Review of A Guide to Zen
The first part of A Guide to Zen lays out the foundation for the practice of zazen, formal Zen sitting meditation. The quote Allen selects for the start of the first chapter really sums up the approach and tone that Sekida brings to it:
ï¿½Zen is not, in my view, philosophy or mysticism. It is simply a practice of readjustment of nervous activity. That is, it restores the distorted nervous system to its normal functioning.ï¿½
Sekida lays out the foundation for zazen as a ï¿½training of body and mindï¿½, focused on correct posture and breathing. He emphasizes that while our initial impulse to meditate may be part of a philosophical search for the meaning of life or a way out of suffering, our pathway to understanding lies in daily correct practice of zazen. He compares this to climbing a mountain ï¿½ while our initial desire to do so may arise from an appreciation for the beauty of the mountains, once we are on the mountain, the path to the top is step by step, looking ï¿½down at our feet.ï¿½
In the early chapters, Sekida outlines in clear, concise, technical detail the correct posture and breathing for zazen, as well as defining terms like tanden, samadhi, satori, and kensho (a glossary is also included at the end of the book.) He discusses levels of consciousness and ï¿½conditions of mindï¿½, the difference between sensation and perception and how this relates to zazen, ï¿½decentralizationï¿½ of the mind as we begin to dislodge our natural egocentricity, and more. I particularly appreciated his discussion of the difference between ï¿½positiveï¿½ and ï¿½absoluteï¿½ samadhi, which lays the groundwork for his commentary on the Zen artistic classic ï¿½In Search of the Missing Oxï¿½, which comprises the last part of the book.
Sekidaï¿½s technical approach to zazen may be overwhelming for some beginners, but those looking for a no-nonsense, comprehensive, non-religious approach to Zen will appreciate it. Anyone who wants to move beyond the general beginner instructions to ï¿½focus on your breathï¿½ or ï¿½be in the momentï¿½ of many contemporary ï¿½Zen-lightï¿½ books, will appreciate the depth and detail offered here. And while technical, this book is still true to Zenï¿½s emphasis on poetic transmission - Sekida often quotes koan stories or poetry as examples, and his own clear mind shines through.
For me, the real tour de force of the book comes in the latter half, with Sekidaï¿½s commentary on ï¿½In Search of the Missing Oxï¿½ ï¿½ a set of 10 classic pictures depicting a Zen parable of the spiritual journey (third picture is shown to the right.) Sekidaï¿½s insight here is profound and refined, and will be appreciated by any seeker from any tradition. While I had viewed these pictures and read of this parable before, I had never understood it in such terms, and expect it is something I will re-read again and again over time.
This is a beautiful, condensed version of a classic, and any student of Zen should consider adding it to her library for continual study and revelation.
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