Sample text for Zen and the art of anything / Hal W. French ; illustrations by Marianne Rankin.
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My Story and This Book
The year was 1990, and I was presenting a paper on Zen at a Buddhism conference
in southern Taiwan. In the course of the paper,
I made a passing reference to Bodhidharma,
the traditional bringer of Zen to China from India.
After the presentation, a resident Buddhist monk approached me, and,
with a whimsical smile, pointed to me, and said,
"You are Bodhidharma!"
I was rather pleasantly mystified by that, but could elicit no further elaboration.
The monk simply left, and I was left to ponder the classic Zen koan, or riddle:
"Why has Bodhidharma come from the West?"
And why, then, had I come from the West to talk to a largely Buddhist audience,
In what way was I, late in time, following Bodhidharma's model?
And why, as a Westerner, several years later, should I attempt a book
I am in many ways an unlikely candidate for such a project.
First, I'm an academic, and academics don't write much about Zen.
They may study about it, and teach a small segment or even a rare course about it,
but they don't write about it.
Professors write about lots of things religious,
but not much on Zen.
The ones who write about Zen are persons, East and West,
who have spent years in Zen centers and monasteries,
who have received extensive training with Zen masters,
and have been initiated.
I understand that, and am intimidated.
Second, it isn't just the profession, it's personal.
I'm a still more unlikely candidate by way of origins.
So I'm still more intimidated.
But this isn't an expert's book on esoteric Zen.
That might intimidate you, too.
Zen here is "nothing special,"
for "nothing special" people like you and me.
I have to pick up the story a little more than a century ago,
to detail my own journey toward wanting to write about Zen.
On September 1893, over 100,000 people lined up
to cross the border into a section of Oklahoma known as the Cherokee Strip.
Other segments of the Indian Territory were opened a few years earlier and later,
but this was the largest and the most dramatic such entry.
My grandfather was among those who raced to establish a claim.
It was in many ways the closing of a frontier.
Five days earlier, in Chicago, the World's Parliament of Religions had opened.
It was, in many ways, the opening of an incredible new frontier.
My early life was shaped much more by the first event.
Perhaps my grandfather's horse was slow.
At any rate, the land he claimed was poor,
and he came back in a few years to settle in Kansas with his family,
having buried two small boys in the soil of Oklahoma.
As the Indian Territories were opened for settling,
the frontier closed.
Yet, by the time I appeared, elements of it remained.
We lived, in my boyhood, in a small town near Dodge City, "Land of the Fast Draw."
The lore of the cowboy was a living thing,
not just memorialized in the graves at nearby Boot Hill.
The most visible markers in Mullinville, my town,
were windmills and grain elevators.
My father operated one of the elevators, and my mother had taught home economics,
which gave me an early appreciation for wonderful basic cooking,
a subject for further discussion in chapter five.
The vital church in Mullinville, just across the street from our home,
had a strong measure of frontier Christianity,
evangelical in style and content.
It was, and its impress remains, whatever else has been appended,
very important to me.
I did my first public speaking as an early teenager
in a contest sponsored by the WCTU, the Women's Christian Temperance Union.
It was a respectable, sedate group.
Its founder, crusading, saloon-smashing Carry A. Nation,
less than forty years before, had been based in Medicine Lodge,
only a little farther away than Dodge City, in the other direction.
That was my boyhood, growing up in a farming community
in dustbowl, depression days,
with some residual legacies of the frontier still around.
While some of those frontiers remained open for me,
some other far different ones were beckoning in young adulthood,
grafting themselves onto my own root stock.
But it was not until 1966, sixty-three years after the Parliament of Religions,
that I really awakened,
while studying one summer at the University of Chicago,
to the awareness of that event and all that it meant.
Research on the Parliament and one of its leading figures, Swami Vivekananda,
opened to me the world of Eastern wisdom, and that door has kept opening wider.
It led me to Zen.
The religion of South Asia became my primary research area,
but East Asian religion was on my teaching platter, too,
and travel to East Asia deepened the interest.
Most notably, a personal friend and mentor,
Professor Nolan P. Jacobson, quickened that interest.
His books, his lively presentations made me want to know more about Japan and Zen.
