A blog by the staff of the Thomas Ford Memorial Library
When I began Who Is Singing in Chinese? I had a mild curiosity about Zen Buddhism and thought this short volume (257 pages minus the end notes) would be an easy way to learn more. It helped that the book was not written by an exotically titled swami, but by a Wisconsinite simply named David Peters. David and his wife also happen to be friends of mine whose letters and anecdotes I have savored for years. I thought, at the very least, I would have a chance to see how he wrote in a book format. What a treat! The book is deep and insightful but also filled with anecdotes and humor. I enjoyed and can recommend it on three levels:
First, it shows how people come to explore spiritual paths. In the case of Dave and his twin brother, this began by age 14 in Columbus, Ohio with a Buddhist altar they made in secret–quite a contrast to the Christian Science they were learning from their mother. Over the decades that followed, Dave began Zen practice in earnest, leading to his becoming an abbot and senior dharma teacher.
Second, it candidly shares the author’s life, offering you the opportunity to put yourself in his shoes. I was particularly gripped by descriptions of his parents’ illness and death, seen through the lens of a devoted son, nurse and Zen practitioner. In a particularly moving passage, David writes, “…as my father, a devout Methodist of English and Scots ancestry, himself asked so inexplicably on his deathbed at the age of ninety-nine, with no chanting to be heard for a hundred miles around–‘Who is singing in Chinese?'” In some dumbfounding way, it had come long distance from David himself: “…for the past thirty-three days I had been chanting in Sino-Korean for Dad’s benefit.”
The third and best reason to read this book is that it’s a clear, comprehensible introduction to Zen. “See things as they are. Put an end to suffering. Transform body and mind. Resolve the great matter of life and death. Save all sentient beings. It hardly seems possible that a practice rooted in this simpleminded technique–taught in five minutes or less!–could hold such transformative power.” But for the author it has and, perhaps for the reader as well; there’s one way to find out.