If the subject of this book had his way, this book wouldn't exist. Tosui Unkei was a promising monk during the late 1600's who rose to the upper echelons of the Soto Zen establishment only to give it all up, attempting to overcome the deeply ingrained desire for fame and reputation by seeking a humble life of anonymity in the back streets of Edo-period Kyoto. The reward for his efforts in this regard was the very fame he was avoiding, first in a biography by the impeccably orthodox Soto Zen monk Menzan Zuiho and then in this excellent translation of that biography spreading and immortalizing his name abroad. Ironic, yes, but it would be a shame nonetheless if the deeply inspiring and yet merrily entertaining life story of this uncompromising eccentric had lapsed into the obscurity he so assiduously sought. There is something arrestingly salutary in the example of this individual who eschewed the comfortable trappings of Buddhism so as to pursue the disciplined renunciation espoused by that religion to what he saw as its logical conclusion. Which is not to deny that there's also something humorous about such extremes.
Just as the text in question here, "Tosui Osho Densan" ("Tribute to the Life of Zen Master Tosui") has spiritual and literary value, it is historically significant as well, depicting as it does the brilliant and lively world of Buddhism during Japan's Tokugawa period (a period during which Buddhism is often alleged to have been decadent and moribund). It is also a key work by a major figure in Soto Zen, and one he wrote in a manner intentionally accessible to a wider reading public than his more specialized erudite writings--but with a similar goal of defining and refining Soto Zen's sectarian identity. How intriguing that he picked an oddball dropout for this purpose, and this out of genuine admiration! Peter Haskel's translation does full justice to the multifaceted importance of the text, displaying a healthy combination of scholarly care and adroit linguistic sensitivity. His introduction, besides situating Tosui and Menzan's "Tribute" in their proper context, provides a succinct account of overall Soto Zen developments during this time period, even if he sometimes buys into later sectarian definitions of authenticity a tad bit too much (it is enough to note that reformist monks like Menzan were trying to get away from earlier formulations of Soto Zen harmonized with esoteric Buddhist doctrines without joining them in deriding these as bizarre). The inclusion of the original woodblock illustrations accompanying the 1768 publication of the text along with Menzan's poetic captions to these is a delightful addition as well, one that takes the print culture of Tokugawa Japan seriously and grants the reader a vivid sense of participation in the text's provenance.
In short, long time students of Japanese Buddhism and committed practitioners of Zen should find this book indispensable to their library, but it's nicely crafted so as to be open to the general reader and newcomer as well. All of which may seem like a lot of attention for a guy who just wanted to be left alone, but so it goes.