2007 January Books in Brief

Book reviews from January 2007.

Andrea McQuillin
1 January 2007

THE ENGAGED SPIRITUAL LIFE: A Buddhist Approach to Transforming Ourselves and the World

by Donald Rothberg, Beacon Press, 2006; 272 pp.; $16 (paper)

The moniker “engaged Buddhist” has become a bit of a catchall category for social activists who occasionally meditate and for meditators who occasionally agitate or resist. Here, finally, is a handbook for those seeking to earn the title by uniting the contemplative life with a social and political one. Longtime Vipassana teacher and Buddhist Peace Fellowship organizer Donald Rothberg identifies ten guiding principles, tying each to a specific practice or exercise that can be applied across the individual, social, and collective domains. He argues that the development of a deep spiritual practice is not only beneficial to the individual but also to society, and, likewise, that the individual gains by expanding his or her contemplative practice into the world. Rothberg is a Buddhist and uses a Buddhist framework, but this guide will be useful to progressive spiritual practitioners from all traditions.

Click here to find out more about this book from the publisher.

I CELEBRATE MYSELF: The Somewhat Private Life of Allen Ginsberg

by Bill Morgan, Viking, 2006; 720 pp.; $29.95 (cloth)

THE BOOK OF MARTYRDOM AND ARTIFICE: First Journals and Poems: 1937-1952

edited by Bill Morgan and Juanita Lieberman-Plimpton, Da Capo, 2006; 416 pp.; $27.50 (cloth)

It has been fifty years since City Lights published Allen Ginsberg’s Howl and Other Poems, and—at least in the publishing world—Ginsberg lives again. (On the poem “Howl,” for instance, see Howl on Trial: The Battle for Free Expression by Bill Morgan, and The Poem That Changed America, compiled by Jason Shinder.) In I Celebrate Myself, Morgan—archivist, Beat specialist, and official Ginsberg bibliographer—relates the poet’s life from start to finish. Many episodes are fascinating and illuminate Ginsberg’s brilliant mind. Not surprisingly, others reveal that brilliant mind struggling with Ginsberg’s well-known psychosexual obsessions (which make a more compelling read in the first person). Morgan’s text is helpfully annotated with references to Ginsberg’s complete Collected Poems, also released this year by HarperCollins. To get the Ginsberg/Beat story straight from the horse’s mouth, check out The Book of Martyrdom and Artifice, a collection of Ginsberg’s private writings from his early years, a time when the poet was beginning to flex the muscles of his art and intellect.

Click here to find out more information about I Celebrate Myself from the publisher.

Click here to find out more information about The Book of Martydrom and Artifice from the publisher.

ZEN PIONEER: The Life & Works of Ruth Fuller Sasaki

by Isabel Stirling, Shoemaker & Hoard, 2006; 320 pp.; $25 (cloth)

If there is ever assembled an American Zen Walk of Fame, the oft-overlooked Ruth Fuller Sasaki deserves a place. This short biography by first-time author Isabel Stirling sketches Fuller Sasaki’s remarkable life and re-publishes several of her booklets on Zen, which today are difficult to track down. Born into a wealthy Chicago family, Ruth Fuller was raised to be a “society lady.” After she married a lawyer twenty years her senior, the pair undertook a polite study of Eastern spiritualism, which would fully blossom for Fuller. Two years after her husband’s death, she married her Rinzai Zen teacher, Sokei-An Sasaki Roshi, but he died within the year. Widowed again at 52, Fuller Sasaki made it her mission to maintain The First Zen Institute that Sasaki Roshi had established with her help. The only woman ever to be made a priest of a Daitoku-ji temple, Fuller Sasaki spent most of her remaining years in Japan, where she spearheaded the English translation of many Zen texts and mentored young translators such as Philip Yampolsky and Gary Snyder. The grand dame of American Zen died in 1967.

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ZEN MASTER WHO? A Guide to the People and Stories of Zen

by James Ishmael Ford, Wisdom Publications, 2006; 280 pp.; $15.95 (paper)

There are a couple of historical surveys of Western Buddhism to review this issue, and the first takes on American Zen. In his forty-year study of the tradition, Zen teacher and Unitarian Universalist minister James Ishmael Ford has digested the “whos and whats” of Zen, presenting a personable and readable introduction to its major players and teachings, both in the East and West. Ford has practiced with a number of American teachers from several “families” of Zen—among them Mel Weitsman, the late Jiyu Kennett, and John Tarrant, from whom Ford received inka in 2005—and has a style that tends toward synthesis rather than analysis (Ford’s Boundless Way Zen Center is a single organization that unites a network of meditation centers from several Zen traditions). Zen Master Who? is a friendly orientation to Zen for the new student of Buddhism, and the book’s final section, in which Ford considers the future of Zen in the West, will prompt discussion among its older students.

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ALL IS CHANGE: The Two-Thousand-Year Journey of Buddhism to the West

by Lawrence Sutin, Little, Brown, 2006; 403 pp.; $25.99 (cloth)

All Is Change is a broad history of the encounter between Buddhism and Western thought, and of Buddhism’s influence on the cultural landscape of America. “Been there, done that,” you might think to yourself. But it’s not likely you’ve been around this block before. Author Lawrence Sutin, a biographer of Philip K. Dick and Aleister Crowley, begins his account with the exchange of ideas between classical Greeks and Buddhists of India, the impact of sixteenth-century Jesuit missionaries in Japan and China, and the influence of Buddhism on Western philosophers such as Kant, Hegel, and Schopenhauer. If you’ve read a lot about Western Buddhism before, this first half of the book will be most interesting, if somewhat speculative. In the second half, Sutin traverses the familiar territory of the Theosophists, the Transcendentalists, the Beats, and the Buddhist teachers such as Suzuki Roshi and Chögyam Trungpa, who came to the West from Asia in the twentieth century.

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by Thanissaro Bhikkhu, Metta, 2006; 226 pp.; For Free Distribution (paper)

The American-born Theravada monk Thanissaro Bhikkhu is one of today’s most prolific writers on and translators of Buddhist teachings. You can find a wealth of his material (including this book) on the Access to Insight website, accesstoinsight.org, a repository of online readings from the Theravada school. Than Geoff, as he is known to his students, also publishes books that are available free thanks to the support of donors. Meditations 2 is a collection of thirty-nine talks on subjects related to the practice of meditation, delivered at Metta Forest Monastery near San Diego, where Than Geoff has been abbot since 1993. The word Theravada means “way of the Elders,” and with its emphasis on form and renunciation, Theravada has gained a reputation for old-school-style Buddhism. But the topics in Meditations 2 (such as “Start Out Small,” “No Mistakes Are Fatal,” and “Exploring Possibilities”) reveal Theravada as a pragmatic and flexible style of practice, and Than Geoff comes across as a warm and encouraging guide.

Click here to find out more about this book from the publisher.