If the now ubiquitous practice of “mindfulness” is essentially a kind of corporatised variant of Buddhism-lite, you could see Japanese Zen as its full fat (and, less bland) antecedent. Practiced in Japan from the seventh century to the present day, and taught to succeeding generations via one-on-one mentorship, Zen is a form of practical spirituality with extended meditation, or zazen at its core.
Though it’s been present in some form or other in the West since the 19th century, and, since then, exerted a considerable influence on everything from Beat poetry to conceptual art – Messrs Jack Kerouac, John Cage and Allen Ginsberg were all fans – many of Zen’s teachings have been simplified, or obfuscated or lost in translation on their way across the Pacific. The journey from Zen to mindfulness is particularly good case study. Where mindfulness encourages self-awareness, Zen asks its practitioners to consider selfhood as part of the continuum of mundane reality. Where mindfulness focuses on compassion, Zen expects a stance of absolute relativity. And where mindfulness is presented as a quick fix, a cure, a solution, Japanese Zen requires that its novices to answer a compendium of un-answerable questions, or koans, before they can be considered to have achieved understanding.
Newly reissued this month by the ever-reliable New York Review Of Books, Mr Yoel Hoffmann’s The Sound Of The One Hand: 281 Zen Koans With Answers is a 1975 translation of an early 20th-century text that collects key koans traditionally used for Zen training in Japan. These koans were designed to be verbally transmitted from master to pupil, as part of an ongoing – and private – meditative practice (hence the fury of the Zen community when the title was originally published) and offer a fascinating insight into the philosophy of Zen, which relies on such practices, as opposed to a set of fixed scriptures or doctrines. Read now, against a backdrop of meditating CEOs, grinning wellness practitioners and digital media’s crushing onslaught of inspirational and self-actualising messages, these inscrutable riddles, carefully constructed to trap the student in misunderstanding, feel wonderfully rigorous, clear-sighted and illuminating.