Book Briefs (Summer 2012)

Brief summaries of Buddhist books from the Summer 2012 issue of Buddhadharma.

Michael Sheehy
15 May 2012

What’s striking about Tsoknyi Rinpoche’s new book, Open Heart, Open Mind (Harmony Books 2012), is that it’s so personal. It’s unusual for a lama to open up about his own vulnerabilities and fears, particularly in print, and Tsoknyi Rinpoche does so in a way that is both touching and reassuring for practitioners. He writes about being a father, husband, and Dzogchen teacher, and growing up among some of the legendary Tibetan meditation masters of the previous generation. At one poignant moment in the book, he recounts visiting his father, the Dzogchen master Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche, at his hermitage in Nepal, where in a quiet sunlit room his father gently signaled him in a manner that opened him to the inner space of awareness. After describing how that initial lesson with his father deepened through his own experimentation and further learning, he guides the reader through a helpful meditation on the mindfulness of space. He also explores such themes as boundless love, habits of the self, and the subtle body in the same personal narrative style of teaching.

Dogen: Textual and Historical Studies (Oxford 2012) explores the burgeoning field of Dogen studies by bringing together a band of scholars who highlight variegated angles of the enigmatic founder of the Soto Zen tradition. Dogen’s legacy lives on in both his dharma transmission and his poetic and philosophical writings. How this legacy continues to be received is the subject of the present volume. One essay addresses Dogen (1200– 1253) as a typecast figure in the world of Japanese Zen, taking issue with how his zazen edict of “just sitting” was overemphasized, leading to the common misconception that Dogen did not prescribe prostrations, burning incense, reading sutras, and other ritualistic practices. Other essays are more historical, including one that compares Dogen with Eisai, another Zen giant of his era. Dogen and Eisai both took issue with Chan masters who believed that meditative superpowers, such as the ability to fly, were integral to the Buddhist path. This well-conceived volume includes numerous essays that will serve the study of Dogen far into the future.

The American avant garde’s encounter with Buddhism is the subject of Ellen Pearlman’s episodic narrative, Nothing and Everything (North Atlantic Books 2012). Though Pearlman aims to discuss the influence of various Buddhist traditions on the post-World War II art scene in New York City during the years 1942–1962, her focus is primarily on Zen. Much of the book profiles the career of the Japanese scholar D. T. Suzuki, recounting his early life in Japan, his experience teaching at Columbia University, and his influence on artists, including the experimental composer John Cage. One memorable scene in Pearlman’s recounting of East–West encounters took place on a summer day in 1957, when the writer Jack Kerouac and his friends Peter Orlovsky and Allen Ginsberg visited D. T. Suzuki in his Upper West Side apartment. Suzuki served green tea while they talked nonsensically and composed haiku. As the Beat poets departed, the Zen scholar yelled to them, “Remember the tea!” to which Kerouac replied, “Key?”

In pith verses, To Dispel the Misery of the World (Wisdom 2012) guides the reader gradually through training in the cultivation of bodhicitta, or sensitivity to the anguish in the world. A translation of the classic Seven Points of Mind Training by the Tibetan author Chekawa Yeshe Dorje (1101–1175), with a full commentary by the fifteenth-century master Ga Rabjampa, much of the text inspires the meditator to imagine herself differently. One such contemplation conjures the image of the sum total of one’s own bones accumulated through successive lives in a pile higher than the mountain at the apex of the cosmos. The contemplation helps us consider our own mortality as well as multiple rebirths, and how they have shifted our interpersonal relationships, reminding us of the possibility that our adversaries were once our lovers (and vice versa). Considered whispered teachings of bodhisattvas, these verses were initially kept secret and restricted to advanced practitioners, but today these essential contemplations on uprooting self-cherishing through exchanging yourself with others have emerged as widely taught instructions in the Tibetan tradition.

The Magic of Awareness (Snow Lion 2012) brings together the creative presentation and playful teaching style of Anam Thubten. Born in eastern Tibet, and now living in the Bay Area, Anam Thubten represents a young generation of emerging dharma teachers in America. Like his first book, No Self, No Problem, this is a collection of edited transcripts from dharma talks on a variety of subjects relevant to modern-day practitioners. He presents his teachings in ordinary language, full of imagery and analogies, such as playing the mind like a computer game. One of the themes repeated throughout his teachings is craving—how there is no end to wanting more. He discusses craving in emotional and existential terms, talking about what it is to be without anything and feel like nobody, and how melting into love is the essence of spirituality. The book is fun and helpful, full of neologisms and pop phrases like spiritual ego, unselfing, and crazy love (defined as “relief from that inner burning”).

In Living by Vow (Wisdom 2012), Zen priest Shohaku Okumura explains eight liturgies that are chanted daily in Zen centers throughout North America. The liturgies, from the Soto Zen headquarter’s official sutra handbook published in English, include The Verse of the Three Refuges, The Heart Sutra, and The Meal Chant. Okumura offers his own perpective on different interpretations of these texts, giving detailed analyis of key Japanese words in order to illuminate unseen meanings. In doing so, he shares his personal experiences of these practices, lifting these texts out of their familiar ceremonial settings and bringing them into conversation with the Zen practitioner. The book goes beyond an explication of specific chants and rituals to reveal that the unifying practice of Zen is living by the bodhisattva’s vow. Okumura discusses how this vow is an indispensable practice, and how persisting with the vow erodes habits of mind, like raindrops abrade rock.

In Dreaming Yourself Awake (Shambhala 2012), author Alan Wallace contrasts contemporary science on lucid states of consciousness during sleep with Tibetan understandings of how to yogically utilize dreams. He offers guided exercises on lucid dreaming and dream yoga, along with theoretical discussions that elucidate the practices. As suggested by its title, the undercurrent of the book is the Buddhist dictum that non-buddhas are caught in a dream-like world, thinking they are awake. The basic practice, therefore, is to wake up from the dream. Wallace presents instructions on how to train oneself in recognizing the dream state, as a complementary practice of shamatha meditation, and compares the real-time effects of dream yoga with recent findings in sleep research. An undercurrent of the book is the author’s view that the science of lucid dreaming supports and complements techniques of Tibetan dream yoga.

Speaking for Buddhas (Columbia 2011) is a critical study of the act of composing Buddhist commentaries on sutra texts. The author, Richard Nance, explores how Indian Buddhist scholars understood and elaborated on buddhavacana, the “words of the Buddha,” through their explanatory writings on what the Buddha taught. The book provides a fascinating glimpse into the processes of how the early Indian Buddhist tradition standardized norms for communicating the dharma and ensuring its durability. Of likely interest to practitioners is the chapter on traditional models of Buddhist teachers, which explores how teachers are voices of the dharma, what is expected from an ideal dharma teacher, how teachers possessed by maras, or demons, are not teachers of the dharma, and how the dharma itself is not reliant on a person. This is particularly instructive for Buddhists who find themselves in these early stages of receiving and interpreting the dharma in the West.

Michael Sheehy

Michael Sheehy

Michael Sheehy, PhD is a scholar of Tibetan Buddhism and contemplative studies. He is the director of scholarship at the Contemplative Sciences Center and faculty in religious studies at the University of Virginia.