Writings of a Western Roshi: A review of Anzan Hoshin Roshi's Paramita: the Pathless Path
by Judith Johnson
Rev. Koten Bensen (a soto Zen monk at the Lions gate Priory in Vancouver) once told me that "with easterners you start on page 1, with westerners you start on page i." He was describing what Buddhist teachers seem to agree on: that western students, especially beginners, have a strong need to have things explained ahead of time. This is not to say anything bad about westerners, we have not been set up for buddhist practice by a childhood full of buddhist stories, and western attitudes to teachers and to learning are quite different from asian attitudes.
In time western Zen students do learn from their direct experience, and stop expecting verbal or written directions to lay everything out for them. Either that, or they quit. Even students who have learned to rely more on experience than on "looking up" an answer may turn to books, because qualified Zen teachers are in short supply. As our Zen teacher Eshin says, reading can be helpful if you "internalize" rather than analyze intellectually (with the right book of course.) Dharma talks can produce moments of recognition of buddha nature in a student, and a book by a skilled teacher can do the same. Books will never replace the intense and precise interpersonal interaction that takes place in dokusan and dharma talk in Zen practice, but they can be helpful, and they can, to a point, meet the need that many beginning western students have: to understand intellectually before working at a deeper level.
Anzan Hoshin Roshi is a westerner trained by a Japanese soto Zen master. He leads the White Wind Zen Community in adapting the Japanese tradition of his lineage to the west. He is a prolific author as his teachings have been recorded and transcribed into books for years. Reading some of these is expected of people who wish to become one of this Roshi's students. Students may also listen to dharma talks on line, and begginners in remote locations can communicate with a "practice advisor" by email. Obviously this Roshi does not hesitate to use technology, including books, to make his teachings widely available.
After reading material posted on the White Wind Zen Community web site, I wanted more of the same. I have started purchasing books through Great Matter Publications, the publishing arm of the White Wind Zen Community. It was difficult to select material to focus on so I wrote about the book I was picking up most often when I wrote this: a series of dharma talks: Paramita: the pathless path.
The six paramitas (as usually translated) are: generosity, discipline, patience, effort, attention, and wisdom. In Paramita: the pathless path Anzan says "if one practices one of them fully, all of the others arise simulataneously. . . . And yet, there is a sense of progression, a sense of exploring things from different angles." This quote actually describes Paramita: the pathless path very well. As the paramitas are described you feel that you are repeatedly approaching the same thing, but from a different perspective each time. As usual in Buddhism, everything, in this case all 6 paramitas, comes down to simply being with or investigating what is rather than wandering off into past, present or fantasy. These talks lead you twice through the six paramita's in a very practical and fresh way; speaking to the spirit of the thing without getting caught up in academic trivia. At the same time, Anzan obviously has extensive knowledge of Japanese and Pali texts, and lets you know when he is engaged in "radical reinterpretation."
What made the most impact on me was the injuction to carry this practice into all of life: "the sesshin is never over. It is only by recognising that there is only formal practice, samu [work] periods and brief free periods, that we can practice at all.. . . . You must come back to formal practice continuously, and you must practice in each and every circumstance."
I find it interesting that Anzan is frequently quite explicit about the difference between Theravadin and Zen approaches, he touches on this in Paramita: the pathless path. Essentially he says in Theravadin practice one notices "things" while in Zen the idea is to "notice what notices." The Zen approach is tricky, and the student needs the "pointing out" that the teacher provides, more so than in the Theravadin approach. The Theravadin approach is characterised as "good" and "thorough", and also as "taking a very, very long time" (compared to Zen.)
There is a vast selection of books available through Great Matter Publications, Most are by Anzan Hoshin Roshi, but there are also talks by White Wind Zen community Oshos. Some books are more explanatory, some are more directly aimed at shaking up the reader's preconceived ideas and freshening their practice. There are occasional references to Christian concepts in Anzan's work, as there must be in books aimed at westerners. I find them useful. The available books are described, and may be purchased at http://www.wwzc.org/gm.htm , payment is through paypal. Great Matter publications prefer to save time by accepting orders through paypal, but if you don't have a credit card you can email Great Matter for an invoice and pay by check. If you don't have money for books you can still get the taste of Anzan's teachings and talks by Oshos from material posted publically on the White wind Zen Community web site. You can even sign up for a free weekly enewsletter with exerts from Teisho.