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Essential Zen Hardcover – August, 1996

12 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews Review

In the introduction to Essential Zen, the editors remark in very Zen-like fashion that this book cannot rightly claim to represent anything "essential" at all about their subject; for how can mere writing bring readers to the heart of a teaching that lies "outside words and letters"? The essential Zen in book form, they say, would "more likely consist of blank pages; a reader fills them in. Or not."

But what a blessing that Tanahashi and Schneider, like others in Zen's long and prolific literary tradition, have nonetheless decided to spill a little ink and attempt to point toward that which cannot be told. In this lively little volume, they bring together some treasures of classical and contemporary wisdom that capture the enigmatic soul of Zen. Included are familiar works from classical masters--haiku by Japanese poet Basho, stories from philosopher Dogen, poems by Chinese recluse Hanshan, and koans and meditations by monks and nuns dating from the 5th century. And placed alongside "on equal footing" with the works of venerated Asian teachers are writings by contemporary Westerners--from poet Gary Snyder to students from Zen centers around the United States and Europe--emphasizing the fresh spirit or "nowness" of the tradition. At turns deeply serious, poignant, and humorous, the selections cover a wide range of concerns, from the inevitability of death to the importance of environmental stewardship. But all have in common a rootedness in the physical present while recognizing its fleeting nature; there is a freedom, they seem to say, that comes in appreciating but not clinging to the things of this world. Each piece is presented "clean," without accompanying commentary, but the editors' excellent endnotes give valuable biographical information and background on unfamiliar concepts. More than an accessible introduction to Zen for Westerners, this is a collection to be read for its insight into what it means to be human in a changing world. --Uma Kukathas

From Library Journal

Like many Zen texts, this book begins with a mild apology for the irony of creating yet another collection of words for something that claims to exist outside the realm of words. Once this has been said, however, the compilers dig into the subject with great enthusiasm, creating an eclectic collection that draws from the most familiar classic texts to contemporary musings. How often, for instance, would you find Leonard Cohen juxtaposed with Dogen? The arrangement is often inspired, with creative chapter headings that complement the selections and sometimes cast them in a new light. This is the kind of book that you can keep nearby, open at random, and be pleasantly surprised by over and over. The equal time and attention given to the growing body of significant teaching from contemporary masters and practitioners keep the collection fresh; with its firm grounding in the classic texts, it brings Zen alive to the present moment. Highly recommended.
Mark Woodhouse, Elmira Coll., N.Y.
Copyright 1994 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 174 pages
  • Publisher: Castle Pub.; First edition. edition (August 1996)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0758507216
  • ISBN-13: 978-0785807216
  • ASIN: 0785807217
  • Product Dimensions: 8.5 x 5.4 x 0.8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 13.6 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (12 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,877,864 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

17 of 19 people found the following review helpful By Michael P. McGarry on August 7, 2000
Format: Hardcover
Tanahashi & Schneider's anthology creates a sense of the thread running through Zen because ancient stories from the T'ang Dynasty (619-906) are juxtaposed with stories about Zen aspirants in modern America. They do a wonderful job of illuminating several traits unique to Zen, not by explaining them discursively, but rather by providing one illuminating story after another. For example, type of guidance a novice receives in Zen is virtually unparalleled in the world's spiritual systems. An explanation of everything unique to it would most likely be arcane and dry, hardly helpful to the outsider. Instead, this book tells stories, profound touchstones from the tradition. My favorite entry from the chapter "Skillful Guidance is a story about the interaction of the Zen Master Nanquan (Japanese: Nansen, 748-835) and a hopeful pupil looking for him.--- Nanquan was working on the mountain. A monk came by and asked him, "What is the way that leads to Nanquan?" The master raised his sickle and said, "I bought this sickle for thirty cents." The monk said, "I'm not asking about the sickle you bought for thirty cents. What is the way that leads to Nanquan?" The master said, "It feels good when I use it." (p. 10) --- One of the many virtues of that story is that, until our intuition opens to it, we are very much like the monk in the story, and Nanquan is teaching us as well. As I read the book, I felt that I was being taught by both ancient and modern Masters, and the miracle is, across thirteen centuries, they speak with one voice. Admittedly, not every selection will make sense to the beginner on a first reading, but that is one of the book's strengths - many passages become deeper with repeated readings.Read more ›
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12 of 13 people found the following review helpful By Joel L. Gandelman VINE VOICE on August 31, 2001
Format: Paperback
As sad as it makes me to say it, I can't agree that this book is good for anyone who is JUST starting to learn about Zen. Call me an ignorant illiterate (I will admit that!) but I read lots of books on various religions and here is how I would rate this book. IF YOU KNOW SOMETHING ALREADY ABOU ZEN OR ARE WELL INTO IT: Four and a half to five stars. Lots of great excerpts from various authors, many of them Westerners. They're diverse in content and vary in length. So it's a great for collection anyone who already has some knowledge of Zen. IF YOU DON'T KNOW MUCH ABOUT ZEN: You'll have to skip a lot of the sections as you start reading them, and not because that is the subject's inherent nature. Someone who picked up this book to learn about Zen would definitely have to go and buy a few more books to figure out the meaning of a lot of the sections. BOTTOM LINE: If there had been a bit more explanation about each section before the excerpts this book would be the "essential" Zen. But anyone just learning will have to get other books first to truly grasp the essentials in this book.
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8 of 9 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on May 28, 1998
Format: Paperback
A good collection of various Zen writings that concentrates more on writings from Americans and the Western world in general. I enjoyed this book because it gave a more Western view of Zen. Although a lot of the writing is American, plenty of non-American writers are included. Most of the items included seem to be based on more contemporary thought then on 'classic' Zen. A great addition to any Zen library.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful By Dennis Littrell HALL OF FAMETOP 500 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on August 27, 2007
Format: Hardcover
Essential Zen comes thirty-seven years after the publication of Paul Rep's Zen Flesh, Zen Bones: A Collection of Zen and Pre-Zen Writings (1957). The books are similar in that they both are collections of Zen writings highlighting the paradoxical and irreverent that is at the heart of Zen Buddhism.

I would put this on the same shelf as Zen Flesh, but I would not take it down as often. (Then again I may. Who is to say?) The striking brilliance of Zen Flesh comes partly from its being the first meaty collection of Zen writings in English, but also because it included writings from the precursors of Zen in the Taoist and Vedic traditions. Essential Zen takes a slightly different, perhaps more sophisticated path. The writings are heavy with the paradox of Zen and with the contradictory nature of life. Thus we have Master So-and-so contradicting himself. Thus we have enlightenment coming upon the contradiction. Essential Zen also seems more esoteric. There is little in the book like the denotative guiding stories from Zen Bones. Tanahashi mentions the famous tea pouring into an overflowing cup story that appeared in Zen Bones, but one senses that such stories have become a bit too heavy-handed. Or maybe there is a kind of precious intellectualization creeping in here, a kind of anti-intellectual intellectualism! such as has happened with the short story since the days of O. Henry and Poe. Everything has become so, so precious and so, so subtle that perhaps only those with lots of experience can appreciate the nuances. In reaction I have came up with my own Zen poem this morning:

I am putting on clean underwear today
so that in case I drop dead
nobody will find skid marks in my shorts.
Read more ›
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6 of 7 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on February 15, 2000
Format: Hardcover
This book gives a valid and "mostly" understandable text that describes the aims of Zen. It is a must have for those new to Zen because it expounds upon what Zen is not. It gives the reader a basic vocabulary for future cultivation of Zen philosophy.
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