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Thread: The deal with books . . . ?

  1. #1

    The deal with books . . . ?

    So, periodically I fuss at my students for thinking that reading and learning about music is somehow equivalent to practicing the skills of making music. From this, some of them then go too far and assume that I think that the books are not useful. I try to stress that knowing about music will help their development as long as they see it as supplemental knowledge to their actual music making.

    Is this the same in Zen?

    The written word, I find anyway, to be nice supplement to the practice of zazen. Books, sutras, music, the words on this site, are all ways that help my motivation and understanding when it comes to practicing. I do not, however, think that books do anything that could ever replace the central place of zazen in my practice. I'd be interested in hearing what others feel about the role of study in Zen practice.

    I think I read that in spite of a reputation of being non-bookish, Zen teachers have written more words about practice than any other Buddhist tradition. Maybe that's not true, I don't know, but a quick look at the Shobogenzo reveals that the primary Soto teacher was not anti-book. I think there is always a danger of opposite extremes in this world, and books are no exception. Knowledge about music is not the same as experiential knowledge of music. Knowledge about Zen is not the same as experiential knowledge of Zen either. The trick, in my opinion, is to find the middle way between ignoring the beautiful written teachings that so many Zen teachers have shared and thinking that they are what we should be focused on. So, I sit; I read; I work; I sleep; I eat; I . . . they are all part of my practice. But I make a constant effort to not mistake the finger for the moon.

    Gassho,
    Bill

  2. #2

    Re: The deal with books . . . ?

    Hi Bill,

    I find that my reading habits run in cycles. Sometimes I want to read a lot, sometimes I don't read at all. I try to find a balance for myself as it is my personal value that personal experience is what I came to Zen for and that's where I get the most "juice". Sometimes, even though I do love to read, I take a 'reading holiday' and the only thing I 'read' is my life and meditation experiences and their interconnections. I want to live my interdependent Zen life (with 'live' all surrouned by sparklies and stuff).

    That being said, I think there is a real drive for the human animal to want to express it's experience in it's favorite expressive methods (words being a very common medium) and I do want to know what other human animals think, but I put their personal experiences in a subservient position to my own. They can inform or provide comment, but they will never be 'my' personal experience.

    Ok, Rambly Ramblerton signing OFF

    HA

  3. #3
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    Re: The deal with books . . . ?

    I have found that the more I do zazen, the less desire I have to be constantly reading a "Buddha Book". I spent literally years reading and not sitting. I don't blame the books, I guess I just needed to start slowly. I still read an occasional zen book (I'm reading the book club book now), but I don't feel like I have to be reading something and I seem to take much more time to finish what I am reading.

    Ron

  4. #4

    Re: The deal with books . . . ?

    This reminds me of when I began to get "re-interested" in Buddhism a few months ago. I was in a conversation with a Soto monk on another on-line forum. I kept asking him questions about practice and teachings based on books that I have read. My questions were on the line of: " This book says that this is the only proper postion to sit, while these other books say that these are also acceptable", or "This book says I should begin by counting breaths, while this other other book says I should concentrate on something else". My questions went on like this for a while.

    The monk answered me, "BURN YOUR BOOKS".



    Gassho, Tony

  5. #5

    Re: The deal with books . . . ?

    Hi,

    I think study is important up to a certain point, but we should always remember that it is not the goal of our practice, but merely an expedient means to motivate and support our practice. Dogen Zenji said this about it in the Shobogenzo Zuimonki (II, 11):

    Quote Originally Posted by Dogen Zenji
    In my childhood, I was fond of studying non-Buddhist classics and other texts. Until I went to China and received the dharma transmission, I had been reading both Buddhist and non-Buddhist books, in order to become familiar with the local Chinese language. I thought it was important, and in fact, it was an extraordinary thing in secular society. People also appreciated it as unusual and wonderful.

