Zen Road
Zen Road
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Reading Zen: What and How

by Philippe Coupey


You are on the Way, and this in itself is important to study. All paths are the same in the end, but it’s important to understand what you practice: this path, Zen, and its way of teaching. It’s necessary to study what is in this lineage, where many masters have done great work: Sosan, Sekito, Dogen, Daichi, Menzan, Kodo Sawaki, Deshimaru... We are in the direct line of Bodhidharma, so we should study in that line. Study from the point of view of your own master, and your master’s master, and so on back to Bodhidharma.


As Daichi says in one of his poems, every word can heal; but it all depends on how you read. If you read Zen texts and kusens quickly just to be done with them in a reasonable amount of time, it’s not effective at all. It also depends on what you read. If you read the essential Zen texts, you might (and should) unconsciously spend a lot of time on them — on each word, even. If you read texts on Buddhism in general — scholarly writings on Mahayana Buddhism, for example, or Hinayana Buddhism — to gain some knowledge about the subject, you may only spend a few seconds on each word. Master Deshimaru said:


If you do not understand the commentaries on the original Zen writings and only read other Mahayana sutras, you will not understand true Zen.


The Zen writings listed below come before the sutras. Of course, the sutras were composed hundreds and hundreds of years after Buddha’s death, and the Zen texts a thousand years or so after that. But the sutras come after Buddha’s awakening, while Zen texts are Buddha’s awakening. We read the sutras with our frontal brain in order to understand them. Zen texts are to be understood with your guts, here and now, no different from Buddha under the Bodhi tree: same time and space.


It is essential to read and study, not only traditional Zen writings, but the commentaries on them by more recent masters as well. In our practice, the oral teaching, or kusen, given in the dojo is often a commentary on a traditional Zen text. Don’t just listen to kusens: study them afterwards, and you will understand them even more deeply.


By studying, I don’t mean just buying a book and reading it from cover to cover. Studying, for me, means understanding Buddha-nature, or what I prefer to call original nature, through repetition. When I read the Shobogenzo, I read and re-read Dogen’s repetitions, and in the end, I understood. What did I understand? Master Dogen’s means of expression. Through repetition, this cosmology, this way of speaking, this vision began to enter into me. The repetition of the same thing is important, reading the same thing: read the first page of Dogen’s Genjokoan, for example, until you understand it really well. Afterwards, you’ll understand the whole teaching.


[A faded picture of the young Philippe Coupey, reading in bed at La Gendronnière Zen Temple, 1980]

The best way to approach these texts is to read a little, then do zazen, then read a little more — or re-read what you read before you sat. Don’t try to understand. These writings don’t enter through the head, but through your pores.


And finally, be careful not to study for yourself. Of course, in the beginning, you study for yourself, so that you understand. But later something else happens: you study to be able to explain and transmit. If there were no one left in the world, there would be no more reason to read about Buddhism. It is a human affair, a matter of interdependence.

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