Introduction to Zen Koans: Learning the Language of Dragons is the latest book by James Ishmael Ford who is one of my favorite Patheos bloggers (if you don’t know his blog, Monkey Mind, do yourself a favor and check it out). James is a Unitarian-Universalist minister, but also a Soto Zen priest and roshi. He has written a number of books, about various aspects of Zen history, spirituality and practice.
When I got my copy of his new book, my first thought was, “A book about koans? That’s interesting, but probably not for people like me, who are just beginners when it comes to Zen.” But I was wrong.
This is actually a perfect book for beginners.
Introduction to Zen Koans is probably meaty enough for someone who has made a commitment to a Buddhist spiritual practice, but it’s an excellent choice for anyone new to Zen (let alone koans). The book assumes the reader has no prior knowledge of Zen, so it begins at the beginning — with a summary explanation of who the Buddha was, and what he taught, and how Buddhism eventually spread from its home in northern India to China, where it encountered Taoism and gave birth to Chan (in Japanese, Zen), which comes from the Sanskrit word for meditation, dhyana.
Along the way, Ford introduces his readers to key figures in the history, including Bodhidharma, Huineng, and Dogen. He provides a lucid translation of the Heart Sutra, and describes the basic elements of zazen, or meditation — from the cushions (the zafu and zabuton), to the importance of the posture, the breath, and of course, the attention.
And then he introduces the reader to the koan — what it is, its history, and how koans are used in the practice of Zen — the essential accessory to meditation, in a way similar to how the liturgy is the essential accessory to Christian centering prayer. He explains the different types of koans, and points out that reading a book about koans (including books that claim to publish the “solution” to koans) is no substitute for actually committing to a meditation practice and working with a koan under the guidance of a qualified teacher.
Ford’s writing is delightful, accessible, and conversational — he happily quotes from a variety of contemporary Zen authors, but then to keep things interesting he’ll also draw parallels between the dharma and the thought of Christian mystics like St. John of the Cross or the Desert Fathers and Mothers. He is not afraid to make reference to Christian practitioners of Zen like Thomas Hand — indeed, he writes,
Personally, I admire much of what I’d call “Christian Zen.” Christian Zen teacher Ruben Habito’s wonderful and inviting book Living Zen, Loving God, for instance, shows that this is an authentic, powerful, and beautiful path.
It’s a little book and so it’s certainly not the most exhaustive resource on the topic of koans — or of Zen, for that matter. But it’s an introductory book, meant to whet the reader’s appetite. And it does that job swimmingly well. So if you want to get a basic sense of what a koan is, and why it matters in the world of Zen, get this book. And if you need something even more basic than that — i.e., you need to figure out what Zen is, before you can begin to worry about koans — this is still a worthwhile book. Because, after all, if you want to learn about Zen, you’ll be faced with the mystery and curiosity of the koan tradition. So this book will get you started, and give you a sense of the lay of the land.