Bedside Books

I haven’t read much in Zen for the past year, because I had over read. It’s ok to read too much Zen starting out because there’s a need to be filled, to be satiated, a lot of history and people to absorb and put into place. Afterwards, moderate careful re-reading is called for to check your new perceptions against old feelings and understanding. As we get older, all re-reading quickly becomes less satisfying or more rewarding––it’s a test of earlier states of mind.

Like a Dream, Like a Fantasy by Nyogen Sensaki (1876 to 1958) is a fruitful return to one of the most enigmatic and admirable Zen men in America. His Japanese mother died at his birth in Russia (his father may have been Chinese). He was adopted by a Japanese monk-Kegon scholar and raised in monasteries in Japan where he eventually rejected “Cathedral” Zen. The clue to his subsequent vagabond wanderings from Japan to San Francisco to Los Angeles (to the Heart Mountain World War II internment  camp in Wyoming) is his growing up without knowing his mother or father.  He felt most comfortable losing himself  in anonymity, disappearing, but his calling was Zen and he always had a group of Zen students attending his “floating” zendo; he supported himself in humble odd jobs and donations from students. He was quietly teaching Zen in the 30s-40s when there were no Zen teachers in the US. A beautiful poet, he wrote a poem each year dedicated to his teacher-mentor, Soen Shaku, which he read in a talk he would give in a rented auditorium. Other Zen greats who were kindred spirits and friends were D.T. Suzuki and Soen Nakagawa. There are at least four or five key books of his writings in English besides LDLF: Buddhism and Zen and The Iron Flute, where he comments on 100 Zen koans are highly recommended. See also Zen Flesh, Zen Bones by Reps which contains more of his essays.

The Zen Works of Stonehouse translated by Red Pine. Subtitle: Poems and talks of a 14th Century Zen Master. Stonehouse (born 1272), a largely unknown Zen-hermit-poet before Red Pine’s book, ranks alongside Han-shan as the two exemplar hermit-poets of China. The reason is simple: he wrote a fully shaped, free verse  picture of his life in the mountains, an unsentimental summing up, and his clear voice takes you into his daily routine. Autobiography underrates the accomplishment.

The Poems of Cold Mountain translated by Red Pine; Writen sometime between 600 to 900 A.D., Han-shan epitomizes the free-spirited, go-my-own way Zen life. Stories about him and his buddy Pick-Up who worked in the kitchen of the Kuo Ch’ing Monastery abound for their exploits as crazy talking, carefree misfits.

The Nature of the Universe by Lucretius. I’m totally deficient in reading Greek and Latin writers and philosophers so after reading about Lucretius’s shaping influence on critic Harold Bloom this book caught my eye at the neighborhood used bookstore, plus it’s a beautiful 1955 copy of a Penguin Classic with a purple-bordered cover.

Unraveling Zen’s Red Thread by Covell and Yamada. Ikkyu was one of the premier Zen men of Japanese popular culture who is known for his iconoclastic life among the wine shops and ladies of the night, all well documented in his tangy poems. This reading, including Crow With No Mouth translated by Berg and Wild Ways by Stevens, seems to have let me down. Maybe it’s related to a fundamental loss in the movement of his particular language from Japanese to English. I’m far less taken in by his mind and perceptions, and that’s a loss because I’m fascinated by his life.

One Comment on “Bedside Books”

  1. Re: Sensaki.
    I’ve been to Heart Mountain.
    Now it is strangely Zen-conducive albeit saturated with much sadness.
    I found most of Wyoming to be so, if not for the internment camp then for memories of the Native Americans and present-day observations of the Wind River Reservation.
    Even Yellowstone seemed tinged with sadness due to tourists acting more like zoo visitors than nature observers.
    As I reflect on your readings, Zen and the thoughts provoked, a non sequitor springs to mind.
    “History shows again and again how nature points out the folly of man.
    Godzilla!” – Blue Oyster Cult, “Godzilla.”
    Thanks, Roy.

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