Graphic Novel · Nonfiction · Review

Zen for Beginners by Judith Blackstone & Zoran Josipovic

The Language Learning Challenge had a theme last month of reading about the history of the region, culture, or our target language. My target language of focus for the month was Japanese, so I tried to find books about that culture. I’m going to change up what I would typically write as only a review to include some take-aways.


Zen for BeginnersIllustrator: Naomi Rosenblatt

Series: Writers & Readers Documentary Comic Book Series

Publisher: Writers & Readers Publishing

Pub. Date: 1986

Genres: Informational Nonfiction, Graphic Novel

Pages: 167

Rating: 2 of 5 Stars

As part of the Eurolinguiste Language Learning Challenge, I wanted to read a book that had to do with some aspect of the history or culture of Japan. I found this book at a used book sale, and thought a history of Zen Buddhism would be a start since Buddhism has had a long and large impact on Japanese history. Zen for Beginners, by Judith Blackstone and Zoran Josipovic, does cover this history and the practice of Zen, but the book was only okay.

The writers, who are students of Zen, state in the beginning that Zen is “a heavy subject” (Blackstone and Josipovic 11) that is more of an experience than a thought. They also emphasized the importance of only having the enlightened masters speak about Zen. This is why they did not want to write the book. Their not wanting to write it, unfortunately, came through in the blandness of the text starting at about one third of the way through the book.

I liked the history and principles chapters because they show how Zen developed, and the illustrations combined with words of the masters made it funny. The problem for me is that, though the illustrator went to great lengths to help us distinguish the masters from each other, I could not remember them or restate how their ideas changed with each successor. It all blended together and very little stood out after I read it.

I have little use for the chapters on practicing Zen because I have no intention of formally practicing it. In fact, those chapters were quite boring to me.

I’m still unclear about specific effects Zen has had on Japan beyond the Samurai. I’m also still unclear about what it has to do with the Japan of the 1980s. Why is this important? The back of the book claims that Zen for Beginners “document[s] the story of zen from its impact on Chinese and Japanese culture to its influence on American writers.”

This is book is bland and mostly uninformative. I recommend passing this one over if you want to learn anything about Zen or any culture that was influenced by Zen.

Take-Aways from the Book

  • Kamakura era warlord Hojo Tokiyori was the one who incorporated Zen into a Samurai’s training. This led to them being the foundation for martial arts (136-7).
  • “Form is emptiness, emptiness is form” (51).
  • “Limitlessly open, nothing is sacred” (55).
  • Keeping in mind that this comes from the perspective of students of Zen, a lot of the masters seem to almost have their heads chopped off by others who are masters or students.
  • The book claims that martial arts, haiku, painting, tea ceremony, Noh drama, flower arranging, and pottery were all influenced by Zen (128-9). That’s great and all, but I wish it had been clearer on how Zen influenced these arts.

In your own studies about your target language, have you found informative books about the history of the region, culture or language?


2 thoughts on “Zen for Beginners by Judith Blackstone & Zoran Josipovic

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