Zen master Koun Yamada was one of the foremost authorities on the Buddhist path of Zen and is credited with introducing its central practices to students, drawn from a diverse range of religious faiths.
In his critically-acclaimed book Zen: The Authentic Gate he describes the practice of Zen not as a religion per se but that, unlike faith-based religions,
it aims to help us perceive reality and to find peace of mind based upon that reality.
These comments are made in light of his observation that, whatever the modern world is, it is certainly not at peace with itself.
Yamada believes that the decline in religion is at the heart of our global malaise and that the decline in morality that has accompanied it has, in turn, left us struggling in an increasingly challenging society—one bereft of any sort of guiding moral compass.
In the book, the author presents a philosophical evaluation of Zen and places it within the context of all of the great religions. He sees the role of Zen not as usurping them but more of offering a complimentary role in understanding the great mysteries of life, death and suffering which, all too often, underpin the human experience.
Where he does see Zen being distinctly different from the others is in the subject of salvation—particularly with regard to Christianity theology.
In evaluating the Zen approach to salvation, the author explores the concepts of ‘self’ and the concept of emptiness of the ‘self’ as well as the emptiness of ‘things’.
The role of Zen, according to the author, is threefold. It aims to accomplish the development of the power of concentration, a sense of seeing into our own nature and the work involved in the perfection of character.
Yamada explores these three disciplines in detail along with their related historical and philosophical meanings.
When it comes to actually practicing Zen, he also explains how Zen meditation can be divided into three main classes. These are comprised of what he refers to as Ordinary Zen, Great Vehicle Zen and Supreme Vehicle Zen.
These are mainly comprised of counting and breathing techniques, the cultivation and focussing of the mind as well as the need to come to terms with the ‘delusional world’.
In his book Yamada also explains the philosophy behind the practice of Koan, the difficult process involved in finding an authentic teacher, the depths of enlightenment and the nature of the processes of cause and effect.
The Zen path is not an easy one to follow and so the author reveals something of the nature of what he refers to as “Deceptive Nature’. This refers to the phenomena or states of mind that can arise and which are in direct opposition to making progress in Zen practice.
Following chapters in the book look at the Eight Great Tenets of Mahayana Buddhism. Here, the author reveals the characteristics of the Self, the Inner Buddha Nature and their relationship to the World.
As the author states in a quote from Avatamsaka Sutra,
There is not a hairbreadths difference between oneself and others in the limitless universe.
Advanced Zen practices are covered in the closing chapters of ‘Zen’. These include a look at the process of receiving one-on-one instruction from a teacher, the three necessary conditions for Zen practice, Zen practice for other religions and the practice of Zazen.
The book closes with a table of Japanese names and a full index of the book’s content.
Whilst at its heart the practice of Zen is relatively straight forward in its philosophical construct, it can be difficult to fathom out and integrate into the mind.
‘Zen: The Authentic Gate’ approaches the subject in a clear and yet comprehensive way.
Despite the fact that It is a book that has been translated from the original Japanese text (as complied by Yamada), it still manages to remain intelligible and comparatively easy to comprehend.
What becomes clear from reading it is that the author has clearly sought to explain the nature and practice of Zen in ways that the novice will understand. At the same time, he has not skipped over the deeper philosophical concepts that underpin its practice. The result is a book that is very diverse in its level of scholarship.
I actually found most of it easy to understand but much of it equally difficult to integrate into my Western mind. This is no criticism of the publication, which is excellently written, but of my own limited understanding of the Buddhist principles to which the author refers.
This is a book that not only offers a great deal to a novice, such as myself, but, I am sure, also contributes greatly to the understanding of Zen principles for more educated scholars on the subject than myself!
So, all-in-all, this is a book that covers a wide spectrum of Zen ideas and practices. It is, in the main, a manual of philosophy rather than handbook—one that offers deep, but nevertheless practical, insights into Zen work.
It does, however, carry an assumption that its reader already has a degree of grounding in the meditations, asanas and mindfullness techniques that are being referred to throughout its pages.
Zen: The Authentic Gate is a deeply enriching read, a book of powerful spiritual insight as well as a truly authentic approach to Zen that beautifully reflects the lifelong work of its author and the sources that he draws upon.