Sunday, February 26, 2012

If at first you don't succeed...

This is a short story I submitted in lieu of an essay at the Prajna Institute. I figured I'd share it with you. It's about one person's journey to understand and accept karma. Feel free to tell me what you think. Sorry about the format; for some reason I lost all of my paragraph indents when I cut and pasted from Word. I hope you enjoy the story. May it help all sentient beings.

“What you do and what happens to you are the same thing.” --John Daido Roshi

If at first you don't succeed...
by Andre Dōshim Halaw

Karma is a bitch, a cruel, fickle bitch. I’m 28 years old and nothing has ever gone right for me. Sure I’m next in line for the throne, but only by default because my brother abdicated. And look at the country I will some day “rule”—it’s a second-rate backwater province. Travel 50 miles and who has even heard of Shakya?

Last week was my birthday, and do you think anyone so much as batted an eye? Sure, there was a festival with 100 of my father’s most delectable dances, but what of it? When my brother, the magnificent Siddhartha, turned 28, he was greeted with much, much more—the most sumptuous feast, exotic dancers and skilled musicians, everything our dear king and queen could afford. No expense was spared. But do you think my parents would pamper their second son with such lavish treatment?

Oh the injustice.

Once word was received that big brother was returning to Shakya with his retinue of stinking monks, all memory of my birthday celebration went down the Ganges. In my father’s eyes, no one and nothing can compare to his precious Chakravarti, his firstborn Siddhartha.

“Why can’t you be more like your brother?”

What? Abandon my wife and newborn child in the middle of the night? I don’t think so.

“Siddhartha would never say anything that crude. Why can’t you follow in his footsteps?”

Neglect my duties as prince and run off with a band of wandering destitutes?

So what if my parents don’t actually say this; I can see the recriminations, the disappointed comparison in their eyes.

I’ll never measure up to their beloved Siddhartha, the so-called Buddha.

Oh cruel fate, why was I ever born to walk in his measly shadow? They fawn upon his every movement, every look, ever gesture. How could I ever hope compare to him?

In a thousand years, I’m certain people will still be talking about this “Buddha,” but will anyone remember his half-brother? No, I will disappear in the annals of time, long forgotten, rotting in an unmarked grave,

Oh the injustice of it all! What did I ever do to deserve this? Karma, the Buddha teaches; we are the inheritors of our past actions. What rubbish. Karma is a fickle wench who favors the unworthy and cheats the noble.

But wait, I can hear the bhikkhus—my brother’s “sangha,” as he calls them—arriving.

I step outside on the balcony and see the procession of dirty souls marching down the promenade towards the palace. What a pathetic sight! Grimy, patch-robed monks in sandals, all carrying alms bowls, a sea of saffron. How pathetic, a prince begging in the streets. By the gods, I can’t understand why my parents are so proud of this prince of urchins.

Someone knocks on my chamber door. I turn; it’s Ananda, my cousin, a young whelp all starry-eyed at the prospect of meeting his cousin again. I think he even plans to “leave home,” as the bhikkhus call it, and ordain with the verminous sangha. How pathetic.

“Are you coming?” he asks, all out of breath.

He’s gone before I can answer, rushing off down the hallway.

I sigh, take one more look at the winding tail of monks now filling the palace courtyard, and shake my head. Here we go again; the circus is back in town. The air is heavy with the droning sound of murmurs, interrupted with the sharp peal of my father’s minstrels.

After I drag my self to the courtyard, the air is hot, another robust Shakya day. I spot my parents dressed in their finest silks. My mother rushes through crowd, towards her favorite son, or step-son I should call him. He’s really her nephew, the son of her late sister, but she treats him like he actually sprang from her own womb.

The sea of filthy monks parts, revealing the “Buddha” at its heart. Ananda already stands beaming at his side. She embraces her son warmly, despite his attempts to remain decorous. The monks start murmuring at the sight, uneasy that their vestal Buddha is touching a woman, even if she is the woman who raised him.

