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Awakening to Zen: The Teachings of Roshi Philip Kapleau

Awakening to Zen: The Teachings of Roshi Philip Kapleau

by Roshi Philip Kapleau

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When Roshi Philip Kapleau returned to the United States in 1966, after thirteen years of training in Japan with two of the country's greatest masters of Zen, he "did not come home empty-handed -- he brought us a living word of Zen," Kenneth Kraft has said. The first Westerner fully and naturally at home with Zen, Roshi Kapleau has made it his life's


When Roshi Philip Kapleau returned to the United States in 1966, after thirteen years of training in Japan with two of the country's greatest masters of Zen, he "did not come home empty-handed -- he brought us a living word of Zen," Kenneth Kraft has said. The first Westerner fully and naturally at home with Zen, Roshi Kapleau has made it his life's work to translate Zen Buddhism into an American idiom, to take Zen's essence and plant it in American soil. Four decades later, the seeds of Zen that Roshi Kapleau planted have blossomed. Zen flourishes and Roshi Kapleau continues to help people find enlightenment and fulfillment within, not outside, their daily lives. "True awakening," Roshi Kapleau has said, "is not a 'high' that keeps one in the clouds of an abstract oneness, but a realization that brings one solidly down to earth into the world of toil and struggle."

Kapleau has written a number of books in his lifetime, The Three Pillars of Zen the most well known among them, but the heart of his work, his teachings to his students, has never before been made available. Awakening to Zen extracts the vital threads of Roshi Kapleau's teachings and braids them into a strong yet supple cord that readers may follow toward a deeper understanding of the enlightened life. Roshi Kapleau's warm, sometimes humorous but always grounded lessons touch on every aspect of daily reality; they capture his power, too, to transform the lives of not just practicing Buddhists, but all people who seek to experience in a more authentic way the bond they share with the world around them. One way or another, Roshi Kapleau has spent the past forty-three years of his life helping make Zen practice and its fruits accessible to anyone of sincere intent. Awakening to Zen offers a crucial and never-before-published aspect of his life's work.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
Huston Smith author of The World's Religions A fitting climax to the career of one of the most important conduits of Zen to the west.
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
To read these pages is to walk through an ordered, if somewhat unfamiliar, Zen garden, seeing it through the eyes of a beloved Zen roshi, or teacher. In this collection, American Zen teacher Kapleau shares his thoughts and conversations of the last 30 years on topics as diverse as the Vietnam War, the role of hallucinogenic drugs in precipitating enlightenment, Zen's views of homosexuality and lesbianism and the fall from grace of several so-called Zen masters. Through these commentaries, Kapleau offers readers priceless insights into the core of Zen practices, the role of pain and discipline in deepening one's path to "Buddha-hood" and the ways that Zen is, at its peak, the wordless expression of the experience of one's unity with all things. (Mar.)
Library Journal
This book would be a significant addition to any library for three reasons. First, it is a collection of teachings on Zen (previously published but in specialized works without broad exposure) by Kapleau, whose Three Pillars of Zen (LJ 6/1/66) became a classic. Second, the wide range of subjects covered makes it especially useful for understanding the perspective of Zen on several issues of great interest, including sex, drugs, dying, our relationship with animals, and common impediments to Zen practice. Third, Kapleau's presentation of Zen concepts and their implications is so interestingly and clearly done that the reader is able to understand some basic but complex Zen concepts. Major points are illustrated by stories, examples, or koans, which make for engaging reading. Highly recommended for any library wishing to enrich its collection on Zen Buddhism.-David Bourquin, California State Univ., San Bernadino

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Read an Excerpt

Chapter 1

Living Zen in America

What Is Zen?

Rather than give you a detailed explanation of Zen doctrine and history, which could mislead and even bore, and in any case would be contrary to the spirit of Zen, let me put before you three typical Zen koans, or spiritual problems. These koans are Zen's method of demonstrating truth directly and concretely without recourse to logic or reason. Were you to reflect on them deeply and awaken to their innermost meaning, you would come to understand Zen.

Here is the first koan. A monk came to the Master Ummon (Yun Men in Chinese) and said, "Suppose you meet up with someone deaf, dumb, and blind. Since he couldn't see your gestures, couldn't hear your preaching, or, for that matter, ask you questions, you would be helpless. Unable to save him, you'd prove yourself a worthless master, wouldn't you?"

"Bow, please," said the master. The monk, though taken by surprise, obeyed the master's command, then straightened up in expectation of having his query answered. But instead of an answer he got a staff thrust at him and leaped back.

"Well," said Ummon, "you're not blind. Now approach closer." The monk did as he was bidden. "Good," said Ummon, "you're not deaf either. Well, understand?"

"Understand what, sir?"

"Ah, you're not dumb either."

On hearing these words the monk awoke as from a deep sleep.

Before going on to the next koan, let us reflect a moment on this one. Some people can never get away from theoretical, abstract questions, perhaps with the sense that the way to learn is to ask questions -- the more the better. Questions frequently asked me are "What does the Zenperson think of the Vietnam War?" or "What does Zen think of sex?" or "What does Zen have to say about morality?" The "Zen person" is an abstraction; he or she doesn't exist; only a specific person with Zen training does. One person's enlightenment may be deeper and training more thorough. One person may be wiser, more compassionate, and steadfast. This is all you can say. So the questions are really meaningless. More often than not, such questions are a dodge, a subterfuge to avoid facing up to one's own life problems. When a Zen teacher hears such questions, he must quickly determine the state of mind of the person asking them and treat them accordingly.

