Cypress Trees in the Garden book review

Books Sumeru Sumeru Books Teacher Stories Teachers Zen

9781896559261-Perfect.inddCypress Trees in the Garden: The Second Generation of Zen Teaching in America, by Richard Bryan McDaniel (Sumeru, 2015), was recently reviewed in Chobo-ji’s Plum Mountain News, Winter 2015-16 edition. In fact, there were two reviews. Here they are…

Cypress Trees in The Garden
by Rev. Rinzan Pechovnik

McDaniel’s previous book, The Third Step East [also published by Sumeru in 2015], explores the first transmission of Zen into America. It focuses primarily on Japanese immigrants bringing Zen into the country and also a few of the first Westerners who learned it in Japan and brought it here. His next book, Cypress Trees in the Garden, represents the generation of Buddhist practitioners who were introduced to and were primarily trained in America and are sharing it with future generations here.

The book is structured loosely around lineage, starting with Shunryu Suzuki’s heirs, then Sazaki’s, Eido Shimano’s, Yasutani’s, Aitken’s, Maezumi’s, Kapleau’s, Katagiri’s, Seung Sahn’s and finally Thich Nhat Hahn’s. In none of these second generation of teachers were the forms maintained exactly as their predecessors conveyed them. At times, the forms are so nearly completely removed that the practitioners (such as those in Toni Packer’s lineage) no longer consider themselves Buddhist or even students of Zen. Others, (such as several Catholics) practice Zen but in a non-buddhist orientation. For others, the forms remain intact but simplified to adjust to American temperaments. Some continue the tradition of the student-teacher relationship with all its hierarchical trappings and others have done without teachers altogether.

At times, the question of how can Zen meet American needs is overt, as in James Ford’s analysis and exploration of it. At other times, the forms are dropped but the core practices remain, as they do with John Tarrant and Joan Sutherland who continue to utilize classical koan study even while eschewing the roles of priests.

In the end, as contrast to the previous book which explored Zen’s entry into America where its essence was not questioned or explored but was simply and as directly as possible planted here, Cypress Trees is immersed in the question, “What is Zen and how does it function in America?” It appears that Zen, with its centuries of tradition in China and Japan, is going through a transition and a kind of adolescence. Indeed, with each of the 75 Zen teachers McDaniel’s interviews, questions regarding legitimacy, authority, tradition (including clothing and liturgy) are, if not immediately on the surface, just below it.

What is this peculiar institution called Zen? What is its function? Does it need teachers? What are teachers for and what do they really know? What structure is essential? Which structures are hold-overs from ancient Japanese culture? Who is authorized to teach? Can Zen become too watered down? Can it be so diluted as to be no longer Zen? Questions such as these abound throughout the book.

Happily, there are no answers, only questions.

Despite the presence (with, in my opinion, a few exceptions) of seasoned and healthy practitioners and teachers throughout the book, there appears to be an ongoing exploration of not only, “What is Zen?” but “Who am I?” that breaks down to something very similar to what teenagers go through when differentiating from their parents. There is a kind of anxiety in some parts of the book (not all of it) about legitimacy and authority. How can we call what we are doing Zen? Would the ancestors approve? Is my (or his or her) transmission legitimate? At other times, there is a bold confidence, perhaps befitting an American independent spirit. There is a creativity and a playfulness and a sense of cutting away from culture and getting to the heart of the practice that allows it to go deep even while, in my opinion, running the risk of losing its foundation and risking the loss of tradition. (Culture, after all, creates commonality and a place to return to independent of personality and individual strengths. Without it, what one brings to the practice runs the risk of disappearing with the leadership.)

While reading, I often imagined seeing the many teachers in a room together and it seeming like a high-school auditorium with different cliques and all the insecurities and questions surrounding them. Who wears what? Who does what? Will I be accepted by others? Do I accept them? Some seem nervous. Some arrogant. Some securely confident. Some seem to be having fun. Some are clinging. Some are rebelling. Most are exploring with integrity and seriousness and care about the human condition and how to help others.

