Susan Murphy, Upside-down Zen (Somerville, MA: Wisdom Publications, 2009). Paperback, 270pp.
I came to this one in hard times. An old friend of mine, who I had not seen in years, was dying; I was under enough stress that I considered a full year off overseas, to write; and I was on the verge of realizing I had to leave yet another girlfriend.
It was this old friend who helped pull me back closer to Zen after several years away from my sangha and my practice. We were both students of Susan Murphy’s, and it seemed time to read this at last.
So I didn’t read it from beginning to end, but picked out the chapters that spoke to me at the time, then filled in the gaps. I started with “Accept all offers,” and sitting with it in my lunchtime cafÃ©, I cried. Life called me, then, to lose. My friend would die (I would die!); my career may change; I might walk away from every chance at love in my whole life, if I was happy with none of them. But you have to walk *into* this; if you reject it, you lose everything.
Upside-down Zen is different from many Zen books you may have encountered. It is hardly at all a manual for meditation, much as it speaks of the importance of zazen. Susan, like her fellow roshis in the Diamond Sangha tradition to which she belongs, is a lay teacher: she has other work, a family–she is a householder. She is also a great teacher of the koan path, which pursues insight into the great matter of life, death, and the essential nature that we all share, through contemplation of stories that point directly at the truth, and draw us into greater intimacy with all things.
Perhaps it is just because of the time at which I read it, but this book strikes me as especially valuable because it encourages readers to use their troubles as a door to enlightenment. In this vision, nothing is ever wasted or out of place. It is a book for those who want to live the Zen way, and also, because of that, for anyone who wants to be more authentic and more truly alive and aware.