Miniatures of a Zen Master [Hardback]
- Publisher : Counterpoint
- Published : 2008
- Cover : Hardback
- Pages : 210
- Size : 210 x 136mm
- Category :
- Catalogue No : 18587
- ISBN 13 : 9781582434414
- ISBN 10 : 1582434417
This is a collection of 188 short texts, stories, parables, quotations, and memories from Robert Aitken Roshi, one of the elder statesmen of Zen Buddhism in the West. This inspirational collection of "miniatures" distills a life devoted to Zen teaching and awareness, of being present, and of showing up and making a difference. Any person living a considered life, whether secular humanist or religious seeker, will find this book of rich inspiration - a lasting companion, sharing a journey of deep realization and profound hope.
Read an extract of this title
THIS LITTLE BOOK contains the late thoughts of one of America's first native-born Zen masters, set down at the age of ninety by a man looking back on (and still putting to good use) the experiences of an extraordinary life. They read not as after-thoughts, intended to correct or improve earlier statements, so much as manifestations of a fresh turn of mind that has come both unexpectedly and in due course. This is a late work, too, as a capping achievement in a long career of teaching and writing, thirteenth in the string of books that Robert Aitken has devoted, quite variously, to his one great topic and passion, Zen Buddhism. Not a few of its contents are late thoughts in a simple, nocturnal sense as well-inspirations that visited at night as Aitken Rashi awaited or awoke from sleep. In the early stages of preparing the book, frustrated by the number of half-dreamt ideas that escaped by morning, he positioned a digital recorder by the bedside, with which to capture phrases for retrieval and evaluation in the light of day.
Readers familiar with Aitken Roshi's previous writings may discover a resemblance between the short prose of this book and that of Encouraging Words, published in 1993. Like items in the "Words in the Dojo" section of that earlier collection, a number of these "miniatures" originally were spoken into the stillness of the dôjo, or Zen training hail, to guide and spur on the group sitting in zazen. Other miniatures bear a marked similarity in spirit to the pithy essays he has produced for decades, in which a news item, a colorful turn of phrase, a line of literature, or a chance encounter becomes the point of departure for pungent instruction in the way of practice and realization. As before, Aitken Roshi is urging us along the path of Zen, and his teaching crackles now with a zeal that surely results, at least in part, from the medical crises and physical diminutions he has weathered in recent years. More than ever, he speaks as an elder, with the power and poignancy of that vantage.
These pages are charged also with Roshi's fervor for a profound change of course in society as a whole. Railing against prejudice, injustice, war, and the ravaging of cultures, places, and the many beings, finned or feathered, flowering or fungal, is no novelty for Aitken Roshi, but he expresses his abhorrence here with a newfound freedom. World events have prompted this forthrightness, and again aging has played a part, I think: the beauty and preciousness of life, viewed from his pinnacle of years, has made callousness and cruelty yet more inexplicable and intolerable, and old inhibitions have dropped away besides.
Even more striking and delightful than the continuities between this book and Aitken Rãshi's past work are its differences, not just in tone but especially in subject matter. A decade of persistent, low-key campaigning
utterly failed to persuade him to prepare, if not a full-scale autobiography, at least episodic memoirs-until this publication. We owe the opportunity to read the mainly fond, sometimes painful reminiscences herein to a twin development that has overridden his disinclination to write about himself. Early memories have assumed increasing prominence, as they so often do with the waning of short-term recall. Far more important, a new reason to record those memories arrived two years ago in the figure of his first, long-anticipated grandchild-Gina, whose name you may have noticed on the dedication page. What more vivid impetus could there be for a writer? We who enjoy these biographical tales ought to reckon ourselves beneficiaries of his blonde-headed charmer.
Our author being who he is, a man of letters from head to faraway toe, we also have his literary predecessors to thank for the wee treats that follow. Precedents count, both in Buddhism and in writing, and Aitken Röshi has not been one to ignore them. His models in the genre of brief nonfiction, he says, start with Logan Pearsall Smith, whose Trivia fascinated him in college. More obviously, they include three writers he cites in the text: the haiku poet Bashö, who set the poems of his travel diaries in brilliant bits of prose; Thoreau, whose journals Aitken Rôshi has long relished; and the fourteenth-centuryJapanese Buddhist priest Yoshida Kenko. Another certifiable influence is the Ming-dynasty Chinese layman Hong Zicheng, whose Vegetabk Roots Discourse Aitken Roshi translated and published in zoo6, in collaboration with his old friend Daniel Kwok.
Both Hong and Kenko practiced a style of writing known in Japan as zuihitsu, literally "following the brush." (Donald Richie has suggested the term "spontaneous nattering" for this venerable literary form, accurately conveying its air of informality~ "Jottings," one might render the term, if nattering seems too undignified.) In a miniature titled "Bishop Ditch," Aitken ROshi reprises a passage from Kenko's Tsurezuregusa and explicitly claims that book as his precedent, which indeed seems apt. If he has let his electronic "brush" run more freely than ever in drafting these pages, a share of credit is due the retired courtier and priest of fourteenth-century Kyoto as well as the little girl capering at her grandpas knee.
I am grateful beyond measure for the confluence of elements that has brought this book into existence, most crucially, of course, the remarkable longevity and vitality of my old teacher. I would be remiss if I neglected to express continuing thanks, on behalf of all who love Aitken Roshi, to those he names in his acknowledgments. With publication of this book, we are indebted especially to the team of caregivers, both paid and volunteer, who have nursed him through thick and thin and to his loyal secretary, Carolyn Glass, whose attentions to the manuscript, not to mention its author, have often far exceeded the call of duty
-Nelson Foster, Ring of Bone Zendo, San Juan Ridge, California