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Friday, 1 April 2011

"Living and Dying in Zazen": Arthur Braverman (book review by Chris Faiers/cricket)

Living and Dying in Zazen:
Five Zen Masters of Modern Japan

By Arthur Braverman

First edition, 2003
Weatherhill, Inc.
41 Monroe Turnpike
Trumbull, CT  06611

174 pages
*widely available on Amazon in new & used editions

This book was kindly gifted to me by Theodore Tsaousidis, the steward of Snow Lion Meditation Shop (Toronto, across from Pape subway station) at Purdy Country LitFest #4 last summer. 

Arthur Braverman could be a personal alter ego – he went to Japan in June of 1969 to study Zen, while that same month and year I resisted the draft for the Vietnam War and ended up living in London, England.

To his credit, Braverman is hardly present in what could have been a self-indulgent biography. Instead, he thoughtfully presents the life histories of five very different Zen teachers:
Kodo Sawaki
Sodo Yokoyama
Kozan Kato
Motoko Ikebe
Kosho Uchiyama.

Arthur was fortunate to quickly connect with a temple abbot, Kosho Uchiyama, who accepted and encouraged this sixties wave of questing neophyte Westerners. Through Braverman’s unobtrusive observations the reader learns of the two main schools of Zen. There is the more laid-back Soto sect, which three of the Zen priests follow, and the hard-assed and militaristic Rinzai sect.

Interestingly, for me the most appealing of the teachers was the laywoman Zen teacher and artist Moto Ikebe.

The core of Japanese Zen, repeated by each of these teachers, is the practice of zazen: sitting = meditation. “Nobody doing nothing” is how one of the teachers expresses this.

When Braverman discusses this with one of his friends, the seeming pointlessness of “just sitting”, his Western friend comprehends that in our human situation, perhaps being harmless, just ‘doing nothing’, is a far loftier goal than the seeking and striving which is endemic to our modern world.


I highly recommend this book to anyone who is interested in Buddhism, particularly Japanese Zen Buddhism. Buddhism is the fastest growing spirituality/religion in the West, and Braverman’s thoughtful account gives us insight into the Zen experience through the lives of his teachers, as well as through his personal insights gained in lifelong practice of Zen.

*** I hope to soon do a posting of my personal reflections on this book, its influences on me, Zen Buddhism, and possibly some insights into the direction Buddhism may take as its practice evolves in North America (“Turtle Island”). It is my belief that our First Nations shamans experienced states of consciousness very parallel with Buddhist meditation.

Chris Faiers
Lifelong haijin (haiku poet) and meditator, steward of ZenRiver Gardens retreat


Conrad DiDiodato said...


I'd love to see you reflect on some Zen pieces.I particularly appreciate your point about "First Nations shamans".

Thanks for the introduction to "Living and Dying in Zazen".

Chris Faiers/cricket said...

thanks, Conrad, for your ongoing support & dialogue on Riffs and Ripples : )

I've had some very powerful experiences which I can only interpret as being 'shamanistic'. The accessibility to shamanism has seemingly come about thru a lifelong practice of meditation.

About a decade ago, a local Inuit shaman and highly collected soapstone artist, identified me as a fellow shaman. I didn't understand his comment at the time, but subsequent experiences have shown me there was some justification to his comment. I've been a bit reluctant to dsiscuss this publicly, but as I rapidly approach age 63, I'm starting to care less about public approbation, & just write about these experiences while I'm still semi-coherent & humanly incarnate : )

Thanks for the posting on your site about "CanPo". I'm amused/bemused/flattered ...

peace & poetry power!
Chris/cricket & Chase

today, April 2, we visited ZenRiver Gardens for the aft - accompanied by Dr. John - first real spring day - I brightly painted another pole for the spirit tipi while Chase & Dr. J hung out on the deck of the shaman shack.

Conrad DiDiodato said...


maybe you can post some of your artwork here.

And as for "as I rapidly approach age 63, I'm starting to care less about public approbation, & just write about these experiences while I'm still semi-coherent & humanly incarnate"- well, I've always thought that. Robert Frost said it well, too-

'The thing is to write better and better poems. Setting our heart when we're too young on getting our poems appreciated lands us in the politics of poetry which is death".

How true!