Rick McDaniel’s two-book set, Zen Conversations and Further Zen Conversations, goes to the horse’s mouth – Zen teachers themselves – to open up the evolving tale of North American Zen.
Most of the contemporary teachers interviewed are homegrown, having trained in the US or Canada, not in Japan. Many did so with first and second generation Western, not Asian, teachers. Plus, as they are spread across a number of active lineages, these thematically organized conversations offer readers an expansive view.
How Rick, a long-time Zen practitioner, came to travel around North America in-person and, later, after COVID, by Skype and Zoom to chat with contemporary teachers is a tale in itself, one that gets told via the Prefaces of the two books. Yet once he gets these conversations going, he rarely intrudes further but simply allows each teacher or senior student to speak for themselves.
Because of Rick’s earlier series of books on the teacher-by-teacher transmission of Zen from China to Japan and then on through the recent North American generations, his Zen Conversations and Further Zen Conversation rest on a solid foundation and the questions he asks are wide ranging: Where is North American Zen teaching and practice at these days? How’s it doing? What are the challenges and issues? How does it deal with tradition and innovation, with the balance of personal and communal practice, with monastic and lay styles and forms, with the demands of citizenship – i.e. environmental awareness and action and politics – while at the same time not watering down actual, intimate, ongoing practice? And what about psychology? In short, how’d we get to where we are and what might the future (or possible futures) of North American Zen look like? In fact, is there even such a thing as “a North American Zen” or are there many, each with its own views and responses?
Rick organizes the conversations he’s gathered thematically rather than teacher by teacher. And it works. And, yet . . . it’s such a rich meal it’s almost like a buffet of deserts – pies, cakes, petit fours – piled high. Reading too much at one time can lead to a sugar high or a bit of a tummy ache. So, even though some of my own conversations with Rick are included in Further Zen Conversations, my recommendation is to go slow, read a section or so, then, stop and digest. Adding some leavening between such “reads” might be wise, too. Which might mean dipping into the Zen writings of such gifted ancestors as Hakuin, Dogen, or Ryokan. Or facing the work of actual practice as presented in Philip Kapleau’s The Three Pillars of Zen or Robert Aitken’s Taking the Path of Zen or in Aitken or Shibyama’s books on the Gateless Barrier (Wumen kuan; Mumonkan). Or just sitting and facing a wall, letting everything go, discovering how little we know, how little can be known, and, indeed, known by whom? Such little bits of bitterness will help the sweet medicine go down. You won’t simply be coasting in on someone else’s words.
Regardless, Rick has graciously done all the necessary legwork. Or, to turn to a food-related old Zen metaphor: he’s kindly peeled the lychee for us and put it in our mouths. All we have to do now is chew. (By the way, Zen Conversations’ introduction offers a history of North American Zen.) To be clear – for one person to report on the state of North American Zen, allowing teachers of diverse styles and lineages to speak for themselves is rather remarkable, revealing deep faith in Zen’s many current North American forms. (A good number of the teaching lines now active in North America are given voice here, though not all.) Admirably, Rick seems to have no personal ax to grind, and shows no need to defend what he himself might think Zen should or should not be. Of course, he selected each conversation and organized them into sections but both books show only openness toward and respect for all the various viewpoints presented. A trustworthy guide, Rick remains truly non-judgmental. Given our deeply polarized times, this is refreshing, even healing in itself. Sitting down with all sorts of Zen teachers – lay, ordained, monastic/celibate, householder; Soto, Rinzai, combined or in-between; those with large centers, those with little zendos, those with many students, those with a handful; experienced teachers and those just starting out – he puts everyone at ease and raises questions central to all.
Hats off to Rick. We are his beneficiaries and owe him a debt of gratitude. Fifty or a hundred years from now when students of religion and historians of Zen look into how what was originally an Asian religion came to flourish so naturally in North America, they will seek out these books. In them they will uncover what Zen teachers of today, themselves a living bridge between East and West were saying, doing, and thinking. The story of the creation of an ordinary, real, genuinely North American Bodhisattvic Zen can be found in these books of simple, straightforward, thoughtful, and often heart-felt conversations.
Get a set. In the future they’re bound to become heirlooms of Zen’s many-roomed house.
Rafe Jnan Martin, founding teacher
Endless Path Zendo, Rochester, New York
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