With his death in 1987,
and the subsequent invitation to write a chapter in a memorial volume to him,
I knew what I'd contribute.
My chapter, the essay "Zen and the Art of Anything,"
written that same year, was the initiation of a serious study of Zen for me.
Other papers followed, and more travel in East Asia,
with visits to Zen centers,
and by 1994 I felt ready to offer a course for Honors and M.A. students,
again with the same title.
Several days in the Green Gulch Zen Farm were very helpful,
and the book Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind, by Shunryu Suzuki,
founder of the San Francisco Zen Center that spawned nearby Green Gulch,
was my favorite Zen source.
My students, each time I've taught the course in the University and elsewhere,
have actualized his title: they've been incredible co-teachers and learners—
more than in any course I've ever taught.
We were all beginners, and that democratic Zen spirit
fostered more of a workshop than a classroom environment,
with everybody contributing.
Suzuki refers in his book to the example of his master,
who had joined the Soto Zen order when he was thirty, which is rather late.
And Suzuki shares how his master's teacher would often,
both scoldingly and endearingly, refer to him as "You lately-joined fellow."
What then of me?
To modify the clichŽ, "When he was my age,
he had been alive for thirty years!"
I have come much later to the feast,
and that might be another inhibiting feature.
But Suzuki gave me the challenge of recognizing and speaking
precisely from my beginner's mind-set.
Is there any validity to a beginner's observations?
Can an outsider's freshness of perspective contribute to the discourse,
along with the seasoned wisdom of the insider, long immersed in the tradition?
And if the outsider has been more of an insider in other practices,
can he also bring a useful comparative vantage point to the table?
Suzuki's emphasis on practice and process spoke to me, also;
other sources seemed too goal-oriented, too focused on getting there,
to the all-embracing state called kensho, or satori:
Some told stories of enlightenment experiences in Japanese Zen monasteries,
but made it clear that no content could be communicated,
for that would take away from the search of other aspirants.
That part left me cold.
I remembered from childhood the teasing jingle,
"I know something I won't tell,"
and I remember resenting it when my father, a member of the Masonic Lodge,
reluctantly said that he couldn't tell me, his son,
about what went on in the Masonic sessions.
I think that I developed an early distrust of the esoteric,
the too tightly held conclusions of any spiritual or fraternal elite.
What appealed to me about Zen, instead,
and in sharp contrast, was precisely
Yes, the reading of Zen sources, time spent in Zendos,
disciplined meditative practice were important for me.
But factors like these are necessary in gaining insight into any religious tradition.
You can't become an insider through study alone,
you need to get an understanding of the experience of an insider,
and to appropriate what elements you can.
What amazed me, despite the esoteric trappings that had so often intimidated me,
was my experience that I could learn something of Zen.
That was itself an "enlightening" realization!
An "outsider" could get into Zen, even one who came from rustic origins
only slightly removed from the frontier of the American West!
And if I could, then that says something about Zen, not just about me.
Zen is far more accessible than some would lead us to believe.
And I don't have to claim, in writing about it,
that I live now in the state of total enlightenment.
There is a delightful story told by Huston Smith in his preface to Suzuki's book
Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind.
Smith notes, "In Shunryu Suzuki's book the words satori and kensho,
its near equivalent, never appear." And then Smith shares a story:
"When, four months before his death, I had the opportunity to ask him
why satori didn't figure in his book, his wife leaned toward me and
whispered impishly, 'It's because he hasn't had it'; whereupon the
roshi batted his fan at her in mock consternation and with finger to
his lips hissed, 'Shhhh! Don't tell him!' When our laughter had
subsided, he said simply, 'It's not that satori is unimportant, but
it's not the part of Zen that needs to be stressed.' "
That is so charmingly wise. I would prefer to talk about enlightening moments,
rather than a state of enlightenment, and when such moments come,
to feel that these should be shared.
The man whom we call The Buddha would, I think, have disclaimed the title.
It's "nothing special."
It means simply "One who woke up,"
and he made it clear that the rest of us could wake up, too.
Chapter three of this book includes what seemed literally like a wake-up insight
for me, coming as it did in the middle of the night.
