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Book Review: Through Forests of Every Color: Awakening with Koans by Joan Sutherland

December 26, 2022 Leave a comment
Image of a digital book cover. A blue swipe of paint is topped with the outlines of pine trees. The title of the book is written in white against this background.

Learn about Zen Buddhist koans – both their history and how to use them in your practice – in this approachable introduction from a nearly lifelong Zen practitioner.

Summary:
Renowned Zen teacher Joan Sutherland reimagines the koan tradition with allegiance to the root spirit of the koans and to their profound potential for vivifying, subverting, and sanctifying our lives. Her decades of practicing with koans and of translating them from classical Chinese imbues this text with a warm familiarity, an ease still suffused with awe.

Interlinked essays on “koans as art,” “keeping company with koans,” and “walking the koan way” intersperse with beautifully translated renditions of dozens of traditional Zen koans. Sutherland also shares innovative koans culled from Western literature, as well as teachings on how to create idiosyncratic koans or turning words from the circumstances of one’s own life.

Review:
I came into this book with some trepidation. My previous experiences with koans were frustrating, and not in a way that I felt lent itself to enlightenment. I hoped this introductory guide to koans would hep me to engage with them better. This book certainly met that goal. I now have a desire to work with koans in my own practice. Although, I won’t be jumping right into The Gateless Gate. I plan to pick up another book that moves slowly and with guidance.

Indeed, learning the history of how koans have traditionally been engaged with helped me. You wouldn’t enter koan study alone but rather with a teacher who helps you learn how to engage with them. The author does not feel this can be entirely replicated with books and encourages finding a teacher. I will carry on with books for now as finding a teacher seems an insurmountable task at the moment to me. Sutherland also discusses how traditionally there was a “right” answer to koans but in modern times there’s more consideration for alternative interpretations – as long as they hold meaning to the practitioner. So you might not make a student wrestle with a koan until they come upon “the” answer but rather until they come upon an answer that leads them further down the path toward enlightenment.

Sutherland also discusses the reputation of Zen for being rude. She points out how in the culture rudeness was basically unheard of. So the point wasn’t the rudeness. The point was startling the student out of their cultural expectations. She suggests that other methods might be best depending upon the culture you’re currently working in. This was a real “aha” moment for me. Startling as the goal is something I can understand as being an impetus to break out of your current mindset.

I also appreciated coming to understand that the goal isn’t to solve a koan immediately. Rather, the goal is to live with the koan, day in and day out. In this way your own life helps you understand the koan, and the koan helps you understand your own life. This reminded me of how I was encouraged to engage with Scripture as a child. To memorize a verse and consider it for a full week or a month to see what else may be revealed.

One thing that disappointed me in this book was the discussion of writing your own koans was sparse. It was the aspect I was looking forward to the most. In all honesty, I can’t remember any part of the book directly discussing it. I don’t believe the blurb would mention it if it wasn’t there, though, so I’m assuming it’s very fleeting. I was expecting an entire chapter, perhaps with suggested exercises.

I want to leave you with my favorite koan from the book.

Someone asked Yunmen, “What is reaching the light?
Yunmen replied, “Forget the light, First give me the reaching.”

loc 185

Overall, this is a nice introduction to koans, both how to use them in practice and their history. Recommended to anyone looking to learn more about koan.

If you found this review helpful, please consider tipping me on ko-fi, checking out my digital items available in my ko-fi shop, buying one of my publications, or using one of my referral/coupon codes. Thank you for your support!

4 out of 5 stars

Length: 192 pages – average but on the shorter side

Source: NetGalley

Buy It (Amazon or Bookshop.org)

Friday Fun! (What Goes Up Must Come Down or I Order Zen Flesh Zen Bones From My Library)

October 21, 2011 4 comments

Hello my lovely readers!  Those of you who follow me on twitter know that this week turned into a doom week from hell for me after my cheerfulness last weekend.

I really need to learn to stop tempting the fates thusly, DAMMIT.

It’s not that any one horrible thing happened; it was just one of those weeks.  First off, I’ve been seeing a guy for a couple of months who I was really liking, but I wound up having to break up with him on Tuesday.  Let’s just say, he wasn’t treating me the way I deserve to be treated, and I’m older and wiser and don’t put up with that shit anymore.  But still!  It’s sucky.  It’s sucky to be backed into a corner and have to do something that sucks.  It’s sucky to think you’ve met someone who might be right for you, and it turns out they’re not. It’s just sucky.  It’s also sucky to have that happen and currently be working on a paranormal romance novella then discover that you’ve written the last 3,000 words without the male love interest showing up because you’re just not into that right now and have to write just short stories all week.  That sucks too.

