A Guide to Zen: A Review of A New Abridgment of an Old Book

A Guide to Zen: Lessons from a Modern Master

Katsuki Sekida

Edited by Marc Allen

New World Library, 2013, Novato

When I was asked if I’d like to review this new abridged edition of Katsuki Sekida’s Zen Training, I was happy to do so.

I’d read the book probably around when it was published, in 1975. Admittedly, many readers found it rough sledding, dense and technical. I thought it manna, food from heaven. Rereading the parts put together by Sekida Sensei’s admirer Marc Allen, I perhaps see some of the truth of the criticisms.

Still, in the near endless round of new introductions to Zen practice, I think it worthy and I recommend it.

Katsuki Sekida was a lay practitioner in the Rinzai tradition. Soen Nakagawa Roshi gave him permission to serve as an adviser to the Diamond Sangha in Hawaii after Eido Shimano’s controversial stay. Aitken Roshi spoke fondly of him and gratefully for Sekida Sensei’s guidance. He ended up spending seven years in Hawaii. Later Sochu Suzuki, one of Soen Nakagawa’s successors sent Sekida Sensei to London where he served a similar function there. It appears Zen Training was worked out during these years, much of it appearing first as Dharma talks in Hawaii & London.

In his youth Marc Allen spent six months with the Diamond Sangha when Sekida Sensei was there, in addition to his other activities he served as the old teacher’s amanuensis. I think Mr Allen did a good job of cutting to the chase and giving us the heart of the matter – of an introduction to the forms of Rinzai Zen meditation short of koan introspection, which is not touched upon here.

I think it fairly outlines the basics of Zen practice from a Rinzai perspective. From my own perspective it puts a bit too much emphasis on breath manipulation and on samadhi states. But it is an honest representation of these disciplines with the emphasis one is going to expect to find in a mainstream Rinzai community.

Mr Allen also included Sekida Sensei’s meditation on the classic Ten Oxherding Pictures, providing another angle on what I find an endlessly fascinating map of the Zen way of liberation. For me this is the most interesting part of the book.

Bottom line, a worthy reflection from an old Zen hand, and well worth a read.

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  • Stephen Slottow

    The oft-repeated Harada-Yasutani instruction not to breath in any particular way certainly appears not to be the case in Rinzai, where sussokan, the elongation of the exhalation, is very much stressed (see Shodo Harada Roshi). Sekida’s emphasis (bamboo breath, etc) make more sense to me than they used to when put in that larger Rinzai context.

  • http://www.fromtheloneoak.blogspot,com David Clark

    Thanks for posting your review. Zen Training was one of the first books on Zen that I read and it did feel like jumping in to the deep end of the pool at the time. I tried applying the bamboo breath technique in my early sitting but soon gave it up as too elaborate for my beginner’s practice. Sekida’s discussion of koans, however, intrigued me. I quickly got a copy of Aiken Roshi’s Gateless Barrier, a great introduction to koans and still a favorite of mine. So, I’m not sure excising the koan material is such a great an idea.