Siddhartha stands tall and noble, embodying all of the best qualities of the Shakya clan. He’s handsome, intelligent-looking, and wears a beatific smile above his saffron robes. I won’t deny that he’s more handsome and athletic than I. Not even years of fierce asceticism could rob him of that. Where he’s tall and lean, I’m average height and a bit soft around the edges. His eyes are dark and piercing, mine the color of mud. He’s stately, I’m portly. If he is Lord Brahma, I am Brahma’s mule.

It’s no wonder why my parents favor him. Oh, curse you karma!

Behind him stands Devadatta, our oldest cousin. He’s a slimy rat of a man, about as trustworthy as a viper. He’s my favorite relative. We see eye to eye on a lot of things, including my beloved brother.

My father flashes me a warm smile out of the corner of his eye as he makes his way to Siddhartha. I paint a smile on my own face and begin the torturous journey to my mortal enemy.

I’m halfway through the stinking crowd when I hear a chorus of screams from my right. There is some sort of confusion as monks scatter in all directions. I’m only a few feet away from the illustrious Buddha when I discern the source of the ruckus.

It’s Govinda, my father’s prized elephant. He’s trumpeting loudly and stomping our way. What’s he doing here? All of my father’s other elephants are dressed for the occasion, but Govinda, half-blind and rumored to half-mad, is gray and unadorned.

I glance over my shoulder. My mother’s face is wracked with fear, and my father’s with urgency. Siddhartha’s, however, is as calm as our cows before a vegetarian feast.

Strangely, I can make out Devadatta behind him. His face, usually puckered like he’s sucking on a sour tart, is screwed into mask of anxiety. Not so much in fear as in…anticipation?

I don’t have time to process any of this though, before I can feel the thunderous footsteps of Govinda’s approach.

I turn just in time to see his eyes, milky white with cataracts, set dead ahead.

At me.

I swallow and pray to the gods for some miracle—a retinue of devas, a freak lightning storm, anything—to save me from being trampled to death. But nothing happens. No surprise there.

I raise my hands to ward off the beast and yell, “Wow!” the only word that comes to mind in the face a one-tone charging mammoth. Surprisingly he stops in front of me.

Maybe it was the sound of my voice he recognized, or my scent as royalty. Either way, I might just survive this catastrophe. He’s so close that I can feel his hot breath washing over my face.

I gulp, feeling my heart beating in my throat. My head feels light; I think I might pass out from fear.

I toss a quick glance over my shoulder and see that I’ve bought enough time for my mother and father to escape. But not Siddhartha. He stands as resolutely as a statue, his face beatific and serene. Figures.

Devadatta is poking his head from around Siddhartha’s shoulders, his eyes grim and jaw set in a scowl.

Govinda trumpets and draws my attention back. Raging elephants have a way of doing that.

I stare at him, his ancient tusks mere feet from my face. That’s when I notice a barbed dart in his right quarters. That’s what must have caused his tantrum.

Who is responsible for this? And why is Govinda outside of the stable?

I raise a tentative hand to pull out the dart. If I can calm the beast, I’ll be a hero. Maybe my parents will respect me as they do Siddhartha. I will be known as the Elephant Master. I like the ring of that.

My hand is trembling, only inches from the dart—and immortal fame—when Govinda’s mood changes yet again. He snorts, rears on his hind quarters, and blasts me with a tide of hot air.

That’s when I know it’s all over.

His feet crash to the ground and before I can take two steps, he gores me with his tusks. I’m tossed ten feet in a heap of limbs, crashing to the ground near a banyan tree. I can hear screams everywhere. Somehow, out of the corner of my eye, I see Govinda storming towards Siddhartha.

I pat my chest and feel its slick with hot blood. Great, just what I needed today. My vision is blurring and my mouth is dry, my throat constricted. I can barely breathe. The world is growing black around the edges, but I can just make out Govinda kneeling before my brother. Maybe he is the Buddha

But enough about him. This is just my luck! After I die, no one will probably even remember my name, let alone this day.

