The book "Beyond Thinking" is a collection of writings by the Zen Master Eihei Dogen that has been edited and pieced together by Kazuaki Tanahashi. The result is a book split into four sections teaching on "Entering Zazen", "Zazen Experience", "Zazen in Community", and "Zazen Through the Seasons". This book offers wisdom, guidance, and specific instructions on almost every aspect of sitting meditation. It is intended for just about any audience who is interested in Zazen, from practicing monks to new people who have never heard of the practice before. The book starts with instructions for sitting and some fairly basic explanation of the ideology behind it. This continues through the first two-thirds of the work into the "Zazen Experience" section, which delves deeper into teachings and ways of understanding Zazen. Starting in the "Zazen in Community" section, however, we see a change to a much more specific route of study. This section offers instructions for every action you would take while living in a monastic community, from times for sitting to how to properly use the restroom or wash your face. The last section is the shortest and gives a detail of the ceremonies and teachings connected to specific times of the year.
Due to the intense nature of its rules and regulations this book would be incredibly helpful for someone who is familiar with the approach and already practicing, but would cause confusion and possibly frustration for the casual or beginning reader. As this work is a composition of other writings, it essentially relies on the authority of Zen Master Dogen, from whom these teachings are taken. In the introduction, Norman Fischer explains that Dogen's traditionalist teachings have been followed and studied for the almost 800 years it has been since his death, and this would lead most readers to accept the authority of Dogen's writing. Fischer also explains that it is this traditionalist approach that posits all of the specific rules and regulations surrounding Zazen. These rules make an excellent guidebook for the experienced practitioner, and offer an authoritative collection of ways to do things within the monastic community. Even the earlier sections of the book offer a good base of understanding for beginners, and most of the ideas are explained in an easy-to-follow manner. As the book moves on, the specific customs and practices become almost overwhelming, and very intimidating to new readers. Personally, I would be afraid to try to approach a monastic experience because I would be so afraid to do something wrong.
This intimidation comes in part from the authority of Dogen and in part from the language used to talk about the rules. Reading any work by a very prestigious author can be intimidating, especially for readers who are new to the field of study; readers often do not want to misinterpret the book, and so avoid reading higher-level works until they are comfortable with some basic ideas. The second part, the language, also causes new readers to shy away from the later material in this book because it is so serious. For example, in the section on "Regulations for the Auxiliary Cloud Hall" on pages 99-102 there are lists of regulations stated as "Do not", followed by a reason. This language makes the admonitions seem much more serious and dire than they probably are. Most of these rules are simply so that you do not disturb the peace of the other monks around you, but the way they are written makes them seem extremely important. Other rules are so arbitrary that you have to wonder why they could possibly be necessary. For instance, "Do not enter or leave with your hands hanging down" (Dogen 101). What could be the need for this? As a new reader without much experience in Zen, this particular statement left me confused and looking for answers. I am sure that a more experienced reader would know the reason for this, and see this rule as more of a reminder of something he already knows. For this reason, I think this book is well-written, but probably should be intended more for use by people who already practice Zazen and know the basics.