Zen Dawn in the West

by Roshi Philip Kapleau


Book Review by Derek Ayre....

The following review is about a book on Zen, written from my point of view (as a Zen practitioner). In all likelihood, it may be a challenge for the reader to understand parts of it, for that I apologize, but that is the nature of Zen. So just read and see what you think – or not!

The book is split into four parts and some 300 pages long if you were to include the glossary and index, so I will attempt to do it some justice. I don’t want to produce a list and précis its contents or it will take hours to read, so I am just going to take the salient points of the work that have inspired me.

Zen Dawn in the West is an excellent companion book to The Three Pillars of Zen, and it draws upon Roshi* Philip Kapleau’s experience from delivering seminars, workshops and lectures in Zen.

*Roshi means Master in Japanese whose task it is to inspire his students on the way to enlightenment (also termed, satori and kensho). The “qualifications” of a Roshi is that he himself (or her) has experienced profound enlightenment that has been confirmed by a Zen Master.

Where the Three Pillars of Zen provided instruction in the method of Zen Buddhism, Zen Dawn in the West reflects on the effect that Zen practice has had on American and European students, outlining their reactions from probing questions to doubts in their ability to reach enlightenment. This is followed by individual unique descriptions of transcending the everyday, thinking mind and realising enlightenment.

Most people are under the erroneous impression that Zen is not only atheist, but ignores social and moral values. Nothing could be further from the truth and this book shows how the practice of Zen encourages the morality and responsibility that naturally resides in all of us. Morality and responsibility that may for some, have been buried under decades of negative conditioning.  In this vein the book addresses western society (by way of recorded seminars and workshops, whose attendants include psychoanalysts and businessmen and other from many walks of life), in its own language.

Subjects are covered as to what should/should not constitute a good Zen life. Ah, but Zen doesn’t adhere to anything, for it is explained that to do so would risk enslaving oneself to it. Zen teaches freedom from attachment. “Freedom to accept or reject without compulsion or remorse”.  There is no absolute “shouldism”. 

It is this sort of paradox that the work addresses and as the reader gets deeper and deeper into Kapleau’s writing, it’s almost as if an understanding on a much deeper level begins to glimmer. But of course, one does not learn Zen from books, but it is the inspirational writing in this book that acts as a catalyst to the reader, helping him/her to gain a deeper understanding of this powerful spiritual discipline.

When, in one of the lectures recording in this book, Roshi Kapleau is asked where Zen originated, it creates a bit of rivalry between three students, a Chinese, Japanese and an Indian - the Chinese challenging the Japanese claiming that Buddha Shakyamuni was first in China where Zen was called Ch’an, followed by Indian stating that the great teacher was Indian and had his first enlightenment in India.

The Roshi’s answer to this is that it does not matter where Zen originated. The Way of the Buddha (Zen) transcends all cultures and is available to anybody who will commit to zazen (Zen meditation).  This answer confirms that Zen is the epitome of freedom. Freedom from any one person, country or culture.

An ancient Zen Master once said to his students, “If in your zazen you find the Buddha, kill him and move on” – or words to that effect.

Because Zen teaches experientially, the subject of reading comes up. Again there’s a misunderstanding about a Zen view on this. A questioner is under the impression that  reading in wrong, as one needs to stop playing around with concepts brought about by reading, in order to come to realisation. It is counter-argued by another student that surely, Zen monks from ancient times, must have done some reading. 

Roshi Kapleau explains that “indiscriminate reading needs to be abandoned, and that some reading is necessary especially if it is vital for one’s work.”

Again Zen, as usual, does not give a clear answer on these issues. It more a question of making the student be responsible and work out for him/herself what is wanted and needed, not just in reading but in all aspects of his life, and not look for advice from a Zen master.  Zen students are encouraged to learn to be independent, to rely on their own intuition and life experience. 