    Although in a sense it was necessary, when I reflect on it now, it was a hindrance to studying the Way. When you read Buddhist scriptures, if you understand the meaning of the sentences phrase by phrase, you will grasp the reality expressed through the words. However, people tend to pay attention to the writing stylesósuch as antitheses, rhythms, and tones. They judge them as good or bad, and then think about the meaning as an afterthought. Therefore, it is better to understand the meaning from the beginning without caring about such things. In writing dharma-discourses as well, trying to write in accordance with the rules of rhetoric or being unable to write without thinking of rhyming and [maintaining proper] tones are the fault of having too much knowledge.

    Let the language and style develop as they may; what is most important is to write down in detail the truth you want to communicate. Even though people in future generations might think that your rhetorical technique is poor, it is essential for the Way to enable them to understand reality. It is the same for other fields of study.

    I have heard that Ku-Amidabutsu of Koya was an eminent scholar of both Exoteric and Esoteric Buddhism. After he abandoned his temple and entered the Nenbutsu School, a Shingon priest visited him and asked about the doctrine of the Esoteric teachings of the school. He replied, ďI have forgotten everything. I donít remember a single word.Ē Thus, he did not answer the priestís question. This should be the ideal bodhi-mind. He must have remembered something, but he did not talk about things he thought were useless. I think that people who wholeheartedly practice nenbutsu must be like this. Students today should also cultivate this attitude. Even if you used to know about the philosophy of the teaching-schools, it would be better to forget it completely. Needless to say, you should not begin studying it now.

    People of the Way who truly devote themselves to practice should not read even the collections of the recorded saying of the Zen masters. You should understand through this example the uselessness of other kinds of books.
    Gassho
    Ken

  6. #6

    Re: The deal with books . . . ?

    Hi, all.

    I just found this in A Heart to Heart Chat on Buddhism by Nishijima Roshi and our own Jundo Cohen. I think it does a better job of saying what I was trying to say.

    "Naturally, the reading of books about Buddhism cannot be neglected as one important aspect of Buddhist practice. However, even when we pursue the reading of such books, what is really most important is not the book, but the actual practice. If all we do is throw ourselves into reading countless Buddhist books just for the purpose of accumulating an intellectual understanding of Buddhism . . . the result is a thousand demerits and no merit at all. It is for this reason that the practice of Zen Buddhism has been called 'a teaching beyond the scriptures.'" p. 107

    Gassho,
    Bill

  7. #7

    Re: The deal with books . . . ?

    Kenneth referred to it as "a means to motivate and support our practice" and that expresses my experience. Reading doesn't exist as this "other" completely independent of me. For me, reading books can draw out something in me. There's an interactive quality. An idea or experience conveyed in a book may prompt me to raise questions of a teacher (as Tony mentioned) to clarify understanding, which may then be integrated into how I live. We have many teachers. Among my teachers: Jundo and other Treeleafers, students in the classroom, parents, dog, authors of books I've read, problems that arise, and so on.

    Whatever we open ourselves to we have the potential to learn from. I read about meditation and mindfulness before practicing it with Jundo via Treeleaf. I continue to read regularly and view it as part of my spiritual practice because of the motivation and support it provides. The blending of reading and shikantaza helps me perceive things as not so solid and then respond in ways that might differ from how I would have responded otherwise.

    But at times I question myself -- "has my head been in the books enough for now? what can I do to put some of this into action?" So I listen to that as well.

    Janice

  8. #8

    Re: The deal with books . . . ?

    Hello Folks!