Damn you cruel karma…

* * * * *

I’ve been a worm, a hungry ghost, and a dog. A monkey, a fish, and a god. But none of those lives have lasted; everything is impermanent. I’m fortunate to have been born as a human. A human birth is rarer than finding a lost needle in the ocean. And even rarer is meeting the Dharma.

That’s what the man tells me. He’s a tall, dark foreigner, who speaks with a strange accent. He wears an old dirty robe and has a faceful of wiry hair. I’ve never seen anyone like him before. In the sunlight, when he turns a certain way, bald pate gleaming, his hair even looks…red.

I don’t believe him, though. I’m the only girl in a house of boys. Some days it feels like my father would trade me for a pig. Father doesn’t like it when I talk to the stranger, with his weathered face and broken Chinese. He thinks the man fills me with all sorts of strange ideas. The craziest of all is that a girl is just as important as a boy.

Imagine that.

The foreigner, whose name I can’t remember because it doesn’t make any sense in Chinese at all, has been staying at our inn for a week. He spends most of his time in his room, silent as a barn mouse.

Today he’s leaving on our ferry across the river. It’s a few logs banded together with vines, with a rope that runs from either side of the river threaded through a mounted staff like the eye of a needle. I begged Father to come so I can see the stranger off. Father barely agreed, and has been keeping a careful eye on us the entire trip across the water. He must think the stranger has dishonorable intentions, but I know better.

For all his rags and calloused hands, he’s a holy man. Anyone can tell that, except Father, I guess. But that’s no surprise; all he can think about is money.

Soon we’re on the opposite bank and I’m wondering if I’ll ever see the stranger again, if maybe all his talk about being reborn is true or not. He talks about this force called karma that has brought us together, but I don’t know. What good is this karma if it made me the thirteen-year-old daughter of a poor innkeeper, a motherless child with three brothers and not a friend in the world, except for a dark-skinned barbarian?

I don’t think I want anything to do with a force like that. It sounds like the gods that Grandma used to tell stories about before she lost her mind and started talking to tree spirits.

The stranger shoulders his bag and stands up. There are a few farmers and a mule on the ferry with us, all ready to hop off the ferry. My father drops a stone anchor and soon everyone is trudging through the shallow brown water on their way to the riverbank. Everyone except the stranger.

He ignores my father’s scowl and drops to one knee in front of me. I want to tell him to take me with him, but can’t find the words or the courage. I can feel my father’s angry eyes boring into my back.

“Listen, child,” the man says in that gruff voice of his that I have come to almost love. “Someday you will be a great teacher like me. Just be patient. And practice hard.”

I nod, feeling my eyes well up with tears. For some reason I can’t explain, this hurts worse than when I lost my mother five years ago.

He takes my hand in his and pats it. His palms are rough like tree bark, but I like the way they feel; they’re strong and comforting.

“Watch your mind like an eagle. And know that there is no truth outside of it.” His breath smells like a mixture of sawdust and earth.

Then he is off, plunging into the knee deep water. I take a hesitant step after him when I feel my father’s hand fall heavy on my shoulder.

“Are you crazy?” he hisses in my ear. “You’ll dishonor us all. Think of your mother.”

It is that last part that freezes me in my tracks. I take a long, deep gulp of air. If what the stranger said was right, then we will meet again. If not in this life, then in another.

I nod and hear my father plod off, the echo of his hand still heavy on my shoulder.

All of the passengers off, we begin our return to the far shore.

The stranger’s words echo in my mind: You’ve been a worm, a hungry ghost, and a dog…

Maybe so, but I can’t accept this karma. That means that I deserved this life, for my mother to die, to be stranded in a remote backwater village. What could I ever have done to deserve this?

If what the foreigner said is true, then all I have to look forward to is my next life. Maybe that one will be better than this one.

* * * * *

A human birth is rarer than finding a lost needle in the ocean. And even rarer is meeting the Dharma. And even rarer than that is meeting a Dharma Master

I am that Dharma Master.

