One Sentence: An essential primer on the practice and philosophy of Zen.
In Summary: In this short book, Robert Aitken packs practical advice and philosophical insights on the journey of a Zen student. Illustrating everything from breathing exercises to the different schools of thought within Zen, there’s enough depth for both beginners and seasoned students alike.
The Takeaway: Meditation practice is an essential responsibility that lasts a lifetime.
A Quick Introduction
While Alan Watts was in New York learning about Zen, Robert Aitken was in an internment camp in Japan during World War II. Despite this experience, Aitken began a lifelong interest in the culture and practice of Japanese Zen Buddhism. By the early 1960s, he’d begun holding meditation sessions and would eventually go on to found the Koko-an zendo, later the Honolulu Diamond Sangha, in Hawaii.
This was an important time for American Zen and as one of the early practitioners, Aitken was uniquely placed to translate the culture for a Western audience. Holding an MA in Japanese and spending much of his life back and forth between the US and Japan, he had first-hand experience of dojos (training centres) and rōshis (Zen masters).
Aitken made use of these experiences by founding and teaching through the Diamond Sangha as well as writing several books. His works are both accessible and comprehensive. I find that, in true Zen spirit, Aitken maintains a sharp efficiency with his words. He gets complex points across easily. Which is no mean feat in the worlds of Buddhism and Zen.
Themes & Quotations
There’s a lot in this book. Reducing it to several snappy paragraphs means I’m choosing to omit some of the areas Aitken addresses in favour of giving an overview. With that said, I’ve made a selection of passages I found illuminating on 3 different themes.
The first theme is Technique. Zazen places a particular emphasis on posture and breathing, so these guidelines are a great start for beginners and a useful refresher for those who are practising regularly.
The second theme is Mindfulness. Aitken uses this word just once the book – but there are many thoughts that those familiar with modern mindfulness practices may find useful.
The final theme is Mindset. One of the things that Zen cultivates quite strongly, is a particular outlook on life. It’s one of the things that has drawn me to Zen practice and as a result, I’ve chosen a few passages that illustrate this way of being.
“We may take our model from the posture of a one-year-old baby. The child sits bolt upright, with spine curving forward slightly at the waist, rather than completely straight up-and-down. The belly sticks out in front, while the rear end sticks out behind. Sitting with the spine completely straight at this age would be impossible, as the muscles are still undeveloped—too weak to hold the body erect. Curved forward, the vertebrae are locked into their strongest position, and the child can forget about staying erect.”
“Sit with your back straight, and count “one” for the inhalation, “two” for the exhalation, “three” for the next inhalation, “four” for the next exhalation, and so on up to “ten,” and repeat. Don’t go above “ten” because it is too difficult to keep track of higher numbers. You are not exercising your thinking faculty in this practice; you are developing your power to invest in something.”
“You will find breath counting to be a useful means throughout your life of Zen training. Whatever your practice becomes, later on, you should count your breaths from “one” to “ten,” one or two sequences, at the start of each new period of zazen. It will help you to settle down, and will serve to remind you that you are not just sitting there, but sitting with a particular practice.”
“If your monkey-mind will not let you examine each step in a simple sequence of breaths, then how can you sustain the attention necessary to see into your own nature?”
“If you listen as a member of an audience, you may tend to listen passively, as though I were simply expressing an opinion, not necessarily for you. This is not the act of pure listening. It is important to listen as though I were speaking to you alone. It is the same with reading. These words are your words. They form in your mind as they appear on the page. Go with the words and you will find yourself in a natural process of acceptance and rejection that does not involve conceptual judgement.”
“When you are driving a car, just drive, keeping yourself alert to everything. When you answer the telephone, devote yourself to the caller. Likewise, move from circumstance to circumstance with this same quality of attention. Practice awareness.”
“All of us fear failure, to one degree or another, and prefer not to try something that seems too difficult. This device of adjusting your goal to your present capacity is one by which you can avoid unnecessary frustration at the outset of your practice. However, it is important to understand that Zen training is also a matter of coping with failure. Everybody fails at first, just as Shakyamuni Buddha did. Zazen, for anyone who is not completely mature, is a matter of checking delusion and returning to the practice, checking and returning, over and over”
“Zen practice is a matter of change from ignorance of Buddha-nature to its realization. This involves letting go of the self and uniting with the object of attention”
“You will not be successful if you just try to block your thoughts. You are trying to block yourself, you will end by tiring yourself out, and the fantasy will be as feisty as ever. It is important to sit with a mind that is open, as open as the air.”
“Yasutani Roshi used to say, “The fundamental delusion of humanity is to suppose I am here and you are out there.” He would point to himself with “here” and to his listeners with “out there,” miming the division conceived by self-centered people.”
“We need to find the Middle Way. The Buddha learned, and we learn also, that lengthy fasting and other kinds of excessive self-deprivation only weaken the body and spirit and make the practice more difficult. And, as the Ts’ai Kên T’an tells us, ‘Water which is too pure has no fish.’”
“At first this inner creature seems more like a monkey than a lion, greedily snatching at bright-coloured objects and jumping around from one thing to another. Many people blame themselves, even dislike themselves, for their restless behaviour. But if you reject yourself, you are rejecting the agent of realization. So you must make friends with yourself. Enjoy yourself. Take comfort in yourself. Smile at yourself.”
“Zen Buddhism is one path among many. I have heard it said that all paths lead to the top of the same mountain. I doubt it. I think that one mountain may seem just a small hill from the top of another. Let one hundred mountains rise! Meanwhile, you must find your own path and your own mountain.”