This is a most unusual book on Zen Buddhism, covering a variety of topics not covered in almost any other book on Zen which I have come across. It is best described as a "nuts and bolts," "tell it like it is" guide to many subjects which are explained rarely if ever to Zen students (and thus, are misunderstood by the great majority - especially Westerners). Thus, for example, topics covered include the real differences among sects within Japanese Zen, and between the Zen sects and the rest of Japanese Buddhism, the strange ways in which "satori" and "kensho" have been misunderstood and over-emphasized in the West, and differences in the training, recognition systems and daily work of Zen priests in the West and under the more traditional practices of Japan. The material ranges from questions appropriate to the beginner (e.g., What if my foot goes to sleep during Zazen?) to questions of interest even to the very experienced student (What is the true meaning of such often misused terms as "sensei," "roshi" and "Zen master?" What are the real differences between "Soto-shu" and "Rinzai-shu" practices, and how has Zen as practiced in the West tended to become a mix of the two?)
The author is also an unusual figure among American Zen priests as her clerical career, starting when she was 48 and spanning the last 23 years, has been almost completely within Japan, including training in Japanese training temples under Japanese teachers, and work as a Zen teacher and as an assistant priest at an active Zen temple in Tokyo involved in the more mundane, "day-to-day" duties of a Zen priest in Japan. Thus, she is in a unique position to compare Zen as it has been practiced traditionally in Japan and as it has developed in the West. Further, the author has a "set the record straight" style that allows her to comment on many aspects of Zen as it has come to be practiced in the West that are usually ignored or "papered over" by other writers because they are rather controversial within the Zen community.
This book is a necessary addition to the shelf of anyone with a serious interest in Zen, and is also important to the beginner who is thinking about delving more deeply into the Zen world.
While dry at times, Asking About Zen is interesting if you happen to fall into the very narrow niche that it has carved for itself. If you are an American planning on visiting a Sotoshu (Dogen's lineage) temple in Japan, this book will be of help. If you practice in the Sotoshu school and have specific questions about their ceremonies or titles, this book will be of help. If you do not follow the Sotoshu school and are not planning a temple stay in Japan, then this book is of little value.
The title of this book is misleading, as it does not answer questions general to Zen, only questions general to the author's sect of Zen. And while she does a good job of representing her school, her answers in relation to other sects are, at times, misleading and confused. Her misunderstandings of the teachings of Philip Kappleau stand out, as does her views of vegetarianism and the First Precept. I practice a Vietnamese version of Zen, and some of her answers are just plain wrong in relation to my school.
Asking About Zen does answer some basic questions like "what is a koan?" and "how do you sit?," but more thoughtful, in-depth answers can be found on-line in minutes.
Again, if you are interested in the Sotoshu school or in visiting Japan, this book will be of interest. If not, spend your time on practice and not on Asking About Zen.
Although this book is packed with a variety of useful information, the main feeling one gets after reading it is that the author does everything in her power to discourage her reader from embarking on the path of Zen. The fact that the author had spent a better part of her life writing technical manuals undoubtedly affected her present writing style. The result of her recent creative labors is a dry and unexciting manual from the person who, arguably, never reached the enlightenment (awakening) herself. In a way, one can see this book as a way to justify the author's failure to discover her own True Self.