapping is merged with the Buddhist trajectories into an exercise of free-association with post-reflection. Throughout the book it is referred to as “exercises” but it’s really the same exercise with different prompts, focusing on a Buddhist concept as the frame.

If you’ve got a burning question about your life or purpose, the book gives you a guide to integrated thinking that can help you find an answer. But, as the author notes, you still need a consistent practice, teacher, and commitment to make that answer work for you. If not, you’ll find yourself trapped in a loop of spiritual bypassing.

Part commentary on the state of Western Buddhism and critique of the pop-culture mindfulness movements and part educational text, this isn’t a book you can read and put on the shelf. It won’t change you like that. You need to keep it on the dinner table where you can read, map and review it frequently. It’s not edification, it’s a program.

The author writes well, and exhibits a life dedication to Zen that is inspiring and admirable. His seasoned teaching and narrative showed me how to understand some of Buddhism’s more complex concepts. It is an intentional, highly studied work.

Still, there are a lot of conundrums in Zen Beyond Mindfulness.

It’s a book that starts by saying you need a teacher, then goes about telling you how to map your mind by yourself. It supports the thesis that this book will not help you without regular sitting, but doesn’t integrate the maps or process with any form of sitting. It repeatedly tells you meditating for self-improvement will only clutter the mind, then proceeds to give you a list of prompts to mind-mapping designed for self-improvement.

It is wise and interesting, a charting tool for unchartedness, and a circle with no beginning or end, that tells you where to start and what to stop. In short, it’s very Zen.

 

Photo: Shambhala Publications

Editor: Dana Gornall

 

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