AU Press Releases

Professor emeritus's book takes 'The Backward Step' with Zen practice

Ben Howard, professor emeritus of English at Alfred University (AU), has published a new book, “The Backward Step,” his second collection of essays on Zen practice.

“The Backward Step” derives its title from an admonition by Eihei Dogen (1200-1253), founder of the Soto Zen tradition: “Take the backward step and turn the light inward.”

In 50 short essays, which first appeared as biweekly columns in the local village weekly newspaper, The Alfred Sun, Howard brings the age-old practice of Zen to bear upon contemporary life. A description of the collection notes: “Whether their immediate subject be shoveling snow or baking bread, the ‘virtues of solitude’ or the emotional dimension of social media, these lucid, graceful essays explore the manifold ways by which we may take ‘the backward step,’ shifting our orientation from ego-centered thinking to selfless awareness.”

“The Backward Step” is published by Whitlock Publishing and is available from Amazon and other online booksellers.

“Entering Zen” (2011), Howard’s previous collection of essays, introduced the fundamentals of Zen practice and the leading themes of the Zen tradition. Shinge Roko Sherry Chayat, abbot of the Zen Center of Syracuse, described that book as a “refreshingly unpretentious, down-home account of the practice of Zen.”

In “The Backward Step,” Howard explores ways of “inhabiting” the practice: of “allowing its benign influence to permeate every aspect of one’s life.” Tynette Deveaux, editor of the magazine Buddhadharma, describes this new collection as “a wonderful journey into the practice of daily life with a wise and humble guide.”

While a faculty member at AU, Howard’s teaching interests included imaginative writing, Irish literature, modern poetry, classical guitar, and Buddhist meditation. He is the author of nine books including a verse novella and five collections of poems. For the past four decades he has contributed essays, articles, and reviews to the Sewanee Review, Shenandoah, Poetry Ireland Review, Agenda, Buddhadharma, and other leading journals here and abroad.  

Howard has received a number of honors and awards, including the 1998 Excellence in Teaching Award from Alfred University, the NEA Creative Writing Fellowship, and the Milton Dorfman Prize in Poetry. He earned a bachelor of arts degree in English from Drake University, and a master of arts degree in English and creative writing and a Ph.D. in English literature from Syracuse University.

He currently leads the Falling Leaf Sangha, a RinzaiZen practice group that serves the University and the wider Alfred community, where he resides with his wife, Robin.