They say you should never judge a book by its cover, but if you felt it necessary, this book would be a pleasure to do so:
Published in 1957, this American/Japanese first edition can be easily described as authentically beautiful. And being a person who works in the printing industry, there are some manufacturing details that stand out for me – Firstly, the hardcover is gilt-titled in bronze on homemade paper, wrapped in a belly-bind, and further enveloped in an illustrated cardboard slipcase. There is a deckle edge on the bottom of the text pages, and woodblock plates in the ‘10 Bulls’ section… put simply – what a treasure.
These are details seldom found in books these days, an obvious effect of the market as the reading culture goes digital. But then, sadly, the body of knowledge and craftsmanship that can create these treasures, slowly wanes as well. Sad, but change is everlasting fact of life.
On the positive side, these books are still out there, bought and traded online, and like this book’s physical charm, its content is just as fascinating. Zen Flesh, Zen Bones is a collection of Zen and Pre-Zen writings compiled by Paul Reps and transcribed by Nyogen Senzaki.
With its publication in the 50’s, it was a timely event, being exposed to the beat culture that gripped parts of the US, the generation that carried a zeitgeist, oozing with eastern spirituality. The book was very much part of landscape, where predominate of figures like Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac, sought zen masters for more insight. In one such meeting, Allen, Jack and another friend Peter Orlovsky met with Japanese scholar and venerable sage, D. T. Suzuki in Manhattan. During the meeting, they asked Dr. Suzuki about Zen, to which he responded by serving tea. An apt lesson.
Dr. Suzuki felt that Jack had a problem with Alcohol and that Tea would be a better option for him. After a while of conversing, drinking tea and writing poetry, they departed. As they did, Dr. Suzuki waved and yelled at them to “Remember the Tea!”. The zen was served fresh for those 3 men that day, something I would imagine they never forgot.
And so today, as it was then, Zen’s popularity is high but perhaps lost a little, as the newer generations are distracted by legalized marijuana, selfies and facebook.
But thankfully, books like this are still floating in the ether of these times, coming into orbit every so often before making their return into the darkness. They remind us what we had opened ourselves up to so many decades ago. It connects us to that time, to those people, and the ancient ideas that are still relevant and ready to inspire again.
So, what’s in the book?
Collections of classic Zen writings from across the ages, including; 101 Zen Stories, a collection of tales over a period of more than five centuries; The Gateless Gate, a famous collection of koans from the thirteenth-century; Ten Bulls, a twelfth century commentary on the stages of awareness leading to enlightenment; and Centering, a teaching from India that is over 4,000 years old.
I really enjoyed this book. It’s an interesting journey going through these stories, or koans are they are known. Essentially, they are paradoxical anecdotes or folk tales used to demonstrate the inadequacy of logical reasoning, and with practice, provoke an enlightenment. Enlightenment is a state of mind that is not founded on intellectuality, but rather a truth beyond fact. You can feel these koans working to dislodge your perceptions, as if trying to pull up something from the mud that has been buried. The trick is to avoid interpreting the stories rationally, this is the book’s challenge and what makes it so fun to read.
And what better way to start than at the beginning, with the first story that primes you for what is to come. A short interaction between a Zen master and a university professor, and how interesting that it’s about tea.