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Zen is for Everyone: The Xiao Zhi Guan Text by Zhi Yi

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ISBN: 1-9294-3102-3

Iwish Michael Saso would stick to Chinese materials in his writings. The text is Chinese, but his explanatory notes, which include information about Buddhism in India, are quite misleading for introductory students.

I teach a course titled “Eastern Thought” and was interested in using Zen is for Everyone: The Xiao Zhi Guan for my course as it pulls together many Buddhist concepts and presents them so students can see how these ideals relate together in a text significant to the practice of Buddhism. Zhi Yi (Chih I, 538 –597) is the fourth master of the Tientai (T’ian-t-ai) school of Chinese Buddhism.

The text considers preparation for meditation practices, which allows the student to see the context of Mahayana thought within which Zen functions. The first third of the book is introductory. The student learns the rules of body and mind purification, proper dress and diet, the necessity of finding a quiet place for meditation, the ability to free oneself from extraneous worries, and how to choose a good meditation teacher. It is essential to find a group of like-minded people with whom to associate. The second chapter recommends awareness in the use of sense organs in eliminating desire. Already discussed in the Nikaya, here concrete examples are used to show what is meant in each of the proscriptions. Chapter four, Harmony, reflects on the process of meditation: that which must be done to get one’s mind and body into a proper state prior to meditation, how to make the constant corrections necessary with the meditation process, and how to return to the world from meditation.

The second third of the text takes up practice and compassion in positive ways. Samatha (stop)-vipassana (look) meditation is made sense of both as a meditation practice and as a way of living one’s life. This should be quite useful to students who are ready to try meditation. It elucidates several basic Mahayana Buddhist teachings, including that of heart-mind. The last third picks up several topics. Zhi Yi delves into the function of Mara and other demons in Chinese Buddhism, then turns to “dis-ease,” the ailments that can occur when one has lost control of heart-mind. He investigates methods of diagnosis and of healing through Chinese Buddhist techniques.

Some misspelling is sloppy, but Sasso’s text misspells common Indian Buddhist words from “Bhramin” to “Budda,” errors not made by scholars in the field. They are confusing to the student who has not yet reached a level of familiarity with Buddhist terms. But more misleading is his lack of familiarity with Nagarjuna’s work on conditions versus causes. I do like his instruction of the Buddha as one who exhibits shen, a Chinese concept expanded in Daoism. In my classroom, that concept has proven valuable in discussing the representations of great people as well as deities in the Chinese religion.

The language is quite simple and therefore easily read. I recommend the text as one in a list of supplementary readings the student could read as well as assigned texts, due to its presentation of Zen within its Mahayana context, but the errors regarding Indian Buddhism are too great to have it used as a primary text in any course.