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Entering Zen

A book by Ben Howard

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75 essays on recollection & action within everyday life

  • May 24, 2011
Rating:
+5
Fixing a sewer pipe, buying paint, wielding a chainsaw, riding a motorcycle, and changing a diaper: Zen moments can arrive anytime. Poet and critic Ben Howard shows us, in seventy-five essays about a thousand words each, how to learn to perceive the passing moment as the immediate entry into deeper awareness. He eschews sentimentality, avoids bromides, and shares compassion.

While never drifting into cliches or gliding into the ether, Howard's commonsense, steady, and alert gaze at what he sees from the vantage point of a retired professor of English in upstate New York reveals the insights he has gleaned from decades of "just sitting"-- and from moving about his neighborhood and writing for his small-town paper what he sees that can help readers learn more about Zen, and perhaps to take up some of its practices for themselves. With this collection, what first appeared in the local paper and on his "One Time, One Meeting" blog can be consulted easily, and returned to frequently for inspiration and stimulation.

I first found out about his essays via a web search for images of a fountain pen to accompany a blog entry of my own. His piece, on how a fountain pen's disassembly taught one about the Heart Sutra teaching that "form and emptiness" define each other, stuck with me, as a lover of pens (mine was canary while his was plum, the same Sailor brand as it happened) and as someone starting to learn about Zen when I happened upon the website. Since then, for over two years, I've followed these pieces as they've appeared every other week.

In each, he opens with an observation, on Alex Rodriguez, a poem by Jane Hirshfield or Seamus Heaney or Basho, the classified ads that nestle near the column itself in its first incarnation, a heard fragment of conversation, a scene from the news, or getting smacked by a Delaware wave, among dozens of possibilities in these pages. Then, he moves from its lesson to a parallel in Zen. He may cite a venerable Japanese teaching-- he is a longtime student in the Rinzai Zen tradition-- or a contemporary master. One citation that stuck? Charlotte Joko Beck's admonition to "give up hope," for a Zen practitioner does not sit or act in hopes of a goal, in search of enlightenment. He or she takes up the discipline for its own sake.

Howard possesses empathy, and unlike some Zen expounders he does not berate or chide the reader for a lack of gumption. Instead, many of his pieces end by suggesting, more gently, to the reader to take up a simple meditation exercise and to try it out for a month or two to see if it makes a difference. This aligns for me with the Buddha's instruction to not accept any teaching unless it jibes with one's own understanding and makes sense for one's own outlook.

In "Back to School," he tries to sum up Zen's reminder to shake us free from habit. Or, as Hirshfield defines it in seven words he cites of hers: "everything changes; everything is connected; pay attention." Howard explains: "To cultivate direct, intuitive perception is the real work of the Zen practitioner." He warns of too much book-learning without practical experience to temper words with action, or lack of action. "Practicing Zen is not a process of acquisition, nor is its aim the mastery of a body of knowledge. On the contrary, it is in large part a process of unlearning, of becoming aware of our layers of conditioning rather than adding another layer."

My favorite examples of Howard's guidance come from a few entries later in this collection, which begins the end of January 2008 and concludes two years later (but his blog continues at its usual rate of production since then). In "Children of the Sun," he takes up Irish poet Pearse Hutchinson's use of the Irish language to explore the meaning of the titular phrase in a poignant fashion. (I go on record that I favor but one of the two readings of a particular Gaelic phrase pondered therein, however!)

"Pursuing the Real" tells how one Ginny Lou, an Aussie greyhound, took off from her track to pursue a real rabbit and not the mechanical one. This illustrates the steady nature of Zen, focused on the physical roots of our breathing self, from which we can never be sidetracked for long. "Leaning into the Curves" compares how to ride a motorcycle with how Pema Chodron advises to get unhooked from negativity,. Finally, "Effortless Effort" neatly begins with the contemplation of an Aero Press coffee maker with the President's reaction to the shootings in Tucson earlier this year.

I have shared that last piece with my Technology, Culture & Society students; I have sent the helpful one on making green tea to my tea-drinking dharma friends; I have posted many more on Facebook or sent them to readers I sense may share my enthusiasm. Without any pretension, but with careful prose and a subtle poetic skill, Howard reminds me here of what I first encountered (years before) in his essays on Irish writing "The Pressed Melodeon" and more recently in his "Leaf, Sunlight, Asphalt" verses: the calm, recollected power of tranquility amidst energy.
75 essays on recollection & action within everyday life

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February 29, 2012
Nice write-up and definately something to persue.
 
October 06, 2011
I concur with djevoke.
 
June 02, 2011
Love this and I definitely agree that Zen or moments of clarification can find us at any time, anywhere. I'm going to have to check out this site and some of the essays! Thanks so much for sharing :)
June 05, 2011
Yes, DJE, Ben Howard's site's reliably eloquent yet modest in its insights. He controls his tone without being sanctimonious or saccharine, a welcome command of his subject(s).
 
June 01, 2011
Great review, John. "Zen moments can arrive anytime" -- I like that. Could always use a little more Zen in my life :)
June 05, 2011
Thanks, Devora. Also check out among other reviews mine on David Fontana's primer "Discover Zen", and then David Chadwick's fine bio of Shunryu Suzuki, "Crooked Cucumber," and then Suzuki's "Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind" for a fine trio to set you in motion, or in sitting!
June 07, 2011
Wow, thanks for the recommendations! Will check them out and perhaps add them to my Border's cart! :)
 
May 25, 2011
Sounds like a wonderful read! I really enjoyed your review!
May 25, 2011
I also recommend his poetry-- you can see his control over his take on the situation he contemplates! Thanks for the support, once again, Adrianna.
May 25, 2011
I definitely am interested in the poetry. I've been writing a lot myself lately. Have you reviewed one of his collections?
June 01, 2011
Yes, "Leaf Salmon Asphalt." My review's not easy to find but here is an excerpt from it with a sample poem that the publisher posted: http://www.salmonpoetry.com/details.php?ID=6&a=6 This is part of a larger review (combined with that on Eamon Carr's "The Origami Crow" originally at: http://www.estudiosirlandeses.org/Issue5/Iri...,_World_Cup_Summer_2002
June 03, 2011
Thanks so much for the information. Will go and search for it now!
June 03, 2011
Just wanted to say excellent review! Thanks for sharing the links.
 
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About the reviewer
John L. Murphy ()
Ranked #51
Medievalist turned humanities professor; unrepentant but not unskeptical Fenian; overconfident accumulator of books & music; overcurious seeker of trivia, quadrivia, esoterica.      … more
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About this book

Wiki

Part memoir, part almanac, and part primer on meditation, this collection of seventy-five essays is addressed to anyone who might wish to take up the practice of meditation, or deepen an existing practice, or explore the nuances and complexities of the Zen tradition. Grounded in the seasonal rhythms of Western New York and the realities of everyday life, these lucid, graceful essays entertain subjects as diverse as wood-cutting, ice dams, fountain pens, green tea, a dear friend's passing, and a child's acquisition of language. Taking these subjects as points of entry, each essay examines a specific aspect of Zen practice, while also probing the general themes of Zen teachings: suffering, mindfulness, impermanence, interdependence, and the "Great Matter of life and death."  The author is a longtime lay practitioner of Zen and Vipassana meditation. His book includes an illuminating foreword by Shinge Roko Sherry Chayat Roshi, Abbot of Dai Bosatsu Zendo and the Zen Center of Syracuse.
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Details

ISBN-10: 0977095673
ISBN-13: 978-0977095674
Author: Ben Howard
Publisher: Whitlock Publishing

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