Sit: Zen Teachings of Master Taisen Deshmiaru
Edited by Philippe Coupey
Hohm Press: Prescott, Arizona, 1996.
375 pp., $19.95 (paper).

Taisen Deshimaru, the Japanese Zen Master who brought a new kind of Zen to Europe in the 1970s, was an unusual missionary: a teacher without official sanction, but with a surplus of charisma. A protégé of Kodo Sawaki, who had himself shunned the Japanese Soto establishment, Deshimaru taught a Dogen-based Zen that aimed at cutting through intellectualism of all sorts—whether Cartesian rationalism or the elaborate mind-riddles so beloved by bohemian intellectual circles in the West.

Deshimaru was both a rebel and a purist. Through sheer force of character, he succeeded in making zazen seem suddenly interesting to a wide range of French and expatriate New Age intellectuals. In the process, he spawned a far-flung Zen movement with outposts over the European continent and Britain.

Deshimaru, like his hero Dogen, was an apostate of Rinzai Zen, and one has the impression that Deshimaru seems never to have quite gotten over his experiences in varous Japanese Rinzai monasteries.

One morning this kyosakuman hit me on top of the head by mistake. I became mad, like the crazy woman here, and grabbed the kyosaku from him and began hitting him back with it. Everyone in the dojo jumped up to stop me. But at that time, I was second Dan in Kendo—a champion—and I attacked everyone with the stick. Then quickly I escaped from the temple, crying out “Zen is not true Buddhism! Zen is complete violence!” The dojo had been transformed into a battlefield.

The structure and form of Sit, Philippe Coupey’s new book about Deshimaru, fits its subject/author perhaps all too well. Unlike the trimmer, more focused Penguin/Arkana volumes (The Zen Way to the Martial Arts and Questions to a Zen Master) put together by Deshimaru’s now deceased follower Nan Shin (Nancy Amphoux), Coupey’s book rambles through several introductory talks aimed at newcomers at each of the four sesshins conducted by Deshimaru in the French Alps during the last six weeks of the summer of 1978, and pointedly includes minor and major “disturbances” of the meditative process: a woman who goes crazy and has to be carted off by the Roshi’s assistants, a feud initiated by an about-to-be-ordained American woman athlete over a haircut administered by a fellow participant, the disciplining of the “permanents” (the retreat staff liked to hang out until the wee hours at the local discotheque). Not to mention the couple found having sex in the rooms instead of coming to morning zazen. These disturbances provide a rather pedestrian reality check on Deshimaru’s meandering expository lectures about Dogen, Rinzai, and various points of doctrine and practice. The question-and-answer sessions are the liveliest and most intriguing sections of the book. Deshimaru at his best is funny, defiant, self-deprecating, and lyrical. At his worst, he seems arrogant, macho, and arbitrary.

While it is a record of a series of practice retreats, Sit is not, overall, a “practical” book. The basic theme of the summer sesshins is a comparison of the Rinzai and Soto schools of Zen. Not surprisingly, Rinzai does not come off well. Deshimaru calls it “negligent Zen”—“wild, rough, and indelicate,” whereas Dogen’s Soto Zen is “scrupulous, careful, attentive, and delicate.” Practitioners of Rinzai Zen, says Deshimaru, are constantly seeking satori, “always running after something with their personal wills.”

To Deshimaru, satori is nothing more than the return to and the realization of our “normal condition.” Of course, it may be very difficult to “realize” this condition. In the end, says Deshimaru, it all comes down to posture: “If your posture is exact, then your body and mind will return to the normal condition.” No one comes in for greater criticism by Deshimaru than D. T. Suzuki, who is dismissed as an effete academic, more interested in the analysis of koans than the practice of zazen.

In all, Deshimaru’s philosophic stance is muddled and anti-psychological. Nevertheless, it is a living, pulsing, challenging provocation, and therein lies its value.

About this non-thinking, please, think from the bottom of non-thinking—this is how you must think. Don’t think from the bottom of non-thinking, said Dogen. Don’t think about thinking. Think don’t think. Both. This is hishiryo. This is the secret of Zen.

Statements such as these can be easily parodied, of course—his fuzzy spontaneity and theatrics overemphasized and his religious rigor unremarked. Deshimaru died some fifteen years ago, and these talks were given nearly twenty years ago. From Europe, we hear little of the Western descendants of Deshimaru. One can only hope that he did not represent the end of his own line.

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