    Just my 2 cents worth: I agree very much with the Nishijima-quote and personally feel it's as always a matter of balance. When people ask me about Buddhism from time to time, one of the first things I tell them that IMHO it's not some kind of "intellectual aerobics-quest", that no matter how many books you read, it's the actual practice (in our case Zazen) that counts the most. Otherwise all Buddhologists with Phds behind their names would be enlightened beings. However, as was mentioned somewhere before if I recall correctly, the eightfold path contains much more than simply sitting down a few times a day to do Zazen. Now of course, the eightfold path is perfectly contained within zazen, and Zazen is a perfect expression of the eightfold path, yet we must not confuse different levels and perspectives of truth. All of us, I presume, come with a lot of western cultural baggage regarding our subconsciously idealized notions of what enlightenment means.īIn fact we spent years "studying" the sutras of David Carradine, Kung-Fu movies, novels, or even Eugen Herrigel to create a lot of assumptions....now we can't unlearn these things that may in many cases have brought us to study the Dharma in the first place within a day, the least we can do is put the same amount of effort into studying Buddhism, otherwise the "right view" will not simply unfold like an inflatable tent.

    Frogs are perfectly what they are, perfectly Buddha, but neither frogs nor most Indian Yogis who sit in the same position we sit in, possess right view on a relative level and will not come up with the the buddhist fact of Anatta just through having the same posture.

    For somebody like Dogen, who grew up surrounded by Buddhist sub- and religious cultures, it's easy to throw the scriptures away, that had become a second nature to him. But who says that Dogen could ever have reached his level of understanding without his vast knowledge of the sutras? I doubt it, I also doubt that Nichiren would have discovered that the Lotus Sutra does the trick for him without exhausting the different theoretical AND practical avenues that were available to him beforehand.

    The danger for us Buddhists in the West to worship our own romanticized notions of what the Dharma is, is truly great in my eyes. But with a little study (combined with loads of sitting, which I do think is more important), we can "get" the sutras and get beyond the written words, without becoming their slaves. At that point I am happy to start a bonfire too.

    Gassho,

    Hans

  9. #9

    Re: The deal with books . . . ?

    with a little study (combined with loads of sitting, which I do think is more important), we can "get" the sutras and get beyond the written words, without becoming their slaves. At that point I am happy to start a bonfire too.
    Well-said, Hans! And thanks for adding the interpretation of how Dogen could let go of the scriptures after have been suffused by them.

    Janice

  10. #10

    Re: The deal with books . . . ?

    Hi again,

    I just wanted to post another pair of quotes from the Shobogenzo Zuimonki which illustrate another perspective which is seemingly opposed to that which Dogen Zenji states in the quote from my previous post. As usual, his standpoint is multifaceted, so we must be careful not to emphasize one aspect at the expense of another.

    Quote Originally Posted by Dogen Zenji
    Students of the Way, as beginners, whether you have bodhi-mind or not, you should thoroughly read and study the scriptures, sutras, and ?astras. (IV, 8 )
    and

    Quote Originally Posted by Dogen Zenji
    Therefore, even if you donít have bodhi-mind, once having become familiar with good people and having met good circumstances, you should listen to and look at the same things again and again. Do not think that you donít need to listen because you have heard it once before. Even if you have aroused bodhi-mind once, though it may be the same thing each time you hear it, your mind will become more refined and you will improve even more. Moreover, even if you still lack bodhi-mind, and donít find it interesting the first or second time, if you listen to a good personís words again and again, just like walking through the mist or dew, your clothing naturally gets wet without noticing it; you will naturally feel ashamed and true bodhi-mind will arise.

    For this reason, even though you have understood the sacred scriptures, you must read them again and again. You must listen to your teacherís words repeatedly, even though you have heard them before. You will find more and more profound meanings. Do not be involved in matters which obstruct your practice of the Way. Even if it is painful and difficult, you should become familiar with good friends and practice the Way with them. (V, 15)
    By the way (since we're on the subject of books ), the complete English translation of the Shobogenzo Zuimonki by Shohaku Okumura is available here: http://global.sotozen-net.or.jp/eng/index.html#
    For those who aren't familiar with it or are just starting to look into Dogen Zenji's works, I think it's well worth reading before tackling the Shobogenzo. It consists of Dharma talks which were recorded by his successor, Koun Ejo Zenji, and has a very warm, personal, cordial style which offers many insights into Dogen Zenji's way of thinking in a way which is often more direct than that presented in the 'main' Shobogenzo. I go back to it often and find it to be a tremendous source of inspiration.

