Book review: No Better Place: A New Zen Primer by Hoag Holmgren. Middle Creek Publishing, 2019.
A sense of great spaciousness is apparent in the first and perhaps definitive sentence of Hoag Holmgren’s No Better Place: “Zen Buddhism is a path of waking up to the vastness of who you are.” Immediately Holmgren encourages us to become expansive, to relinquish our limitations, to meet the blue sky in its untrammeled heights.
Subtitled A New Zen Primer, Holmgen’s book comprises sixty-four pithy chapters occasionally verging into epigram (“If reason is an ornithologist, Zen is a raven”). Along with some basic instruction in zazen, it offers a series of lapidary comments on the nature of Zen practice and its functioning, enjoining us to become ever more open and to let go our needless hindrances. Included also are commentaries on the Ten Oxherding Pictures, a collection of paintings from 12th-century China that depict the stages of practice and realization from the seeker’s first inklings of Buddha nature to the full realization of the awakened bodhisattva acting unselfconsciously in the world.
In form and style, No Better Place reminds me most of the work of Robert Aitken, in particular his last book, Miniatures of a Zen Master, a collection of ever-profound musings published toward the end of Aitken’s life. As in Miniatures, Holmgren is unafraid to leave space on the page, to give us room to consider just a few sentences at a time, as one would read a poem. This isn’t a mad dash from page to page; it’s a cup of cold spring water, relished one swallow at a time.
The resemblance between the books may be no coincidence. Holmgren has trained for many years with Danan Henry Roshi, the founding teacher of our own Zen Center of Denver, and Henry in turn trained initially with Philip Kapleau and later with Aitken, becoming sanctioned as a Diamond Sangha teacher. So there is a direct practice connection here, a transmission of understanding as well as style. Along with several quotations from Aitken, we also find anecdotes from the lives of Kapleau and Henry (including a striking story from the latter describing an experience during his time with Harada Tangen Roshi in Japan). The stream flows on and on; the Dharma wind flies unhindered from Japan to Hawaii to the Colorado Rockies.
Like Aitken’s work, too, No Better Place is deceptively simple on its face. I remember reading Aitken’s Taking the Path of Zen and thinking, “Well, sure. This is all stuff I already sort of knew.” But prior to reading it, much that it discussed was vague to me. It provided clear instruction in zazen combined with a small course in Dharma, expressed with concision and elegance. And while primarily written in prose, Aitken’s work looked to poetry for its inspiration, via numerous quotations and lyrical phrasing. Consider, from No Better Place:
“The solution to the problem of life is seen in the vanishing of this problem,” says Ludwig Wittgenstein. Indeed, there are no tidy answers to the big questions. But when there is no highway of thinking cutting you off from the world, there is also no paradox about life and death. There is just intimacy. In the deep-water stillness of zazen, this means that there is just breathing. The breath devours you. You don’t know if you’re breathing the breath or if the breath is breathing you. Off the meditation cushion this means that there is only the lone coyote trotting across the dirt road. There is no detached observer categorizing and labeling. There’s just taking care of a sick child. Just mourning the loss of a loved one. Just watering the garden and pulling weeds. Just this hook of moon rising above the trees, closer than your hand.
A quotation (No Better Place is replete with them, from wide-ranging sources) sparks a reflection on stillness and intimacy; general statements yield to concrete images at once evocative yet rooted in everyday experience (“this hook of moon rising above the trees”). Or consider again, in the book’s most explicit instruction:
The zazen posture, whether on a cushion or in a chair, is a straight back, an alert forward-facing head, eyes half open and softly focused, the gaze lowered. The lower back gently and naturally curves in. Breathing is comfortably anchored in the belly. The left hand rests on the right hand, palms up, thumb tips touching lightly to make a soft circle or oval. The mind’s allegiance shifts to the breath, to the awareness of bodily sensations, to the immediacy of what’s actually occurring right now, here. In this way, zazen is a voyage. There is no departure and no arrival but belief, faith and views are left behind. It’s a journey of verifying via direct experience what the Buddha verified: that you and all rivers, mountains, spiral galaxies, and beings have the same last name.
In these oft-repeated physical instructions, one cannot but hear an echo of Dogen’s Fukanzazengi:
At the site of your regular sitting, spread out a thick mat and place a firm round cushion on it. Sit on the cushion in either the full lotus or half-lotus posture. In the full lotus posture, you first place your right foot on your left thigh and your left foot on your right thigh. …
Having adjusted your body in this manner, take a deep breath and exhale fully, sway your body left and right several times, and settle into an immobile sitting posture. Then sit firmly as a rock and think of not-thinking. How do you think of not-thinking? By not thinking. This is the very basis of zazen.
The form of zazen has not changed much, or indeed at all, and our practice is the practice of the ancients – of the ancient “spiral galaxies,” even. The limitless universe bows and returns to its seat. What could be better?