“The Circle of the Way: A Concise History of Zen from the Buddha to the Modern World” by Barbara O’Brien

The Circle of the Way: A Concise History of Zen from the Buddha to the Modern, Barbara O'Brien (Shambhala, November 2019) The Circle of the Way: A Concise History of Zen from the Buddha to the Modern, Barbara O'Brien (Shambhala, November 2019)

What is Zen? If it were really just enigmatic aphorisms such as “I swallowed up all the Buddhas and Patriarchs / Without ever using my mouth” as an answer to the equally enigmatic question “The ten thousand things return to one; to what does the one return?” then presumably it would have not engaged the West as much as it evidently has. And there must be more to it than practitioners like Linji Yixuan (d. 866), who was famous for “shouting, nose tweaking, and smacking students with his horsehair whisk,” an almost stereotypical example of the eccentric Zen master: Zen cannot merely be “the sound of one hand clapping” or the noise of a tree falling in the forest when there’s no-one to hear it.

All these questions and many more are eloquently and engagingly answered by Barbara O’Brien in her witty, entertaining yet scholarly book, which fills a gaping hole for general readers in what they might know about the long history and development of this Buddhist practice, which might be succinctly described as seeking enlightenment through meditation and intuition rather than by means of scriptures or logic. O’Brien may have called the book “concise”, but don’t be fooled by that—this is a comprehensive and wide-ranging work which will certainly expand Western readers’ ideas and understanding of Zen.


O’Brien, herself a long-time practitioner, writes of the conflicts between rival Zen schools, its internal contradictions and connections with political events. As part of her engaging approach to a complicated subject, she tells illuminating stories about Zen monks, nuns and lay people, which illustrate the teachings of Zen masters in an accessible, sometimes droll and always interesting way. She tells , for example, of the legendary (or real—O’Brien isn’t quite sure) First Patriarch, Bodhidharma, who sat in a cave for nine years and tore off his eyelids so he wouldn’t fall asleep, as well as Dazu Huike (487-593), who thought Bodhidharma wasn’t paying him enough attention and resorted to cutting off his own arm to get it after first standing all night freezing in the snow outside Bodhidharma’s cave. He became the Second Patriarch, which we may suppose proves that persistence and a dramatic gesture sometimes pays off.

O’Brien contextualizes her discussion with an introduction and a chapter on the development of Buddhism before Zen, in which she shows how it spread from India to China, how Buddhist scriptures were preserved and how “chanting lineages” handed down from one master to another were committed to writing and subsequently developed in Sri Lanka (the Pali canon) and India itself (Sanskrit). The oldest actual scroll fragments, however, were, confusingly, discovered in the 1990s in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and were written neither in Pali nor Sanskrit, but Gandhari, and these were used for the first Chinese translations, dating from about 147 CE. “In Buddhism,” O’Brien tells us, “scriptures are to truth what a road sign is to a destination.” This means that we cannot look at them as having “divine inspiration,” as Christians may regard their Bible; indeed “Buddha [in, for example, the Pali Suttapitaka–JB] advises us not to believe anything on someone else’s authority but to realise the truth of it for ourselves.”

Furthermore, unlike Christianity, Zen doesn’t really emphasise doctrines, or sets of beliefs, which is part of its appeal to Westerners, but may also provide them with a means to misunderstanding or misinterpretation of what Zen actually is. This is what happened to Buddhism in general when Western scholars and readers began to discuss it; as O’Brien states, “they began to impose on it their own ideas of what it should be.” It seems that they believed Buddha had “original” teachings which had been obscured over the centuries by commentators, interpreters and mystical utterances of various kinds, and that when one stripped these away, “Buddhism” (a term coined in 1797 by Francis Buchanan-Hamilton, a surgeon and botanist who spent years in India) would look very much like contemporary humanism. It helped, of course, that Buddhism did not promote belief in any kind of  supreme “God” or creator.


