One day, the Buddha asked his disciples: "How long is life?"
"Maybe fifty years?" replied a disciple.
"Wrong," said Buddha.
Another disciple said, "Months."
"No," Buddha said.
"Days? Weeks?" another disciple suggested.
"Wrong. Wrong," said Buddha. "Not years, not months, not weeks, not days."
Then they asked, "How long is one life?"
"Our life is only as long as one breath."
Thus begins the insightful book, Essential Chan Buddhism: The Spirit and Character of Chinese Zen. It is a collection of some of the vast wisdom from Chan master, Guo Jun. The book is easy to read but not simplistic. Each chapter is relatively short, so it is a great way to begin a book on Buddhism since it prepares the reader to absorb the teachings one at a time, without rushing through. Thus, staying in the present moment. At times, I would break after only reading a paragraph to simply breath and reflect on what I just read. Too often I rush through books without taking breaks to let what I read seep into my heart to be reflected in my actions.
This leads the reader to experience the wisdom personally, through study and contemplation, rather than being told simply what to believe. Master Guo Jun reminds us that true wisdom comes from personal experience and not simply memorizing teachings. That is knowledge, but knowing a lot doesn't mean that we have absorbed the lessons of that knowledge toward changing the way we act. I know some people who are amazingly smart at memorizing the sutras or knowing all the rules but are personally very difficult to interact with because the knowledge has fed their ego. Whereas experiential wisdom is reflected less in what we say and rather in what we do. To quote Master Guo Jun in the book, "Wisdom is expressed in every action, by mere presence."
I have experienced this first-hand with Thich Nhat Hanh. The minute he walks into the room, you feel the energy in the room change. You feel him teaching through his mere presence. His slow and deliberate movements evoke living solely in the present moment. His soft spoken speaking style imparts the wisdom of thinking before you speak, so as to only speak essential words. This teaches me to choose my words wisely, so as to avoid or reduce harmful words.
The book offers much for those new to Buddhism, and insight to long-time Buddhists looking to return to the "Beginners Mind" of Zen Master Shunryu Suzuki. The book doesn't necessarily have to be read front to back. It's easy flip to a random chapter in the book and learn a quick lesson, which is great if you are pressed for time. Overall, I'd recommend this book to beginners, long-time practitioners and especially those looking for direct lessons from the Chan tradition of Buddhism.
~i bow to the buddha within all beings~