Zen & Kids’ Books
Zen teacher Shunryu Suzuki repeatedly encouraged his students to acquire “Beginner’s Mind”
In the most remarkable picture book I have seen in years, author Mark Reibstein endeavors to explain the Japanese term “wabi sabi.” This difficult-to-translate phrase describes a kind of ordinary beauty and Reibstein links it to the “pleasing simplicity” of the Sixteenth Century tea master Sen no Rikyu who preferred handmade clay cups over luxurious gold-and-lacquer chinaware. He also links the term with “wistfulness,” a characteristic of the three-line poem known as the haiku made most famous by the Seventeenth Century Zen monk Matsuo Basho. Here’s an example:
How many, many things
They bring to mind —
Reibstein lived in Kyoto and throughout this book his love of that ancient Japanese city is evident. Here is the story of a cat named Wabi Sabi who goes on a journey to discover the meaning of her name (wandering to such well known Kyoto locales as Mount Hei and Ginkakuji) and meeting various animals who offer their own explanations. Throughout this travel narrative, Reibstein intersperses haiku by Basho and his successor Masaoka Shiki.
It is the design of the book and its illustrations, however, that makes this offering extraordinary. The volume resembles a Japanese artifact. First, you need to turn the book 90 degrees and read it the long way; with each turn of the page, you encounter something like a Japanese scroll. Each of these is a masterful collage so wonderfully done that they seem to have textures; indeed, my young reading companion often touched the pages out of curiosity. One of the most interesting of these integrates a photograph of a modern city into an otherwise traditionally themed design. This is the most beautiful picture book I encountered among the hundreds I have recently read.
In Wabi Sabi, “Zen” is a central topic and the word is sued inn a familiar way as an aesthetic or design term; when describing a stark but beautiful simplicity, an interior decorator might talk, for example, about a “Zen-themed” bedroom or bathroom. But Zen is also often known in another way, as a practical philosophy, and this is how it is presented in Jon J. Muth’s recent Zen Ties where we encounter an emphasis upon Zen’s “everyday ordinariness.” Now, instead of the atmospherics of Reibstein’s Golden Japanese Past (all ancient temples and lily pads), the story takes place in our own time and amidst the front porches and elm trees of what may be Muth’s hometown in upstate New York. And now instead of wise and venerable masters, Muth introduces us to a roly-poly and matter-of-fact panda bear named Stillwater.
Stillwater first made his appearance in 2005 in Muth’s very popular picture book Zen Shorts where the bear met Addy, Michael, and Karl and where he tells each of these kids a fable associated with the Zen tradition and apropos to a problem they face. They work. And Muth’s watercolors are another part of this book’s pleasures.
But I like the sequel, Zen Ties, even better. If what Muth is stressing is the “nothing special” or “everyday ordinariness” of Zen, then the ancient teaching tales that Stillwater tells in the earlier book (featuring monks and court ladies and the like) still exude an aroma of “specialness” at odds with Muth’s mission. But the story in Zen Ties is very nearly perfect in its everyday nature, featuring a grouchy old woman in the neighborhood who must be treated with compassion and who ends up helping Michael prepare for a Spelling Bee.
As Muth’s books intimate, Zen may be an ideal philosophy for children. At the same time, there can be something for adult readers as well; forty years ago in California, the Zen teacher Shunryu Suzuki repeatedly encouraged his mature students to acquire “Beginner’s Mind.” Yoke these two ideas together and what you get is an image of kids and grown-ups sitting down together, equally sharing a children’s book. Indeed, when it comes to expressions of “Beginner’s Mind” and this kind of multi-generational sharing, my own favorite haiku is one by Basho:
Let’s run outside —
This essay originally appeared in Parents’ Choice (February 2009). The first children’s book I know that deliberately addressed Zen subjects was a 1978 picture book: Little Owl: An Eightfold Buddhist Admonition by Janwillem van der Wetering, illustrated by Marc Brown (Houghton Mifflin). At the time, I praised this work in reviews in two then new publications, New Age Journal and Parabola. In hindsight, I now find the book too didactic. In that sense, it is the opposite of van der Wetering’s wonderfully impressionistic The Empty Mirror — one of my favorite books and a description of his life in the Zen monastery of Daitokuji in Kyoto. And here’s a haiku:
On Sunday mornings
Sitting zazen in Idyllwild,
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