Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Open Mouth Already a Mistake

Many modern Zen books are in fact transcribed Dharma talks that teachers gave to their students during sesshin. Some are better than others. Those I don't care for I sound too colloquial for my reading tastes, and though they may make great Dharma talks while you're seated in the zendo, they don't come across too well on paper.

Zen Master Wu Kwang's (Richard Shrobe) Open Mouth Already a Mistake is not one of those cases. Shrobe, a student of eminent Korean Zen Master Seung Sahn, is a practicing psychotherapist in New York City and head teacher at Chogye International Zen Center. Open Mouth Already a Mistake has got bite to it. Every Dharma talk is better than the last.

I first encountered Shrobe's work in Don't Know Mind a couple months ago when I became interested in Korean Zen (see post), and really enjoyed reading it. Open Mouth, his first book, is no different; in fact, I think I enjoyed it more than Don't Know Mind. The title refers to Zen's anti-intellectual stance and its insistence on experiencing reality and your true nature, before words or thoughts--what Seung Sahn called "don't know mind."

These aren't Zen pep talks; they're jewels of wisdom condensed into several pages. What I find most refreshing about Shrobe's writing is, as a student in the Korean Kwan Um lineage, he incorporates a lot of Korean Zen (from ancient Masters like Taego and Chinul to more modern ones like Ko Bong), much of which is probably unfamiliar to American Zen students. Open Mouth is full of koans and traditional Zen anecdotes. Halfway through I found myself wondering, "How the hell does Shrobe remember all of these stories, and names!"

It's because he's the real deal: a genuine, modern day Zen Master.

Open Mouth Already a Mistake, although not as popular as Suzuki Roshi's Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind, is bound to be a classic. I'm looking forward to reading his latest book, Elegant Failure: A Guide to Zen Koans, in the coming weeks.

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