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Collection of American Zen koans for quiet contemplation

by Kris Kosaka

American Zen Koan No. 96: A student once asked Zen teacher Steve Allen, “If you were given a wish-fulfilling jewel, what would you wish for?”

ONE BIRD, ONE STONE: 108 Contemporary Zen Stories, by Sean Murphy. Hampton Roads Publishing, 2013, 288 pp., $17.95 (paperback)

“To stop wishing,” replied Allen.

Zen practice famously entails the unraveling of a koan: a master’s statement, anecdote, dialogue snippet or question, designed to provoke a “great doubt” and test a student’s progress.

Koans have been passed down through generations of practitioners for over 1,200 years. For those wanting a more contemporary, Western taste of Zen, Sean Murphy, a longtime practitioner and writer, has collected modern American koans in his book “One Bird, One Stone.”

The 108 stories stand alone as true modern koans in the ancient tradition, food for provoking spiritual and philosophical thought. Taken together in Murphy’s organized sections, the 108 koans also tell the story of America’s beginnings in Zen, from the first Zen masters traveling from Japan in the 1950s and the influence of the Beats to the present day.

Murphy uses the koans to trace the distinctly American development of the ancient practice of Zen Buddhism. First published in 2002, this new edition includes an additional introduction by noted American Zen writer Natalie Goldberg.

All the early practitioners of American Zen are represented, from D.T. Suzuki to Philip Kapleau, and Alan Watts to Jack Kerouac. Murphy takes the historical founding of Zen in America seriously, and even spends time discussing the Transcendentalist writers and poets of the 1800s.

Toward the end of the collection, Murphy questions the transition and changes of traditional Asian practice within America: the importance of zazen, or sitting meditation in American Zen centers; the merging of Zen with social activism in the West; the modern complication in the West where practitioners of Zen are almost always laymen, not monks, with a myriad of considerations from noncelibacy and balancing work responsibilities to the integration of Zen with Western religious traditions.

Many of the deceptively simple or straightforward koans reverberated long in my mind: the fate of the bird when an American practitioner questions the idea of “absolute freedom”; Suzuki Roshi’s words to his good friend and Zen Center secretary when he finds out he has cancer; a visiting Japanese Zen priest who advises Danan Henry that “the first hundred years are always the hardest” when transplanting Buddhism to the West.

Murphy also includes a detailed glossary for those new to Buddhist terminology, with suggested readings added for those who wish to continue their study of Zen. With comprehensive interviews from American Zen masters and vibrant personalities like Bernie Glassman and Walter Nowick, the book truly gives readers the voice of contemporary American Zen.

Although “One Bird, One Stone” is slim, allow plenty of time for contemplation while reading: This book opens the mind and opens the door to Zen Buddhism in the West, a complete and readable introduction.

Kris Kosaka teaches literature and writing at Hokkaido International School.