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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