It is a real joy to review the Three Pillars of Zen by Roshi Philip Kapleau. I have listened to this book on Audible several times and read a paperback version. The book is fairly long with the paperback being 441 pages and the audio version 14 hours and 27 minutes. The book covers in detail the practice of Zazen or what some might call meditation in great detail. While I am equating Zazen to meditation the author makes a distinction that Zazen is not traditional meditation. Roshi Philip Kaplan spent over 14 years in Japan studying Zen from the masters, most notably Yasutani Roshi. There is also a historical account of the great Dogen along with sources of information presented from both the Rinzai and Soto Zen disciplines perspectives. Much of this book is about the Yasautani Roshi’s encounters with Western students documented in painstaking detail by Roshi Philip Kapleau.
This book is not for the faint of heart as it seeks to express how Zen was practiced in the monasteries of Japan, going into details about the day to day life of a Roshi and Monks. Roshi Kaplan delves deep into the history of Zen and the goal of Zen Buddhism, which is Satori or enlightenment.
What I liked about this book
The incredible level of detail that went into capturing the sessions between students and Yasutani Roshi is truly astounding as it has never been done before. These interactions show the true value of a student having a Roshi and the wisdom of Yasutani Roshi. This elevates this book beyond that of just a lecture or philosophical discussion from an expert in Zen Buddhism to the exposure of true learning. Another thing that I really liked was the Afterword about how Zen has spread to the West, in particular, the United States and how it is practiced differently due to the differences in culture between East and West.
What was challenging about this book
There are a lot of dialogs here between the students and Yasutani Roshi, and it can be a chore to read, although it lends itself quite well to an audiobook format. The instruction on Zazen, that addresses so many aspects and even includes questions from students is a bit long-winded. It must be understood that Zen practitioners practice a form of meditation that is extremely exacting and it may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but I wouldn’t say that would stop anyone from appreciating it.
If you have an interest in Zen Buddhism I highly recommend this book. While there have been many books written about Zen, this has to be in the top 5 and presents the most detailed accounts of Zen practice that I have ever read. Even if your interest isn’t exclusively in Zen Buddhism, but just in Buddhism, in general, I would read this book as there is so much that you can take away from it to enhance your own practice. I will give you an example, while I do not like some aspects of how Zazen is practiced, namely with eyes open (blurred or unfocused) and looking forward on the floor about 3 feet away. On the other hand, I heartedly agreed that the path to enlightenment is through practice, not theory, and this assertion was stressed throughout this wonderful book.
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About the Author
Philip Kapleau (August 20, 1912 – May 6, 2004) was a teacher of Zen Buddhism in the Sanbo Kyodan tradition, a blending of Japanese Sōtō and Rinzai schools.
He trained initially with Soen Nakagawa, then rigorously with Daiun Harada at the temple Hosshin-ji. Later he became a disciple of Hakuun Yasutani, a dharma heir of Harada. After 13 years’ training, Kapleau was ordained by Yasutani in 1965 and given permission to teach. Kapleau ended his relationship with Yasutani formally in 1967 over disagreements about teaching and other personal issues. According to James Ishmael Ford, “Kapleau had completed about half of the Harada-Yasutani kōan curriculum, the koans in the Gateless Gate and the Blue Cliff Record,” and was entitled to teach, but did not receive dharma transmission. According to Andrew Rawlinson, “Kapleau has created his own Zen lineage.”
During a book tour in 1965 he was invited to teach meditation at a gathering in Rochester, New York. In 1966 he left Japan to create the Rochester Zen Center.
For almost 40 years, Kapleau taught at the Center and in many other settings around the world, and provided his own dharma transmission to several disciples. He also introduced many modifications to the Japanese Zen tradition, such as chanting the Heart Sutra in the local language, English in the U.S., or Polish at the Center he founded in Katowice. He often emphasized that Zen Buddhism adapted so readily to new cultures because it was not dependent upon a dogmatic external form. At the same time he recognized that it was not always easy to discern the form from the essence, and one had to be careful not to “throw the baby out with the bathwater.”
He suffered from Parkinson’s Disease for several years. While his physical mobility was reduced, he enjoyed lively and trenchant interactions with a steady stream of visitors throughout his life. On May 6, 2004, he died peacefully in the backyard of the Rochester Zen Center, surrounded by many of his closest disciples and friends.
Kapleau transcribed other Zen teachers’ talks, interviewed lay students and monks, and recorded the practical details of Zen Buddhist practice. His book, The Three Pillars of Zen, published in 1965, has been translated into 12 languages, and is still in print. It was one of the first English-language books to present Zen Buddhism not as philosophy, but as a pragmatic and salutary way of training and living. Michael Alan Singer, New York Times bestselling author and former CEO of WebMD, identified that the Three Pillars of Zen was the source which embarked him on his spiritual journey.
Kapleau was an articulate and passionate writer. His emphasis in writing and teaching was that insight and enlightenment are available to anyone, not just austere and isolated Zen monks. Also well known for his views on vegetarianism, peace and compassion, he remains widely read, and is a notable influence on Zen Buddhism as it is practiced in the West. Today, his dharma heirs and former students teach at Zen centers around the world.