ZEN INKLINGS, by Donald Richie. IBC Publishing, 132 pp., 2004 (new edition), 1,400 yen (paper).
THE NEW ZEN GARDEN, by Joseph Cali, photos by Satoshi Asakawa. Kodansha International, 87 pp., 2004, 3,500 yen (cloth).

One opens a book by Donald Richie with certain expectations — namely, that it will be literate and original, the last word on the subject.

This is a tall order for any writer. None of these requisites lend themselves to producing a book on Zen, where there can be no final word. Perhaps that’s why Richie has turned to the more subjective terrain of literary narrative as the form best suited to meet his ends for “Zen Inklings,” a book of instructive parables, retellings, inventions, aphorisms, saws and sermons.

Richie, without a trace of the pedagogic, conveys to us that the true nature of learning and knowledge can be as pleasurable as poetry, lovemaking or music.

Ripe with descriptions of fires, explosions, carnal feasting, obscene gesticulation and odors fit to gag on, this is not a book to calm or lull the mind, though we learn, encouragingly, that weakness, indecision, superstition, even the sexual act, all provide excellent springboards into a Zen state of mind. Self-doubt and fallibility are not counter to Zen, but almost a prerequisite.

You’ll have to read the stories to know what their titles mean. “Bobo the Priest,” for example, describes the experiences of a holy man whose love of life, of the flesh, compels him, like the historical priest Ikkyu, to indulge in rather than transcend it.

Is this story telling us that the sexual life is not after all, antithetical to Zen, that abstinence shrivels the spirit, engagement activates it? The tale invites you to read this and the other narratives and to form your own interpretation.

In “The Monkey Mind,” the workings of the skittish, easily distracted brain are described. If brevity is the essence of Zen, the story “The Need for Begging” achieves this in a mere two pages. “Mad Zoga” traces the unwanted success of a monk whose insolence toward authority and rejection of the world only make him into an even holier figure in the eyes of the faithful who throng to his hermit hovel. Here is a figure that only succeeds on his own terms by finally offending goodness and decency itself.

Being literary, these stories expect equal measures of literacy from the reader. There is nothing facile here; no pandering to the amputated attention span of the new Internet reader, or the hip, designer iconoclasm increasingly demanded of publishers, and found in recent titles like “Punk Zen.”

Richie, whose interests are in the process of Zen, maintains that it “must be traveled, experienced.” Talking of Zen’s attainments, he professes to “know nothing at all, having never experienced them.”

In his own, now substantial body of work, however, we find an economy of line and form, a stillness and fluidity that comes from an elimination of nonperforming space, all suggestive of a Zen aesthetic or orientation. One invariably senses a precision in his work that comes from full engagement and mindfulness.

Compact, fiercely organized and introspective, words stereotypically used to describe Japan and the Japanese, might just as well be applied to the art of stone gardening. In “The New Zen Garden,” Joseph Cali and photographer Satoshi Asakawa provide several vantage points from which to appreciate these gardens of the higher self.

The connection between Zen and stone gardens is to some extent, of course, an assumed one. The yoking together of the two things as a popular concept in print occurred for the first time in American Lorraine Kuck’s 1935 publication “One Hundred Kyoto Gardens.”

More recently, the concept has been applied on the basis of a perceived affinity between the simplicity and minimalism that gardens embody, and the aims of abstract art and modern architecture. If the gardens appear contemporary, however, it is because they have, to some degree, inspired a look that has been liberally requisitioned by artists, architects and interior designers. If some of these stone gardens appear to be abstract, it is an abstraction that predates the West’s own invention of the term.

Affinities with the principals of modern architecture are expressed in the newer garden spaces found in hotel lobbies, restaurants, offices, airports, shopping centers, and rooftops, many exquisitely illustrated in this title, one that is both photo book, manual and assembly kit.

Besides the fine photography, there are pencil drawings, layouts, blueprints and sketches that inspire emulation. Grooming the reader in the finer points of the stone garden, Cali enlists the thoughts of some important figures in Japanese gardening to add depth and authority. Zen abbot and designer Masuno Shunmyo contributes a chapter on creating dry waterfalls; Yasumoro Sadao, a piece on building traditional clay walls. Other specialists share their knowledge on lighting small veranda gardens and building walkways.

The Japanese genius for garden design, evident on every page of this superb book, is expressed in the seamless blending of art and nature through an extraordinary economy of means. Everything, as this book illustrates, in its ordained place.

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