I have lived and died countless times in the past, practicing for endless kalpas. Now that I have achieved the Great Enlightenment, I am free. Liberated. I have finally put an end to the wheel of rebirth, samsara, and karma. I am a Buddha.

I sip my tea and gaze out the window at the temple grounds. I am Master of the greatest monastery in all of China. The thought warms me more than my tea.

A knock on the door wakes me from my thoughts. Annoyed, I say, “Enter.”

In walks Po, a mousy novice of two years. He bows at the door and I motion for him to enter. He does, closes the door, and humbles himself before me.

I finish my tea, then clear my throat and smooth my robes.


He chews on his bottom lip, his eyes locked on the floor two feet in front of him. “Ahhmm…”

I move my hand in a circle.

He sniffles. “I have a question, Great Teacher, one that has been burning in my mind for many years.” He looks up and stares me straight in the eyes. I feel the hair on the nape of my neck stand on end.

He continues: “Does a person who practices with great devotion still fall into cause and effect?”

I sigh, amused at my sudden agitation. I don’t know what I was expecting—a question I couldn’t answer, perhaps; as if one existed!—but anything more than this, I am sure.

“No, such a person does not,” I say with certainty. I should know; I am no longer subject to cause in effect, to the laws of karma.

He sighs and his shoulders sag, as if unburdened of a heavy load.

“Is that all?” I ask with a faint smile on my lips.

“Yes, Great Master,” he says, postulating his way out of the room.

Alone now, I turn back to the window. The sun is beginning to set across the mountains. I am about to stand when I see a dark shape streak across the courtyard below. I lean closer to the glass, curious. It moves quickly, with the agility of a cat; but it’s too large to be one.

That’s when I recognize it’s a fox. How curious. I haven’t seen one in years; I thought the local hunters had ferreted them all out.

I guess I was wrong.

* * * * *

Mother is sick and Father is dead. The only way I can earn money is by chopping wood, a task I am more than eager to do. I only wish that I could provide more for the woman who gave me life.

I don’t know what I did in my past lives to deserve such a fate, but I am truly blessed. I am fortunate enough to be able-bodied to help Mother.

I am seventeen, healthy, and my only wish is to make my mother proud. She has done so much for me; I vow to repay her with equal kindness.

I kiss her on the forehead while she still sleeps, as I do every morning at dawn, and make my way to the stable. It’s freezing today; I can see my breath on the air. I shiver and turn up my collar against the cold. In the barn, I load the cart full of firewood and harness the pony.

I sit atop the cart and gently urge the horse with the reins, enjoying the brisk morning air. The cart splashes through icy puddles and ambles around bends as we approach town. Smoke puffs from village chimneys as townspeople begin their mornings. The streets are still empty. I rein the horse at our first stop, the blacksmith’s.

By midmorning the town is thawing and the streets bustling with activity. I have only one more stop to make, my favorite—Mr. Chen, the cobbler, an old friend of my father’s—before I return home to Mother.

I pull the cart to a halt outside his store. I hop down and begin unloading the last of the firewood when I hear Mr. Chen singing inside. He has a pleasant voice, and often sings at the town festivals. His voice drifts through his open door:

“Let your mind flow freely without dwelling on anything.”

My heart freezes and my eyes bulge. I drop the firewood; it falls on my feet, but the pain is miles away.

The bottom has fallen out of the bucket.

Photo borrowed from Creative Commins flickr user: LexnGer.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

New direction, new name

If you're a returning reader, you've probably noticed that I've changed my url and blog name. I've been contemplating this for a while, and finally decided to make the move today. As many of you know, I've been practicing with the Five Mountain Zen Order, and as a result my Zen direction has changed.

I don't feel that "Zen and Back Again" properly captures where I currently am in my Zen practice. "Original Mind," on the other hand--borrowed from my favorite Zen ancestor, the eminent Zen Master Mazu--grabs the bull by the nose. Zen for me at this point is about returning to our true nature so that we can help others. The koan work that I do with Rev. Lynch at Five Mountain constantly comes back to this point--finding and functioning with our original minds. And then how we use that illuminated mind to assist others. Zen Master Seung Sahn often said, "Get Enlightened, then save all sentient beings." 

