Saturday, July 7, 2012

Review: Everything is the Way, by Elihu Genmyo Smith

These days, books by American Zen masters seem two to the dozen. And, while not wishing to cast aspersions, a sizable minority of 'em seem to have been caught with their trousers down - or their robes 'up,' as the case may be. Either that, or their actions do not match up to their 'wise' words in some other way, perhaps involving money, alcohol, drugs or…you get the picture. But, with Everything is the Way,: Ordinary Mind Zen, we seem to have the teachings of a genuine American Zen master, who doesn't merely talk the talk, but can also walk the walk, as American Zen meters like to say.

The author of Everything is the Way is Elihu Genmyo Smith, a Dharma heir of Charlette Joko Beck, and whose teachers have included Soen Nakagawa & Taizan Maezumi amongst others. He is cofounder of the Ordinary Mind Zen School & is resident teacher at the Prairie Zen Center - what a wonderfully unpretentious name that is! His teaching style is also unpretentious & down to earth, and has the taste of genuine enlightenment to be found in-between the words. The words themselves are pretty good, too, as it happens, but what they point to is what the author calls "Unborn Buddha-Mind. (Everything is the Way, p.8" (The latter being a popular term also used by the seventeenth century Japanese Zen master Bankei.)

The heart of Smith's message is what he calls sitting. By this, he doesn't just mean sitting in front of the TV, or lounging on the sofa with a good book, but is referring to the Zen practice of zazen. His lineage of Zen is partly traced back to the Zen master Dogen, who is credited with bringing the Soto Sect of Zen Buddhism to Japan from China in the thirteenth century. In this branch of Zen, the emphasis is not on koans, those bizarre riddles much lauded by the famous D.T. Suzuki, but on 'just sitting.' This means to sit without having anything in particular in mind, to watch what arises naturally in it and then let go. Smith sees this as an invaluable tool to awaken to the Unborn Buddha-Mind.

The book is divided into five parts, each focusing on a major aspect of Buddhist practice or teaching: practice, impermanence, nonself, being transparency, and jukai (the ceremony of formally becoming a Buddhist in Japan). The work flows with inspirational prose and anecdotes from Smith's life, presenting the Dharma in a way most engaging to the reader. There is a feeling of integrity to his words, and a sense that what he has written has come from direct experience and not a kind of armchair Zen. (There's sitting, and there's sitting, after all!) Here are a few choice morsels from the book to whet your appetite, bereft of any comment as this reviewer feels that they stand up on there own, without his interference.

"Unfortunately, we often fail to appreciate this life because we want our life to be other than what we think it is. Our life is this wonderful functioning, whether we call it Buddha-nature, emptiness, or whatever. We are in the midst of this, but we do not know it, we search for air and for water as if there was something else somewhere else. Do we need to know what it is in order to appreciate our life? Truly, we have no need to 'know it'; we are this, whether we know it or not. Functioning as our life, as the fish in water or the bird flying in the sky, the joy of life is always right here. How wonderful! Sadly, living out of self-centered attachment is suffering; thus we fail to see and appreciate what our life truly is"
(Ibid. p.16)
"Practice is not about getting rid of weeds; it is not about getting rid of deluded thoughts and going out to find truth elsewhere. It is this very energy, this greed, anger, and ignorance as is, which is the practice-effort opportunity of being this moment. There is no need to avoid illusion. Weeds are weeds! Tomatoes are tomatoes! Though it is important to see that weeds and tomatoes are exactly this life functioning, this can be mere theory, and not much use. I will pull up weeds; I will grow and eat the tomatoes, not weeds. Dogen Zenji clarifies this in 'Genjokoan': 'Nevertheless, flowers fall amid attachment, weeds spring up amid apathy.'"
(Ibid. 102)
"What is this ceaselessly seeking mind? Look! Only this seeking mind gets in the way of this True Person functioning. Bringing this ceaseless seeking to rest is allowing thoughts to come and go freely; then they are at rest. And 'you will not differ from the ancestor Buddha.' When the second Ancestor requests, 'My mind is not at rest, please put it at rest,' Bodhidharma responds, 'Bring me this restless mind.' Finally, the Second Ancestor sees for himself the ungraspableness of this seeking; he tells Bodhidharma that this mind is 'nowhere to be found.' Realizing this, ceaseless seeking is therefore at rest."
(Ibid. p.170)

"We maintain nonharming by noticing when we get caught up. Noticing when we get caught up is the opportunity of experiencing, the opportunity to be this moment. My teacher Joko Beck had an expression: 'Stop and pop.' 'Stop' is noticing being caught up in or holding to emotion-thought; noticing is the 'stop' of the moment. Then you 'pop' into this moment, or open as this body-mind moment. Having a nice phrase like this is of value when it leads to our practice effort of this moment. Zazen is that opportunity for all of us sitting here; zazen is an opportunity to nurture life, to inhabit this compassionate life that we are, being just this moment."
(Ibid. p.256)

What a great idea - and not atypical of this book. In Everything is the Way, Elihu Genmyo Smith has written an excellent Dharma book, full of such practical advice on how to realize and keep sight of our Unborn Buddha-Mind. Apparently unattached to tradition for its own sake, he is open to innovative ways to awaken us to our true nature, and communicates this in a down-to-earth manner. Not that he is merely a pedlar of Buddhist teachings & practices, there is a quality in his writing that appears to come straight out of this Unborn Buddha-Mind. If we read this book with diligence & receptivity, we may too see this 'True Person.' And we would be in eternal debt to the author.

Title & Author : Everything is the Way, by Elihu Genmyo Smith
Publishers      : Shambhala Publications
Page Count    : 304
Price               : $17.95
ISBN               : 9781590309728


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