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I want to strongly recommend a new Zen book. The book is Turning Words: Transformative Encounters with Buddhist Teachers (Shambhala) by Hozan Alan Senauke, currently Abbot of the Berkeley Zen Center. This book is brilliant, a masterpiece. It features illuminating comments from and about thirty-four worthy people, mostly notable Zen teachers or practitioners. These include inspiring Asian teachers such as H.H. the Dalai Lama, Sulak Sivaraksa from Sri Lanka, Thich Nhat Hanh, Ambedkar, Hoitsu Suzuki Roshi, son of Shunryu Suzuki Roshi who founded S.F. Zen Center, and Hoitsu’s wife Chitose. Indeed, more than any other American Zen teacher I know of, Alan Senauke has spent extensive time in Asia, teaching, learning, and supporting Buddhist social activists there. Alan set up his Clear View Project, a worthy non-profit that assists many in Asia.

Among the many American teachers included are Alan’s teacher Sojun Mel Weitsman, Bernie Glassman riffing on Lebowski, “There are no truths, just opinions,” my teacher Tenshin Reb Anderson describing his shared experience of aliveness with Alan after a talk by Kobun Chino as “Dharma Joy.” Also included are Joan Halifax expressing “genuine tenderness” as “seeing the world clearly—and letting the world see into us,” along with Joanna Macy, Aitken Roshi, Maylie Scott, Dainin Katagiri- “keep your mouth shut and look directly at impermanence,” Joseph Goldstein, David Chadwick, Paul Discoe, Jarvis Masters, and numerous others. Full disclosure, I have been friends with Alan going back to 1968 on the Upper West Side in New York City. So I would have appreciated his book no matter what. But I was astonished at how truly fine it is. However, I must clarify that this book is not at all, or certainly not only, a collection of profiles about the people included, as in other books of a similar genre. Rather, this is a deeply personal book, describing brief statements or “turning words” heard by Alan from each person, including his own father asking, “Are you happy?” Alan describes his own responses to all these encounters, so that in some essential way all the entries actually are about Alan.

An exception to the brief, sketchy entries is an extensive profile of lessons from his own beloved teacher, Sojun Mel Weitsman, such as to “let things fall apart” and “don’t treat anything like an object.”

I was delighted that Alan also had the chutzpah to include among all these luminaries an extensive chapter on Hozan Alan Senauke himself! Additionally, Alan includes a section on his wife, Laurie Senauke, now also a transmitted Zen teacher who I had the pleasure to practice with at Tassajara Monastery for a few years back in the mid-80s.

Click here to go to Shambala’s website to purchase the book.

Enjoy this book, as I will enjoy re-reading it.


Taigen Dan Leighton