Saturday, January 15, 2011

Book Review: The Complete Idiot's Guide to Zen Living

Well, here it finally is. My book review of my most recent book to be completed from my reading list, The Complete Idiot's Guide to Zen Living . Although it took practically forever to finish due to life circumstances, motivation, etc., it was well worth the read.

The first section provides the basics of the history of Zen Buddhism, and a description of Buddhism in general. I find a lot of it appeals to me as a method of living day-to-day life. In all honesty, I think if I were ever to leave Gnosticism, it would be for Buddhism. Although, admittedly, there actually is a fair bit of overlap between the two, at least as Gnosticism is often practiced in modern-day form. In addition, many Western Buddhists, as well as many Western Zen practitioners, believe that Zen Buddhism can be practiced as a spiritual practice apart from religion, or in addition to one's professed religion. This book refers to those who practice Zen without religion, or as a spiritual component of their primary religion, as "Zennists"

In the first chapter, basic definitions are given. Zen is the Japanese word for "meditation". Zazen, the most common form of meditation in Zen Buddhism, is "sitting meditation". Nirvana is the term for "enlightenment". I found it interesting to learn that, contrary to what most Western non-Buddhists think, Nirvana is not the state reached after death, although it does typically mean that one will not be reborn in the cycle again, unless they do so to help others (which is basically what a "bodhisattva" is). According to this book, it is the state of enlightenment reached when one truly realizes the unity of all things. It is not exactly an end goal, so much as a catalyst for spiritual growth.

In Zen Buddhism, there are three sets of concepts. The first is comprised of the Three Treasures:
- The Buddha, and the concept that everyone has the Buddha nature
- The Buddha's teachings (known as dharma), and the recognition that these teachings reflect ultimate truth
-The Buddhist community, called sangha, which are either interpreted literally (the group of practitioners and those of like mind) or figuratively (the community of all sentient beings).

The second set of concepts, which I actually find to be very accurate and something worth adding to my own spiritual practice, is comprised of the Four Noble Truths:
- Living means experiencing dukkha - discontent and suffering
- Dukkha is caused by desire - "if only I had this, then I would be happy"
- By eliminating desire, we eliminate suffering.  I admit I struggled with this one. What does it mean to eliminate desire? Give up emotion? How does one do that? The book further gives clarification and discusses how the point is not to get rid of all emotion, but to be happy with where you are in life and the fact that in reality, you already have what you need at that moment in time, even while you may be working towards larger goals. The point is to work towards goals and have goals, but not to be controlled by the things you think you need.
- The Fourth Noble Truth is the way to eliminate desire, which is done by adhering to the Eightfold Path.

The third set of of concepts is the aforementioned Eightfold Path, which is basically a set of guidelines for living:
- Right understanding - recognizing that life is impermanent, suffering is linked to desire, which is linked to the idea that we are lacking something. This sometimes includes the concept of understanding karma (cosmic cause and effect, balance), and the unity of all beings.
- Right thought - thinking kindly of others, and refusing to engage in cruel thoughts. This follows the concept that "we are what we think".
- Right speech - refusing to lie, gossip, etc. Speak only when necessary, and speak wisely when we do.
- Right action - following the Five Precepts, or Buddhist morals: nonviolence or refusing to kill purposefully; refusal to steal(not only shoplifting, but also plagiarism and even stealing attention from others);control of the senses;talking sincerely and honestly; and refusing to alter the mind with intoxicants.
- Right livelihood - choosing a career that is just, honest, and upright.
- Right effort - making a conscious attempt to bring about positive qualities in ourselves while getting rid of negative qualities.
- Right mindfulness - being constantly aware of our feelings, environment, our bodies, our thoughts.... total awareness.
- Right concentration - working on staying focused. Ideally, if I were practicing this particular principle at the moment, I would be totally focused on writing this entry, instead of also (maybe ironically) watching Sister Act on my roommate's Wii via Netflix instant play.

The rest of the book, while it does get a little repetitive, goes into various techniques of meditation, how a Zen practitioner would handle certain situations - such as Zen and dating, Zen in the workplace, Zen and family members, etc. It gave me a lot of ideas that I'm trying to incorporate into my life. I do admit that I find the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path very appealing, a big reason I considered Buddhism as a religious option. Indeed, seeing as it appears to be very compatible with other religions (even in the countries where Buddhism is primarily practiced, many are practitioners of two religions - for example, most Japanese are practitioners of both Buddhism and Shinto, the Japanese native religion).

Now is just as good of a time to put these things into practice, as I feel I have some big things coming for me this year. For one, my internship supervisor has already made calls to her superiors to get approval to extend a job offer for part-time employment with them, and so I have to begin thinking about what decision I should make if I'm presented with an official job offer. Or maybe, according to Zen, I shouldn't be thinking about it at all. It's in the future, and in Zen concept, there is no future. Only the present. Also, as today was my first day of classes for the spring semester, I am getting back into the grind of school/work/internship.

In short, a great book, good introduction to anyone wanting to learn more about Zen, or Buddhism in general.

1 comment:

JeniMac said...

Sounds like you summarized everything in the Buddhist sections of my religion textbooks. lol! I'm interested in finding out more about Zen decorating and creating a calm environment. The latest religion class I took briefly talked about the contributions of Zen art and decorating but didn't go into detail on *how* to achieve it. I'm trying to get rid of a lot of junk I've collected over the years, have more fresh flowers in my home, I named my cat Maya after the Buddha's mother and I have a little Buddha statue in my kitchen...but that's a far cry from being "Zen-ful." lol!