I had for days been pondering the themes of kronos and kairos,
clock time and timing, while writing that chapter,
when suddenly I woke at two a.m. on a day in October, 1997,
the moment that the time changed from Eastern Daylight to Eastern Standard Time.
It seemed, in that luminous moment,
that I now understood something that had always seemed impossibly obscure.
I felt, just then, that I knew about the relativity of time,
and that I had known it all along.
Later I learned that my wife, at that same hour, Greenwich Mean Time,
had left her hotel in London to fly back home.
Three zones, intersecting:
"What time is it?"
And I am aware that every time you use that phrase, you know about relativity, too.
No esoteric secrets here. "Nothing special."
And if that feels like at least small-case enlightenment,
so be it.
Perhaps any student of Zen, like Bodhidharma himself, has an obligation
to share something of what he has experienced.
And if a few small-case enlightenment moments should occur for you,
in transit with me, in these pages, then you can share those, too.
"You are Bodhidharma."
Why, indeed, should I write, or you read, yet another book on this theme?
The premise has spawned an extensive genre:
Zen and (or Zen in) the Art of . . .
Let me count the ways:
Perhaps the two most familiar are Eugen Herrigel's classic Zen in the Art of Archery,
and Robert Pirsig's cult favorite from the early seventies,
Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.
But simply to enumerate a few others, the list may include:
Zen and the Art of Calligraphy, Zen and the Art of Writing,
A Beginner's Guide to Zen and the Art of Windsurfing,
Zen and the Art of the Macintosh, Zen and the Art of the Internet,
Zen and the Art of Medicaid, Zen in the Martial Arts,
Zen in the Art of Flower Arrangement, Zen in the Art of J. D. Salinger.
If we were to add other titles, just Zen and . . . , dropping the Art,
or still others, associating Zen with other pursuits,
the list would grow exponentially.
Why have these books multiplied? What is the premise behind them?
One answer may simply be trivialization, using a catchy title to sell a non-book,
by appending the word Zen and appropriating its popular mystique
for marketing purposes.
The resultant product may have little to do with Zen,
and contain little of substance about the subject itself.
Or it may seem exploitative,
separating a specialized activity from the original tradition,
which sought to cultivate a holistic approach to life.
In a similar way, other Eastern disciplines have been popularized,
tailored to partial interests,
as in Yoga for Skiers, or How Now, Tao Jones?
But even these pop market titles may indicate two truths about the traditions themselves:
First, they are portable.
There is an element of universality about them.
They are not culture-bound to the world of the East.
And second, they can, with authenticity, be applied to various life pursuits.
Zen simply means meditation.
The first premise of this book, then,
which it may hold in common with some of the titles listed above,
is that a wide variety of life pursuits,
when combined with a meditative and mindful discipline,
may be elevated to the level of art forms.
And, while this premise claims the portability and universality
that properly belong to Zen,
the applicability factor is authentically present within Japan itself,
the originating culture that we most readily associate with Zen.
I refer to the classical "do" patterns of Japan, indicated by the suffix ending,
as these describe particularly intense life disciplines.
Do, derived from Tao, or way, is abundantly evidenced,
as in the way of tea (chado), the way of soft combat (judo),
the way of calligraphy (shodo), the way of the samurai (bushido),
the way of flower arranging (ikebana or kado), the way of fencing (kendo),
the way of archery (kyudo).
Many other skills might be added to this list,
such as landscape gardening, dramatic arts, ceramics, weaving, and the like.
I once witnessed in a home near Hiroshima
many specimens of the art of rock carving and polishing,
which added beautifully to the decor.
In all of these we see, more than the production of specific attractive objects,
a deep expression of innate creativity.
The objects appear to grow with integrity
out of the highest refinement of the artisan's human spirit.
The artisans may become designated as "National Treasures,"
not merely to be accorded near veneration,
but to inspire and instruct others who have novice status on a particular path.
This may illustrate, in brief, the artistic legacy that characterizes Japan,
but how do we establish the specific contribution of Zen to this climate?
That isn't easy, since several traditions factor in,
most notably Shinto, Taoism, Zen and other schools of Buddhism,
along with the disciplines of Confucianism.
Library of Congress subject headings for this publication: Religious life Zen Buddhism, Zen Buddhism Influence, Arts, Zen