Zen isn't about building anything new; it's about returning to what we already are and finding our true nature. Our original mind.

My new blog title tries to express that.

As always, thanks for reading, and thanks to Rev. Lynch for constantly reminding me about this.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Ordinary Mind as the Way

Yells, slaps, and nose twists. No, I'm not talking about an episode of The Three Stooges; I'm describing how Mazu and the early Hongzhou ancestors are commonly portrayed in history. And if you're at all attached to those images of iconoclastic Buddhist masters shouting and eschewing seated meditation, then stop reading now because those caricatures have been revised.

Mario Poceski's Ordinary Mind as the Way, an outstanding work of scholarship worthy of the highest praise, dispels many of these stereotypes. By contextualizing Mazu's Hongzhou school within the Tang dynasty monastic milieu, Poceski reveals how Mazu was far from the antinomian iconoclast that Zen lore makes him out to be.

As Poceski writes, "[Later generations of Chan writers and adherents'] pious imagery of the Hongzhou school was formed on the basis of later apocryphal stories that portrayed Mazu and his disciples as instigators of a new iconoclastic ethos." So the images that we have today are the result of later generations' attempt to solidify the Hongzhou school's orthodoxy.

The reality of the matter is that "Mazu and his disciples come across as a group of monks grounded in the monastic ethos and canonical traditions of medieval Chinese Buddhism." Which is not to say that Mazu wasn't innovative or the Zen giant that history makes him out to be. He still, just in a different way.

How so? you might ask.

Read Ordinary Mind as the Way. As you can probably already tell from my past several posts, I am very interested in Mazu and his disciples. His approach to Zen feels so fresh and vital that I just want to get up and shout when I read his teachings. No joke, I really do. So yes, I am biased about the subject, but the truth is that Ordinary Mind as the Way is an incredible read, not only for dispelling myths about Mazu and clarifying his actual character and teachings, but for its incisive explication of Hongzhou doctrine, which is second to none.

Tathagatagarbha, Buddha nature, emptiness, sudden vs. gradual awakening, Poceski somehow manages to explain Mazu's complicated position on all of these subjects, and deftly at that I might add.

Thank you Dr. Poceski for writing such a marvelous and thought-provoking book. I can't wait to read your next one about Mazu.

And special thanks to the publicity department at Oxford University Press for sending me a copy to review.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Great new blog

Everyone check out the new blog from my Dharma brother, Paul Do-Myong Sireci @ ! Please visit him frequently; I'm sure he'll have tons of great material to share.

Best of luck, Do-Myong. 100 bows.


Sunday, February 19, 2012

What color hair does Guanyin have?

That's the question my five-year-old daughter asked me last week. She has a 16-inch statue of Guanyin--Kwan Seum Bosal, Avalokiteshvara, or whatever you want to call the Bodhisattva of compassion--in her bedroom. Beneath the seated Guanyin, the "Heart sutra" is inscribed in Chinese.

I think it's a great question, maybe even a koan. It captures an essential Buddhist principle.

Bodhisattvas represent our innate perfection by embodying wisdom, compassion, and other Buddhist virtues. They are personifications of our inherent purity of mind, body, and action.

But how do you tell that to a five-year-old?

So I looked her in eyes and said....

Come on!, you didn't really expect me to tell you, did you?

Friday, February 17, 2012

Buddhist compassion in action

My wife showed this to me and I had to share it. It expresses the fundamental Buddhist value of loving kindness and compassion, the core of Zen practice. I hope you enjoy:

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

The Sound of Water

Cruising the web in search of Buddhist literature, as I often Linkdo, I recently stumbled across a rare gem: The Sound of Water, The Sound of Wind: And Other Early Works by a Mountain Monk. The author, revered Korean Zen Master Bopjong, writes with gentle simplicity and profound insight. His words read like water-color landscape paintings--beautifully, with earthy grandeur and deep spiritual gravity.

