Levan Center for Humanities

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   Levan Humanities Review

Volume 5, Issue 1, 2017
Wholeheartedly Present:  A Review of Tim Burkett's

Nothing Holy About It: The Zen of Being Just Who You Are

Gary Enns
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           In Nothing Holy about It: The Zen of Being Just Who You Are (2015), Tim Burkett compiles insights and reflections on a lifetime of Zen practice. Guiding teacher of the Minnesota Zen Center and a licensed psychologist, Burkett illuminates Zen wisdom with personal narratives, anecdotes about his well-known Zen teachers Shunryu Suzuki and Dainin Katagiri, and reflections on poetry, parables, koans, art, and 60’s pop music.

          The book is divided into five parts, ordered in an intuitive way which roughly parallels the various stages of experience as one continues a Zen practice: Part 1, Commitment to the Unknown, illumines the first step for any serious practitioner—confronting and practicing in the midst of uncertainty; Part 2, Calling in the Shards, focuses on the honest, unflinching look inward to which commitment leads; Part 3, When Snow Falls, It Falls on Everything, addresses continued practice through life’s hardships, using discomfort and even pain to cultivate more equanimity; Part 4, Staying on the Track—Even when the Sun Rises in the West, encourages practitioners to stick to their commitment as the mind continues to awaken to life beyond the small self; and lastly, Part 5, Time Dissolving into Timelessness, concentrates on seeing the world as it is, as timeless and undifferentiated—not through ratiocination but through stillness and openness developed through an authentic Zen practice.   

          The book is replete with insights and entertaining moments, and in them Suzuki—author of the influential Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind and one of the most influential Zen teachers in the West—shines brightest as an animated, funny, fully human Zen master, complete with flaws and eccentricities, capable of delivering the Dharma even in unlikely moments.

          In one instance, Burkett relates a dream he had about Suzuki rolling, acrobat-like, into the dojo, passing two gigantic and surreal “Zen guys” sitting “like great mountains and taking up the whole zendo” (220). Suzuki, a tiny man brimming with joy and full of ease, tumbles around these stoic figures, smiling, beckoning Tim to join him, to experience the true happiness of life.

          This dream, like all stories in the book, contains a potent message: living Zen means living authentically, joyously, being exactly who you are rather than striving to be something you are not.

          At one point in Part 4, the section of the book focusing on continued commitment, Burkett interprets cosmic bodhisattvas—traditionally objects of devotion in some Buddhist lineages—as essential archetypes within us all and useful to Zen practitioners: Maitreya, the icon of hope and intentionality, inspires us to stay on the path of practice even through pain and hardship (205-06); Manjusri, the bodhisattva of beginner’s mind, is practice itself which naturally cuts away “old ideas, opinions, and patterns” and keeps new patterns from developing (207); Avalokiteshvara, the spirit of compassion unstuck in time and form, is our naturally compassionate self which is “wholeheartedly present” once we embody the spirit of Manjusri (208-10); and Samantabhadra, the bodhisattva of great activity, is wholehearted engagement (211) in whatever we do. Through stories and examples, Burkett brings down to earth these abstract, greater-than-life figures and encourages us to see ourselves and our developing practice reflected in them.

          The provocative statement in Burkett’s title, Nothing Holy about It, reveals its practical nature steadily throughout the book: when we make some things holy, then the rest becomes unholy. Zen, rather than dividing, rejecting, and accepting, uses everything, includes everything, is intimate with all of existence, without boundary. Burkett points to the here-and-now, to this moment, as the universe, and we can care for it as we care for ourselves if we open up to it through practice. Zen means being just who we are, with open hearts, neither good nor bad, neither holy nor unholy: simple, unadorned, joyous, every day.

          Nothing Holy about It is an engaging, thoughtfully structured collection of wisdom and stories recommended for practitioners intent on deepening their understanding of Zen and for anyone interested in understanding the practical, here-and-now Zen way of life.


Work Cited

Burkett, Tim. Nothing Holy About It: The Zen of Being Just Who You Are. Shambhala, 2015.

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