Zen Master Who?

James Ishmael Ford’s Zen Master Who? is a quick run through the major schools of Zen represented in the United States. (There’s a lot of territory to cover, so it has to be at running speed.)

Starting with an outline of the origins of Buddhism, Ford moves on to some of the notable characters in the development of Zen–and they are characters, in the senses of both their semi‐historical status and their quirky individuality. He is careful and comprehensive in describing the predominantly Japanese founders of contemporary, Western Zen, some of whom originally came to the United States to serve Asian communities.

I learned more about those early Zen masters in America that I already knew of, and also learned of a few more. But the most interesting parts of the book were where Ford gives short biographies of major contemporary Zen masters, describing how they came to Buddhism and who they studied with, placing them in the context of their Buddhist lineages; and where Ford considers the current state and direction of liberal, Western Zen.

One thing I was hoping for, which was not a focus of the book, was a deeper explanation of the titles and names used in Buddhism. The book has a glossary, and Ford does acknowledge the titling and naming conventions, but he doesn’t really explain them–and he certainly doesn’t break down names of individuals to clear up which words are titles, which are birth names, and which are names given during Buddhist transitions. (I kept imagining a book titled Queen Who?, which might detail the origins of the British monarchy, describe major monarchs, and briefly outline the genealogy of the current and recent generations, but fail to help the reader understand why Princess Michael of Kent is called Princess Michael of Kent.)

My only other complaint is poor editing. The book uses stock phrases (i.e., “(about whom, more below)”) to excess, and there are a few places where better copyediting was called for.