Book Review: Entering Zen

Alfred University Professor Emeritus Ben Howard is an accomplished poet, guitarist, essayist, and critic. He is the founder of the Falling Leaf Sangha and writes essays about Zen for the Alfred Sun and his blog One Time One Meeting. Seventy-five of these finely crafted essays have finally been collected and published under one cover as Entering Zen (Whitlock Publishers, 2011).

Howard’s essays are typically inspired by an observation. Howard contemplates commonplace things — the fountain pen he writes with, the ice dam on his roof, the oak tree in his backyard, the guitar music he plays, a poem that resonates, a casual remark or phrase that strikes his imagination. Howard then invites us to join him in contemplation. “If you have ever noticed,” he often begins, referring the reader to some phenomenon that has caught his eye, then the reader, too, might just discover for himself the deeper truth which Howard is about to reveal.

Those truths are the small truths we can observe along with him and verify for ourselves. They are the pith and heart of Zen — attentiveness, fresh observation, radical unmediated inquiry — “just this.” Each essay cuts right to the living heart of Zen. Howard guides us as a spiritual friend — wise, knowledgable (without ever being pedantic), kind-hearted and witty. These finely wrought essays reflect decades of work toiling in poetic vineyards — they are the epitome of grace and transparency.

Along the way, Howard drops useful suggestions about meditation, instructs us on Japanese aesthetics, helps us to appreciate the Japanese tea ceremony, and introduces us to some fine American, Irish, Chinese and Japanese poetry. He also introduces us to some of his friends — painter Richard Thompson who’s love of fly fishing inspires Zen reflections, neighbor Howard “Chainsaw” Chilson who teaches Howard something about paying attention, and faculty colleague Carol Burdick who reads Howard a list of ten positive aspects of her impending death just weeks before she dies. Each of these friends leaves Howard with a gift which he passes on to us.

To fully appreciate the quality of Howard’s writing, it’s best to let him speak for himself. Here’s his conclusion to Dappled Things, a reflection on the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins:

March, it might be said, is the month of dappled things. Patches of snow coexist with patches of grass, gray slush with patches of crocuses and snowdrops. Looking out on that piebald landscape, we can wish impatiently for April, and an end to winter. Or, as Hopkins did, we can appreciate the streaks of darkness and light, while also intuiting the underlying whole. Before our eyes is the changing relative world, where things are, in Hopkins phrase, ‘swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim.’ Beyond our eyes is absolute reality, the beginningless ground of being, whose beauty, in Hopkins words is ‘past change.’

Entering Zen isn’t fast food for the soul. It contains no empty calories — there’s no fat or sugar added. It wasn’t written to be wolfed down like a cheeseburger. It’s meant to be savored slowly. You won’t want to read it in one sitting. It’s best left on one’s bed stand and read one essay at a time. It must be left to breathe, then sipped like a fine wine.

Essence of Zen, 100% guaranteed.

Ben Howard

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