Wednesday, September 29, 2010

A Special Review for the Fifteenth Anniversary of the Publication of Lex Hixon’s Living Buddha Zen

(Larson Publications, 1995)


Lex Hixon was a fascinating individual. He studied five religions (he was an initiated Sufi Sheikh, a practicing member of the Eastern Orthodox Church, and was about to be inducted as a priest in the Soto Zen order when he died in 1995) and published seven books. He received his doctorate in world religions from Columbia University. For 13 years he hosted WBAI’s “In the Spirit” radio program, during which time he interviewed both Mother Theresa and the Dalai Lama.
Living Buddha Zen is a commentary on Zen Master Keizan’s Denkoroku: The Record of Transmitting the Light, written in the fourteenth century.
Like most Zen works, with their premise that “ultimately knowing nothing always eclipses knowing anything” (p. 13), this book, and no doubts its predecessor, can be a difficult and oftentimes frustrating read, considering as it does highly abstract concepts such as “nonduality,” “mind,” and “enlightenment,” but Hixon encourages the reader to stay with it with his exuberant and straightforward style of writing. As he says in the Foreword, “questioning… is integral to the practice… Living Buddha Zen is a book of questions” (p. 13).
Being a commentary and meditation on Keizan’s book, Hixon takes the koans (questions that in some sense have no answers, such as “what is the sound of one hand clapping?”) and lectures of the Master and adds his own understanding, including a concluding poem at the end of each of the 52 “transmissions” from one Living Buddha to the next in the Shakyamuni tradition.
The life stories in the Author Introduction of some of these Living Buddhas are truly fascinating. Many were attendants to their predecessors; one gave his eye to a blind beggar while another severed his own arm to cut the root of separate body and mind; yet another did not sleep for three years. At least one was married and had a child, while others lived in caves and monasteries. With each transmission, the understanding of the Living Buddha was thought to grow and deepen, as knowledge was continually accumulated and passed on.
The 52 transmissions are laid out the same, with a koan, a comment, and a closing poem. I used them as daily meditations, reading the koan in the morning, the comment in the afternoon, and the closing poem before sleeping. Although they run only a few pages each, there is much to consider and reading a transmission in a single sitting risks missing the multi-layered meanings and messages.
The following are some of the nuggets of wisdom to be gleaned (and meditated upon):

• “any attempt to exterminate personhood is a spiritual sickness, like anorexia” (p. 52)
• “To exercise any occult power or to immerse the mind in any finite doctrine is to be bound and dragged by a rope” (p. 58; emphasis in original)
• “Student and teacher are like intersecting cords in a fishing net—nodes, not separate strands” (p. 63)
• “Performing nothing is Buddha activity” (p. 121)
• “No one can realize Truth, which is utterly simple, without becoming utterly simple” (p. 157)
• “Even the most subtle sense of self-satisfaction must disappear into laughter” (p. 162)
• “I cannot become it/because it is already me” (p. 184)
• “Here is where you must arrive!” (p. 198)

There is one passage which must be related at length, containing as it does the wonderful mystery of which Hixon speaks so eloquently:

“The father of the young successor introduces his son, Sita, to the present Buddha, explaining that the boy was born with left fist clenched. This strange condition still persists. The Awakened One explains the hidden karmic cause. In a previous existence, Buddha Aryasinha, at that time a simple Buddhist monk, received a small crystal of Perfect Nondual Wisdom, offered to him by the Naga kings of the Western Ocean. The monk entrusted this priceless wisdom treasure to a certain young man named Basia, who guarded it with great loyalty. ‘Now give me back that original gem,’ the present Buddha calmly asks, and immediately Sita’s left hand opens, for the first time since birth, releasing a clear stone.” (p. 124)

Living Buddha Zen ends with a Lineage Chart of the 82 Buddha Ancestors, of which Lex Hixon [Jikai] is the last to be listed. The chart shows the migration from India, to China, Japan, and America.
Although my shelves are filled with many volumes that consider the Great Mystery under many names and disciplines, this is perhaps the most adept at showing that “It is an open secret, concealed only by its complete transparency” (p. 218).

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