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Zen Flesh, Zen Bones: a Collection of Zen and pre-Zen Writings Mass Market Paperback – 1961
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Top Customer Reviews
First there are 101 Zen stories. These are the best and most classic of the stories, many of them so familiar that they are now part of American culture as well as Zen culture. The stories constitute lessons in life, insights into our nature and ways to enlightenment or how one has wandered off the path--or better yet, how there is no path and no wandering. Unlike many Zen tales, which can be deeply mystifying to non-initiates, most of the ones presented here are luminous.
Paul Reps and Nyogen Senzaki, who are the transcribers, begin with the famous tale of Zen master Nan-in overflowing a visiting professor's tea cup to illustrate how filled the professor is with himself, so filled he cannot learn anything new. Included are two of my favorites, (1) that of Tanzan and Ekido, the former a monk who carried a pretty girl across a muddy road and his monastic friend who could not let go of her in his mind; and (2) the parable attributed to the Buddha about a man hanging over a cliff holding onto a vine being gnawed on by two mice (one black and one white--yin and yang, perhaps), with a tiger above and another below, and a luscious strawberry. How sweet it tasted indeed! By the way I have recently learned that a variant of this story comes from the Mahabharata as reported by Georg Feuerstein in The Essence of Yoga (1974). There the mice are rats (still black and white) and the man is hanging from a tree over a pit in which waits a giant serpent. He is drinking honey.
Next there is a presentation of the Buddhist classic about koans, their answers, and a commentary called "The Gateless Gate" by the Chinese master Ekai (also known as Mu-mon,1183-1260 c.e.). The spirit of The Gateless Gate" is irreverent and mischievous. The central idea is that the truth lies somewhere beyond the thesis and the antithesis--or, that which can be said and that which cannot be said do not include the whole of it. Most of Mu-mon's comments are deliberately non-rational, but here is one in the form of a poem that expresses the essence of Zen in a nutshell:
It is too clear and so it is hard to see.
A dunce once searched for a fire with a lighted lantern.
Had he known what fire was,
He could have cooked his rice much sooner.
The third book is the famous search for the bull from Taoism which ends in no bull, no search-all transcended, which is an allegory of life and a symbolic representation of learning to meditate. Zen has added here two extra frames which I will not comment on.
The fourth book is something Reps calls "Centering" from an ancient Sanskrit manuscript. It is said to be four thousand years old and purports to be Shiva guiding Devi in enlightenment. There are 112 ways. Its yoga-becoming-Zen feel is really startling. Here are three examples:
8. Attention between eyebrows, let mind be before thought. Let form fill with breath-essence to the top of the head, and there <shower as light>.
15. Intone a sound, as a-u-m, slowly. As sound enters soundfulness, <so do you>.
26. Unminding mind, keep in the middle--<until>.
The book title comes from a story about the first Zen patriarch, Bodhidharma, who rewarded a couple of his disciples for their apperception by saying the one has his flesh and the other had his bones. A third monk won the "contest" by remaining silent. About him, Bodhidharma said, "you have my marrow."
All four books are wonderful, and there is not a speck of dust on any page.
--Dennis Littrell, author of "Yoga: Sacred and Profane (Beyond Hatha Yoga)"
You 'could' look up their meanings through other resources, and others thoughts about each one, and this would be quite damaging.
They are meant for you to think about in solitude, and to come to the answers and meanings in the same way that a person "gets a joke". When you see through them, you just smile. To have it explained to you, you don't 'get' it at all, and your vision is blocked further even. It's probably the single best resource for Zen. Surprisingly (or not) there are many resources and experts that try to explain these in academic exercises and clearly don't really understand them at all, but still curiously have a sizable following.
Overall, anyone interested in Zen should get this book, and consult no one about it. Only read or listen to it, over and over again. You'll be surprised what comes to you.
A couple of days ago the question arose "how did I get into zen?" I looked for the book, half realizing I no longer had it (although I have other books on zen), and then searched Amazon for zen books and after looking at maybe 2 dozen titles saw it, and I'm not at all surprised that there are 50 some reviews and the average is 5 stars.
Edit: A month or so after writing this review I ordered a copy, received it yesterday. The cover is different, of course. It's interesting to see that on the cover there are testimonials by several very famous people attesting to the decades long impact this book has had on their lives.
Here is the paradox of mystery composed of absolute clarity & purity, as expressed through often humorous, even (seemingly) ridiculous stories ... yet they make sense at a very deep level, one that bypasses rational, logical thought or conscious understanding. Behind the sometimes giggling face of the monk is a most rigorous, utterly focused mind, one that cuts preconceptions & ego to ribbons.
For anyone interested in the essence of Zen, for anyone wanting to step outside of the world of ten thousand shallow, mass-produced things, this book is indispensable. Most highly recommended!