As Zen takes root in the West, new forms continue to arise. For centuries Zen masters have tested their students with “koans” and “capping phrases.” A koan is a spiritual paradox that must be solved intuitively. “What is the sound of one hand?” asks a classic koan. A capping phrase is a trenchant comment. Both are meditative practices that reveal deeper truths about the self and, ideally, lead to enlightenment. These Zen tools are not as foreign as they sound. Daily life regularly presents koan-like dilemmas. And, in a culture fond of tweets, hashtags, and memes, the spirit of capping phrases may be making a comeback.
In Zen Traces, Buddhist scholar Kenneth Kraft plays off these practices in a new idiom. He selects passages from four sources: traditional Zen, present-day Zen, Henry David Thoreau, and Mark Twain. Traditional Zen is Asian; present-day Zen merges Asia and the West; Thoreau and Twain are, of course, Westerners. When a koan-like story about a contemporary Zen teacher is paired with a pithy comment by Mark Twain, something fresh emerges. The juxtapositions are surprising, delightful, and maybe even enlightening.
Kenneth Kraft, professor emeritus of religious studies at Lehigh University, is a scholar of Japanese Zen and socially engaged Buddhism.