Recently I read both the Eight Gates of Zen and Invoking Reality; both titles by the late John Daido Loori, Roshi. For awhile now I’ve been looking for a presentation of Buddhist practice tailored to a Western convert such as myself that didn’t also strip the dharma of all of the culture that it has inherited over its many centuries of evolution. Well, these books are it.
The Eight Gates of Zen is a manual written to explain the path being taken by a student at Loori’s Zen Mountain Monastery in New York State. The path takes up the Eight Gates (zazen, study with a teacher, academic study, liturgy, right action, art practice, body practice and work practice) and combines them with the 10 ox herding pictures to form a disciplined and formative way of practice. For the home practitioner such as myself, this book serves as a reminder that practice happens “in the mud of life”, and shouldn’t be put away with your meditation cushion after your daily zazen.
To me, it seemed as if the entire purpose of this book was to speak directly to the Western convert, espousing the dharma in a way that held on to its traditional roots while at the same time being an expression of our current time and culture here in North America. If you are looking for an introduction to Zen or Buddhism, I don’t think this book is the right one. Loori assumes you already know something about the basic terms being used and have a general knowledge base to work with. Terms like teisho, satoori, Mu; these are all used freely and if someone has no experience with these, they’d have to spend a decent amount of time making notes and referencing the vocabulary used. Thankfully I have enough experience with the language being used here, and this book seemed aimed at someone at right about my level (though it will be something to work with for years to come).
Loori makes it a point to establish two different paths for monastics and the laity, something which makes sense to me. I have no desire to take up the path of a monk; I have a family that I love very much and want to spend as much time with as possible. But this isn’t an obstacle as far as Loori sees it. Here he has laid out a path for the lay person that is just as involved, engaged, and intimate as the path for the monastic. However at the same time he brings us back to the heart of it by explaining that the two paths really are one, and that we both “leave home” in some sense.
I found the content in the book extremely well presented, it was clear (as much as Zen can be of course ;)) and the material was laid out so well that one could use this book as a study point for many years (which is something I know I will do). Additionally, in the end of the book Dogen’s Mountains and Rivers Sutta appears, the sutra that Loori drew much of his inspiration from. Upon first reading I really love this sutra, and plan to study it more intensely in the future. Following that, there is a Zazen checklist (wonderful for a beginner like me), an “Introduction to the Zendo”, Jukai, and a section of Daily Liturgy. For me the Daily Liturgy will definitely come in handy (anyone know of an audio version of the Heart Sutra being chanted in English?) as it will give me something new to recite and chant if I so choose. Also, at the end there is an extensive “recommended reading” list that I plan on working my way through over the coming years (decades?). Seriously if you haven’t read this book, go get it. So far this has been the best book on Buddhism I’ve read yet. It was engaging, poetic, and concise.
There were many “a-ha!” moments throughout the book, but none for me as powerful as the following paragraph in the chapter “The Still Point: Zazen:
The very first sitting of the rank beginner, whether properly or improperly executed, is at once the complete and perfect manifestation of the zazen of countless Buddhas and ancestors of past, present, and future. From the zazen of countless Buddhas and ancestors, our own zazen emerges. From our own zazen, the zazen of countless Buddhas and ancestors is realized. As a result, we all live the life of Buddha, transcend Buddha, have the mind of Buddha and become Buddha.
I don’t know what it was about reading this, but all of a sudden there was this moment where the teachings of the Lotus Sutra were put into perspective, and it was as if for the first time I was really getting the Lotus Sutra. I don’t know if that makes any sense or not, but reading this really helped. I think it was just his style, and delivery to a Western audience that seemed to put much of the Lotus Sutra into a perspective that I could understand.
In Invoking Reality, Loori presents for us the moral and ethical teachings of Zen in the context of the Three Treasures, the Three Pure Precepts, and the Ten Grave precepts. From the beginning Loori states:
Enlightenment and morality are one. Enlightenment without morality is not true enlightenment. Morality without enlightenment is not complete morality. Zen is not beyond morality, but a practice that takes place within the world, based on moral and ethical teachings.
Living the precepts is living the life of a Buddha. Nothing could be clearer having read this book. It is quite a short read (only 97 pages) and in that sense did leave a little to be desired. I think he did a fantastic job of describing the precepts, how they function, and their role in our daily lives and practice. In Invoking Reality Loori assures us that the precepts are not some stagnant set of rules to follow, but they are a living, breathing dynamic system to follow in order to live this life as a Buddha. The whole phenomenal universe is co-dependant, constantly originating, coming and going. The 16 precepts are a response to this transitory nature of the universe we live, work, and breathe in.
Overall I really enjoyed this book, though I felt at times Loori got lost in his poetry. I love his style of writing but when presenting the 10 grave precepts, more specifics would have helped since this book seemed to be geared toward and introduction to Buddhist (Zen) ethics and morality.
This book is an excellent reminder that Buddhism is a moral and ethical system, and to divorce our practice from this realization is to divorce ourselves from the Buddha and what he taught. I plan on reading some more of John Daido Loori’s works in the future. Truly his was an original voice in Western Buddhism, one that has spoken to me directly. I appreciate his appeal to traditions of old while crafting something original and meaningful to a new audience in the West; all while focusing on the “mud” of life and dharma.