Zen in the American Grain
Kyogen Carlson
Station Hill: Barrytown, New York (1994).
118 pp., $9.95 (paper).

A Japanese Buddhist monk once told me that the experience of spiritual awakening is like flying in a rocket to the moon. Until a rocket leaves the earth’s gravitational field, it must expend tremendous energy to propel itself upward. However once it moves out into space, the rocket is floating weightless, and as it nears the moon, a new gravitational force takes over, carrying it effortlessly to its destination.

In the same way, until we transcend relative, conditioned patterns of thinking, Buddhist practice is difficult; but as we emerge into the purity of a higher level of consciousness, a new force envelopes us. If this analogy holds true not only for the individual but for a society, then the rocket that is American Buddhism has lifted off and is rapidly ascending. Still, it has not yet broken free from the limited, intellectual atmosphere of its own assumptions.

Kyogen Carlson
Kyogen Carlson


In Kyogen Carlson’s thoughtful book Zen in the American Grain, the action of both these forces is reflected: the powerful self-propelling engine of sincere enthusiasm, and the weight of habitual, unconscious ways of perceiving the world. Carlson is one of a young “second generation” of Buddhist teachers – heads of temples who have practiced and trained primarily in North America. Zen in the American Grain is a record of insights and experience gained through ten years of training in a Soto Zen monastery in northern California, and in the struggle to establish a small independent temple in Portland, Oregon. This honest autobiographical account is important not only because of the deeper vision of life that it offers, but also for what it suggests about the present condition of Buddhism in North America.

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