2007 March Books in Brief

March Book Reviews.

Lion’s Roar
1 March 2007

By Susan Murphy
Wisdom Publications, 2006; 288 pp.; $16.95 (paper)

Upside-Down Zen will give you a sense of the shape and vernacular of contemporary Western Zen. Susan Murphy, like her teacher John Tarrant, is an Australian full of wit and sparkle. These talks, delivered at Murphy’s meditation retreats near Sydney, survey the fundamentals of Rinzai Zen and the interface between Zen and modern society. Murphy is gifted at the poetic, alternately hyperbolic and understated language of Zen. Just when you think she’s making no sense, she makes a substantial point you feel close to grasping (e.g., “We only have to be fully aware that we are not separate from reality and from each other, for goodness not to be even good, and not even attained—for indeed there is nothing to attain.”). Time and again, Murphy leads us to the main point, which is that Zen can’t be grasped, and that life, with its ups and downs, is best served with a sprinkling of Zen humor.

ATTAINING THE WAY: A Guide to the Practice of Chan Buddhism
By Master Sheng Yen
Shambhala Publications, 2006; 192 pp.; $16.95 (paper)

Attaining the Way illustrates a more traditional approach to the study of Chan, or Zen. Master Sheng Yen, the best-known Chinese Buddhist teacher in the West, and his students have selected, translated, and arranged excerpts from essential Chinese texts on Chan practice. Two of these are four hundred years old, and two are by modern Chan masters, one of them Master Sheng Yen himself. There is no cleverness and no beating around the bush in this guide, just an urgent call to practice Chan with discipline, avoiding the potential pitfalls of the spiritual path and walking directly toward the “doubt sensation.” Attaining the Way is as close as you can get to required reading for both the beginner and veteran student of Chan.

THE STORY OF TIBET: Conversations with the Dalai Lama
By Thomas Laird
Grove Press, 2006; 288 pp.; $27.50 (cloth)

Journalist Thomas Laird employed a unique strategy in writing this popular history of Tibet, basing it on conversations he had with the Dalai Lama supplemented by primary research. The Dalai Lama doesn’t call himself a historian. Nonetheless, his training has given him an encyclopedic knowledge of Tibetan history, both fabulous and factual. The Story of Tibet covers the ground from the myths of the first Tibetans to the development of the Tibetan Empire in the eighth century to the rule of Mongols and the Manchu and finally to the Dalai Lama’s escape from the Communist Chinese in 1959. Laird, an American writer and photographer who has lived in Tibet for the last thirty years, lets the Dalai Lama do the talking. You get a strong sense of the Dalai Lama’s personality, culture, and beliefs. There are insights, too, into how the Dalai Lama’s Buddhist training has influenced his political-historical view, which makes a distinction between the “common” and “uncommon” views of history: “We must approach Tibetan history from a holistic viewpoint. The Western academics just pick one viewpoint—say, political—and then draw their conclusions from that viewpoint alone. That is a mistake.”

THE COSMOS IN A CARROT: A Zen Guide to Eating Well
By Carmen Yuen
Parallax Press, 2006; 150 pp.; $14.95 (paper)

While she’s only twenty-two years old and a relative unknown, Carmen Yuen joins the company of Francis Moore Lappé (Diet for a Small Planet) and Jane Goodall (Harvest of Hope) with this Buddhist guide to mindful eating. Yuen is a student of Thich Nhat Hanh, and Cosmos in a Carrot is infused with his gentle imprint. Part one discusses how the Buddhist teachings—such as no-self and interbeing, the five mindfulness trainings, and the Middle Way—can be applied to a philosophy of eating well. Part two offers many practical guidelines for a healthy diet. Part three looks at the activities related to eating—grocery shopping, cooking, cleaning up—as opportunities for meditation and bodhisattva activity.

Retold by Sandra Benson
Interlink Books, 2006; 229 pp.; $15 (paper)

If you’re at all interested in Tibetan culture or in folk stories, this suite of exotic tales, translated in their entirety for the first time, should please you. The first story in the collection sets the stage for the ones that follow, introducing us to the narrator, Ro Gnoedrup Chen, an enchanted story-telling corpse. A young Tibetan boy named Dondrup has been instructed to capture and deliver Ro Gnoedrup Chen to a master who will use the corpse to relieve the suffering of all beings. Dondrup is warned not to speak a word to the corpse, but the boy forgets his vow, and the corpse escapes. Over and over again Dondrup has to retrieve the corpse and each time he forgets his vow, another tale is told. As secular literature, Tales of the Golden Corpse aims to amuse children, rather than instruct them. At the same time, the tales presume that the listener has an understanding of Buddhist concepts like karma, rebirth, and the bardo.

TEACHING YOGA: Exploring the Teacher–Student Relationship
By Donna Farhi
Rodmell Press, 2006; 177 pp.; $16.95 (paper)

This book exploring the practical difficulties and ethical challenges that come with teaching yoga suggests that the yoga community has reached a level of self-reflection that other contemplative traditions might emulate. But that’s not to say that it’s all love and light in the yoga world. Donna Farhi wrote Teaching Yoga to help guide future yoga teachers away from some of the unprofessional practices she’s witnessed in her thirty-year career. Farhi looks first at the nature of the teacher–student relationship before turning to discussion of the ethics of teaching yoga—everything from advertising to monetary issues. Finally, in a workbook section, Farhi sketches real-life scenarios where the teacher is challenged to think about what he or she would do before, during, and after a challenge (e.g., How do you respond when a student whom you find attractive sends you an email asking if you would like to go out for dinner together?). This book bears sober attention from anyone who would hang out their shingle as a spiritual teacher. “We [can’t] assume that behavior within a spiritual context falls outside typical societal norms,” says Farhi, “and offensive behavior is less so because it carries a spiritual stamp.”

THE EXPERIENCE OF MEDITATION: Experts Introduce the Major Traditions
Edited by Jonathan Shear
Paragon House, 2006; 286 pp.; $19.95 (paper)

I’m not aware of any other book that gives an overview of the major meditative traditions (Buddhism, TM, Qigong/Tai Chi, Yoga, Sufism, and Christianity) in a way that invites comparison, and for this The Experience of Meditation is valuable. Editor Jonathan Shear has assembled a team of meditation “experts,” and there are some names you’ll recognize here—Harada Roshi, Georg Feuerstein, and Robert Thurman, among them—to present the basic procedures, experiential outcomes, and theoretical perspectives of ten meditation traditions. Shear, an associate professor in Virginia Commonwealth University’s philosophy department, makes the case that modern research methods are beginning to measure some of the claims made by meditation systems “independent of any metaphysical beliefs.” This book, too, attempts to be objective and complete in giving each tradition its say and letting the reader test its claims and efficacy.


Lion's Roar

Lion’s Roar

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