Books

'Introduction to Zen Training': Sogen Omori's road map to enlightenment

by Steve John Powell

Contributing Writer

Zen has exerted a magnetic attraction on the West for over 100 years. Zen authority D.T. Suzuki (1870-1966) was a primary catalyst for this interest, writing over 100 books, such as the seminal “An Introduction to Zen Buddhism” (1934), on the topic.

Introduction to Zen Training, by Sogen Omori.
288 pages
TUTTLE PUBLISHING, Nonfiction.

Inspired by Suzuki, Western writers like Christmas Humphreys (1901-83) and Alan Watts (1915-73) further popularized Zen. Humphreys’ book “Zen Buddhism” (1949) was name-dropped by Van Morrison in his song “Cleaning Windows,” while Watts influenced Beat Generation writers like Jack Kerouac (1922-69). Kerouac was hailed as “the first patriarch of Buddhism in America” by Tricycle magazine. His classic novel, “The Dharma Bums” (1958), oozes passion for Zen on every page. “Some of the Dharma” (completed in 1958, published 1997), is a sprawling compendium of Kerouac’s thoughts on Buddhism.

By the late 1950s, interest in Zen was booming, further fuelled by books like Paul Reps’ (1895-1990) compilation “Zen Flesh, Zen Bones,” Watts’ “The Way To Zen” and Suzuki’s “Zen & Japanese Culture.” Features on Zen appeared in newspapers ranging from the New York Times to the New Yorker, Newsweek and the Chicago Review. Artists and intellectuals as diverse as Aldous Huxley and Dizzie Gillespie espoused the way of Zen.

More recently, Jon Kabat-Zinn (“Full Catastrophe Living,” 1991; “Wherever You Go, There You Are,” 1994) helped trigger a new boom, using the Trojan horse of “mindfulness” to introduce Zen-like meditation to sufferers of post-traumatic stress disorder and other ailments. Today, mindfulness meditation is practiced in a growing number of institutions worldwide, including schools, police departments and multinational corporations.

In “Introduction to Zen Training” (a translation of the classic beginner’s text “Sanzen Nyumon”), Sogen Omori (1904-94), one of Japan’s foremost Zen masters, expresses gratitude for this flowering of interest in Zen. But he is also concerned that many come to Zen for the wrong reasons. “Zen should never become a means of making yourself feel good nor should it be a tranquilizer to settle excitement and wild thoughts,” he writes.

He doesn’t deny that Zen can bring health benefits, but maintains that the true aim should be nothing less than enlightenment, “awakening us to our own essence so as to secure and express our True Selves in everyday conduct.”

A teacher of swordsmanship, calligraphy and meditation for over 40 years, Omori became president of Rinzai University and established the International Zen Dojo in Hawaii, founding the Chozenji temple in Honolulu — the first headquarters temple for Rinzai Zen outside Japan. He was also a court magistrate and advisor to the Japanese cabinet.

Omori recognizes the irony of writing a book about Zen, whose essence cannot be captured in words, and apologizes for adding to the body of “useless Zen literature.” His main goal, he writes, is simply to “prevent beginning students from going in the wrong direction.”

For this is not just a book about Zen. It is a practical manual on how to practice it. Subtitled “A Physical Approach to Meditation and Mind-Body Training,” it covers basic matters such as how long to sit for and how to get up afterward, as well as breath, drowsiness and things to pay attention to while meditating.

Omori’s “contribution to today’s mindfulness movement is his insistence that the training is physical or meta-physical,” writes Daian Sayama, abbot of Chozenji, in the book’s new foreword. Whole chapters on “How to Sit” and on the “Physiological Effects of Zazen” indicate the vital role Omori assigns to the physical aspect of meditating. Stabilizing “the body, the breath and the mind” are fundamental before meditating, he writes.

Although he prescribes rigorous physical and mental discipline, Omori writes with a “grandfatherly kindness,” as Sayama notes. Omori takes pains to put the reader at ease as he guides you gently through the meditation process. He offers advice for those without access to a quiet place for meditating, or who can’t afford a thick zabuton (cushion) for sitting on. And if you don’t quite feel the “Great Compassion” (the longing to save all sentient beings, a central tenet of Zen), he urges you not to lose your nerve or “develop an inferiority complex.”

Omori also delves into philosophical aspects in sections such as “Why Do Zazen” (seated meditation) and “The Aim of Zazen,” while “Zazen Without Sitting” teaches how to bring the Zen spirit to your daily activities.

He peppers his writing with enchanting stories, parables and anecdotes, weaving hundreds of years of history into the text, making it an engrossing read even if you’re not a student of Zen.

Omori also examines the evolution of Japan’s two main schools of Zen: Rinzai and Soto. However, he downplays the importance of the differences between the two, saying, “choose whichever sect you like.” He admits that when he first came to Zen, he wasn’t even aware that two sects existed. Each one has its merits and its weak points, he says, and students should choose “according to (their) own dispositions and preferences.”

The book concludes with Omori’s comments on two historical Zen texts: “Zazen Wasen (A Song of Zazen)” and the “Ox-Herding Pictures.” The 10 Ox-Herding Pictures, depicting an oxherd searching for his lost ox, are a metaphor for the process of enlightenment. Omori’s commentary, explaining the symbolism of each picture, is designed to help students understand which stage they are at on their own paths to enlightenment.

For anyone wishing to get serious about Zen, this book is the road map to enlightenment.

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