Book Briefs Fall 2012

Brief summaries of Buddhist books from the Fall 2012 of Buddhadharma, by Michael Sheehy.

Michael Sheehy
29 July 2012

Norman Waddell translates the letters of the seventeenth-century Japanese Zen master and revitalizer of the Rinzai tradition, Hakuin Ekaku (1685–1786), in his new book, Beating the Cloth Drum (Shambhala 2012). The letters are Hakuin’s personal correspondence with monks and lay practitioners, as well as his dharma heirs. Described by one of his chief disciples as having the gaze of a tiger who moved like an ox, Hakuin was likely an intimidating character. However, what becomes evident through reading his letters is the extreme care and concern he expressed toward his community. For instance, in one letter addressed to a lay Zen student suffering from an eye disease, Hakuin writes at length about the proper dosages of medicine to take, then goes on to give detailed advice on how to proceed with Naikan introspective meditation, while stressing to the student that he not be concerned with koans until he is cured. This level of attentiveness pervades Hakuin’s letters and gives modern readers a glimpse into the compassionate activity exhibited by this formidable Zen master.

Over the course of six days in 2008 at Lehigh University, the Dalai Lama delivered his longest teaching to a Western audience on a single Buddhist text. The teaching—on Tsongkhapa’s Great Treatise on the Stages of the Path to Enlightenment— is now available in the new book, From Here to Enlightenment (Snow Lion 2012). Considered within the Geluk tradition to be a masterpiece on the progressive levels of maturation along the path, the Dalai Lama describes this work as “something very dear to me”—it was one of the few texts that he took with him when he escaped his homeland in 1959. The Stages of the Path, previously published in a multivolume English translation, is direct in its explanation of how to follow a spiritual teacher, cultivate a loving heart, and see with a vision of emptiness. With his usual grace and wit, the Dalai Lama makes these classic Tibetan teachings relevant to the Western practitioner, emphasizing the essential points and elaborating on those that are less obvious.

The Four Foundations of Mindfulness in Plain English (Wisdom 2012) by Bhante Gunaratana, the author of the bestselling Mindfulness in Plain English, is based on the Buddha’s brief discourse from the Pali canon, the Satipatthana Sutta. In discussing the four foundations—mindfulness of the body, feelings, mind, and the dhamma—Gunaratana reveals how mindfulness is a practice that enables you to question what you’re doing while paying attention to the inevitable changes in the world. Brought into experience in this way, he suggests mindfulness empowers you to observe the very impulses that guide your actions, giving you greater ability to work with your mind.

In The Scientific Buddha (Yale 2012), scholar of Buddhism Donald Lopez analyzes the dialogue between Buddhism and science, tracing this historical encounter from the Victorian Age through to the present-day research on the effects of meditation. The author poses the question: Why do we yearn for the teachings of the Buddha to have predicted every scientific breakthrough, from the Big Bang to Darwinian evolution to Einstein’s relativity theory to the latest discoveries in neuroscience? Lopez looks at the principle rhetoric surrounding scientific Buddhism, including arguments that karma is parallel to evolution and that meditation can somehow be extracted from Buddhist ethics. He contends that Buddhism is not scientific—that it never was—and strips Buddhists of any such myths. The real value that the Buddha presented, says Lopez, was his radical challenge to how we see the world. Efforts to conflate Buddhism and science, he suggests, does Buddhism a disservice.

In Sustainable Happiness (Routledge 2012), psychotherapist and scholar Joe Loizzo presents the theoretical framework for his program of systematic self-healing. This program proposes methods of gradual evaluation, based on the so-called Nalanda tradition, accredited to the famous Buddhist center of learning Nalanda that thrived up until the eighth century in India. The premise is that Buddhists anticipated recent breakthroughs in the natural and social sciences, and that this proposed health regime is drawn from a timeless science, not dependent on the cultural trappings of Indian or Tibetan Buddhism. The program includes detailed analysis of tantric exercises, including the self-creation of the Kalachakra deity, or what is referred to as the Archetype of Sustainable Happiness. At times throughout the book, Loizzo admits to gulfs between Buddhist tantric views of the body and those of contemporary science, yet at each juncture seeks ways to correct and reconcile such differences in the pursuit of offering a cure to what he refers to as the diseases of civilization.