The Sound of Water, translated by Brian Barry, includes essays that Master Bopjong wrote between 1976 and 1986. Each chapter focuses on a different theme, some Buddhist, others more universal, but all redolent with the fragrance of wisdom. My favorite was "An Unforgettable Dharma Friend," in which Master Bopjong relates the loss of his dear friend Suyon. The story is poignant and heartfelt, reminding us how fragile and ephemeral life truly is. A close second is "Branches Snapping in the Snow," a meditation on how gentleness is often stronger than sturdiness.

Elegant and exquisite, this collection warms the heart. I really enjoyed reading it, and am certain to reread it over the years; it's the kind of book that you can return to again and again, discovering something new every time you read it. I wish you the same luck with the book.

Thanks to Mukesh Jain at Jain Publishing Company for sending me a copy to read.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

It's okay if you vomit all over me

My daughter was sick the other day (in fact, she still is). She had a fever and felt nauseated. At some point in the night, she wound up in our bed. Then, around 2 AM, she awoke and said that she felt like she was going to throw up.

She was on my wife's side of the bed and so, while I ran downstairs to get a pot, my wife held her. As always is the case with vomit, I wasn't fast enough. And so by the time I arrived, she had already thrown up.

All over my wife.

What was amazing, in a very ordinary kind of way, was how tenderly and unconditionally my wife held and loved her. If that had happened to me, I probably would have cringed, or worse; but my wife is a patient as the Buddha. There was no judgment or recriminations, just the love of a mother for her sick child.

While I stripped the bed of its sheets, she continued to soothe my whimpering daughter, not in the least bit upset or repulsed by the stringent odor of vomit covering her.

I learned something that night about compassion and patience.

We would like to think that compassionate action takes some grand or noble form, like feeding the homeless or sacrificing one's life. But it can take more humble, prosaic forms.

In fact, I think it's the second kind that is the most challenging because it camouflages in with the rest of our lives--a smile to a sad friend, a patient reply to an impatient spouse when your nerves are frayed, or holding your feverish child at 2 AM when she's just vomited all over you.

It was inspirational for me, a humbling moment for someone who chants the Bodhisattva Vow every night and strives to engage the world with helping hands.

Teachers come in all forms, and that night it was my wife who taught me about simple human kindness, patience, selflessness, and compassion. I hope to follow in her example.

I love you, Jackie. Thanks for being such a wonderful wife and mother; you constantly inspire me with your unconditional love, compassion, and patience.

Photo borrowed from Creative Commons flickr user: Carol VanHook.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

The Hongzhou School of Chan Buddhism

Of all the great Zen ancestors--Dahui, Huineng, Linji, Chinul, Yunmen, Layman Pang--I would have to say that Mazu touches me the most deeply. His directness--"Ordinary Mind is the Way"--and unwavering insistence on revealing the spiritual life of this mind and this body are just remarkable, and inspire my life and Zen practice.

To say that Mazu is a Zen giant is an understatement. Almost every Zen school in history can trace its lineage back to either him or Shitou, so naturally I want to learn as much as I can about this iconic figure in Chan history.

I first encountered his teaching in Sun-Face Buddha, a book I recommend to everyone, and then more critically in Zongmi's polemical criticism of the Hongzhou school (see previous post). Zongmi, last patriarch in the Heze school of Zen and a young contemporary of Mazu's students, considered the Hongzhou approach iconoclastic, antinomian, and morally myopic. And yet, whenever I read Zongmi's criticism of Mazu's teachings, such as "All dharmas are Buddha's liberation. All dharmas are liberation," and "The Way does not belong to cultivation," I kept thinking, What are you talking about, Zongmi? Mazu is the man! Everything he said resonated with me.

