Tuesday, October 5, 2010

'Zen Training' by Katsuki Sekida

My translation of Mumonkan was done by Katsuki Sekida, and both his translation and his commentary in the volume (which also includes his translation of Hekiganroku, more commonly known as The Blue Cliff Records) was so thoughtful that I was led to check out what else he may have written. In doing so, I came across this book and bought it.

Buying it was very out of character for me because, as I've probably noted in this blog somewhere, I avoid modern texts on Zen. I find too many of them to be recycled hippy-isms, thinly veiled New Age delusions masquerading as Zen, or meaningless ramblings written by frauds to whom Zen is big business. I believe Zen is practiced by doing zazen, pure and simple, so in my opinion reading books, going to retreats, being a vegetarian, etc. is all just 'window dressing'. 
As a result, I've kept my Zen reading to minimum. That's been tough, because when I get 'into' something I'm typically a voracious reader on the subject. But in the case, I've sternly restrained myself. I have the koan collections mentioned above, a slender volume of works attributed to Bodhidharma, some haiku by Basho, and a few translations of ancient texts. That's about it! Not saying my way is the best way or anything, but I'm setting the stage for how hard it would be for a modern book to cut through my formidable mental alarm systems and cynicism (but it's not cynicism if it's true, right?!).
Simply put, this book is amazing! Many things I've learned through zazen are woven into this text, so it's clearly an authentic person writing a legitimate treatise on Zen. Some key terms mentioned in Zen texts are described in a very straightforward manner. While I haven't yet appreciated the hardcore physiological passages on breathing, the focus on the tanden is dead on. Interestingly, this focus mirrors what I have always been instructed to do in my martial arts training.
For anyone reading this that is thinking about trying Zen out, I would not recommend this book to you (not at first). A person new to Zen might inadvertently use the text as a 'how to' manual or adopt its content with a dogmatic attitude, neither of which was the author's intent (or would move your work in Zen in the right direction). Rather, I think it's best to read it after spending some time in zazen and figuring things out for yourself. After you have some experience, this book would then have a positive impact.
For me, Zen Training has provided some valuable guidance and compiled many key concepts I have found to be important into a single volume. While this doesn't make me interested in checking out additional modern works, I'm certainly thrilled to be proven wrong about my blanket dismissal of modern Zen texts. This is a very thoughtfully written book by someone who clearly has spent a great deal of time practicing Zen.


southportJim said...

I totally agree with your appraisal. There is a lot of "new age trash" out there, but this book seems to be the real deal.

I got a copy of this book years ago and, while it made interesting reading at the time, it didn't lead to any sustained practice. It took an introductory session at a local zendo to accomplish that. But now, returning to the book after a year and a half of steady zazen, I find it an excellent "explainer" for many things I have experienced in sitting.

To those interested in very basic instruction from an authentic source, I would recommend "Finding the Still Point" by John Loori of Zen Mountain Monastery.


Pete said...

Thanks for the comment! I'll check out Loori's book too.

Anonymous said...

I actually like the book as well, but it's interesting you condemn other works as "new age" and "hippyish" - considering Katsuki Sekida is actually referred to this by other Zen schools.

The techniques of Sekida I find they work but it's true it's not traditional Zen. Many of the detractors of Sekida cite that his use of controlled breathing and using closed eyes is very contrary to the traditional schools... and in deed that is true.

I raise this to point out, that "new age trash" is to you, as Sekida is to other Zen schools. Perhaps having an open mind of all spiritual paths is more prudent... otherwise we become people in glass houses throwing stones.

Pete said...

Thanks for posting a comment! I had missed the mention of closed eyes, which would be at odds with (at least my) ideas of zazen and more akin to new age meditation.

Your point about being open minded is well-made. While I'm keeping this blog to express myself, I certainly wouldn't want to come off as if 'my way is the right way'. I am not a master, nor an expert.

At the same time, I can't help but believe that some of the ways Zen is 'westernized' take it away from fundamentals of practice. The idea that meditation is about "achieving inner peace", for example. From that angle, the new age flavor of Zen must muddy the waters in a way that goes beyond mere opinions and preferences.

However, the most right-minded response to such things is likely to say nothing at all...which takes me back to thinking your point is the correct one.

jamison said...


I have read Katsuki Sekida book Zen training and Philosophy. I found it to be very helpful. He clearly understands the importance of absolute samadhi in Zen training. I have been a serious practitioner of Zen for sixteen years and I don't think it matters whether or not you close your eyes in Zazen. Personally, I close my eyes, and find it very effective in concentrating my breath, and forgetting the external world. But its whatever works for you. I gave up long ago trying to learn from the modern forms of Zen. Too many schools get attached to the forms and traditions, or to the teachers ideas of what constitutes proper Zen practice. Its the blind leading the blind. You are better off reading this one book...and doing it on your own, especially doing long retreats. Its probably the best way to understand Zen. Just don't get attached to the experiences. All the best in your practice.
Mark Jamison

Pete said...

Thanks for your comment! I'm not much of a fan of dogmatic ritual in Zen either; it seems counterproductive in the extreme. In fact, Zen Throw Down has a post about this issue: http://zenthrowdown.blogspot.com/2015/07/the-role-of-form-and-ritual-in-zen.html

Good luck to you in your studies too!