Book Review: Turning Words: Transformative Encounters with Buddhist Teachers

- through Francois Leclercq

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Not all names in Hozan Alan Senauke's new book, Turning Words: Transformative Encounters with Buddhist Teachers, will be immediately recognizable. Some, however, remain household names – some that caught my eye (just by virtue of familiarity) were names that were covered prolifically, such as Joan Halifax, Sulak Sivaraksa, Shodo Harada, and Ven. Sheng Yên. What is important, however, is that turn the words draws wisdom from a vast lake whose waters have nourished “Western” Buddhism since the beginning of the XNUMXth century. These numbers, according to Hozan Alan Senauke, helped shape the contours of Zen in the United States. They all have “turning words” to offer, which Susan Moon writes in her foreword:

The phrase "turning the words" refers to the words at the heart of an ancient Zen koan. These are words that rotate you to see the universe from a different angle or turn you in a different direction than the direction you were heading, sending you down a different path. I love old koans (some more than others), but they can feel dusty over time or stubbornly mysterious. Alan's tales are more reader-friendly than Tang dynasty koans, and you can relate to them more easily due to the modern, familiar context.



A koan, as commonly interpreted by Buddhists, is a paradoxical or unresolved story, riddle, dialogue, or statement used by Zen masters at the appropriate time to cause "great doubt" in a student, and or test his progress on Zen. path or, when someone is on the verge of attaining enlightenment, completely breaking down the conceptual brakes that hold him back. The transformative power of the koans' spinning words is varied, with each teacher offering something different, like a uniquely shaped shard of beautiful pottery. One of these figures is her father, who is the first subject of her book. Senauke offers a powerful tribute:

. . . his question has dragged on for fifty years: "Are you happy?" The impact of my father's words was not sudden. The turning point came very slowly, until I realized that we were both right. The goal is to find happiness in the act of serving others. If joy or happiness is absent, then being useful is marked by a kindly sinister determination. If happiness lacks usefulness, then it's easy to fall into a kind of fuzzy narcissism. Fortunately, he let me find out for myself.


Senauke includes himself as one of those Zen teachers in the West and is aware of how ironic such inclusion is. Nonetheless, as he points out, it makes sense if he sees himself as a vessel of wisdom handed down by more eminent masters:

Is it presumptuous to include me among those teachers who have been so instructive to so many of us? Maybe. But I can always make a mistake on purpose. As I reflect on all these memories, it's hard for me to see myself. Or . . . I see myself as the still matured child of all those practitioners who preceded me, in the same way that a musician or an artist consciously or unconsciously taps into the ocean of creativity that precedes him and gradually becomes authentic.

What I tend to teach, the stories I tell, are naturally inspired by the teachers of these pages and the twists and turns I have gleaned from them.


It's not just himself or his father - Senauke devotes a segment to his wife, Laurie, and highlights how a koan can retain its illogical nature while being oddly comforting.

Laurie came up with this sentence, words we can share explicitly or implicitly: I won't give up on you. This is what Thich Nhat Hanh describes as a “North Star Precept,” a principle we have come to in our own words and which expresses the bodhisattva vow to awaken with all beings.

I will not abandon you. I may not be able to give you everything you need or think you need, but I will not turn away from you. In the most difficult times, in the middle of the night, you can call me and I will do my best to contain your grief and your fear. At least I can do that.


What is Zen, a tradition which, in English language, "deconstructs" identity and fundamental conceptualities in the enso– this uninhibited space and void that are still shaped and visualized by a single closed or open brushstroke? This book is Senauke's attempt to capture and shape something that ultimately has no shape and that even his own followers say he can't shape. The koan is the point, or more precisely, the point of "non-point".

But in this brief review, I have also chosen to draw attention to the personal selections that Senauke chose to include in his book: his family members; his father and his wife. There are many others that people know well. The family is itself similar to a koan because the koan, despite its lofty spiritual purpose or ambition, is intensely personal and intimate. A koan that one person “obtains” and leaps into enlightenment with will sound like gibberish to another, the latter grabbing it and agonizing in vain. Hence the extreme caution and sensitivity with which Zen masters have traditionally crafted and expressed koans.

Meanwhile, we brag about our partners or loved ones as "the best in the world", when we really mean that they are mon partner or parent, and that's why they're the best. Yet there is some subjective truth in this. Isn't our family our best teacher? As Charles VI said, delivering France to Henri IV (played by Timothée Chalamet) in David Michôd's film King (2019), “We are leaders of lands and peoples, and yet it is the family that drives us. The family consumes us.

The best Buddhist teachers are not necessarily our great preceptors, our famous Western Dharma transmitters. Rather, they are our blood relatives, regardless of their successes or shortcomings and whether we like it or not. They are our great teachers precisely because of the way we love them, and the way they themselves suffer and "make" us suffer (in the end, they don't). Sometimes in our darkest moments, in times of emotional exhaustion or understandable selfishness, we almost wish they weren't. We wish that they did not have this role, nor us who cross to carry.

Yet the personal visceral, that dual attachment-aversion in our guts is, in a way, the most transformative koan.


Hozan Alan Senauke. 2023. Turning the Words: Transformative Encounters with Buddhist Teachers. Boulder, Colorado: Shambhala Publications.

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Francois Leclercq

François Leclercq is the founder of Buddhist News, a website which aims to disseminate information and practical advice on Buddhism and spirituality. François Leclercq was born and raised in Paris. He studied Buddhism at the University of Paris-Sorbonne, where he graduated in social sciences and psychology. After graduating, he devoted himself to his passion for Buddhism and traveled the world to study and learn about different practices. He notably visited Tibet, Nepal, Thailand, Japan and China.

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