“Zen Masters of China, The First Step East” review

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Zen Masters Of China, The First Step East
Richard Bryan McDaniel
Foreword by Albert Low
Tuttle Publishing
Publication Date: September 2012
320 pages, 5.1 x 8 in.

From the publisher:

Zen Masters of China presents more than 300 traditional Zen stories and koans, far more than any other collection. Retelling them in their proper place in Zen’s historical journey, it also tells a larger story: how, in taking the first step east from India to China, Buddhism began to be Zen.

The stories of Zen are unlike any other writing, religious or otherwise. Used for centuries by Zen teachers as aids to bring about or deepen the experience of awakening, they have a freshness that goes beyond religious practice and a mystery and authenticity that appeal to a wide range of readers.

Placed in chronological order, these stories tell the story of Zen itself, how it traveled from West to East but also how it was transformed in that journey, from an Indian practice to something different in China (Ch’an) and then more different still in Japan (Zen). The fact that its transmission was so human, from teacher to student in a long chain from West to East, meant that the cultures it passed through inevitably changed it.

Zen Masters of China is first and foremost a collection of mind-bending Zen stories and their wisdom. More than that, without academic pretensions or baggage, it recounts the genealogy of Zen Buddhism in China and, through the stories themselves, illuminates how Zen became what it is today.

About the author:

Rick McDaniel was born in Indiana and attended college in New Brunswick, Canada, where he continues to live. He taught at the University of New Brunswick and Saint Thomas University before working in International Development with the YMCA. He is the creator of the YMCA Peace Medallion. He is also the creator and author of a five-part documentary series, 80/20: A Developing World and coauthor of the textbook A Two Way Approach to Understanding: Issues in Global Education. Dr. McDaniel studies at the Montreal Zen Center with teacher Albert Low.

The Sumeru review:

The first Buddhist book I ever read, in 1968, was “Zen Flesh, Zen Bones” — a collection of Zen stories compiled by Paul Reps. It’s fair to say the book had a profound impact on me, since I am still practicing the Dharma forty-four years later. It was therefore with great interest that I heard recently about Rick McDaniel’s contemporary retelling of the same material from Chinese sources, placing the stories into historical context and providing brief backgrounds which would allow unfamiliar readers to delve more deeply into the meaning of the various mondo, koan and tales.

By following the lineage traditions of Zen masters and their students, McDaniel has provided a scaffold upon which to understand the evolution of Buddhism as it travelled with Bodhidharma to the East and took root. Zen stories can be very epigrammatic. In this version, the narratives are teased out and woven together through connections of who studied with whom, and when. Adding historicity to the tales like this has both benefits and drawbacks. On the plus side, it brings the humanity of the players into sharper focus. We see them in their practice. On the other hand, part of the charm of Zen stories is their very abrupt and other-worldly quality. Finding a balance between these divergent techniques is delicate. Some would say it does an injustice to the Dharma teachings transmitted therein, and reduces them to mere words.

The bizarre behaviour and non-sequiturs of Zen masters are the stuff of legend, but, especially for Westerners first encountering Zen so many years ago, it is easy to forget that these episodes often took place among practitioners who had spent years engaged in serious spiritual practice and who lived in a society saturated with Buddhist culture. The Sanskrit terms, guru and chela, are not used in discussing Zen practice, but the relationship between roshi and student is exactly the same. Trying to replicate or parrot the same events and exchanges without that foundation of years of practice is to capture the function but not the substance. It’s a theme that emerges repeatedly in McDaniel’s retelling. Practice is the essence of the thing. What is this?! Not academic understanding. Experience.

Grasping the essence of Zen is harder to catch than a greased pig at a family picnic.

Part of the challenge of this book was to connect the lexicographical dots between Wade-Giles Chinese, Pinyin and Japanese spellings so that readers could know exactly who was being discussed. McDaniel chose to go with Pinyin except for words that have already come into the common parlance in their Japanese forms (eg. Zen instead of Ch’an). I found that a bit confusing for a book about historical China since I am much more familiar with Wade-Giles than Pinyin; several times I would find myself muttering “Oh THAT’s who he’s talking about” and turn back several pages to re-read passages. However, there is an appendix with all the cross-references (which would have been just a bit clearer if dates had been included there). I just hate reading books flipping constantly back and forth between the text and the endnotes, appendices and marginalia. Anyway, once I figured out who was who, I was able to read more deeply into the lives of the protagonists. Previously, I had only been familiar with examples of their legacy that were shards. McDaniel presents many of the missing pieces and a way to “glue” them back together into a larger thing of beauty. For example, we see not just the roots of the Soto and Rinzai lineages of Japan, but many other Chinese branches that became what were known as The Five Houses and The Seven Schools of Zen.

Projected future volumes to complement this book will focus on Japan and the West. The thought of trying to compile such a record of Zen stories from America and Europe sounds both intriguing and fraught with peril. Would one lean too heavily on the Rinzai koan system? How would one explain the spiritual vector of Bernie Glassman? Then there are the scandals of sex, alcohol and money! OMG. WTF. What is the sound of one hand texting?

Meanwhile, the old bangle salesman is still peddling his trinkets to unsuspecting villagers.

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