Book Briefs (Winter 2012)

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

Michael Sheehy
8 November 2012

The poetry of Ryokan, one of Japan’s most beloved Zen monks, is brought forth gra­ciously by Kazuaki Tanahashi in Sky Above, Great Wind (Shambhala 2012). Born in 1758, Ryokan was a pilgrim and a hermit who spent much of his later life painting and composing in solitude on the hillside coast along the Sea of Japan. Along with the now classic collection of his poems, One Robe, One Bowl, this new book of selected poems and calligraphies, including an introduction by Tanahashi, brings the essential work of this Buddhist poet into English. Each verse reflects a different light in the spectrum of Ryokan’s eccentricity and reclusiveness: from his criticism of Buddhist sectarianism, to his cel­ebration of nature, to his yearnings for serenity. Ryokan wrote about his Buddhist life: “To be a sorcerer is not my wish. Wherever I visit, I stay… Renewing my practice day by day.”

In his book Insight into Emptiness (Wisdom 2012), Khensur Jampa Tegchok accomplishes the incredible task of clearly and directly conveying the profound, and seemingly daunting, Buddhist understanding of emptiness. Based on the Geluk-style Prasangika approach of systemati­cally introducing emptiness through a successive lamrim program, the book emphasizes emptiness as both a concept and an experience along the path of transformation. The author successfully uses contemporary relevant examples to discuss the complex arguments involved. For instance, in discussing the classic argument that the same substance can be seen differently by different beings, and thereby lacks any true essence, he suggests how it is similar to three women looking at a man. While the man is the same, one woman thinks he is ugly, another thinks he is boring, and the other sees him as handsome. Avoiding over-analysis, this book strikes a balance in presenting the logic of emptiness alongside metaphors and illustrations for understanding emptiness. Where this book goes askew is in its presentation of zhentong, or “other-emptiness,” giving a misin­formed interpretation of this Madhyamaka view.

Living the life of a Buddhist who is restlessly “shopping around” is the subject of Paul Breit­er’s memoir, One Monk, Many Masters (Parami 2012). He writes about being disenchanted in 1969 and departing for India on a journey that would lead him to Thailand, where he took ordi­nation and studied under the late Thai master Ajahn Chah. Much of the book is reminiscent of his time living as a Theravada monk, taking novice and eventually full bhikkhu vows, shar­ing experiences with Ajahn Sumedo, adapting to the austere monastic life, and being a foreigner in the forests of northern Thailand. After disrobing, Breiter con­tinued to seek a Buddhist life, studying Zen and eventually Tibetan Buddhism while liv­ing in California. Although his wanderings may leave the reader feeling unsettled or displaced, Breiter’s story exhibits the virtues of the modern Bud­dhist traveler through the lifelong relationship he has continued with the monastic communities in Thailand where he once lived.

In her book Ties that Bind (Oxford 2012), Reiko Ohnuma explores the imagery and pres­ence of mothers and motherly love in the Indian Buddhist traditions. Sensitive to the complex psychology and history that she is revealing, she brings careful attention to the complicated and ambivalent relationship that the Buddhist monas­tic community has had with motherhood: at once denigrating mothers as symbols of attachment to samsara while at the same time affirming them with grat­itude for their bodhisattva-like nurturance and care. Drawing examples and anecdotes from the Pali canon and Buddhist Sanskrit literature, the author paints multiple portraits of maternal imagery. One vivid image from the Sri Lankan Theravada tradition is that of the Buddha as a mother, breastfeeding the milk of the dharma to her suckling sangha children. Ohnuma also touches upon the roles of the Buddha’s mother and foster mother in his life, as well as how motherhood itself was understood as a spiritual practice within early Buddhism.

The Essential Journey of Life and Death (Dharma Samudra 2012) is a two-volume com­panion set compiled from teachings that were given over two decades by the late Khenchen Palden Sherab Rinpoche and Khenpo Tsewang Dongyal Rinpoche on Tibetan practices for dying and moving beyond death. Volume one includes remembrances of the life and teachings of Khenchen Palden Sherab, who passed away in June 2010. Together, the two volumes cover four main topics: the six bardos, or intermediary states between this life and the next; the zhitro practices of recogniz­ing peaceful and wrathful deities in the bardo; dream yoga; and phowa, or the transference of consciousness at the moment of death. The authors both instruct and invite their audience to contemplate these teachings. In discussing dream yoga, for instance, they ask the reader to consider what it would be like if there were no difference between daydreams and night dreams. They describe meditations such as lying the body on its side in the “lion’s posture” and visualizing a fat red lotus emerging in full bloom. Teachings such as these, specific to the Nyingma lineage of the Longchen Nyingtik, are explained in great detail throughout the two volumes and are comple­mented by visualization aids, as well as translated sadhana texts in the appendixes.

The Ceasing of Notions (Wisdom 2013) is a translation of an early Zen text along with com­mentary by the late Japanese Rinzai Zen master Soko Morinaga Roshi (1925–1995). Discovered as a manuscript buried in the Dunhuang Caves along the Silk Road in western China, this text originated from the Ox-head school of early Chan Buddhism and was important for Japa­nese Zen. In the same genre of Zen writing as the Blue Cliff Record and the Gateless Gate, this work is presented as a dialogue in a series of koans. Questions about the practice of Buddhism are put forth by a novice named Emmon and are followed by enigmatic responses by his teacher, Nyuri. This set of direct and stimulating queries allows the novice to shed his notions about what is real and recognize his ever-present buddhahood. As Soko Morinaga Roshi metaphorically points to in his commentary, once “the dirt of delusions” is washed off with the “soap of the teachings,” there is “no smell of Zen, no ideology, no phi­losophy, no Buddha.”

How to Practice Dharma (Lama Yeshe Wis­dom Archive 2012) is a collection of teachings by Lama Zopa Rinpoche on the eight worldly dhar­mas: pleasure and pain, praise and blame, fame and disgrace, gain and loss. Renouncing these eight worldly dharmas, Lama Zopa suggests, is the core message of Buddhism. These worldly dharmas serve as parameters or guideposts for the Buddhist practitioner to avoid falling into extremes. Throughout the book, Lama Zopa makes the point that not only does looking for happiness under the sway of these dharmas fail to bring happiness but it is also often self-destructive.

Maitreya’s Distinguishing the Middle from Extremes (AIBS 2012) is a study and translation of the classic Indian Buddhist scripture, the Mad­hyantavibhaga, along with its commentary by Vasubhandu. It is one of The Five Treasuries that was received by the fourth-century Indian master Asanga from the future Buddha Maitreya and is a seminal Mahayana Buddhist canonical work. The text itself details in its verses some of the key doc­trines found in the Yogacara school of Buddhist philosophy. These include the understanding that there is an underlying “storehouse” conscious­ness that serves as a repository for karmic seeds that eventually blossom into the fruits of ordinary waking delusions. Although terse and technical, Mario D’Amato’s introduction elucidates the major themes of this work, making his translation of the root text and its commentary more enjoyable.

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.