Observe how masterfully Ummon handles this student. He wastes no words probing or analyzing his motives, engaging him in a Socratic dialogue, or challenging his sincerity. In a direct, concrete, existential manner that would be the envy of any contemporary pedagogue (and remember, this incident took place in ninth-century China), he makes the student realize that he has the power of sight, speech, and hearing: everything, in fact, he needs to save himself. Why, then, doesn't he do so and stop engaging in speculations? Moreover, this koan points out a fundamental doctrine of Zen, namely, that in our essential nature each one of us lacks nothing, but is like a circle to which nothing can be added and nothing subtracted. We are each of us whole, complete, perfect, and so is everything else. Even a blind man, as a blind man, lacks nothing.

Why then do we suffer? Why is there so much greed, folly, and violence in the world? The Zen answer is that because our bifurcating intellect and our five senses deceive us into postulating the dualism of self and other, we are led to think and act as though each of us were a separate entity confronted by a world external to us. Thus in our unconscious the idea of "I," or selfhood, becomes fixed, and from this arises such patterns as "I hate this," "I love that," "This is mine," "That's yours." Nourished by this fodder, ego -- and this is not the psychological ego whose healthy functioning is necessary, but the delusive sense of oneself standing apart from others, from the whole universe -- comes to dominate the personality, attacking whatever threatens its domination and grasping at anything that will enlarge its power. Antagonism, greed, and alienation -- in a word, suffering -- are the inevitable consequence of this circular process. To see through this mirage and grasp the ungraspable is to realize that "heaven and earth and I" are of the same root, to use a Zen phrase.

The Buddha, the master physician for the ills of the spirit and the heart, deeply understood this question syndrome. Replying to a monk who threatened to quit religious life unless his questions about whether the enlightened man exists after death were answered, he said, "It is as if a man had been wounded by an arrow thickly smeared with poison, and his friends and companions, his relatives and kinfolk, were to procure for him a physician or surgeon, and the sick man were to say, 'I will not have this arrow taken out until I have learnt whether the man who wounded me was tall, short, or of middle height, was from this or that village, town, or city, whether it was an ordinary arrow or claw-headed arrow.' That man would die without ever having learned this." At another time the Buddha stated, "The religious life does not depend on the dogma that the world is eternal or not eternal, infinite or finite, that the soul and the body are identical or different, or that the enlightened man exists or does not exist after death. It profits not, nor has it to do with the fundamentals of religion, nor does it tend to the absence of passion, to supreme wisdom, and nirvana."

Now for the second koan. One day a master was taking a walk in the woods with his disciple. Suddenly a pure white rabbit darted in front of him. The master, taking advantage of the moment, said to the disciple, "What would you say as to that?" The disciple gushed, "It was just like a god!" The master, looking at him in disgust, said, "You're a grown man but you talk like a child." "All right," said the student, slightly miffed no doubt, "What would you say about it?" "It's a rabbit!" replied the master.

A rabbit is a rabbit is a rabbit. How many truly see when they look, truly hear when they listen? Not many. The average person is perpetually weaving ideas and embroidering notions about what he sees or hears. An art student studying a painting probably analyzes the formal structures; another may try to recall what he had read or heard about the painting; to another the painting may turn the mind to the circumstances of the painter's life. A flash of lightning may set a person's mind to thinking, "What a dazzling sight!" If philosophically inclined, he might reflect, "Man's life is as brief as that lightning." If fear was his dominant emotion and he was looking out the window when the lightning struck, he could think, "I'd better pull my head in before I lose it!" The haiku poet Basho has a verse that goes, "How fortunate the man who sees a flash of lightning and does not think, 'How brief life is!'"

With each mental judgment or coloration the viewer or hearer is being taken farther and farther away from the object itself, the experience itself, so his knowledge becomes correspondingly weaker and more distant and limited. Truly to look at a painting, one has to see it with one's own eyes and ears, one's whole body.

Concert pianist Vladimir Horowitz tells about the time he played a dissonant contemporary composition at a private gathering. When he had finished, someone asked, "I just don't understand what that composition means, Mr. Horowitz. Could you please explain?" Without a word, Horowitz played the composition again, turned to his questioner, and announced, "That's what it means!"

The mind of the ordinary person is a checkerboard of crisscrossing reflections, opinions, prejudices, fears, and anxieties, so that his life, far from being centered in reality, is grounded instead in his notions of reality. The rabbit koan is urging us to empty our minds of all false value

Meet the Author

In 1953, recognizing the urgency of spiritual questions in his life, Philip Kapleau quit his successful career in court reporting at the age of forty-two sold his belongings, and bought a one-way ticket from Connecticut to Japan. He intended to pursue Zen practice at a Buddhist monastery, and attain enlightenment. A few years earlier he had been sent to Tokyo as a court reporter for the War Crimes Tribunal of Japan, and there had met the eminent Buddhist scholar D. T. Suzuki. Kapleau's participation in the Tokyo Tribunal, and his earlier post as chief court reporter at the International Military Tribunal in Nuremberg, Germany, had left him with penetrating questions about cruelty and suffering.

For thirteen years Kapleau remained in Japan while he trained under two distinguished masters of Zen Buddhism, the late Harada Roshi and his successor, the late Yasutani Roshi.

Kapleau returned from Japan to the United States in 1965 and the following year founded the Zen Center of Rochester, New York. Since its founding in 1966, the Zen Center has attracted students from all parts of the world. The teachings and influence of Roshi Kapleau have now expanded into many other affiliated centers and groups in the United States, Canada, Mexico, Costa Rica, and other countries in Europe.

The Three Pillars of Zen, Kapleau's first book, has been the bible of several generations of American Zen practitioners. A classic now, it has been translated into twelve other languages, including Polish and Chinese. Three additional books followed: To Cherish All Life: A Buddhist Case for Becoming Vegetarian; Zen: Merging of East and West; and The Zen Art of Living and Dying.

Now in his eighties, Roshi Kapleau resides in south Florida.

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