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Zen Pivots: Lectures on Buddhism and Zen

by Sokei-An
edited by Mary Farkas & Robert Lopez; 1998, Weatherhill, New York & Tokyo
review by Vladimir K., August, 2004

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Sokei-An Shigetsu Sasaki (1882-1945) first arrived in the United States in 1906 and, according to the back-cover blurb of this edition, was "the first Zen master to settle in the United States", giving a series of talks in New York beginning in 1922 and establishing the Buddhist Society of America there in 1930. It was shortly before Shokei-An's death in 1945 that the society was re-named The First Zen Institute of America.

book coverZen Pivots is the second volume of collected lectures delivered by Sokei-An in New York. Sokei-An had a chequered career in America and in Zen and Robert Lopez gives an entertaining account of the adventures of this Zen teacher in the Introduction, liberally interspersed with Sokei-An's own words. He began studying Zen with Sokatsu Shaku in 1902, was married (at his teacher's urging) in 1905 and, with his wife and a small band of Japanese Zen students, arrived in Hayward, California in 1906 to set up a Zen centre on land purchased by Sokatsu. The venture failed and Sokei-An fell out with his teacher, leaving the centre. Sokatsu tried to set up another centre on Sutter Street in San Francisco and Sokei-An returned to the fold but this venture, too, failed, and the group returned to Japan, leaving only Sokei-An and his family behind. The family moved to Seattle and in 1916, after the birth of two children and with a third on the way, the family returned to Japan, leaving Sokei-An alone in America. He was thirty-four years old. (The Introduction wrongly states his age at this point as twenty-four.)

After "several years" of wandering America, he ended up in New York, earning a living by wood carving and repairing art works. He returned to Japan in 1919 and resumed his Zen studies with Sokatsu, received inka three years later and returned to New York, to begin lecturing on Zen and Buddhism at the Orientalia bookstore. Four years later he went back to Japan and was certified as a teacher. In 1928 Sokei-An returned to New York, never leaving America again.

In a typically bizarre Japanese fashion, he decided that to be taken seriously by Americans he should become a priest and in 1933 he formally received the precepts, a religious name (Soshin) and the rank of jisha (attendant) from Daitokuji, all without leaving New York. This displeased his teacher, Sokatsu, and another, final, rupture in their relationship ensued.From 1929 until September, 1941, Sokei-An lived and lectured at 63 West 70 th Street, the headquarters of the Buddhist society. The society moved to Ruth Fuller's apartment in December of that year and in June, 1942, Sokei-An was interred as an "enemy alien". He was released in August, 1943, somehow divorced his Japanese wife the following year (how does one divorce a wife in a country at war with the country you are living in?) and married Ruth Fuller (Alan Watts' mother-in-law). Less than two years later he was dead.

Sokei-An's lectures were taken down by his students as he seldom wrote his talks out beforehand. Zen Pivots is Sokei-An's introductory lectures on the theory and practice of Buddhism which he gave over a period of years. There are thirty-six lectures here, some less than one page. They cover topics such as The Five Skandhas, The Three Worlds, The Four Heavens of Rupadhatu, The Four Realms of Arupadhatu, The Eighteen Shunyatas, The Four Wisdoms, and The Triune Body of the Buddha. Endnotes and a useful Glossary complete the volume.

These talks are aimed at Zen Buddhism students at a time when there was not an extensive Zen library available in English, as there is now. The language is plain and simple, reflecting Sokei-An's personality. His goal was to delve into the basics of theological Buddhism in a manner that would be accessible to Western students unfamiliar with many of the concepts of Buddhism or the Sanskrit terminology. Some of the Sanskrit has subsequently become fairly well-known to Zen students, such as the three ‘bodies’ of the Buddha: the dharmakaya , the sambhogakaya , and the nirmanakaya . Terms such as samadhi , prajna , duhkha and samsara are, if not part of English, familiar to most Zen students. Sokei-An covers these and many more Sanskrit Buddhist terms and as such provides a useful jumping off point for those students who may wish to investigate the basics of Buddhism deeper.

Although the book covers many areas of what could be called Zen Buddhist theology, it is aimed at students of Zen and therefore attempts to relate each topic to awareness and awakening in the student. In other words, it is not just a dictionary of Zen terminology. I must admit I found some of it amusing. For example, talking about samsara and nirvana , Sokei-An, says:

In Buddhism "Ahhhh" is the sound of birth and "Mmmmm" is the sound of death. On "Ahhhh" all the universe appears; on "Mmmmm" all the universe disappears. Between "Ahhhh" and "Mmmmm" is samsara ; between "Mmmmm" and "Ahhhh" is nirvana . (p. 131)
He continues with:
Samsara and nirvana are really everything. Samsara is something and nirvana is nothing, but this nothing is something and this something is nothing. Also, something is something, and nothing is nothing, and both are empty. Understood this way, samsara and nirvana are ungraspable. (p. 131-132)

One can only agree that expressed this way, both are ungraspable and, indeed, almost impenetrable!

One problematic area in the book is the over-idealisation of Zen that Japanese monks brought with them from Japan. Western Zen has been founded on Japanese Zen, introduced initially largely through the writings of D. T. Suzuki. Along with this Japanese Zen came a lot of Japanese baggage which has, to some extent, been dropped from Western Zen practices and thought through a maturity of the practice. One example of this idealisation of Japanese Zen is found in the chapter on Emancipation. Sokei-An, talking about Buddhist monks, claims:

When famine attacks the country, he sits by the roadside and joins his hands waiting for his last moment. When he is sick, he closes his eyes and without tears, without pangs of death, he dies alone. When he hasn't a penny, he stands with his bowl…not asking and not begging. If no one gives him anything, he joins his hands and starves to death. (p. 80)

This, of course, gives a completely wrong impression of Buddhist monks. Who has ever met such a man? Not only are Buddhist monks not like this, many Japanese monks and Zen masters disgraced themselves during the Second World War with their militarism, nationalism and racism. One can only imagine what the New Yorkers listening to Sokei-An thought about this statement. In those days, Westerners didn't have the volume of writings about Zen that we have today and I am sure many took such a statement at face value, perhaps not only believing that monks were like this, but feeling that such a state was impossible to attain. Unfortunately, there are still Zen teachers around today who would say something similar.

Sokei-An gives a good introduction to Zen Buddhism in this book and as such, it has a place in a student's library. Within the many stories of the Buddha that Sokei-An relates are the hidden pearls of Buddhism. Throughout, Sokei-An tells also of his own experiences with Zen Buddhism and this gives the lectures a very personal touch. Although the thrust of the lectures is to explain various concepts and terminology in Zen, these are not dry, academic lectures but vibrant and alive, full of passion, light and (mostly) clarity. Although none of the topics are covered in any great depth, the student is given a good overview of some basics concepts in Buddhism. This over-simplification of complex ideas may be seen as a weakness in the book but it should be remembered that Sokei-An was playing the role of a Zen teacher rather than that of a Buddhist scholar and his main purpose was to enlighten his students through these talks. Whether the topics covered are "pivotal" points for awakening through Zen is debatable but the topics are central to Buddhist thought and as such, this book can serve a useful purpose for a Zen student.

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