Sunday, July 12, 2009

The Beginner's Guide to Zen Buddhism

The Beginner's Guide to Zen Buddhism
© 2000 Jean Smith
190 pages

Not knowing what distinguishes Zen Buddhism from Buddhism as a whole, I decided to read this quite accessible little book about the basics. Author Jean Smith does this fairly well, I think. Although I would be made to claim a comprehensive knowledge of Buddhist beliefs and practices, I've never encountered anything in another book that was not at least mentioned here. Perhaps appropriately, she begins the book by concentrating on the practice of zazen, or Zen meditation. This is a particular form of meditation relying on particular sitting positions and techniques and must -- according to her -- become part of daily, or at least weekly. Illustrations are used effectively: what pictures that are here are used directly by the text, instead of functioning as "extras" that give the reader a rest from nonstop text. The first pictures used are of the author (I presume) demonstrating several appropriate sitting positions for zazen.

She then moves onto the importance of the sangha, or community, and the Zen practitioner's relationship with his or her teacher. Smith places a lot of emphasis on the need for a teacher, which I found surprising. She then includes a short history of Buddhism's spread and development from India into China, Vietnam, Korea, Japan, and finally the United States, after which she writes on the Four Noble Truths, the Eight-Fold Path, and other teachings. This approach -- specifics before background -- is the reverse of what I expected, but I think it works. It is here that she states that what makes the separate schools of thought in Buddhism distinct from one another is which parts of the Eight-Fold path they place emphasis on. Zen's emphasis, she explains is on "right mindfulness and concentration". The book ends with thoughts on Zen in everyday life and a chapter of frequently-asked questions. Smith includes a list of suggested reading and a directory of Zen centers in the United States.

Overall, I found the book to be enjoyable and informing reading. I was surprised by the picture of Zen painted here: I did not anticipate the importance of ritual and such. My only detractory comment would be that Smith doesn't seem to offer any explanation for the preservation of rituals and chants and so forth aside from "It's part of the Zen Tradition." I know of possible explanations for these things -- chants serving to quiet the mind for the purposes of meditation, for instance -- but they were not mentioned.

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