    Gassho
    Ken

  11. #11

    Re: The deal with books . . . ?

    Interesting quote Kenneth.

    For beginners I can see how having too much information can be somewhat of a hinderance. You have all this information on the internet and books. It could become a really unfocused practice. I think it's good to have a base and a focus in the beginning until your practice strengthens. Otherwise you have all this information coming at you and you end up like Boone. This has also been my experience. For myself, books and talking became too much of a center in my practice, when what I should have been doing is the practice. Then you can read whatever you want with somewhat of a clearer understanding.


    Gassho Will

  12. #12

    Re: The deal with books . . . ?

    It seems that we like to personalize things and what we read we like fit into our usual way of thinking. But the writings of Zen teachers and Zen practice are beyond "us" or "I". They are actualized when we get our ass on the Zafu.

    G,W

  13. #13

    Re: The deal with books . . . ?

    Dear Ken,

    Thank you. I was actually thinking today of going through Shobogenzo-Zuimonki for the "Sit-a-Longs" after we finish Genjo Koan this week. (I will probably treat one aspect of general Buddhist philosophy beforehand for the "Sit-a-Longs", e.g., last time we did the Four Noble Truths & EIghtfold path, although the talks are now unavailable. I am thinking today what to do next).

    I was also going to put Zuimonki on the "Suggested Reading List" for Treeleaf that I have been working on for awhile. This will be a great help.

    Thank you.

    I happened to write something today about the relationship between the Sutras, Classics and other teachings and our personal practice ... In our practice, we must wisely combine both the guidance of those who came before and our own experiences on and off the Zafu. One without the other is blind. I compare it a bit to learning to pilot a sailboat when having no experience of sailing. The beginner, just learning to sail the sailboat, must learn 'port' from 'starboard', which ropes to pull and how to fasten knots. However, at a certain point in one's sailing, the manuals and charts must be checked against one's own sailing experience, if not put down sometimes.

    I do not mean that one should abandon the teachings of the Buddhas and Ancestors, quite the contrary! As the quote from Dogen shows, we should constantly reference and seek insights from the teachings and teachers all through our Zen careers. But their words and teachings must be read in light of our actual experience learning to sail our lives.

    Praxis alone is not sufficient without knowledge of the words of the text. The texts alone are not brought to life without praxis.

    There is no one single way or direction in which to sail a sailboat, and the varieties are perhaps endless. However, there are certainly dangerous or misguided courses and practices, and those are endless too. One from the other is recognized by the appreciative eye gained through experience. The way of reading the Sutras, and interpreting their words, may be much like this (much like we live the Precepts too, for that matter): while there are many ways to live and interpret the Sutras and the Precepts ... what is is a good course for that boat or way to tie knots ... there are also clear errors, rocks and reefs to be avoided and shoddy practices harmful to the vessel and its sailors. Only our teachers and the words of the Buddhas and Ancestors can guide us through.

    Gassho, Jundo

  14. #14

    Re: The deal with books . . . ?

    There is no one single way or direction in which to sail a sailboat, and the varieties are perhaps endless. However, there are certainly dangerous or misguided courses and practices, and those are endless too. One from the other is recognized by the appreciative eye gained through experience. The way of reading the Sutras, and interpreting their words, may be much like this (much like we live the Precepts too, for that matter): while there are many ways to live and interpret the Sutras and the Precepts ... what is is a good course for that boat or way to tie knots ... there are also clear errors, rocks and reefs to be avoided and shoddy practices harmful to the vessel and its sailors. Only our teachers and the words of the Buddhas and Ancestors can guide us through.
    Thanks Jundo.

    Gassho Will

  15. #15

    Re: The deal with books . . . ?

    Yes, I thank you as well, Jundo. I'm looking forward to those talks too!

    Gassho
    Ken

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