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Thread: Book Review: Zen Teachings in Challenging Times (A Book that Deserves Wider Notice!)

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    Book Review: Zen Teachings in Challenging Times (A Book that Deserves Wider Notice!)

    Dear All,

    I would like to very highly recommend a most wonderful book with short essays by twenty-five American teachers of Soto Zen Buddhism, all women, entitled Zen Teachings in Challenging Times. As far as I can see, the book, first released in 2018, has not received anywhere near the attention it truly deserves, perhaps due to its being self-published. I recommend this book strongly to anyone, and most especially, to Zen practitioners who have passed through times of crisis and difficulty in their personal life.

    Writers recount their personal periods of health crisis, physical trauma and disability, loss and grief as well as concerns for the world and other suffering sentient beings. It may just be my personal feeling, but each of the writers seems to be speaking from the same perspectives of wisdom and compassion, and recommending extremely similar attitudes and approaches, although phrased in twenty-five unique ways by the twenty-five priests. They each have gone through or seen their own hardships, and each has developed their own ways to overcome and survive, yet from the very same heart of Zen Practice. Although written before the Covid-19 crisis of this past year, the insights are fully applicable. Some of the essays reach beyond personal crisis to questions for the planet, such as global warming and the environment.

    Here is a short sample from Shosan Victoria Austin describing her own meeting with the first of two life changing accidents:

    As I reached to put a quarter into a parking meter near our lunch spot, though, a temporary wall from a construction site fell on my head and back. My forehead hit the parking meter, and the side of my head hit the curb. I was told I fell into the gutter and lay still.

    It is a truism in Zen that unpleasant surprises can happen to anyone at any time, and that the main problem is that we suffer rather than rolling with the punches. Though I knew this, I had not expected to wake up in a hospital emergency room, surrounded by concerned and crying faces. I was shocked by brain fog, dizziness, and language issues over the next few days and weeks. My capable self-image took a sharp hit as I struggled for words and lost the ability to make sense of my experience. I discovered I could not read, nor drive. I spoke at a pace too slow for people to comprehend. I forgot my education, including many of the Buddhist and yogic teachings necessary to my occupation. Nor could I work, or practice most asanas, or sit to do zazen—I would fall down. I developed tinnitus and a twitch in my eye. I was later told that my social affect had become like that of an untrained autistic. Like many people with traumatic brain injuries, I experienced increasing hopelessness and despair, as I struggled to accomplish formerly routine parts of daily life.

    To deal with the feelings as well as to recover as much ability as possible, I decided to take action. I sought out therapies: speech, vision, occupational, physical. The therapies were difficult, and I learned what it felt to be impaired, disabled, handicapped. I had been perfectionist in my previous life. Over the next few months, I became a model patient. I returned to zazen practice and to instructing others in Zen. ... I explored Project Read at San Francisco Public Library and studied English as a second language to renew my fluency in reading and speaking. I studied math, starting with first-grade arithmetic. With the help of my Zen community, I completed a mature drivers’ course and practiced all the lessons on the road. I developed therapeutic relationships with neuropsychologists who could assess the damage and help me see the big picture.

    But being a model patient was not satisfying. Several times during the first year, the psychological armor I had constructed got dinged. I was upset when both the eye and orthopedic surgeons diagnosed permanent damage. I felt violated and expressed anger when they predicted that whatever didn't heal in the first few months, probably never would. I found that recovering each new skill came with its own risks and pains. Because my ability to distinguish between constructive and damaging pain was too impaired to parse the recovery needs of brain and spinal injury, I kept making mistakes that each took time to resolve. And I was frustrated that my desire to stop being handicapped so I could be myself in my community would not come true. My community was now habituated to believing I was permanently damaged, and I was constantly comparing my current abilities with those of the past. Though being a model student had always worked for me in learning situations, being a model patient first became less helpful, then actively harmful. Being a model patient would not make me a functioning citizen; its practices were not conducive to awakening.

    The need to find a way of practice newly grounded in the present, dawned on me.

    Refrain from all ill. The first of the pure precepts echoed in my mind. Perhaps my vow could free me through the healing process. Perhaps it could free me from the limitations of functioning as a patient, and help me function as a whole person. How could I refrain and cultivate, when not only did I not know enough, and the fluency of my thinking and planning mind was ruined?

    One day the thought arose: Ill is harmful action. I needed to equip my mind and attention for knowledge and direct experience. Using an attention-training model suggested by my literacy counselor, I reorganized my files and tasks by color. I began brain training to learn to distinguish difficult sounds, increase memory, and relearn executive and strategic thinking. Then a further thought: Unintended harmful actions come from ignorance and misperception. I realized that state-of-the-art diagnostics could support my ability to distinguish harmful action. Painstakingly, I reconstructed my ability to associate what I was feeling in my body with the thoughts that described it and the strategies to resolve it. I sought health professionals who were willing to see me as an injured athlete rather than a perpetual patient. Gradually I learned how to refrain from unintentionally reinjuring myself, and I learned how to distinguish the workings of the healing power of nature in my own body and mind ...
    It is my intention to invite as many of the authors of this book as possible as guest teachers here at Treeleaf, to come speak about what they wrote. This is truly a great book that can be helpful to many.

    Gassho, Jundo


    Last edited by Jundo; 04-04-2021 at 07:37 AM.

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    Gassho, Shinshi

    空道 心志 Kudo Shinshi
    I am just a priest-in-training, any resemblance between what I post and actual teachings is purely coincidental.

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    Sent from my iPhone using Tapatalk
    "When you do something, you should burn yourself completely, like a good bonfire, leaving no trace of yourself."
    Shunryu Suzuki

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    Thank you, Jundo.

    On (Warm)
    Kai (Sea)

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    Thank you Jundo for this wonderful recommendation.

    I have just placed an order for this book on Amazon. My reading list keeps getting longer.

    Sat + lah

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