This has led me on a quest to learn more about Mazu's highly inspirational and influential Hongzhou school. My first stop is Jinhua Jia's The Hongzhou School of Chan Buddhism, a fascinating exploration of myth versus reality in the historical development of Chan through the 8th and 10th centuries.

Zen history abounds with lore, or "apocrypha" as scholars like to call it. And part of what Jinhua Jia does is dispel a lot of the fabrications that Zen has accumulated. For instance, Jia challenges the idea that Baizhang composed the monastic code that he is famous for developing. Jia attributes this to Baizhang's students, whom he credits with much of the success that Mazu's Hongzhou school garnered after the great master's death. Jia even reveals that much of what scholars and Zen students have identified as the "golden age of Zen" during the Tang dynasty is in fact inaccurate, a historical embellishment of Song-era Chan students. This includes the very idea that Mazu was an iconoclast who eschewed Zen practice. Much of Hongzhou's trademark encounter dialogues--exchanges between a student and master--were fictional, composed after the masters were long dead, and only retroactively inserted as if they had existed since the Tang dynasty. But don't take my word for it; Jia does a much better job at convincing readers than I ever will.

What Jia develops is a lucid, humanized account of Mazu's life and unique approach to Zen. He stresses time and again, that though Mazu's Zen was criticized as being heretical, Mazu was simply making explicit teachings from the Tathagatagarbha literature that had hitherto been implicit. What I walked away from The Hongzhou School of Chan Buddhism with was a richer understanding of Mazu and his brilliant Hongzhou school, as well as how he fit into the complex historical milieu of Chan.

I have a yearning to learn as much as I can about Mazu, and Jinua Jia's book has both fed and fueled that quest. He has left me intrigued as to how much influence Mazu and his Hongzhou school had on Korean Seon, Kanhua Chan, and Seung Sahn's lineage in particular. If you are at all interested in how Zen developed--and I certainly am!, because I want to know where it came from--then read this book. Jia's scholarship is meticulous, his conclusions fascinating, and his prose incisive.

I would like to thank Janice at SUNY Press for sending me a copy of this book to read and review. Thanks so much the opportunity.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

New translation of the Lankavatara Sutra

It is said that when Hui-ko, the Second Patriarch of Zen, asked his teacher Bodhidharma what the essence of Zen was, Bodhidharma handed him a copy of The Lankavatara Sutra. Since then, this text has been revered as the seminal Zen sutra; in fact, it is commonly regarded as the only Zen sutra recited by the Buddha himself. For decades, the only major translation was D.T. Suzuki's 1932 edition. Red Pine--respected translator of the Platform Sutra, Diamond Sutra, and Heart Sutra--has just released his own translation of The Lankavatara Sutra, an edition I encourage everyone to read for themselves.

The Lankavatara Sutra is a must-read for any serious student of Mahayana Buddhism, and Zen in particular. Its Yogacarin Mind-Only doctrine enormously influenced the development of Zen. Several years ago I read the sutra, but couldn't make heads or tails of it, mainly because it is such an exhausting, mind-numbing scripture. But when I recently read Red Pine's edition, I found it surprisingly accessible.

Part of the reason is because of his excellent, and often humorous, footnotes. Two of my favorites are: "This section makes my head hurt," followed shortly by the lone "Amen!" For me, that alone made the edition worth reading. The notes are set on the left page, which makes them very easy to consult. I don't know about you, but when an author places the footnotes at the back of the book, I tend to overlook them, or scan them at best. But when they are set on the opposite page, I read nearly every one of them, mainly because Red Pine's notes are so helpful in understanding this challenging sutra.

All in all, I found Red Pine's latest translation to be refreshing, masterfully translated, engaging, and most importantly of all, enjoyable. It's an excellent complement to D.T. Suzuki's translation and a title I highly recommend. As the great Chan and Son masters Zongmi and Chinul point out, sutra study is an important facet of Buddhist practice, and for Zen practitioners The Lankavatara Sutra is virtually indispensable.

Special thanks to Counterpoint Press for allowing me the opportunity to review this wonderful book.