Zen Traces

Exploring the American Zen with Twain and Thoreau

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Kenneth Kraft
  • Philadelphia, PA: 
    Paul Dry Books
    , June
     175 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


The book Zen Traces: Exploring American Zen with Twain and Thoreau is a wonderful example of the creative work that can originate when a scholar combines his academic interest and knowledge with broader societal developments, and when he decides to share scholarly insights with a non-academic public. In this book, Buddhist scholar Kenneth Kraft relates two traditional Eastern Zen practices to literary passages from 19th century Western writers, and also with contemporary phrases, aiming to bridge the traditional and the modern, and the East with the West.

The main aim of the book is to show readers that contemporary Zen practices merge the East and the West. While that sounds odd at first, the book does manage to live up to this assertion. Kraft explores two modes of Zen practice, namely koans (a spiritual paradox that needs to be solved intuitively) and capping phrases (a trenchant comment). Both modes are meditative practices which reveal deeper truths about oneself and the world, eventually guiding an individual towards enlightenment. The contemporariness of these two ancient practices is illustrated by combining them with four “building blocks”: traditional Zen, present-day Zen, and the writings of two American writers, namely Henry David Thoreau and Mark Twain. 

Zen Traces starts with a short introductory chapter, in which the aims and the structure of the book are explained. After this, two parts follow. Part 1 consists of 108 (notice the symbolic number used here) short passages from contemporary American Zen teachers, such as Peter Matthiessen, Charlotte Joko Beck, Jan Chozen Bays, and Joan Sutherland. These passages are coupled with short “capping phrases” from the works of Mark Twain. Reading the two passages together, the reader is tasked to think differently about the mundane, the transcendent, and anything in between. Part 2 consists of sixty-eight combinations of passages from Thoreau’s writings with a traditional Zen capping phrase, collected from books such as A Zen Grove and Blue Cliff Record and Zen Buddhist teacher,such as Yaoshan Weiyan, Saigyō, and Arakida Moritake. 

By using this twofold structure—which respectively puts the traditional and the modern center stage—Kraft shows how Zen tools are not as “strange” or “Oriental” as they might sound, especially not in our modern, digital lives. We create our own “capping phrases” and modern “koans” on a day to day basis, for example when we write a tweet or create and share a meme. The latter, especially, is an example of a short message which at first might seem humorous, but oftentimes contains within it a deeper meaning. In addition, the struggles behind the traditional koans and capping phrases are arguably universal and timeless, relating to life, death, love, misery, suffering, and other human emotions and conditions. In the same way that reading 19th century literature (and, likewise, contemporary literature) can help bring release or partial answers to life’s big questions, so does reading koans and capping phrases. 

What is most interesting about the book is how it indicates the timelessness of writing, whether it is traditional Zen koans and capping phrases, 19th century literature, or contemporary capping phrases. It does not try to distinguish between these different sources in terms of quality and content. Instead, it indicates the power of writing, the universal nature of being human, and the timeless aspiration to find answers to life’s questions. 

A few comments should be made regarding the intended audience of the book. Coupled with the short introductory chapter, it might seem as if the book was written for a large audience. However, the specific nature of koans, capping phrases, and the particular passages chosen makes the book especially appealing—and perhaps, only understandable—to an audience familiar with Zen meditative practices. In addition, while the koans and capping phrases invite individual contemplation and reflection, they are perhaps best used in dialogue and reflection with others. Lastly, the book seems most appealing to an American audience familiar with the works of Thoreau and Twain. 

Zen Traces is perhaps less “universal” and “timeless” than it hopes to be. Nonetheless, the premise of the universal and timeless nature of Zen practices is illustrated beautifully, and is an open invitation to other scholars to take up the same challenge as Kraft.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Mariske Westendorp is Lecturer in the Department of Religious Studies of Radboud University Nijmegen, and at the Department of Religious Studies at Utrecht Univeristy.

Date of Review: 
September 28, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Kenneth Kraft is Professor Emeritus of Religious Studies at Lehigh University, is a scholar of Japanese Zen and socially engaged Buddhism.


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