Monday, July 21, 2008

Back to Zen

Reading Jiyu Kennett’s Selling Water by the River for about a week now. Thought it would be nice to have some break from Stephen R. Donaldson’s Thomas Covenant series. Especially after those really protracted battles and tragic denouement in the second book, The Illearth War. So back to sitting, counting breaths, shikantaza (just sitting and being aware of the breaths) and all those terse Zen riddles. But Kennett’s book has its own peculiarities from the other Zen manuals in the past. For one thing, the book is really old. The pages are all brownish yellow and have that familiar musty smell. Some would probably have just crumbled to the touch at the time of purchase. Recalling this natural treatment from somewhere, placed Kennett’s book inside a resealable plastic bag and mixed it with baking soda. Sealed the bag with the book inside for about a month or two. The powder was supposed to absorb some moisture from the pages. Taking the book out recently, noticed that most of the pages were softer and felt more like new paper again. Not so much change though with the smell and the color.

In terms of the content, some things also stood out in Kennett’s book. There’s the usual story of Shakyamuni Buddha and his enlightenment. But this is followed immediately with a brief chapter on the essential “doctrines” or ideas in zen, including no-soul, karma, rebirth, the four noble truths, and impermanence. With the next chapter that traced the roots of Zen practice in Theravadic Buddhism, thought this explanation helped a lot in grounding Zen for the new trainees and lay practitioners. Somehow, the instructions on sitting and breathing, including the pointers on what to avoid and what to be careful of in practice, were less mechanical and more practical. Perhaps the fact that the author was a woman had a lot to do with this. Joko Beck’s teaching on Zen and Buddhism had a similar air of practicality about them and intimate links with everyday life. Master Kennett’s chapters on the hearts of compassion, love and wisdom, and how to nurture these in practice, form the core of Selling Water by the River and deepen readers' understanding of Zen’s relevance in the journey towards truth and enlightenment.

Of course, there’s the puzzling title of the book that puts one into a thinking mode from day one. Like all those wonderful Zen riddles, this one taunts the mind to come and try to unravel a hidden meaning. But the meaning always seems to elude one like a wild bull. One would have to struggle first with the fear and anxiety of coming near the bull. Then there’s the almost unbearable task of holding the bull by the horns (in all its great bulk and strength), looking at it straight in the eyes, and forcing out the one truth from its own mouth. Only to realize that everything was just an illusion. There was no bull in the first place. Well, there’s still half of Master Kennett’s book to finish.

A quote from the book (explanation in parentheses mine):
The motive for coming to a Zen temple is all-important. It was Shakyamuni Buddha’s love for the world that made him go in search of the cause of suffering, old age, decay and death; and at a later date he trained simply for training’s sake, albeit in the service of mankind. Those who wish to study Zen should consider this point carefully. The purpose of Zazen is not to think about gaining anything; this will become clearer as I progress. Shakyamuni Buddha had already found the heart of Kanzeon (heart of compassion) prior to setting out on his journey. He was, in fact, already half-enlightened.