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by Perle Besserman and Manfred Steger
Wisdom Publications, Boston, 2010
229 pages including Bibliography, Notes, and Glossary

reviewed by Vladimir K.

Nan-ch’üan found monks of the eastern and western halls arguing about a cat. He held up the cat and said, “Everyone! If you can say something, I will spare this cat. If you can’t say anything, I will cut off its head.” No could say a word so Nan-ch’üan cut the cat into two.
That evening, Chao-chou returned from outside and Nan-ch’üan told him what happened. Chao-chou removed a sandal from his foot, put it on his head, and walked out. Nan-ch’üan said, “If you had been there, the cat would have been spared.”

Zen is full of enigmatic, seemingly arbitrary actions by its masters. Kōans, such as the one above, perhaps best exemplify these apparently bizarre actions and words. Possibly the best known kōan is Hakuin Ekaku’s, the sound of one hand clapping (it even appeared in an episode of that paragon of popular culture, The Simpsons [2]).  The word ‘kōan’ has entered mainstream English and can now be found in English dictionaries. My Chambers Dictionary (1983) defines the word as “a nonsensical question given to students as a subject for meditation” but kōans are only ‘nonsensical’ for non-Zen people and when Chao-chou put a sandal on his head and walked out, it appears to be a bizarre, inexplicable action of a mad man but there is meaning here and the meaning is not incomprehensible to a student studying kōans. Furthermore, I have heard people ask how could a Zen master such as Nan-ch’üan break his Buddhist vows and kill an innocent cat? Indeed. More kōan.

It is unfortunate that Zen Buddhism is, in the minds of many, linked to oddity and inscrutability, for the highest level of Zen attainment is in its ordinariness.  A Zen master should not be noticed by the ordinary person (a fellow Zen traveller may well recognize a master). However, Zen masters are not unlike the general population — some are quiet, unassuming fellows (until recently, almost all were men) and others are loud, boisterous and eccentric. The husband-and-wife team of Perle Besserman and Manfred Steger has brought together seven of the more interesting masters of the latter category, including one that really wasn’t a Zen master at all but a prominent (and odd) layman and his equally odd family.
book cover
Zen Radicals, Rebels and Reformers brings together six Zen eccentrics and notable Zen masters and one Zen family to highlight that pursuing a religious life often means rebelling against the established orthodoxy of not only society, but religion itself. Two of Zen’s most radical and important Zen masters are included in this collection, Linji Yixuan (d. 866) (J. Rinzai Gigen), founder of the school that bears his name, and the Japanese master, Hakuin Ekaku (1685-1768), who reformed Rinzai Zen in Japan after it had fallen into disrepute and rote learning. All modern Rinzai teachers trace their lineage back to Hakuin.

The strangest person in this collection is not a Zen monk at all but a layman. P’ang Yun (740? – 808), usually known in the literature as Layman P’ang as he was married with two children, is revered in the tradition as an enlightened master who eschewed the trappings of the monastery and monkhood, to remain in the world with a family and a job and a sangha of lay people. The authors state that Layman P’ang “best reflects contemporary Zen in the West”, but I’m not so sure. Some time in his middle years, P’ang donated his house for a temple, loaded the family possessions into a boat and sank the whole lot in a river. He then went wandering with his daughter, supporting the two of them by making bamboo utensils. It’s unclear what happened to his wife and son. While both father and daughter were brilliant Zen people, their bizarre deaths, when each vied with the other to die first, is not a standard for contemporary Zen students to follow.

Perhaps the most important person in this collection is Lin-chi I-hsüan (d 867?) (J. Rinzai). He was the archetype of the shouting, striking Zen master who brooks no nonsense and is quick to strike with hand, fist, stick or tongue. His lineage is one of only two ancient Chinese lineages to survive, known in Japan as Rinzai Zen. But his legacy in Zen Buddhism is not his hitting and shouting, but his ability to teach by seeing through his students and doing whatever it took to force the students to see the truth for themselves. He had no time for temple hierarchies, rituals or even meditation. It was direct perception he was after, the “true man of no rank”. He left behind the fourfold relationship between the ordinary, the mundane, and the ultimate, expressed through the metaphors of questioner and respondent, guest and host. His words are still studied today.