The anxiety makes sense. Scandals in Zen have been widely reported of late, and given the harm some teachers have caused others, wondering “Why Zen?” and “Why maintain these traditions?” are relevant questions. McDaniel does a fair job of asking about the offenses of both Sasaki and Eido. He also touches upon the troubles surrounding Richard Baker. That said, McDaniel seems somewhat reticent when challenging the people he is actually interviewing. He does mention that Shinge Roko’s relationship with Eido has been questioned (about which Roko’s denial appears to have been a lie). And McDaniel suggests parenthetically that Chozen Bays’ affair with Maezumi was “more complicated” than she was making it out to be. But he appears to neglect to question them directly and completely neglects to raise questions with any others about their boundaries with their students (John Tarrant reportedly has had sex with his students and I believe that Dosho Port is currently in a relationship with one of his previous students). With the book opening clearly and forcefully with investigation into Sasaki’s abuses, it’s a missed opportunity, in my mind, to fail to expand the conversation. It’s one thing to talk about a person who is not present. It’s another to explain one’s own behavior. Could more pointed questions be directed at both Roko and Chozen? If Tarrant or Dosho excuse their own behaviors, how have they done so? Would they lie too? Instead of putting the question to these teachers and letting the reader come to their own conclusions, McDaniel avoids an important and vital understanding of how Zen will be planted in America: with clear expectations of clergy boundaries or without.

For my own part, reading this and wondering about my own place in the institution of Zen (more meaningful for me now that I have ordained than w h e n I w a s a l a y practitioner), I settled into a comfortable confidence that there are many people exploring this and many people trying different things, and I don’t have to wonder about how I’m doing it or what is right or wrong. I simply need to follow what is right in front of me. While innovation is important, it does not need to be forced. It can just happen, as it will happen and has happened throughout the centuries. Perhaps, similarly to the rate of change in other aspects of our lives, Zen will transform more quickly than it once did.

I share a concern with others that, in its transformation, it may become diluted and lose its ability to help people see into their own deep nature. Seeing the many ways that Zen is being explored in America, I can relax around my own concern and tend to it in my own garden following and honoring the tradition I’ve ordained in. I left the book feeling comfortable in knowing that a diversity is developing that will help others meet their needs and allow the Dharma to flourish in myriad ways.


Second Review
by Monika Jion Winkelman

The author Richard Bryan McDaniel (“Rick”) has been is a dedicated Zen practitioner for about forty years. The reader will already sense this after having read the “Author’s Note” before the Prologue. “This book presents a snapshot – a description of Zen teaching, practice, and engagement at a particular time. The interviews on which these chapters are based were conducted between March 2013 and September 2014… So the book is already a portrait of how things were rather than how they are.”

Rick knows life, knows that there is no human being without light and without shadow, including Zen Masters, female and male, Zen teachers, and he knows about impermanence. He is self-confident and wise enough to offer some profound knowledge, in the prologue and between the lines, and humble enough to listen to the intimacy of open interviews. Already in the prologue he is pointing out what he considers one insight gleaned from many interviewed persons: “…that the attainment of spiritual insight does not in itself imply personal or emotional maturity.” I, the reader and Zen practitioner, student of one of the interviewed Zen Masters, and – in addition – German, am highly interested in meeting truth. Meeting true persons. Getting at least a little understanding of who is connected with whom, or disconnected, or has learnt from whom, has fallen “in disgrace” and whether and how amends have been made, reconciliation has been possible or not. I think we don’t need myths and legends, instead we need juicy examples of very dedicated and hard working people, who have attained some stable realization and maturity, women and men, who can guide us through confusion and ignorance. Not by claiming that they have lived their lives without errors and flaws, but showing us how to master these shortcomings by looking from the teacher’s side and from sangha’s side.

Rick McDaniel commits himself to this difficult work, and he does it well, I find, because he is stepping out of the way. The book has almost 500 pages and is to be read in one piece, or you choose “your” chapter, “your” teacher you want to know more about. I started with “Genjo Marinello”, because I am studying with him, followed by Bernie Glassman, my Zen peacemaker teacher, followed by Eshu Martin, whom I joyfully met during a sesshin, and then I started my read from the beginning.

The list of “Acknowledgements” of assisting people is considerably long and the “Glossary” at the end helpful for the not so experienced Zen person. Richard Bryan McDaniel also wrote Zen Masters of China: the First Step East, Zen Masters of Japan: The Second Step East and The Third Step East: Zen Masters of America . If you want to get true information about Zen teachings as they are and not as you wished they would be, then this book might be of high benefit for you.

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