It’s with exquisite timing that this book drops into our lives, like Zen monk and haiku poet Matsuo Basho’s frog into its ancient pond. Who among us hasn’t had our moments of anxiety these past months — about our health, our loved ones, our jobs, our future? “Zen Wisdom for an Anxious World” would be an apt title, but I suppose Zen humility precludes such presumption.
The author, Shinsuke Hosokawa, is the head priest of Ryuunji temple in Tokyo’s Setagaya Ward. Apart from writing books about Zen, he also coaches actors playing Zen monks in TV dramas, notably NHK’s 2017 historical saga, “Naotora: The Lady Warlord” (“Onna Joshu Naotora”).
Hosokawa’s book, which is a translation of the 2018 Japanese original, is subtitled “Simple Advice from a Zen Buddhist Monk.” Accordingly, you’ll find no mention of tricky concepts such as mushin (no-mind) or mumonkan (gateless gates). Nor any confusing koans. Indeed, Hosokawa advises against getting “caught up in words and phrases.” Instead, he summarizes the essence of Zen’s philosophy as “the knowledge needed to live life with a positive outlook.”
To help readers acquire this knowledge, Hosokawa sets out 52 sayings, which embody the 52 stages that lead to enlightenment and the 52 weeks in a year. The sayings take us on a journey through the four seasons (there’s a chapter dedicated to each one), finding reflections of the human condition in a snow-heavy pine branch, flourishing spring flowers or the autumn moon. The book’s sparse design is inspired by the Japanese concept of ma, meaning space, pause or silence. The pages are not crammed with words, but rather, spaced out like rocks in a gravel garden — uncluttered, the way Hosokawa says our minds should be.
Each aphorism gets a page to itself. Sometimes, it’s just six words — “Every day is a positive day” — delicately displayed like the fruits in monk Muqi Fachang’s 13th-century painting, “Six Persimmons.” Some of them are challenging, even abstruse: “If you put your hands in the water, you may catch the moon.” A personal favorite of mine is the splendid, “Live as though you are a pair of worn, discarded sandals.” But whereas a koan leaves you on your own to puzzle out the meaning, Hosokawa follows each saying with a clear explanation in simple English.
The sayings are also accompanied by illustrations by Ayako Taniyama. Her drawings express the Zen hallmarks of simplicity and playfulness, and are a joy in their own right.
The result is a book that makes you feel happier just by holding it. Flip to a page at random, and you will pull out a pearl of wisdom. Whether you need encouragement, direction or simply some friendly advice, it’s a book you can return to again and again.
In the epilogue, titled “Happiness is Right in Front of You,” Hosokawa writes, “Zen meditation is a way of throwing away all the accumulated trash in your heart.”
Follow the steps in this book and you’ll be on your way to replacing that detritus with a fresh way of looking at your “self” and your relation to the world.
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