Zen Radicals, Rebels and Reformers discusses only two Chinese masters before moving to Japan and covering Bassui Tokushō(1327-1387), Ikkyu Sojun (1394-1481), Bankei Yotaku (1622-1693), Hakuin Ekaku (1685-1769), and the modern masters Nyogen Senzaki (1876- 1958)and  Soen Nakagawa (1907-1984). Of course, there are many more that could have been included or other choices could have been made as to which masters to write about but that’s like quibbling over which are the ten best rock songs ever written —  there will never be overall agreement. I do, however, question the inclusion of Soen Nakagawa. It is far too early to determine whether he will be seen as important in bringing Zen to the West and if he isn’t, then there really is no point in including him in a book such as this. Furthermore, he has been tainted by the scandal surrounding his Dharma heir, Eido Shimano [3]of New York-based Zen Studies Society.

All of the Zen characters in this book have been written about before and their teachings are recorded. However, Besserman and Steger have put these teachers into a historical context which adds much to understanding the context of these teachings. Each section begins with a thumbnail historical sketch and finishes with a discussion about the teachings of each individual so the reader can place these characters not only in a historical context, but also in a Zen context. It is these bookends to each chapter that make this book a worthy contribution to a flourishing Zen literature.

It should be noted that Zen Radicals, Rebels, and Reformers is a reprint of the original 1991 volume, Crazy Clouds: Zen Radicals, Rebels, and Reformers although the copyright page does not reflect this, stating the copyright as 2010. Readers who have read the earlier volume will not find anything new in this latest edition except the Epilogue: From Crazy Cloud Zen to Grassroots Zen, which is a reworking and updating of the original epilogue, Crazy Cloud Zen for the West. Grassroots Zen is the title of a 2001 book by Steger and Besserman about setting up a democratic, lay Zen meditation group without the hierarchy and trappings of traditional Asian monastic practice.

Note1 The Gateless Barrier: The Wu-Men Kuan (Mumonkan) , Translated and with a Commentary by Robert Aitken, Northpoint Press, Berkley, 1991:94

Note 2 Production Code 7F08, Dead Putting Society; original air date: 15/11/1990 see The Simpsons - The Complete Second Season

Note 3 see The Aitken-Shimano Letters

Further Reading

Unborn: The Life and Teachings of Zen Master Bankei, 1622-1693 Translated by Norman Waddell, North Point Press; Revised edition, 2000

Bankei Zen: Translations from the Record of Bankei Translated by Peter Haskel, Grove Press, 1994

Mud and Water: The Teachings of Zen Master Bassui Translated by Arthur Braverman, Wisdom Publications; Rev Exp edition, 2002

Grassroots Zen by Manfred B. Steger and Perle Besserman, Tuttle Publishing, 2002

The Essential Teachings of Zen Master Hakuin: A Translation of the Sokko-roku Kaien-fusetsu (Shambhala Classics) Translated by Norman Waddell,    Shambhala, 2010

Wild Ivy: The Spiritual Autobiography of Zen Master Hakuin (Shambhala Classics) Translated by Norman Waddell, Shambhala, 2010

Wild Ways: Zen Poems of Ikkyu (Companions for the Journey) Rengetsu, editor, White Pine Press, 2007

The Zen Teachings of Master Lin-Chi Translated by Burton Watson, Columbia University Press, 1999  

Recorded Sayings of Layman P'ang: A Ninth-century Zen Classic Ruth Fuller Sasaki, translator, Weatherhill; 1st edition, 1973

Eloquent Silence: Nyogen Senzaki's Gateless Gate and Other Previously Unpublished Teachings and Letters Nyogen Senzaki;  Roko Sherry Chayat, editor, Wisdom Publications, 2008

Endless Vow: The Zen Path of Soen Nakagawa Kazuaki Tanahashi, Shambhala, 1996

Zen Masters: A Maverick, a Master of Masters, and a Wandering Poet John Stevens,  Kodansha International, 2nd edition, 1999