This book is only about 180 standard-paperback pages, so it looks like a breezy read until you open it up. You’ll find yourself either putting the book away as too much effort or slowing down to meet the material on its own terms. It’s got some heavy flesh on its bones.


By David Jones

On Monday I had most of my teeth removed and now have a full upper and partial lower denture.

I have waited a long time for this, since bad teeth was something in both mom’s and dad’s familial DNA. I kept spending the money for this procedure on the endless needs of others, until finally my wife said, “Okay. We’re doing this.”

It’s now Saturday, and after several days of the anesthetic gradually leaving my gums and lips, many abrasions forming on my gums from the placing/removing of the lower piece, and the lure of hard foods being the siren’s song that will lead me to certain doom if I heed it, I’ve begun to wonder if this was really worth it. I had the whole “eating, talking, and uncomplicated mouth” thing down to the point I didn’t even think about them. Now my attention is forcibly focused on each, as I need to patiently engage each thing I used to take for granted.

In a way, I feel like some of the folks who pursued the understanding and practice of Zen, based on stories and transcriptions in the book, Zen Flesh, Zen Bones—A Collection of Zen and Pre-Zen Writings.

This book is only about 180 standard-paperback pages, so it looks like a breezy read until you open it up. You’ll find yourself either putting the book away as too much effort or slowing down to meet the material on its own terms. It’s got some heavy flesh on its bones.

The book is made up of four parts, along with historical commentaries:

101 Zen Stories.
The Gateless Gate.
10 Bulls.

The 101 Zen Stories of Part 1 are a good starting point because they’re the easiest to engage.

They’re taken from a 13th Century work called Shaseki-Shu written by Japanese Zen master Muju, containing snapshots of moments of self-discovery and enlightenment. These wisdom-tales are scary, sad, somber, deeply wise and occasionally an absolute hoot.

One tale concerns a disciple of Buddha named Subhuti. As someone who had a special understanding of emptiness, one day he sat beneath a tree when suddenly flowers began to rain down around him. The gods whisper that this was their way of praising him for his discourse on emptiness. He says he hasn’t said a word about emptiness, to which they reply that he hasn’t said anything about emptiness and they haven’t heard anything about emptiness. That’s the true essence of emptiness.

Zen is portrayed like that a lot in this book. You won’t grab it with your understanding—because once you realize that you hold the understanding, you’re going to open your hand and prove that you don’t hold anything.

Another tale which stood out to me was about a man named Shinkan who had devoted much of his life to study and meditation, but once he returned home he didn’t want to entertain seekers nor answer questions all day. One day a Tendai student came to him with a problem: Tendai says even the trees and grass will become enlightened. He just couldn’t understand that.

Shinkan asked him why he was even bothering wondering about the enlightenment of plants when he should be considering how he himself could become enlightened. The student said he hadn’t thought about it like that. Shinkan said “Then go home and think it over.”

Part 2, The Gateless Gate, is a work from the 13th Century called Mu-mon-kan and written by a man named Ekai and also called Mu-mon.

It’s a collection of 48 koans, with a 49th written by a student as a sort of koan of the koans. As the preface to this chapter says, “If you like sweets and easy living, skip this book.”

It seems the purpose of these koans is to get a student to stop trying to rationally explain meaning and just become united with the meaning. They remind me of Morpheus yelling at Neo in their Matrix fight: “Stop trying to hit me and hit me!” Thus the answers to these riddles will vary from one to another, even though Mu-mon provided a commentary of his views after each koan, along with a poem. But these insights aren’t like the answer key at the back of a test booklet—if you look there to discern the riddle’s meaning you’re just going to meet another riddle.

Part 3, 10 Bulls, is a series of poems and illustrations of a young man searching for a bull (representing here the “eternal principle of life, truth in action”).

We join his search for this life principle at the beginning and stay with it until after it’s over. It’s a wonderful Noh theater drama in the mind, the young man’s search for a bull as a representation of humanity’s eternal quest for truth, understanding, MEANING.

This leads us to Part 4, Centering, a retelling of a discussion between the Hindu god Shiva and his consort Devi.

Presented in separately-numbered verses, this work guides us along an ancient path towards consciousness awakening, like paving stones creating a footpath from one’s driveway to their front door. These are some slippery stones to be sure, and the best way I found to walk them was to focus less on how each step is presented and more on the faith that the next stone is where my next footfall occurs.

Although this book as an introduction is far from competing with Zen For Dummies, it’s a tiny treasure of Zen thought. The back cover says it is a compilation of four original Zen sources, “four books of what would be Zen scripture if Zen had such things as scriptures.” Inside you’ll encounter teachers such as Bodhidarma, Confucius, Joshu, Ikkyu, and even Jesus. Students are joined in their searching and we share their moment of enlightenment, of remaking, where one flash of insight causes them to become a whole new person.

Most importantly you’ll meet yourself in this book, as it encourages you to observe your own pursuit of that eternal bull of understanding even as you watched all those other students before you. The book is challenging to you if you want the challenge, and it’s nonsense if you don’t.

Actually, it’s mostly nonsense either way, just as it should be. Or maybe that’s just the pain pills kickin’ in.


Photo: Amazon

Editor: Dana Gornall


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