Zen Shin Talks: a book reviewPosted: February 23, 2009
On this sunny, Irish afternoon, I did some housework, then sat down on the couch for the first time in months, and finished reading the book Zen Shin Talks by Reverend Ogui. Rev. Ogui is the head of the Buddhist Churches of America, which my temple in Seattle was a member of. We call him sōchō (総長), which I gets translated as “bishop” since he is head of this region (the US) for the world-wide Jodo Shinshu Buddhist organization.
But Rev. Ogui has been an unusual figure, but much loved for it. Rev. Ogui has a strong Zen background under Suzuki Roshi,* but also was trained as a Jodo Shinshu (Shin Buddhist) priest. So, his book covers both topics: Zen and Shin Buddhism. The first time I read the book, about a year and a half ago, I hated it. I don’t know why exactly, but I bought the book expecting it to lay out in scholarly detail how Zen and Shin Buddhism relate to one another. The book is more about life stories, anecdotes, and dharma talks by Rev. Ogui, so I was quickly disappointed and gave the book away.
I remember those days I was more frantic about sorting out what path I wanted to follow and such, but a few events in recent months made me realize that the questions in my mind were unsolvable, so I just dropped them. Since then my understanding of Buddhism has changed a lot. I realized that I didn’t give the book a fair chance, so i got another copy and read it again after my recent trip to Japan. This time, I found I enjoyed it much more. I didn’t read the book with any expectations, I just went along with the stories, and let Rev. Ogui teach Buddhism the way he understood.
The book begins mostly as a Zen book, with lots of teachings about letting go of preconceived notions, living in the moment, and other Zen mainstays. Good stories all, but what I didn’t realize is that the book was working up to the Shin teachings. About halfway through (maybe 2/3 of the way through), the book talks more about Jodo Shinshu teachings about living through the kindness of others, our blind passions, and so on. But he weaves the two well. In one section, he posts a Shin-style koan when he says: Here is a lifetime koan: What does it mean to live in infinite light and life? This is not unlike the other Shin Buddhist koan I posted about before.
In another, really profound story, he talks about how he visited an elderly Japanese man who was dying. His son was there, and he told his father, “I’ll see you in the Pure Land, don’t worry”, but his father said to him:
Say, my son, do I have to go to some other place to meet you again? I have already met you and I’m meeting with you in nembutsu. Na man da bu. Na man da bu.
The phrase “Na Man Da Bu” is a short-hand way of saying the nembutsu in Shin Buddhism. The son didn’t understand and later asked Rev. Ogui about it, so Rev. Ogui told him to make it his life home-work, and then encouraged readers to do the same.
The book continues to get better toward the end when he writes very small chapters or witticisms as parting words of advice. I rather liked this one:
Choose One Small Practice
People struggle to build up spiritual securities and happiness. They put energy into learning from different religious traditions. Sometimes people attend workshops and seminars. They spend time and money in this way. They keep attending and learning. Actually they don’t have to keep doing this.
Instead, choose one small practice and keep reflecting on it and doing it. Then you will understand everything. For example, in Christianity you are told to “love your neighbor”. Sincerely practice this and observe yourself when you see how difficult it is. From there, a spiritual gate will open up for you.
Finally the book ends with a translation of the Heart Sutra. I thought the Heart Sutra was an interesting choice since it’s normally associated with Zen Buddhist teachings, but if you read the book, you’ll see how he weaves the Heart Sutra with both Zen and Shin Buddhism. The Heart Sutra in a way is a good general choice of teaching, since it can apply to so many things in Buddhism.**
Rev. Ogui is a pretty interesting figure in the BCA, and welcomed by a lot of people who want to revive the organization, but also take it into a new direction. I really enjoyed seeing into his mind what it was like to be a minister like him from both traditions, and how he brings them together. Once my own minister at my temple, Rev. Castro (pictured at the bottom), had told me that Zen and Shin have a corrective force upon one another, and I can see what he means. Sometimes, I feel that Zen represents the practice of Buddhism, and Shin represents the spirit of Buddhism. Just my view of course, but there you go.
Anyways, excellent book, and really worth the time to read it. It’s gentle-going, yet clever, and brings things to a nice closure at the end.
Namu Amida Butsu
* – Including one interesting little anecdote about Suzuki Roshi I bet many people didn’t know. One day, he came knocking at Rev. Ogui’s door one Sunday unexpected. Rev. Ogui invited him in for tea:
He [Suzuki Roshi] said that people in his temple had gathered and they were talking about the future directions of the temple. They had a certain kind of vibration as they talked. He listened to them for a while, and then he disappeared; he ran away.
Sometimes Buddhist monks and masters and other spiritual people just disappear. They do like that.
Sometimes, but not all the time, what a spiritual seeker can do is just be quiet…or just run away from people who cannot get along. When people around you have a certain vibration and you feel like, “Geez, it’s hard to be in here,” you can make an excuse to go to the restroom and just go away.
Speaking from experience, I know this same feeling. Not at the temple, but at work.
** – I am reminded once of something Kyoushin once told me ages ago about seeing the Prajnaparamita sutras in the context of Shin Buddhism, and I haven’t forgotten that.