Category Archives: jin-Deng

Book Review: Living by Vow

By: Mn. Dr. Brian Jin-Deng Kenna

Living By Vow written by Shohaku Okumura is a wonderful guidebook for any Zen Buddhist Practitioner. Master Okumura has brought the Zen Master out of Japan and into our living room as he weaves some of the common Soto Zen chants and text around the core Buddhist principals as reflected in the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path. Okumura uses his vast knowledge of the Japanese language, customs and culture, mixed into a blender with his years of experience teaching in the West to produce a book that is both practical and relevant for a Buddhist practice in the 21st Century.

Starting with the Bodhisattva Vows, Okumura covers 8 of the chants and vows most central to Soto Zen, and by extension, the Mahayana tradition. Within each chapter of Living by Vow, Okumura provides lessons based on his years of experience and understanding of Buddhist principals. As he gives us a history lesson of the meaning of the English, Japanese and Sanskrit words, and relating them to different legacy teachers interpretations and lessons, or his own, he is breathing new life into chants whose words can become stale over time.

Okumura dedicates 75 pages to the chapter on the Heart Sutta. One of the core fundamental Suttas in Zen Buddhism, yet one of the most difficult to really and truly comprehend. Perhaps a quote from this particular chapter will bring this review full circle:

“In Bodhisattva practice we try to see the reality before separation. When we see the reality of our life, we find that we are not living as an individual substance but are more like a phantom, a bubble, or a flash of lightning, as the Diamond Sutra says. We are phenomena caused by many different elements and factors. We live with the support of all beings. This dynamic interpenetration works constantly. Nothing exists independently. We live together in this universal movement. Our existence is movement. We have to accept this ever-changing reality as our self.” 1  (pg. 189)

As the title states, this is a practical book. Okumura is giving us direct instructions and ways and means that support all aspects of our Buddhist practice. From chanting, to meditation, to making the vows we take real and personal. Not just static words that are recited at a ceremony, but vows and lessons that we should take with us on our personal journey each and every day.

I would absolutely recommend this book for both beginners and advanced practitioners alike. It is a book that one will want to read many times for the important insights on the human condition and Zen practice it contains. If you desire to become more intimate with your Zen practice this book will become a regular source of knowledge and encouragement.


1 Living By Vow, by Shohaku Okumura and Edited by Dave Ellison.  Wisdom Publications 2012

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Learning The Lessons Of Silence

By: Mn. Dr. Brian Jin-Deng Kenna

“Last night I dreamed I was, temporarily, back at Gethsemani. I was dressed in a Buddhist monk’s habit, but with more black and red and gold, a “Zen habit,” in color more Tibetan than Zen… I met some women in the corridor, visitors and students of Asian religion, to whom I was explaining I was a kind of Zen monk and Gelugpa together, when I woke up.” 1    (pg. 107)

As I reflect on my own spiritual journey, one that started on a Christian path and moved to take a new direction at a fork in the road to my present path, I can see many similarities. My experience as an ordained minister and church leader has benefited and in ways shaped my experience as a Buddhist monastic. One of these ways has been in the lesson of silence.

Silence can be a scary thing for many people. Often times we try to fill our days with “noise.” Some people feel the need to fill silence with meaningless conversation, other with background noise from TV or radio.

But what if we embrace silence? What happens then? How can it impact and strengthen our spiritual lives? What is sacred silence and what are the requirements for it?

Well, to begin with we need to start with something else humans have trouble doing. Be Still! We need to stop with our busyness and take time to just Be Still. This is what is first required as the type of silence necessary for self and universal knowledge. It also becomes the purpose of silence to lay the foundation where one can awaken to the realities of the universe including self-knowledge. To become more open and in tune to the expressions the universe uses to show us glimpses of itself and ourselves. Silence apart from this and lacking an intimacy with the universe becomes nothing more than exercise to please and soothe ones ego.

This world we live in is very busy. I would venture to say that much of our communication between people is not done face to face anymore. We have text messages, and emails, and instant messages, as well as old fashioned phone calls and snail mail. We often try to fit these in when we have few moments between meeting, shuffling kids to sports or other events, cooking meals, shopping, etc, etc. The list becomes long and endless. After an amount of time of rushing about and communicating using these modern tech-tools we may begin to lose our ability to communicate in real and meaningful ways that only comes from body language added to our verbal expressions that is unique to what it means to be human. Our ability to personally connect may not be as strong as it once was. This tends to happen when we try to apply our fast food world mentality to the more complicated issues of life and the questions dealing with it.

In my business (work practice) we are often looking for ways to maximize output. We are always “watching the clock” and seeing where precious seconds can be gained. However problems occur when we try to apply this to our personal and spiritual lives. We cannot become efficiency experts in spirituality. We need to move more like a glacier. Slow and with purpose. My teacher Xi-Ken Shi often speaks of the benefits of spiritual retreats as a way to strengthen ones practice because it allows one to do so in a setting that allows us to withdraw into silence and come face to face with universe and ourselves. It is the opposite of what the busy-world teaches us. Instead of hurry up and wait, we need to take time to smell the proverbial roses.

Be Still and Embrace Silence. These two things seem simple in idea but become a real challenge to practice. With all the demands and pressures of life how can we live Be Still and Embrace Silence? Most of us are not living behind the walls of a monastery. Most of us have more on our plates on any given day then we have hours to deal with. But the reality is that many among us do achieve the silence necessary to begin to awaken to universal realities and the discovery of our self natures. Is it easy? Is it fast? Of course not, but what in life that truly means something is easy or comes quickly? It is a dedication to our practice. It is renewing that dedication on a day by day, hour by hour, minute by minute basis. Breaking away from the fast food mentality to a sitting down for a 5 course mean mentality. Silence has much to tell us if we are truly ready to listen.

1 The Asian Journal of Thomas Merton by Thomas Merton, A New Directions Book 1975

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