2007 May Books in Brief

Short reviews of books released in May 2007.

Lion’s Roar
1 May 2007

Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know—and Doesn’t
by Stephen Prothero
HarperSanFrancisco, 2007; 304 pp.; $24.95 (cloth)

Take the religious-literacy quiz Stephen Prothero, the popular young chair of the religion department at Boston University, offers in his latest book, and you may be sobered by the results. Prothero has observed that the U.S., which he describes as “one of the most religious countries on earth,” is a nation of religious illiterates. Our ignorance—even about our own religions—has profound implications for domestic and international affairs, he says. The remedy? Religion should be once again on the public school menu, and citizens should have a grasp of the basic tenets of the world’s major religions. In the style of E.D. Hirsch’s Cultural Literacy, Prothero offers a dictionary of key stories, doctrines, practices, symbols, scriptures, people, places, phrases, and holidays that will give the reader a solid background so they can participate in “religiously inflected public debates.”

Sit Down and Shut Up: Punk Rock Commentaries on Buddha, God, Truth, Sex, Death, and Dogen’s Treasury of the Right Dharma Eye
by Brad Warner
New World Library, 2007; 256 pp.; $14.95 (paper)

In this second offering from the punk-bassist-turned-Zen-priest Brad Warner, the 43-year-old is as feisty as ever, returning with more personal reflections and off-the-beaten-track interpretations of Dogen and Zen. The parallel between punk and Zen as counter-culture movements is already well established, but in the general field of polite spirituality, Warner’s take-no-prisoners style is still fresh. “There might be a few people out there who would be interested in Zen,” he says, “if only it weren’t presented in such a wimpy, nerdy fashion.” While he doesn’t fit the classic Zen master mold, Warner is smart and brash, and the authority of his experience is compelling: “The only way to really understand Buddhism is to do Buddhism. So read books if you must. But when you’re ready to stop farting around and experience real Buddhism, sit down and shut up. That’s where the real Buddhism is at.”

Finding Forgiveness
by Eileen Borris-Dunchunstang
McGraw Hill, 2006; 268 pp.; $21.95 (cloth)

“Forgiveness is not about letting off the perpetrator of some wrong,” says the Dalai Lama in the foreword to Finding Forgiveness. “It is about freeing the victim.” This focus on how one might shift the mental state of the “victim” is what makes Finding Forgiveness interesting. Eileen Borris-Dunchunstang, a psychologist and educator who is a consultant to the UN and also a Tibetan Buddhist, has worked with people from all over the world who have suffered in the extreme but have still managed to find a way to release themselves from anger, hatred, and fear. She codifies a method to release that pain in seven plain language steps. Forgiveness is one of those soft subjects we don’t talk about or apply ourselves to until absolutely necessary. Finding Forgiveness will help us to better understand what forgiveness is and is not, and why we might practice it. The world would be so much better off if we did.

Buddha in Your Rearview Mirror
by Woody Hochswender
Stuart Tabori and Chang, 2007; 255 pp.; $16.95 (paper)

When I’ve read before about Nichiren, a school of Buddhism that originated in Japan in the thirteenth century, I’ve found it difficult to “get.” But in Buddha in Your Rearview Mirror, Woody Hochswender, a former New York Times reporter, goes a long way toward making the practices of this sect—in particular, the daily chanting of the Lotus Sutra—accessible. “Chanting is like priming a pump,” says Hochswender, “with the goal of bringing the Buddha nature welling forth from the depths of life.” Hochswender is a Nichiren enthusiast, and though he never says so, it’s clear that he’s a member of Soka Gakkai International, the popular organization of lay Nichiren Buddhists that has some very famous adherents, among them Herbie Hancock and Orlando Bloom. If I found fault with Buddha in Your Rearview Mirror, it was that Hochswender, in large part, equates Buddhism with SGI, neglecting the larger context of all Buddhist schools. Nevertheless, this popular introduction to Nichiren is helpful and clarifies several important philosophical points, not the least of which is Nichiren’s nontheistic view: “In the end, it all depends on you,” says Hochswender. “There is no guilt in Buddhism. Instead, there is responsibility.”

The Joy of Living: Unlocking the Secret & Science of Happiness
by Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche
Harmony Books, 2007; 288 pp.; $24 (cloth)

Happiness and Buddhism have been successfully paired in a number of book offerings lately, but The Joy of Living strikes me as the best of the lot. The Tibetan Buddhist teacher Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche, youngest son of the late Dzogchen master Tulku Urgyen, has a strong pedigree. And at thirty-one years old, he has more meditation under his belt than most of us will in this lifetime (he was a research subject in Richard Davidson’s famous brain-imaging experiments measuring the effects of meditation on the brain). Mingyur Rinpoche clearly understands the Western mindset but refrains from psychologizing, simply explaining the logic of meditation through the lens of a well-trained, curious, thoughtful Buddhist monk. Mingyur Rinpoche can be occasionally tough (“Ultimately, happiness comes down to choosing between the discomfort of becoming aware of your mental afflictions and the discomfort of being ruled by them”), but more often encouraging, so the medicine he prescribes won’t be hard to swallow.

Jake Fades: A Novel of Impermanence
by David Guy
Trumpeter Books, 2007; 240 pp.; $19.95 (cloth)

One criticism of the developing genre of Buddhist fiction is that it tends to come off as self-consciously Buddhist. But that’s not the case with David Guy’s Jake Fades. Jake is an aging American Zen teacher who is growing frailer and, worse, misplacing his marbles from time to time. As the novel opens, Jake and his long-time assistant/student, Hank, are taking one last meditation program on the road. It’s a scenario that allows Guy to touch on subjects like the teacher-student relationship, succession, and community survival—issues that plainly concern the Western Buddhist world. But he also skillfully weaves in ordinary entanglements, changing relationships, and surprises that make the characters in Jake Fades three-dimensional and, more importantly, human.

Pavement: Reflections on Mercy, Activism and Doing “Nothing” for Peace
by Lin Jensen
Wisdom Publications, 2007; 130 pp.; $12.95 (paper)

Two years ago, as an expression of protest against the U.S. invasion of Iraq, Lin Jensen started meditating daily on a sidewalk in Chico, California, a little card propped beside him that identified his activity as a “peace vigil.” In this short book, Jensen reflects on what he has learned, and especially what he has gained from the colorful characters who engaged with him. (With his gaze lowered, Jensen can only see their shoes. He refers to them as “Uprights”). Jensen is a skilled memoirist who articulates well the internal doubts and fears that readers will reluctantly admit are familiar—at least once we see them on paper. For Jensen, the vigil is both necessary and futile, and with that tension, his observations are sharper. This is not a touchy-feely, do-gooder book, but it will make you seriously consider what you are doing for peace. “After all,” asks Jensen, “if I can’t make my own peace, how can I ask it of others?”

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