January 20, 2020
We weren't quite sure what to think of this book when the fine folks at New World Library sent it to us for review. All we knew is that we love Zen and if the content relates to Zen, we would more than likely enjoy it.
Letters to a Dead Friend about Zen is exactly what it says. Author Brad Warner utilizes the format of writing informal letters to his friend, who recently passed away, to convey all the things he wanted to tell him about Zen and his life but didn't get the chance.
The results are a refreshing compendium of Zen Buddhism filled with everything you might of wondered about Zen and more. The writing is casual and informal, just like you're having a conversation with a close friend. It reminds us of the informal manner in which J.D. Salinger writes in his books, the most popular being The Catcher in the Rye. This humorous and light hearted book cuts to the quick in relating basic Zen terms, Buddhist philosophy, koans, and concepts like karma, reincarnation and emptiness.
There are many gems of wisdom throughout the book that will benefit the reader. Warner refers many times to wisdom related by Dogen Zenji who is the founder of the Soto school of Zen which is the form of Zen Buddhism that he has practiced for over 30 years. We enjoyed the fact that Warner has a great grasp on the metaphorical context of many Buddhist stories in the sense that often the stories should not be taken literally but point to a deeper meaning. By providing historical context about the Buddha, the reader gains a great sense of how Zen Buddhism started and the importance of meditation within Buddhism.
Zen words, like "zazen" which means sitting meditation, are explained and expounded upon so the reader obtains historical background and concepts regarding the terms. Warner relates his first introduction to zazen called shikantaza which he describes as a "fancy Japanese word meaning 'just sitting'."
"The just in just sitting is a strong just. It means doing nothing but just devoting yourself to the act of sitting rather than the kind of just you use when you say you're "just sitting around." In this style of meditation, you are not given any goal to pursue. You're not trying to gain insights. You're not trying to become mindful. You're not trying to make yourself a better person. You're not trying to have some special type of experience. Rather, you are trying to sit very, very still in order to fully experience the simple and real fact of just sitting very, very still."
We found great value in the detailing of zazen meditation and the importance of posture and aligning the spine while meditating. Warner explains, "What you're trying to do is balance your upper body on your hips so that you are not using a lot of effort but you are not also being lazy. It's a position between being effortful and being effortless. It's a balance pose like the tree pose or one of those other balance poses in yoga. And the best thing to do if your mind gets foggy is to adjust your posture."
Equally as valuable is Warner's explanation of the Buddhist concept of "no self". Many people confuse the concept of "no self" with the annihilation of their personality when this is not the case. "Dogen said, 'To study the self is to forget the self.' As you study this silently observing self, then the other sense of self - the chattering, talkative self - starts to become less important...Dogen then said, 'To forget the self is to be illuminated by everything.' It no longer feels like there's a central "I" sitting inside you forever cut off from everything else. You start to see your self - as in the self that you thought was yours and yours alone - in everyone and everything."
These are just a few snippets of some of the mind expanding topics covered in this fun and informative book. Irreverent humor and references to bands and music also liven the topic to provide a truly enjoyable Zen ride.
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For more information about Letters to a Dead Friend about Zen, enjoy this Q&A video with author Brad Warner:
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January 17, 2023
Cultivating mindfulness is the key to overcoming suffering and recognizing natural wisdom: both our own and others'. How do we go about it?
In the Buddhist tradition and in Contemplative Psychotherapy training, we nurture mindfulness through the practice of sitting meditation. There are many different kinds of meditation. For example, some are designed to help us relax; others are meant to produce altered states of consciousness.
Mindfulness meditation is unique in that it is not directed toward getting us to be different from how we already are. Instead, it helps us become aware of what is already true moment by moment. We could say that it teaches us how to be unconditionally present; that is, it helps us be present with whatever is happening, no matter what it is.
Mindfulness, paying precise, nonjudgmental attention to the details of our experience as it arises and subsides, doesn't reject anything. Instead of struggling to get away from experiences we find difficult, we practice being able to be with them. Equally, we bring mindfulness to pleasant experiences as well. Perhaps surprisingly, many times we have a hard time staying simply present with happiness. We turn it into something more familiar, like worrying that it won't last or trying to keep it from fading away.
When we are mindful, we show up for our lives; we don't miss them in being distracted or in wishing for things to be different. Instead, if something needs to be changed we are present enough to understand what needs to be done. Being mindful is not a substitute for actually participating in our lives and taking care of our own and others' needs. In fact, the more mindful we are, the more skillful we can be in compassionate action.
December 19, 2022
It's easy to lose sight of the beauty of the world in the midst of tragedy, political upheaval, injustice and suffering. While we continue with our practice, working to ease the suffering of others and living a life of compassion and Love, we also need to be mindful and grateful for the beauty of the world that still surrounds us when we choose Love. Like Pops says, "Love baby. Love. That's the secret."
"What a Wonderful World" [1970 Spoken Introduction Version] along with Oliver Nelson's Orchestra is a song written by Bob Thiele (as George Douglas) and George David Weiss. It was first recorded by Louis Armstrong and released as a single in 1968. Thiele and Weiss were both prominent in the music world (Thiele as a producer and Weiss as a composer/performer). Armstrong's recording was inducted in the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1999. Intended as an antidote for the increasingly racially and politically charged climate of everyday life in the United States, the song also has a hopeful, optimistic tone with regard to the future, with reference to babies being born into the world and having much to look forward to.
November 04, 2022