The Buddha said to his disciples, when they feared losing him and his teaching one day, “Be ye lamps unto yourselves. Seek salvation in the dharma (ultimate truth), and look for no assistance from anyone apart from yourselves”.

My “Zen” response on reading? 

If reading is what you do, make sure you do it. If it’s clear that it’s not what you do, make sure you do not do it! It is neither right nor wrong. It is merely reading. One thing I can say however, is that reading broadens or narrows the mind, depending on what you read and how it inspires or doesn’t inspire you. None the wiser?  That’s Zen. Back to the book…

A question is presented about whether zazen and psychotherapy are compatible. Kapleau answers by saying that there are many therapists practising Zen in his centre and he goes on for several pages that are devoted to this interaction followed by more questions of whether it is wise or not to combine Zen with yoga, tai chi or karate and what is right and wrong thinking.

Something that intrigued me…

A questioner asks how to find a good teacher of Zen. Roshi Kapleau gives a bewildering, but very Zen-like answer to this…

“I am not a Zen master, much less a teacher, so I don’t know”

This is typical of an effective Zen master’s response, who can recognise when a student is ready for such a “Zen stick”.   After a momentary stunned silence, the student asks, “What are you doing now if not teaching?” To which the Roshi replies, “Can anyone teach anything? It is rank conceit to think so.”

And so the book goes on in its fascinating way (I have always been attracted to things that appear somewhat non-conformist). And in places there seems to be a typical “carrot and stick” process going on. Questions like, “Can enlightenment come without training” are answered by questions about whether spontaneous enlightenment is indeed genuine. Yet is seems that all awakening is sudden, it usually just happens to be preceded by years of training. And that training can be painful, as the ego relentlessly defends itself against losing it’s dominance of the mind.  Thousands of people, throughout the world engage in Zen training, yet there is no gain without pain, and we’re not all masochists.

After the lectures and seminars presented in part one, part two deals with the process known in Japan as the sesshin where men and women come together to “climb the mountain of the mind” towards enlightenment by intensive zazen that can go on for about seven days. Roshi Kapleau states that the sesshin is not for the weak and participants have to prove before hand that they are ready and willing to partake in such an ordeal.

Part of the sesshin is the talks of encouragement which take place after a few days of zazen and these talks are recorded in the book and are quite enlightening (no pun intended) and encouraging to a Zen practitioner who practices alone.

Kapleau goes on to talk about the tricks the mind can play during intensive zazen – this is called makyo – which translates in Japanese as… ma (devilish) kyo (objective world).  This makyo can be nothing more than the refusal of the mind to focus on the meditation, drifting on to trivia or it can become hallucinations. Yet everything, that is not enlightenment is considered makyo in Zen, such as obsession with wealth, power, opinions and so on.

As the book slowly drifts into its ending, subjects like euthanasia, prostitution, war and suicide are touched upon in talks Kapleau gave. He talks about the precepts in Zen Buddhism – there are ten of them , not to kill,  not to steal, not to engage in improper sexuality, to speak the truth, not to weaken the mind with liquor or drugs, not to gossip maliciously, not to put oneself above others, not to withhold spiritual or material aide where it’s needed, not to become angry (to remain centred),  to uphold the dharma, Buddha, and sangha (the way).  My interpretation of this talk is that there is no wrong or right, just karma that drifting away from these precepts will produce and there is something I else realised…Even telling a small white lie, will produce karma. If one cannot tell the truth – change that to “will not” because there is always a choice – it is best not to say anything if you do not wish to collect the karma. If it’s OK to collect the karma, go ahead!

To conclude, I will say again – because I know I have said it before in one of my other Zen reviews – that Zen is not for everyone and the Way is rarely perfected, it is a constant challenge that produces a strength that is difficult to describe in speech not to mention with the written word.  To me, Zen Dawn in the West is both encouraging and profound and I feel my life is richer for owning it, reading it and referring to various passages in it from time to time. I have barely touched on the information that is contained in it.


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