Upon Reading My Teacher’s Book
Living in the guidance of my teacher for nearly twenty years, I have now read his book, The Original Frontier: A Serious Seeker's Guide to Zen. You can find a more thorough review available on the Silent Thunder Order website: https://storder.org/the-original-frontier-a-serious-seekers-guide-to-zen/
In speaking with Taiun Elliston-roshi recently I mentioned that I had read his book and was going to write a brief commentary for our sangha. Oh, he said and asked what I thought. I said well now I know what you were talking about. He replied you should have listened in the first place...now he tells me!
My understanding of Soto Zen is that teaching is always taking place, while learning may take a little longer. I learn from Sensei every time we are together. We can’t know ourselves if we don’t share the Dharma.
Elliston-roshi has been teaching from a “non-book” of his memory compiled, codified, and instantly accessible to him. This “non-book” is entitled (by me): My Teacher Would Say. This is equivalant to the phrase often translated as the preamble to words uttered by Shakyumuni Buddha...thus it was said and I have heard,
Some 2500 years ago teachings were transmitted from one person to another through conversation and/or chanted, which is an interconnected feedback-loop. This is heart-to-heart sharing of the Dharma
I never met Sensei’s teacher Rev. Soyu Matsuoka. I do know him though, as he too is teaching me through Elliston-roshi. Guiding teachers teach his/her teacher’s way of sharing the Dharma through compassionately saying”... I would only add.” Elliston-roshi says, we teach each other the Dharma. This was brought home to me when one of my students said he had only read through the first chapter of the book and already saw my teachings. I can only add gassho, bowing to this compassionate point.
Last October I mentioned to Elliston-roshi that our sangha would be studying his new book during 2021 and we will, starting in April. The Falmouth Soto Zen Sangha will be one of many sanghas to do so. His book, along with his two compilations of Matsuoka-roshi’s writings, form the core of the Practice Path Training in the Silent Thunder Order.
This new book is remarkable in that it will be marked-up, underlined, highlighted, quoted, and readers like me will find Sensei’s effort and offering Dharma gates yet to open. Here are a few remarkable points:
It has taken over fifty years to write from the early 1960 to the second decade of the Twenty-First Century.
It has had many eyes watching its development as Sensi’s notes in his acknowledgements.
Peers applaud the freshness of Ellistion’s “yet another book about Zen.”
It starts at the heart of the matter and goes deeper.
It is a demonstration of Upaya or skilful means.
Everyday events are presented before using jargon while offering Buddhist and Zen terms wisely as needed while clearly explaining each one.
Everyday life is Zen, as in what else can it be?
Classical and contemporary teachings of dozens of ancestors and living Zen practitioners join the chorus.
By the use of couplets (dualities), a subtle sense of harmony and his “try-this” teachings, Sensei is reaching out to the reader saying...come on, here is another place to look, do you see it now? And it might help you get there (defined as here).
The breath of the arts, science, family experiences, and fifty years of teaching enliven the writing.
It is not another zen book so I can call it a Zen book.
So, read the book, enjoy the experience, and share the Dharma.
The original frontier is now.
In his book, The Discoverers: A History of Man's Search to Know His World and Himself, Daniel J. Boorstin distinguishes between an explorer and a discoverer. The former finds and looks around, while the latter comes back and helps others get there.
Dr. Boorstin probably didn’t know he was describing a Bodhisattva...I do.
Letters to a Dead Friend about Zen, by Brad Warner. New World Library, 2019.
For nearly twenty years, Brad Warner ha occupied a modest space as an iconoclast among the more well-known Buddhist teachers and authors, his books full of pop-culture references, anecdotes about his life in a hardcore punk band, and his former career at a Japanese production company specializing in monster movies. Though a fully-transmitted priest and founder of the the Angel City Zen Center in Los Angeles, Warner resists playing the part of a wise and pious guru, and often pokes fun at the way Buddhism is presented in the US — staking out sometimes unpopular and controversial positions.
But what is usually referred to as “irreverence” in his press coverage and on his books’ jacket copy masks a faithful adherence to the core of Zen teaching and practice. He is already two volumes into a loose and playful translation of Dogen’s Shobogenzo (called Don’t be a Jerk and It Came from Beyond Zen!), and with his new book, Letters to a Dead Friend about Zen, Warner aims to give a reader a crash course in the general core concepts of Buddhism, its varying schools and expressions, and an insight into both what Zen is and isn’t. And, as usual with Warner, he includes a healthy amount of insight into Dogen’s teachings, of tremendous value to the beginner and veteran alike.
In the book’s afterword, Warner writes that the book began its life as an introductory Buddhist text to be called Zen 101, but while struggling to fully engage in the process, he came upon a letter written to a recently deceased friend as an exercise in grief, and decided to reconceive the project as a series of letters, based on his experiences traveling through Europe giving lectures and running retreats. What results is a highly personal Buddhist primer that reads somewhat like a one-sided epistolary novel. The format allows Warner to do what he does best, which is to communicate sometimes thorny and abstract concepts in a breezy, witty and approachable manner (which some readers might also find slightly bratty, opinionated, or exasperating).
Warner’s intent with the book places it in a lineage with the many “intro to Buddhism” texts that anyone with a serious practice or budding curiosity keeps on the bookshelf. Whereas a book like Steve Hagen’s Buddhism Plain and Simple gently leads the reader in an orderly fashion through Buddhist fundamentals like the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path, Warner’s reads like a spontaneous series of musings on a variety of topics. He covers these fundamentals as well, but they’re covered in a deceptively casual tone, heavily interspersed with scene-setting stories from the road, jokes and asides. By the end of the book, the reader almost imperceptibly gains a firm footing in Zen teachings and practice. As a potential introduction to Buddhist thought, the book might be better compared to something like Suzuki’s Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind — the style and tone are wildly different, but both books convey Buddhism by dropping the reader in Zen’s deep end in order to teach us to swim by our own efforts.
Inmo Joe LaBrecque