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Archive for the ‘Book Review’ Category

Book Review: Finding the Still Point by Jon Daido Loori

“Finding the Still Point” is a beginner’s meditation book that falls in the great tradition of beginner’s books that should be read multiple times along one’s journey. Like Robert Aitken’s “Taking the Path of Zen” this short little book seems at first glance to be a brief primmer on Zen meditation. Read more carefully, this 98 page book glows with the loving guidance of a true Zen Master.

The book is divided into two parts. The first half is the mechanics of sitting zazen. Posture, breathing, single pointed concentration are covered with all the desired photos and explanatory descriptions. I particularly appreciated Jon Daido Loori’s quiet encouragement mixed in through the rather poetic detailing of the subtle art of zazen.

The second half of the book is a Dharma talk on The Great Way. I get a deep sense of Daido Loori, Roshi’s passion for life in reading his lessons and listening to his Dharma talks. While I never studied with him when he was alive, Daido Loori’s spirit is very much alive in the Mountains and Rivers Order. I see how this passion animated a vibrant spiritual community which is thriving even after his life.

I highly recommend this book for anyone interested in Zen meditation. Beginner’s or “advanced” students alike.

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Book Review: Confession of a Buddhist Atheist, Stephen Batchelor

I was very excited to finally get around to reading this book. I have listened to many Batchelor talks over the last two years and his “Buddhism without Beliefs” was the second book I ever read on Buddhism. I was very lucky to have been introduced to Stephen Batchelor’s agnostic understanding of Buddhism so early on my path. The first book I read was by a Tibetan Buddhist Lama and I have always found some of the rituals and beliefs of the Tibetan tradition to be a bit off putting. Additionally, my introduction to Buddhism came directly from my rejection of anything remotely religious and I wasn’t looking to replace one supernatural tradition with another. Batchelor’s deep commitment to the teachings of the Buddha and an agnostic approach to Karma, Rebirth and Divinity is a refreshing example of the Middle Way that I find admirable, philosophically sound and fundamentally reasonable.

The book is less of a spiritual autobiography than I was anticipating. The details of his life are sketched out briefly in the first quarter of the book and they provide some illumination on his spiritual evolution. A disenfranchised English teen who drops out of school, travels across Europe, into Turkey and through Iran, Batchelor eventually ends up in India becoming a Tibetan Monk. After 7 years he decides to explore Zen, moves to South Korea on what appears mostly to be a whim, meets his wife, practices rigorously for 3 years and then returns to England where he engages in writing and teaching.

Batchelor’s story is an intimate account of a spiritual seeker who deals openly and honestly with the taboo religious subject of doubt. As he struggled with the authority structure and reliance on rebirth as the philosophical under pinning of Tibetan Buddhism, Batchelor’s commitment to and gratitude for the path Buddhism had laid out for him shows through as he makes the painful decision to leave his monastic order. His three year stint in a South Korean monastery seemed oddly disconnected. Clearly wounded from his decision to leave the Tibetan tradition, he doesn’t seem able to fully immerse himself in the Zen tradition.

His story ends abruptly and he launches into a detailed reexamination of the life of the historic Buddha. Batchelor paints the picture of a spiritual leader who is in constant struggle with an ambitious family, warring kings and competing religious/philosophical movements of the time. Most interesting aside from this new take on Siddartha’s life is Stephen Batchelor’s self aware approach. Conscious of his attempt to find a more agnostic, revolutionary figure, Batchelor utilizes his language skills to focus on different Pali Canon texts than traditionally sited. While striving for constant transparency in his personal motives, Batchelor is successful in creating a credible, alternative life story for the Buddha.  I am enamored with the image of a counter-cultural Buddha who was aiming for the formation of a new, enlightened civilization.

I highly recommend this book for any serious student of Buddhism. Batchelor’s intellect is rivaled by few, his story telling is enthralling and this tome is a refreshing read for reasonable, atheist Buddhists who are deeply committed to the teachings of the Buddha.

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Book Review: Wherever You Go There You Are, by Jon Kabat-Zinn. 3.9 of 5 Stars

I am not crazy about book and I’m not sure why. (That’s probably not very mindful of me.) After finishing it for the second time, I’ve wanted to write a review but have struggled with how to articulate my objection to the book. After some reflection, I think I can honestly say, it is a perfectly fine book that I have recommended to half a dozen people who are interested in mindfulness, but its just not my cup of tea. I’ve also decided that’s okay. I think I can appreciate a books purpose and benefits for others and simultaneously not draw deep personal satisfaction from it.

My non-enjoyment of the book doesn’t come from a lack of appreciation for Kabat-Zinn as a teacher and human being. Quite the opposite actually. I use the video below to introduce people who are curious about meditation and mindfulness all the time in addition to having drawn great personal satisfaction from many of his talks. This appreciation of the man didn’t translate into a fondness of this book.

Some positives about the book.

1. For people scared off by the India or Asian aesthetic/mysticism/cultural aspects of many Buddhist traditions, Kabat-Zinn is a throughly American teacher speaking to a secular American audience. No talk of reincarnation, barely mentions Karma and I don’t recall seeing mention of the Buddha anywhere. (Though, he uses many prominent Buddhist teachers through out the book, Dogen, Suzuki, and others of the ilk.)

2. The practical exercises are great for someone who is trying to start a daily practice. I believe the diversity of exercises in the book will allow a beginner to get comfortable with many dimensions and experiences of mindfulness meditation. They serve as a helpful guide to go from dipping your toe in the water of meditation to actually jumping in. I forget sometimes that when I first gravitated to meditation, I didn’t know how to jump in.

