Awhile ago I tumbled onto a blogger’s review of Momma Zen. I say “tumbled” because the writer didn’t share my elevated view of my work, and I fell down hard. She found the book a wee bit lacking and lamented that she didn’t learn anything new, finally confessing that she viewed mothers like me with half-pity, half-scorn.
The thing is, she was right about everything, even the pity part, because I bet even you pity me now.
Most people approach Buddhism the way they approach everything else: venturing only so far. They want to investigate, read, discuss and cogitate. They want to “wrap their minds around it.” This is precisely why I don’t play tennis. This is precisely why we don’t do most things.
But Zen isn’t like that, and reading a Zen book, a real Zen book, isn’t going to teach you anything new. It is going to reveal what you already know, the wisdom that you instantly recognize but have long since forgotten. When you read it, you won’t feel like you acquired anything at all, but rather like you dropped a lot of unnecessary stuff. Your breathing will relax and your tensions, ease. A good Zen book does all this by being about nothing at all.
So this weekend I want to leave you with a nice, empty bookshelf: a selection of contemporary and classic readings that I recommend. I do this as a gift to you and as recompense for the blind faith repeatedly misplaced in me by my publisher.
Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind. This book is like a song; it’s like a whisper. The edited transcriptions of Suzuki Roshi’s talks are effortless and spare. Zen hors d’oeuvres they are, and yet somehow a complete meal.
Writing Down the Bones. Show me a writer without this on the shelf. Now show me the writer who truly appreciates how Natalie Goldberg applies the inscrutable words of her Zen teacher to her life and art. You be the one.
Letters to a Young Poet. This slim classic bears re-reading, especially if you find yourself still chasing the idea of a perfect life. Rilke is haunting as he speaks of true love as the mutual gift of solitude. It is startling to hear this from a die-hard romantic, and this makes him a must-read in the pantheon of inadvertent Zen masters.
Appreciate Your Life. My first teacher Maezumi Roshi never wrote a book. He never felt ready to add anything to the titanic body of Zen commentary. He was that wise. Before he died he cautioned me that his teachings were being editorially intellectualized, but this book offers the only way to hear the depth and nuance of his voice.
Tao te Ching. There are nearly 50 translations of the Tao te Ching out there to choose from. You can look or you can find. This ancient Chinese verse will help you locate your hara, the center of your being, because when you read it, the words will fall all the way down to your gut and echo back up again. Taoism is Zen’s cousin, inextricably akin, hence the striking family resemblance.
Finally, I am happy to reveal the winner of this week’s random drawing of commenters, as chosen by my able, honest and blind-folded assistant, Georgia. Marta will be receiving one of the first copies of The Best Buddhist Writing of 2007 as soon as I get one and I can inscribe it inscrutably. That will easily make her one of the best-read non-Buddhists on the block, which is naturally worth nothing at all.
Thank you all for a week of eloquence and honesty. Your attention is love, and I return it in full.