If you’re a city dweller, chances are you’ve indulged in fantasies of abandoning your hectic technology- and consumption- centric days to cultivate a life of the land. I’ll grow my own food! Keep goats! Knit socks! This remains fantasy for most. But not for the ten men and women profiled in Andy Couturier’s The Abundance of Less: Lessons in Simple Living from Rural Japan (North Atlantic Books, August 2017; $19.95, 336 pp., paper), who have actually cast aside the urban morass of materialism for lives that allow time for the things that matter.
Couturier’s subjects, living in rural Japan, make miso by hand, homeschool their children, harvest their own rice, and practice a wide array of arts, includ- ing flute playing, batik, painting, and dance. In their spare time they are often active in their communities, like Atsuko Watanabe, one of those profiled, who spends her time away from tilling the soil engaging in antinuclear power pro- tests and writing letters on behalf of Amnesty International. Their lives and voices exhibit a rare ethical clarity.
Couturier, who spent four years in Japan studying sustainable living, approaches these individuals with such respect and admiration that each relationship seems not so much that of a writer and an interviewee as that of a student and teacher. The profiles will compel readers to consider how they might live more simply and increase their civic engagement.
Belonging to a lineage is powerful: among other things, it provides a succession of role models past for practitioners of the present. The only catch—for women, anyway—is that all of the prominent lineage holders are male. Fortunately, some modern-day masters have recognized female leaders among their students, and scholarship is gradually identifying and publishing the stories of women in history who were major teachers.
Now Beata Grant, Professor of Chinese and Religious Studies at Washington University, has made an important contribution to this field by translating the writings of three female Zen Buddhist masters into English for the first time, making them and their work known to contemporary students. Zen Echoes: Classic Koans with Verse Commentaries by Three Female Zen Masters (Wisdom Publications, May 2017; $16.95, 176 pp., paper) is a collection of key Chan koans paired with commentaries by the 12th-century Buddhist nun Miaozong. A brilliant practitioner and dharma heir to the eminent Chan master Dahui, Miaozong was known for her literary works as well as her verse commentaries, or songgu, such as those in the present collection, which managed to survive to the 17th century. Two later female masters and dharma friends, Baochi and Zukui, were so inspired by Miaozong’s work that they wrote their own verse commentaries in response.
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