Buddha’s Daughters (Peacock Titles 2011) is one of a growing number of books on the role of women and female figures in the formation of Buddhism, particularly in the Indian and Tibetan traditions. Author Kate Blickhahn presents the life stories of fifty Buddhist women, many of whom have been obscured by patriarchal historical records. Though there are numerous goddesses and nonhuman bodhisattvas represented, the majority of personalities represent mothers, consorts, nuns, sisters, queens, and courtesans. With each short biography, the lives of these Buddhist women are drawn further out of obscurity, giving a fuller appreciation for how women have practiced Buddhism and how their practice has helped shape the religion.

In Readings of the Platform Sutra (Columbia 2012) scholars examine various aspects of this eighth-century text, which describes the secret appointment of the illiterate and unsophisticated sage Huineng (638–713) as the Sixth Patriarch of Chan Buddhism. The sutra itself also contains a record of Huineng’s provocative discourse on nonduality and buddhanature, along with excerpts from his deathbed conversations. The essays in this collection edited by Morten Schlütter and Stephen Teiser probe themes central to early Chan, such as the idea of sudden enlightenment, the role of precepts and dharma transmission, and the influence of Chinese philosophy on Buddhism. Reading through these essays, one gains both a sense of how Bodhidharma’s lineage took root in East Asia as well as the dynamics at play between the early Chinese Buddhist masters.

Dharma talks given by the Tibetan master Gampopa (1079–1153), Milarepa’s foremost disciple, are now available along with explanation by Ringu Tulku in Confusion Arises as Wisdom (Shambhala 2012). Originally delivered by Gampopa to his community of close disciples in their mountain hermitage in southern Tibet, these teachings maintain the Kagyu line of oral instructions on Mahamudra that stem from their Indian yogi forefathers, Tilopa and Naropa. Pithy and to the point, Gampopa’s heart advice to his assembly captures in poetic fashion the importance of seeing the mind as it is, recognizing pitfalls along the path, visualizing the tantric deity, and listening to the dharma. Much of this advice is directed toward experienced meditators in retreat, and though Gampopa’s verses on the intricacies of meditation are concentrated, Ringu Tulku adds water with his stories and commentary, making these teachings vibrant and refreshing for practitioners of Mahamudra.

Zen Master Dae Gak, a teacher in the Korean Zen lineage of Master Seung Sahn, describes himself in Upright with Poise and Grace (Gnomon 2012) as the son of a Shriner’s clown and a child of rock and roll. In this compilation of vignettes and poems, Dae Gak offers personal observations, recounts Zen tales, unpacks koans, and comments on seemingly ordinary experiences. Many of the chapters read like they are drawn directly from Dae Gak’s retreat journal while sitting on Furnace Mountain in eastern Kentucky; others come from his early life memories. The topics—ranging from true lovemaking to childhood summer camp to father-son passages to grief and trauma—are interspersed with recollections of sighting a baby owl and impressions left by sitting next to a stranger in zazen session. As the author states in his introduction, each of these seemingly random vignettes is to remind the reader to drop opinions and “embrace their own unfolding lives.”

Also New and Noteworthy:

Brains, Buddhas, and Believing
by Dan Arnold

The Hundred Tertons
by Jamgön Kongtrül Lodrö Taye
translated by Yeshe Gyamtso

The Splendid Vision: Reading a Buddhist Sutra
by Richard S. Cohen

Signs from the Unseen Realm
by Robert Ford Campany

Historical Dictionary of Tibet
by John Powers and David Templeman

The Seven Tengu Scrolls
by Haruko Wakabayashi

Bodhisattva Attitude
by Lama Zopa Rinpoche

If You’re Lucky, Your Heart Will Break
by James Ishmael Ford

Everything is the Way
by Elihu Genmyo Smith

Ratnakirti’s Proof of Momentariness by Positive Correlation
translated by Joel Feldman and Stephen Phillips

Groundless Paths
by Karl Brunnhölzl
(Snow Lion)

Lama Chopa: The Guru Puja
translated by Robert Preece

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.