I recently read Zen: The Authentic Gate by Yamada Koun. A good introduction to Zen, as I have known very little about it except for the emphasis on meditation in this form of buddhism. Through the reading, I learned that zen exclusively focuses on personal experience with the help of a teacher, and does not place reliance on doctrine or scriptures (even though it does have a loosely formulated set of scriptures). I also came upon the two schools of zen: Soto and Rinzai. Both schools emphasise on sitting in meditation (zazen) as a way of reaching self knowledge. Both also use koans, a form of puzzles to focus the mind in practice, though Rinzai is a lot more koan-oriented, whereas Soto uses them as an additional device. Two very popular koans referred to in the book are Mu and the sound of one hand clapping.
The story of Mu Koan is interesting. A zen master is asked by a monk “Does a dog have Buddha nature or not?: Jôshû, the zen master replies, ‘Mu!’ which means no, or nothing.
I am unable to grasp how trying to understand what the zen master means by mu will help to realise the self, but Yamada Koun repateadly reminds me the reader that I cannot understand any of the zen teachings with conceptual knowledge & intellect but need to experience these myself. (Not very different from Bhagvad Gita, which alludes that intellect will only take you so far)
Another interesting nugget from the book that stood out for me, (and I intend to dig deeper) is the ten ox herding pictures. The ox herding describes the process of awakening, starting from searching for the bull to reaching the source and returning to society. I like the circular return, the symmetry of the return appeals to me greatly.
The book goes through theories, beliefs, and at the end even a practical guide for meditation. One key takeaway for me was that ideal lengths of meditation is 15-25 minutes instead of sitting in long hours. The other key takeaway is to meditate with eyes open – I tend to close them which always carries me to a different world of distractions that constantly keeps shifting. At least with open eyes, the world in front of me will be a lot static and perhaps distract me less.
There were some parts of the book which read like dogma, and these passages made me doubt the entire text. The mind is so quick to doubt and create boundaries, that it is sometimes best not to pay heed to each of its voices. But the idea of leaving the mind behind is one of the scariest thoughts to me.