I want to learn about the history of Zen.
March 12, 2014 9:29 PM   Subscribe

Alan Watts, in some of his lectures, tells stories of the experiences of Zen teachers and their students- a sort of mystic, mythic history from ages past. Are there books of these sorts of legends?

Listening to Alan Watts recently has gotten me very interested in Zen Buddhism, specifically the historical origins of the practices and ideas and the stories and legends of the characters involved. And maybe I am also interested more generally in Asian legends relating to these sort of esoteric subjects and their unfolding, the monastic peoples, the lost to the sands tales, rumor-has-its, it-is-saids, etc. I want to read the stories hidden in those floating worlds. Once upon a time...

Is there any sort of history of Zen in asia that focuses on the legends and stories (though a purely objective account would be interesting to me as well)?

I hope this makes sense. Here is a link to the lecture in particular that brought up this fascination for me- it's called "Zen Bones and Tales": https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1eT2xrtsg7I

Thanks a bunch guys!
posted by drd to Religion & Philosophy (9 answers total) 26 users marked this as a favorite
McRae, John R. (2000), "The Antecedents of Encounter Dialogue in Chinese Ch'an Buddhism", in Heine, Steven; Wright, Dale S., The Kōan: Texts and Contexts in Zen Buddhism, Oxford University Press.
posted by KokuRyu at 10:10 PM on March 12, 2014

Best answer: Zen Flesh, Zen Bones by Paul Reps is a compilation of many of these stories. Highly recommended.
posted by dacoit at 10:10 PM on March 12, 2014 [1 favorite]

Best answer: There are lots of old Zen books that are quite accessible. But many of them make a lot of references to Buddhist concepts — you'll quickly run into mention of (just to mention a few concepts) the three worlds, dhyana, samadhi, bodhisattvas, samsara, and so on. So not to set you on a sidetrack, but to give you some context, I would recommend a primer on classical Buddhism, like Gethin's The Foundations of Buddhism. Or just look things up as you go, that works too, but the stories might be more entertaining if you don't have to run to the Encyclopedia of Buddhism all the time.

Zen stories have little real juice for someone who's not at least somewhat interested in "doing the work," as the master Foyan put it, so I suggest that you immediately awaken the "thought of awakening" and read the stories as grist for the mill, as encouragement, as taunts. It's more fun that way. Although you may not find any juice that way either. Zen can be rather frustrating. Don't worry. It's just the tasteless juice of confusion. They say that it all becomes clearer after you get the point.

Another important thing to keep in mind, and also a sample from a nice book of sayings by Foyan, from Cleary's translation titled Instant Zen:
“People who study Zen nowadays are all like this; reading a transformative saying and reaching an insight into the words, they then try to apply it to all sayings, thinking they are all the same. Keeping this in their hearts, they think of it as their own attainment; far from realizing they have lost their minds by entertaining an opinionated understanding, they cling to it and will not let go. What ignoramuses!”
There's also an important old text referred to as Bodhidharma's "Outline of Practice," here in translation by Red Pine, who has done many great translations; he also did a kind of travelogue from meetings with Chinese hermits, Road to Heaven. Then there's good old Huángbò, quite a cranky fellow, but ruthlessly clear. The poem attributed to the Third Patriarch, "Affirming Faith in Mind," is an endless treasure, like a song, great for chanting until the lines stick, so they can pop up later at opportune moments.

Of course there's the Mumonkan, a collection of kōans ("cases") by master Mumon, gathered for the benefit of Zen novices. They are some of the most iconic and puzzling stories in the Zen lore, including smash hits like Jõshû's "Wash Your Bowl" (case 7), Kyõgen's "Man up in a Tree" (case 5), and of course the kōan of kōans, Jõshû's "Mu" (case 1), the so called "front gate of Zen." There are plenty of Zen teachers who would be delighted if you went to them and asked about one of these; they might even accept you as a disciple in the quest to kill the Buddha, cut off the way of thinking, and "see the patriarchs face to face."

Zen has always been an oral tradition, though, and aside from books, there is a lot of stuff to listen to. For example:
  • Rochester Zen Center's podcast, where particularly the sesshin teishos are full of lore commentary and insight into monastic life (you would probably love the recent series on The Way of Korean Zen);
  • Cambridge Zen Center's videos, from a Korean-American lineage;
  • Gil Fronsdal's talks, a guy who spent time in Zen monasteries and now teaches more broadly, a very warm, kind, and intelligent teacher;
  • and much more.
There are also transcriptions of teishos. Teisho, by the way, is sort of like a "Zen sermon," a lecture delivered by a Zen teacher in order to encourage his or her students, often in the context of a retreat. John Tarrant is one modern teacher who delivered great teishos; see this teisho on the "simplicity of the way," for example, from an archive of Zen .txts.

You might also enjoy a nice couple of small books by Gil Fronsdal. One is his translation of the Dhammapada (link also has audio readings), which has lots of pithy and beautiful verses, alleged to be the words of the Buddha. The other is A Monastery Within, a sort of playful book of stories about a wise abbess.

Branching further away from Zen, the Theravada people are really good with the whole "dharma should be free" thing, and they often make books available free of charge, either by sending paperbacks, or, more modernly, providing PDFs and ePubs. Check out Abhayagiri Monastery's free books: for example, Ajahn Chah's works are often full of stories and similies, and they also have lots of biographies of masters, plus a hilarious and touching travelogue called Rude Awakenings about a young Buddhist monk and his non-Buddhist friend doing a pilgrimage in India.

Well, I could go on, but I should do some work today... Hope you find something that inspires you!
posted by mbrock at 2:33 AM on March 13, 2014 [11 favorites]

I liked 'the zen experience' by Thomas Hoover, which is avalaible for free at Project Gutenberg.
posted by charles kaapjes at 4:01 AM on March 13, 2014

Zen Flesh, Zen Bones is excellent and I think what you are talking about.
posted by JohnLewis at 4:53 AM on March 13, 2014 [1 favorite]

"Zen's Chinese Heritage" by Andy Ferguson is a nice overview of the early history of zen in China. As transmitted in its literature, that is -- "Seeing Through Zen" by John McRae and "How Zen Became Zen" by Morten Schlütter deal with the history more critically and are both excellent reading.

But yeah, "Zen Flesh, Zen Bones" is the traditional gateway drug, and I love it too.
posted by No-sword at 5:11 AM on March 13, 2014

Actually, let me clarify for the record -- it's not that Ferguson is uncritical; he definitely knows what he's talking about. He just isn't engaged in the same sort of meta-analytical project as authors like McRae and Schlütter are. Anyway, they're all well worth reading!
posted by No-sword at 5:15 AM on March 13, 2014

This is far afield of the scope of your question, but the book that exploded my consciousness (in a good way) was Earth House Hold by Gary Snyder.

There are parts in this that deal directly with Snyder's experiences as a Zen monk, but there are also parts about him working in the woods, or working on a tanker, that are seen through the eyes of a Zen monk.
posted by Danf at 8:09 AM on March 13, 2014

Response by poster: Wow, thanks so much guys! Definitely a lot of cool material to go through. More than I expected- thanks again everyone!
posted by drd at 4:59 PM on March 13, 2014

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