Friday, October 1, 2010

Review: Zen Radicals, Rebels, and Reformers

Rinzai, by Hakuin Ekaku
Rinzai, by Hakuin Ekaku

Zen folklore is full of colorful characters doing outrageous stuff. Anyone spending even a little time around Zen will soon encounter the likes of Bodhidharma getting lippy with the Emperor of China, Rinzai cracking heads with his Dharma stick, Nansen cutting that poor cat in half, Tanka burning a temple's wooden Buddhas, Ikkyu waxing rhapsodic about the charms of prostitutes. In a way, the history of Zen is a history of tension between the creativity of maverick reformers, and the discipline of formal practice.

Zen Radicals, Rebels, and Reformers by Perle Besserman and Manfred Steger presents a few of the better-known of these "Crazy Clouds"—Ikkyu's expression—in a series of short biographical essays, starting with Layman P'ang Yun from the golden age of Chinese Zen in the T'ang dynasty, through Rinzai, Bassui, Ikkyu, Bankei, and Hakuin, to our days and across the Pacific Ocean to America, with Nyogen Senzaki and Nakagawa Soen Roshi. Each essay starts with a quick sketch of historical background, presents the Zen master's biography, and finishes off with some notes on his personal teaching style and methods. In sequence, the essays trace one thread in the evolution of Zen as a living tradition from its early days in China to our time.

Lively stories well told

Almost all of Zen Radicals is very good, even allowing that it'd be pretty difficult to write boring biographies about people as interesting as these guys. They pretty much define the popular idea of the crazy Zen master, and one thing everybody knows about crazy Zen masters is that they're outrageous and unpredictable, which makes for great stories. The authors know their stuff, and they write with facility, clarity, and an infectious enthusiasm.

While both authors are academics as well as Zen teachers—Dr. Besserman has a doctorate in comparative literature and Prof. Steger teaches global studies at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology—this is not a scholarly work encumbered with heavy footnoting or academic debate, nor a Dharma book with profound lessons to impart. It is a simple book, intended for people relatively new to Zen folklore. It serves this purpose excellently, filling in the gaps and providing background for those quotes and anecdotes peppering Dharma talks, teishos, and, nowadays, Twitter. If you've ever wondered whoever came up with that nonsense about one hand clapping, you will find the answer here. This simplicity and unpretentiousness is the book's main appeal. The authors let these eccentric Zen masters stand on their own, without encumbering them with too much extra baggage.

Zen is a personal journey

The Zen journey is a highly personal one. Each of the Crazy Clouds lived a unique life, and came to awakening in a unique way. Rinzai got slapped around by Obaku, Bassui heard the sound of a mountain stream, Hakuin trod in the footsteps of Shakyamuni Buddha himself by flirting with death through ascesis only to realize its futility. It's striking how different and absolutely uncompromising they are. Bankei and Hakuin can't both have been "right" in the trivial sense, that one or the other would have discovered "the" way to teach Zen. Each of them was absolutely right in the internal sense—that they could only have taught Zen in the way they did. They did not set out to found schools or create programs to follow; instead, they let their own personalities and actions do the teaching. The biographies are an excellent illustration of this personal nature of Zen, and the unique way every teacher has of expressing it. This is not a program, progression, or method; it is, as Brad Warner put it, more like an art form.

The book also illustrates the importance of the teacher in the Zen tradition. While anyone can learn to sit quietly, coming to awakening is another story. Some of the Crazy Clouds had their realizations relatively early in their careers; for others, it took decades. Bankei, who lived in a time when Zen was in decline in Japan and could not find an awakened teacher, had to grope in the dark for years. While the journey is personal, it is one that is much harder without a guide who has walked a part of it.

The final two biographies in the book—those of Nyogen Senzaki and Soen Roshi—feel feel a little out of place. While both of them were no doubt excellent Zen teachers, they're not quite up to the standards of giants like Rinzai or Bankei. The main interest in these two essays lies in the way they chronicle one thread in the story of how Zen arrived in the USA. The Soen Roshi essay is the weakest in the book, in fact, and could perhaps been dropped altogether to make room for someone else. Ryƍkan, anyone?

Unfortunate epilogue

The one thing that lets Zen Radicals down is the epilogue. That is the authors' personal manifesto on how Zen should be adapted to a secular, egalitarian, Western society.

There's nothing particularly wrong about any those ideas. On the contrary, most of them make eminent sense. The trouble is that the epilogue has nothing much to do with the rest of the book. Ending the book with it makes all the excellent biographical essays look like they're building up to that particular manifesto. It's as if the authors want to legitimize their message by appealing to these past masters. Were the essays written just for their own sake, or for this purpose?

Perhaps that's not their intention. It is, after all, labeled an epilogue, and not a chapter. I just can't help feeling that the juxtaposition changes the tenor of the book, and makes me wonder how much of it has been colored by that message.

It also appears that Zen Radicals isn't altogether new. It appears to be a slightly revised edition of their 1991 book, Crazy Clouds: Zen Radicals, Rebels, and Reformers. I think it'd be nice if they mentioned that too, somewhere.

Despite the slightly sour taste the epilogue left in my mouth, I very much enjoyed the book overall. The biographies were informative, interesting, and expertly written, and I would heartily recommend the book to anyone who wants to find out who these half-legendary characters were. I especially liked the one about Bassui. I'll have to re-read it. Perhaps that'll clear away that bad taste. Why, oh why, that epilogue?

CoverZen Radicals, Rebels, and Reformers by Perle Besserman and Manfred Steger is published by Wisdom Publications.


  1. Sounds like an interesting book. Have you read the earlier work at all, or have you any sense of whether the newer one improves on the subject or is just a reiteration with the added epilogue?

    Enjoyed the review, and it definitely made me curious not just about this book , but about the Zen figures it discusses.

  2. I didn't read the earlier book through, just checked the TOC and leafed through a few chapters. It seemed very close to identical. If you can get your hands on a copy, check it out; I think you'd like it.

  3. Hi, surfed over from Sabio's triangulations.

    "the history of Zen is a history of tension between the creativity of maverick reformers, and the discipline of formal practice."

    This is a great sentence and description. In a sense, it could be used for many historical cycles or world traditions, really.

    Definitely interested in getting the book now. Would you recommend skipping the epilogue or maybe reading it separately (say after a break of time or something?)

  4. I say read it separately. My reaction to it could even be a completely personal idiosyncrasy. So by no means let it stop you from reading the book.

    There's nothing *wrong* with it as such; it's just that when read together, it makes it sound like the book has a hidden agenda, and I react badly to hidden agendas.