Second, I somehow wound up working both of my jobs three days in a row, which means that I’ve been gone from home from 7:30am to 11pm.  Not. Fun.  I need to learn how to say no to the part-time job sometimes.  It is, after all, part-time.  At the very least I need to never do three days in a row again.

Suffice to say all this stress and emotions (damn them) added together to lead to me walking home from work in the rain. Crying.  I was a walking, eye-roll inducing scene from an overly dramatic movie.  Only I ended my walk with whiskey and whining to @bitchylibrarian on gchat.

It’s ok though. Really, it is.  One huge thing I’ve been working on in my 20s is accepting reality for what it is.  Which leads me to why I ordered Zen Flesh Zen Bones from the library this week.

The day that I was preparing myself to accept the fact that, yes, dude I was seeing wasn’t treating me right and I needed to stand up to that shit, I saw this excerpt from the book on tumblr:

Twenty monks and one nun, who was named Eshun, were practicing meditation with a certain Zen master.

Eshun was very pretty even though her head was shaved and her dress plain. Several monks secretly fell in love with her. One of them wrote her a love letter, insisting upon a private meeting.

Eshun did not reply. The following day the master gave a lecture to the group and when it was over, Eshun arose. Addressing the one who had written her, she said: “If you really love me so much, come and embrace me now.”

That’s all there is to it, isn’t it?  If someone really cares for you, everyone will know.  It won’t be in secret, and it won’t be something hidden.  If you really love me so much, come and embrace me now.  Here.  In front of everyone.  And you know what?  That’s what all my lovely friends do, which is why they stay my friends.  They tweet me encouragement when I have a shitty week.  They tell jokes to try to get me to laugh.  They text me to check in.  They are just generally awesome, and that’s the kind of people we should want to have in our life.  People who ease the stress of living, not people who add to it.  And I’m pleased to say that tomorrow I get to see at least some of them for an awesome fall potluck I’m hosting.  I can’t wait!  Although I will miss those who can’t make it.

As my yoga instructor says:

Shanti Shanti Shanti Namaste

Or as myself and Regretsy like to put it:

Namaste, Bitches.

 

The Joy of Doing Less During the Holidays

December 22, 2009 Leave a comment

No doubt about it, the holidays are a busy time of year.  There’s presents to buy and wrap, parties to go to, people to see, travelling to do, baked goods to make, decorating to do, and more.  If you’re at all like me, it can all add up to stress.

Looking back on last week, I see that I did a lot of things that should have been fun, but I was so stressed out that the stress over-shadowed the parts I should have been enjoying.  I was constantly plotting to make it to everything (not to mention to stay awake) instead of just enjoying the moment.  I realized this yesterday, and worked to make my week this week less stressful, but thinking about it this morning, I remembered a blog post from one of my favorite zen blogs, Zen Habits, entitled The Lazy Manifesto: Do Less. Then, Do Even Less.

The jist of it is that minimalism isn’t just about what stuff you own.  Minimalism is also about doing less and enjoying it more.  I think the benefits of this are easy to see if you just think about the last time you were distracted doing one activity out of a worry to get to the next one on-time.  Now imagine if the first activity was the only one you were doing that day.  See how that works?

If you live in the moment and enjoy it to the fullest, you don’t need to hyper-schedule yourself.  Instead of going to every single holiday party, choose two for the month to go to and really go all-out at them.  Don’t be afraid to tell friends or family no, you can’t come, you don’t have time, even if you don’t have time just because you want to spend that evening at home baking cookies and watching Christmas specials.

I really like this idea of doing less, but doing it to your fullest.  I think as Americans we have the tendency to overschedule ourselves for god only knows what reason.  Maybe some lingering Puritan philosophy about idle hands being the devil’s plaything.  Regardless, there is such a thing as doing too much during the holidays, so don’t be afraid to say no and limit just how many festivities you partake in.  Partake in fewer to a more full extent.  I think you might wind up surprised at how truly festive you’ll feel.