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Zen Teaching, Zen Practice: Philip Kapleau and The Three Pillars of Zen

edited by Kenneth Kraft    buy this book now
Weatherhill, New York & Tokyo, 2000 pp 141
Reviewed by Vladimir K., September, 2005

It is generally agreed that D. T. Suzuki was instrumental in making Zen Buddhism known and popularized in the West through his series of books such as An Introduction to Zen Buddhism, Essays in Zen Buddhism, Studies in Zen Buddhism as well as his translations of work such as the Lankavatara Sutra and the Wumenguan (the Gateless Gate).While works such as these certainly brought Zen Buddhism to an eager and ravenous American public, they lacked one critical aspect: how do you actually practice Zen Buddhism, especially the central practice of zazen?

book coverOne of the first and most influential books on the practice of zazen was Philip Kapleau’s The Three Pillars of Zen: Teaching, Practice and Enlightenment. First published in 1965, it has not been out of print ever since, has been translated into ten languages and, perhaps most importantly, still inspires newcomers to take up the practice of Zen Buddhism. For many Zen students, it is still an essential inspirational reference work, one that urges the student to practice and practice hard to achieve kensho. The only other book in English that is as influential as Kapleau’s work is Shunryu Suzuki’s Zen Mind Beginner’s Mind.

Thirty-five years after Kapleau’s seminal volume was published, we have Zen Teaching, Zen Practice, a collection of eleven essay’s written mostly by Kapleau’s senior students examining Kapleau’s work and influence not only as an author but as a Zen teacher.

Zen Teaching, Zen Practice is edited by Kenneth Kraft, who also wrote the interesting Introduction. Kraft points out that Kapleau’s book is “in large measure a book about kensho” (p.14) which in itself is problematic as for many, including some of the authors of the essays, this led to “inflated expectations… [and] [t]he discrepancy between anticipatory visions of enlightenment and actual experiences of insight”. (p.15) This disjuncture between what Kapleau wrote and the actual experiences of Zen students has led to some criticisms of The Three Pillars of Zen as a book that gives an unrealistic picture of what to expect from zazen. The reality is, of course, that zazen and Zen practice do not necessarily lead to kensho or satori for all but Kapleau’s book raised the expectation that arduous practice would inevitably lead to enlightenment. For many, if not most Zen students, just how difficult the practice is and how committed one must be came as a shock and, inevitably for some, a disappointment.

While this emphasis on and almost inevitability of kensho is, I think, a fair criticism of The Three Pillars of Zen, there is little doubt that Kapleau’s book brought many people to the study and practice of Zen Buddhism and for that we should be grateful. It is also necessary that we understand where and how Kapleau learned his Zen practice to better understand why he wrote and taught the way he did.

The first essay in the book, "Philip Kapleau’s First Encounter with Zen", by Albert Stunkard, gives us an insight to how Kapleau came to Zen. Both Stunkard and Kapleau worked in post-war Japan in 1947 and were introduced to Zen through D. T. Suzuki. Stunkard became Suzuki’s doctor and Kapleau worked as a court reporter on the war crimes International Military Tribunal. Kapleau returned to the United States but the taste of Zen was in his mouth and in 1953 he went back to Japan to settle his doubts. For three years he trained under Harada Sogaku at Hosshinji and then furthered his practice under Yasutani Hakuun in Kamakura. He practiced with Yasutani for nearly ten years before returning to America as a Zen teacher. So it is not surprising that Kapleau emphasized kensho in his book as both Harada and Yasutani were adamant that kensho and satori are the alpha and omega of Zen practice. When Yasutani led sesshin in America he would, at the end of the week, parade and publicly announce who had attained a breakthrough in their practice, something that in most of today’s Western Zen centers would be seen as crass and disruptive to the sangha. But these were the teachers under whom Kapleau trained and learned his Zen.

Wes Borden in the second essay, "Tall Branches, Tender Leaves", gives an entertaining and somewhat poignant account of his struggle with Mu under Kapleau’s tutorage. His account of his first sesshin in 1970 at the Rochester Zen Center will strike a chord with many who have had similar experiences of pain, uncertainty, suffering and desperation to do well. It took another four years before his answer to Mu was accepted by Kapleau. Like many of Kapleau’s first students, the desire for kensho (and passing koans) was deep in Borden’s practice but, after thirty years of practice, he writes “the purpose of Zen training is not to acquire enlightenment but to shave away ego-centered thoughts until one is able to see that fundamentally one lacks nothing.” (p.44)

If there is one thread other than Kapleau and his book that runs through the majority of these essays it is how a sense of dissatisfaction in one’s life leads one to seek a spiritual practice to settle the doubts of life. Casey Frank, raised as a Catholic, discovered that her teachers “were not talking from experience” and she felt betrayed at an early age. (p.45) Victoria Kieburtz, also a Catholic, felt alienated and frustrated by her religion and was given a copy of The Three Pillars of Zen, an event which changed her life. Arnold Kotler, in 1969, a time of great ferment in America, felt the need to “sort out what was most important” (p. 85) in his life and purchased a copy of Kapleau’s book. Mitra Bishop came to Zen in Turkey, where her “life had disintegrated in every way”. (p.98) For two years The Three Pillars of Zen guided her Zen practice until in 1976 when she decided to further her efforts by joining Kapleau at the Rochester center. There she fell into the trap of measuring “each nuance of practice against the book”. (p. 99) She discovered that the accounts of kensho which make up so much of Kapleau’s book can be an inspiration to continue practice but in the final analysis, they are a “too-handy and ultimately false road map” (ibid). Bodhin Kjolhede was shaken to his core by an encounter with U. S. customs agents who threw him in jail for possessing some peyote buttons. Although he had encountered the book earlier, it held no meaning for him and remained largely unread. However, after his experience of jail, his “angst now at critical mass” (p. 122), the narratives of people’s experiences with Zen and the Third Noble Truth—there is a way out of suffering—exploded within him: “Seeing this staggering new vista was the Big Bang of my spiritual life.” (p.122)

Kapleau’s book has been criticized, fairly I believe, for promoting a “samurai” Japanese Zen. The intensely personal narratives in Zen Teaching, Zen Practice, however, illustrate how valuable this book has been in setting people on the path of Zen. Given the historical context of Zen Buddhism in the West when The Three Pillars of Zen was published in 1965, when books and teachings on the actual Zen practice of zazen were thin indeed on the ground, and the book’s immense popularity among seekers of the Way, one needs to temper one’s criticism. It was not really until another immensely popular book, Suzuki’s Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind was published five years later that we had another view on how to practice Zen. These two books will be seen as seminal texts in bringing Zen Buddhism to the West and, so far, no other writings have been as influential. Zen Teaching, Zen Practice is not a fundamental text for Western Zen but it does serve as a useful counterpoint to the personal narratives that so influenced many beginners in The Three Pillars of Zen. I think it would be fair to say that Western Zen has moved on since Kapleau’s book first hit the shelves. Gradually, Western Zen is being weaned off the bushido Japanese version of practice and Kapleau’s teachers, Harada Sogaku and Yasutani, have been revealed as flawed teachers who advocated and promoted Japanese militarism and racism.(see Zen at War reviews)This has led to a healthy skepticism of the infallibility of our teachers and altered the way we see enlightenment. All of this is part of the ongoing struggle to find the true meaning of Zen Buddhism in its inexorable march to the West. Zen Teaching, Zen Practice, with its personal narratives of meeting Kapleau and his book is part of that ongoing struggle to create a Zen Buddhism relevant to our times, our needs, and our understanding.

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