3. I love some of the quotes, particularly anything from Walden. He returns to Thoreau several times through out the book. To repeat my earlier point a bit, he sprinkles in some legit teachers, Lao-Tzu, Thich Nhat Hanh, HH the Dalai Lama, but seems to balance it will Albert Einstein and Thoreau enough to not scare away xenophobes. I think he strikes a good balance. For those really turned on by the subject, its a great introduction to figures an average American wouldn’t run across often.

4. I really like some of the last chapters in the book. My first time through the book I stopped about 2/3rds of the way through and almost didn’t complete it. I am glad I did, but I think saving all the best stuff for last is risky as a writing strategy.

5. “Some people refer to meditation as a ‘consciousness discipline.’ I prefer that formulation to the term ‘spiritual practice’ because the word ‘spiritual’ evokes such different connotations in different people. All these connotations are unavoidably entwined in belief systems and unconscious expectations that most of us are reluctant to examine…” (pg 264) I love this quote and it speaks to a lot of my frustration with the word ‘spiritual.’

6. “When we describe the sitting posture, the word that feels the most appropriate is ‘dignity.'” (pg 107) Another favorite quote. I think of the word dignity multiple times a day when I meditate because of this chapter. A position that embodies dignity promotes awareness and proper posture.

I have a general concern with secularized, mindfulness writings like this one. Stripping away all of the metaphysical and personal implications of a serious meditation practice can allow for a type of “self” empowering that I think is egotistical and lacks the most liberating teachings of Buddhism; mainly, “no-self.” Yes, Kabat-Zinn’s book has a chapter called “selfing” and he returns to a theme emphasizing selflessness in regular intervals, but I worry its underrepresented. I’m worried for many readers mindfulness can amount to a type of self glorification. “Wow! I AM walking up the stairs! I AM chewing this food! I AM feeling and experiencing all these beautiful things!”

I’m trying to walk a careful line here. I think if the book is read carefully, he doesn’t commit this error, but I’ve listened to a few people who have read the book and definitely walked way with the wrong impression of the message. Is that the writer’s fault? Is it the reader’s fault? I tend to lean towards the writer. A good teacher has to teach to his audience’s level of understanding. I recognize this is a nearly impossible standard to apply to a best selling book, so the point probably better serves to reemphasis the importance of one on one teaching.

Now to under cut my concern a bit, I truly believe any form of dedicated, daily practice of mindful meditation, regardless of the practitioners original intent, will lead to right view and right understanding. So… maybe I’m over thinking my concerns with secular mindfulness.

My last little ding on the book is it at times felt repetitive and not necessarily in a good way.

Ultimately, I think any serious practitioner should read this book and I still recommend it for beginners trying to establish a daily practice. Jon Kabat-Zinn’s teachings shape much of the current conversation about meditation and mindfulness. 3.9 of 5 stars.

Below, is the aforementioned Kabat-Zinn video that I have so enjoyed.

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I read Robert Aitken Roshi’s “Taking the Path of Zen” this week. It was throughly awesome. I have yet to read an introduction to Zen, or any kind of Buddhism, that had such a perfect blend of approachability while  simultaneously exuding passion, great depth of knowledge and a good bit of charm. I was completely absorbed in this little book for the last three days. There is a quality to the writing that radiates all the warmth and compassion of a man who, though I never met, I imagine must have naturally attracted people.


Aitken’s stated purpose in the preface to be both an instructional guide for those new to Zen and reference manual for advanced students. The book starts with a straight forward explanation of the fundaments of our sitting position, the reason for a cushion, some basic stretches, etc., and slowly evolves through the next few chapters with very practical advice on finding a teacher, the importance of sesshin and some common pit falls associated with practice.

Some of my favorite lines from the book… 
  • The Middle Way is not halfway between extremes, but a completely new path.” (p6)
  • On counting the breath: “Truly to meet the challenge of your rampaging mind, you must devote all your attention just to ‘one,’  just to ‘two.’” (p11) 
  • Zazen has a therapeutic effect, but it is not itself therapy.” (p28) 
  • When there is a little sound, let that sound go right through. Notice that if you are absorbed in fantasy, you are enclosed in yourself. You don’t hear the sound. If you are counting your breaths with a pure mind, you are completely open.” (p43) 
  • On Fear: “I think it was Josh Billings who said, ‘I’m an old man, and I’ve had many troubles, most of which never happened.’” (p52) 
  • The three poisons of greed, hatred, and ignorance are destroying our natural and cultural heritage. I believe that unless we as citizens of the world can take the radical Bodhisattva position, we will not even die with integrity.” (p62) 
  • On Karma: “With our delusions and attachments, we may not be able to act from our empty, potent nature. Attachment, as the Buddha used that term, is a blind response to some action in the past. If I am hit, I hit back…. ‘Freedom from karma’ is not some miraculous wiping away of one’s past, but rather freedom from blind response to it. If I am hit, I need not hit back. I can evoke from the universe the appropriate response because my mind is calm and empty.” (p70)
This was recommended to me as required reading for anyone who considers themselves a student of Zen and I would second that opinion. From the practical, (I do his recommended stretching exercises everyday now) to the whimsical, (I love some of those little heartfelt quotes) Robert Aitken’s book will be a service to many as they discover the Path of Zen. 

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