Crazy Clouds: Zen Radicals, Rebels and Reformers
By Perle Besserman and Manfred Steger.
Shambhala Publications, Inc: Boston, 1991,
240 pp., paper, $12.95.

Perle Besserman and Manfred Steger have put together a most entertaining and lively collection of eight wild and crazy Zen masters (Layman P’ang, Rinzai, Bassui, Ikkyu, Bankei, Hakuin, Nyogen Senzaki, and Soen Nakagawa), the epithet “Crazy Cloud” being Ikkyu’s nom de plume. The scholarship combines admirable knowledge of the history of Zen Buddhism with incisive sociopolitical commentary that successfully situates these eccentric teachers within a broader cultural context.

The problem with this book is its flawed polemical purpose. “Crazy Cloud Zen” is seen as having important implications for contemporary American Zen as well as contemporary Western society in general.

That these masters do in fact constitute such a Zen is not so much argued as assumed to be self-evident; I do not think it is. The lack of clarity in the definition of Crazy Cloud Zen has turned what would otherwise have been a delightful and extremely well-written work into a failed polemic. The chapters on the Zen teachers are first-rate; it is the introduction and the epilogue that present difficulties. But the authors announce their polemical purpose in the introduction as follows:

. . . these archetypal “Crazy Clouds” will particularly appeal to the contemporary Zen student steeped in western norms of individualism, political engagement, liberation theology, feminism, and the destructuralization of all hierarchy, whether religious or social. These revolutionary Zen men are apt models for our own revolutionary times.

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