As far as the West nowadays is concerned, though, O’Brien feels that in general there has been “a great dumbing down of Zen and of Buddhism generally,” caused either by people with inadequate knowledge or background but with strong opinions, or that “some lineages are giving ordinations and transmissions much too freely.” She also cautions against reducing Zen to a few choice aphorisms, abandoning tradition (hence knowing the importance of Zen’s history) or not having a teacher and practicing Zen (or any Buddhism) after reading a couple of books. Indeed, the present state of Zen, particularly in the West, she tells us, may be described as “messy.”

Given all this, we need to ask how did Zen Buddhism come into being? It makes claims to have a lineage that goes back even further than the time of Buddha himself, but that claim cannot be substantiated. What we do know is that zen is a Japanese term, and that it was the equivalent of the Chinese word chan, itself a rendering of the Sanskrit word dhyana, which, O’Brien tells us, denotes “a deeply absorbed meditative state.” Knowing where the name comes from doesn’t make it any easier to define Zen, however, as O’Brien well knows. “Trying to understand Zen through the written word is foolish,” she writes; “Zen is a practice of directly engaging with reality without conceptual filters,” and concludes that “Words and letters are representations of reality, not reality itself, and they can’t be relied on alone.” To make things more confusing, Zen originally developed in Confucian China, where veneration for scriptures, poems, commentaries and the like was encouraged, and it cannot be said that Zen actively discourages its practitioners from studying these things, but rather says that they should not rely on them. Zen is “one stream” of Buddhism, which is “not a belief system, a philosophy, or something that can be done in isolation. It is the ongoing, collaborative effort of the students and teachers, the monastics and laypeople.”


O’Brien lays out the whole history of Zen in a book of manageable length written in highly-accessible language, a book which is going to be essential reading for those generally interested in Zen as well as practitioners who may not be familiar with its development and history, such as how Zen fared in Korea and Vietnam , both of which countries have their own Zen masters, lineages and traditions which have been exported to the West along with the more familiar Japanese version.Thich Nhat Hanh, author of many widely-popular books, is perhaps the best-known Vietnamese teacher alive today.

We can read about the conflicts which arose within the schools (see, for example, “Shen Hui rocks the lineage boat”), and how Zen nuns, whose history and contributions were often devalued by a patriarchal hierarchy within the practice, defied some of the “masters” and went their own way. Some of these are discussed in the on “Zen in the Late T’ang Dynasty”, where O’Brien tells the stories of Liu Tiemo, aka “the Iron Grindstone”, Miaoxin and Moshan Liaoran, who, unfortunately, is only remembered because “she transmitted the dharma to a man, Guanzhi Zhixian.” In modern times, the role of women in Zen has become more acceptable and prominent, but there have recently been revelations of sexual exploitation by some Zen masters; in 1977, for example, Maurine Myo-on Stuart, “one of Western Zen’s great matriarchs”, parted ways with her Japanese teacher because of it, and Richard Baker, abbot of the San Francisco Zen Center, resigned in 1984 because of “sexual and financial improprieties”.

Yet, for all this, Zen is very much alive and well in the modern world, although O’Brien has some very real difficulties with the way it’s presented. For example, it, along with Buddhism in general, “lacks a consistent way to present teachings … to people who aren’t living in temples,” and often makes the assumption that Western practices are somehow “modern”, while Asian practices are old-fashioned and too “traditional.” O’Brien cautions against over-modernization; “I suggest,” she says, “that Asians adopt Western styles and Westerners keep the Asian ones.” She concludes, however, that “the last thing we need right now is a style committee.”

The monk Kaso Sodon (1352-1428) once aid to his pupil Ikkyu Sojun (1394-1481), an eminent Zen teacher nicknamed “Crazy Cloud” “who remains so popular in Japan that he has been portrayed in anime … and manga”, that he only had “the understanding of a beginner”, Ikkyu replied, “In that case, I am content to be a beginner,” to which Kaso rejoined, “Ah! You are a master after all.”