Three Pillars of Zen


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Through explorations of the three pillars of Zen--teaching, practice, and enlightenment--Roshi Philip Kapleau presents a comprehensive overview of the history and discipline of Zen Buddhism. This established classic is by the spiritual director of the Rochester Zen Center, one of the oldest and most influential Zen centers in the United States. 1 CD.

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Nov 24, 2017

Searching For Mu

There is a famous Zen koan (a Zen paradox which the student of Zen must resolve on the path to enlightenment) known as Mu. As recounted in this book (page 82) it goes like this: "A monk in all seriousness asked Joshu "has a dog Buddha-nature or not?" Joshu retorted "Mu!"

A great deal in Philip Kapleau's book discusses the Koan Mu and its role in Zen -- or some forms of Zen. Kapleau was trained as a court reporter and served as a court reporter after WW II for the war crimes trials in Nuremberg and Tokyo. While in Japan, he became interested in Buddhism.

In 1953 at the age of 46 Kapleau gave up his business and his possessions in New York City to travel to Japan to study Zen. He remained in Japan for 16 years. Upon returning to the United States he founded the Rochester Zen Center and published "The Three Pillars of Zen". Over the years, the book has been instrumental in introducing Americans to Zen. The book has appeared in a 25th anniversary edition and in this 35th anniversary edition.

And why Zen? Why the Koan Mu? The most valuable part of this book is the freshness, enthusiasm, and zeal which Kapleau brought to his subject 35 years ago and which strikes the reader today. In describing his own experiences and the experiences of other students set out in the book, Kapleau gives a good picture of the discontent and the suffering -- arising from an experience of death, illness, restlessness, or disillusion -- that lead him to leave his established life in 1953 and search for meaning in Zen. The discussion in the book (never stated explicitly) of why people look to Zen and how Zen responds to the needs of its seekers is what gives meaning to the book.

The book describes long hours, months and years of sitting in monasteries. Another excellent feature of the book is Kapleau's realistic picture of the rigors of Zen life. This is something that, with the spread of Zen in the United States, might be too easily forgotten. Kapleau emphasizes the long hours of painful sitting, the use of the rod to strike students during the sitting to keep them awake, the sometimes stormy and discouraging interviews with the master teacher -- or roshi, and the frustrations and difficulties in wrestling with the Koan Mu and other Zen teaching techniques. He describes how some people, after deep effort attain to a degree of realization. He does not stint the difficulty and endlessness of the process, which ultimately returns the seeker to himself and to living in the everyday.

The book itself includes materials from a variety of sources including introductory lectures on Zen by one of Kapleau's teachers, Yasutani Roshi, a commentary on Mu, a discussion of the famous Zen "oxherding" pictures, and much more. For me, the most revealing section of the book was the discussion in Part II of "Eight Contemporary Enlightenment Experiences of Japanese and Westerners". These discussions gave me some insight, I think, into what the Zen path was about. I particularly learned from Kapleau's own account of his experience and from the account of the woman who became his wife.

Another excellent part of the book is the enlightenment letters written by a young woman named Yaekeo Iwasaki on her deathbed to her teacher, Harada-Roshi. The letters are poignant and Harada-Roshi's comments are revealing.

In reading this book, I saw that the Zen path was difficult and not for everyone. I learned something of it and about why people are attracted to it. Zen and other forms of Buddhism have made great strides in the United States since Kapleau wrote his book. The Three Pillars of Zen survives due to its sincerity and freshness. It can't be institutionalized. Every seeker must find his own path -- find Mu -- for him or herself.

Robin Friedman

Susan T

Dec 26, 2013

Great Book

I got the book quickly. The only thing I didn't like is that I got an older edition. The cover was not like the one displayed on the website next to the book description.


Apr 1, 2007

Incredibly enlightening

I first read this book over ten years ago and it blew my mind, I had goosebumps on my skin as I read about Zen, how to meditate and what was possible through this process. I love this book, will always love this book, it opened up a whole new world for me.

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