People ask questions like, “Well, why do we bow? Can we just not bow?” or “Why do we chant?” and in some areas these practices are dispensed with. I’ve been observing the unique position of Western Buddhism for a long time and I’ve noticed it’s very easy to fall into this space where some people say you’re too religious and others say you’re not religious enough. At least that’s been my experience.

 

By Daniel Scharpenburg

 

I was excited to review Meido Moore’s new book Hidden Zen.

I have his other book The Rinzai Zen Way and I like it very much. It’s one of the best introductory books on Zen practice, in my view.

Hidden Zen is about going a little deeper. Zen is best known for the two practices of koan introspection and just sitting. People that oversimplify say that one of the two branches of zen focuses more on koans and the other focuses more on just sitting. Meido Moore is a teacher in the Rinzai Tradition—the tradition that’s more known for koans. He has a temple in Wisconsin called Korinji, and teaches in something called the Omori Rinzai Zen lineage, which isn’t well known.

This book explores other teachings and practices that have been preserved as part of the Rinzai tradition. He says the Rinzai tradition is “marked by a rich variety of methods, the extraordinary usefulness and power of which come from their emphasis on engaging the practitioner’s whole body-mind.”

Sounds really powerful, doesn’t it?

But I’ve been fooled before, reading something that claims to be “extraordinarily useful and powerful” only to find not much there.

It’s called Hidden Zen because he’s saying he’s revealing teachings that are usually only given orally. He’s saying this book is full of teachings that haven’t been available in books before. That is particularly exciting.

In the book there’s a practice called inquiry, which is a practice I learned.

Seeing that in there was exciting to me just because you don’t see that practice everywhere. It’s where we reflect on an impossible question like, “Who am I?”

There are several ways of working with vision, which I know I don’t think about much. We are used to focusing are vision sharply and directly all the time. Meido gives some practices that help us have a more expansive field of vision. This shows us more of the reality of the world around us, to which we pay so little attention.

Meido also explores those things I don’t like very much, such as chanting, mantras, robes, etc. and he makes the argument that these are not cultural expressions, but they’re actually fundamental to the path. He criticizes Western Buddhism for trying to de-emphasize these things that he feels are fundamental to the path. He also goes to great lengths to talk about physical things—different breathing methods, different ways to arrange your body, even how to walk. There is an incredible amount of detail here.

I’d like to suggest that as a spiritual tradition, Buddhism has taken on this new dimension in the west.

People ask questions like, “Well, why do we bow? Can we just not bow?” or “Why do we chant?” and in some areas these practices are dispensed with. I’ve been observing the unique position of Western Buddhism for a long time and I’ve noticed it’s very easy to fall into this space where some people say you’re too religious and others say you’re not religious enough. At least that’s been my experience.

I’d like to think that the way I teach would probably fall into the category of “would be criticized by Meido Moore for being too Western.” I’m mostly okay with that. I think there’s room for many points of view.

But there is one really important role I think this book plays. I think this is the most important thing about it. Lots of people come to Zen Buddhism and Buddhism in general from books. There are many wonderful books out there. But many of these books don’t provide a complete picture.

I once saw someone on a Buddhist forum make the argument that chanting isn’t a part of the Zen tradition.

Now, to be clear, I’m someone that doesn’t like chanting. I’ve never liked it; it doesn’t do anything for me. I’m not willing to convince anyone that chanting is worth doing because that would feel sort of dishonest to me. I don’t chant and I won’t tell anyone to do a practice I don’t get anything out of.

So, now that I have that out of the way, chanting is part of the Zen tradition. I think it’s part of all of Buddhism, but someone could point out some tradition that doesn’t do it at all. This person on this forum said that and I wondered for a little while and then  realized they learned about Zen from books.

Someone could read Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind and Zen Philosophy, Zen Practice and The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching and not realize that chanting is part of this. These books are great at expressing the philosophy and teaching you how to meditate. But there is an element missing.

That’s not the case with Hidden Zen. There are plenty of books you could read on Buddhism that wouldn’t really give you much of an idea of what goes on in a Buddhist temple. This book isn’t about teaching you philosophy, it’s about sharing practices. That is what makes it important.

I’d say pairing this with Meido’s first book, The Rinzai Zen Way could give someone a lot of information and really prepare someone for a visit to a traditional temple like the one he runs in Wisconsin.

That said, I would recommend getting this only if you’re really interested in minute details and extra practices you’ve never heard of. If you’re looking for something for beginners or for people who are casually interested in Buddhism, you may not like this book very much. For those that are just becoming interested in Zen, check out The Rinzai Zen Way instead.

 

This book isn’t about teaching you philosophy, it’s about sharing practices. That is what makes it important. ~ Daniel Scharpenburg's review of Hidden Zen Click To Tweet

 

Photo: Shambhala Publications

Editor: Dana Gornall

 

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