Book Briefs – Spring 2013

Brief summaries of Buddhist books from the Spring 2013 issue of Buddhadharma, reviewed by Michael Sheehy.

Michael Sheehy
14 February 2013

How we have received and continue to interpret Buddhism through European lenses is the subject of The Cult of Emptiness (University Media 2012), which presents us with a glimpse into the European discovery of Buddhism. The author, Urs App, explores and narrates this history, beginning with sixteenth-century Jesuit and Christian missionaries who encountered Zen Buddhists in Japan. App looks at how these encounters shaped the invention of a unified “Oriental philosophy,” an atheistic doctrine of nothingness that was attributed to the Buddha and thought to originate in Egypt. Bringing to light new sources for the study of these encounters, we see how the history of Buddhism was rewritten by the Church. The story of what was known about Buddhism and how that knowledge was manipulated, not to mention how it informs our perceptions of Buddhism today, makes for a fascinating read.

In Love, Roshi (SUNY 2012), Helen Baroni studies letters that the late American Zen master Robert Aitken Roshi received from people seeking his friendship and guidance and the lettershe wrote in reply. One of the first Americans to study Zen in Japan after World War II, Aitken became something of a towering figure in American Zen and was sought out by many. Between 1968 and 2002, he received 261 letters from strangers requesting his counsel on matters ranging from feeling isolated as a practitioner to being disillusioned with one’s teacher. Baroni chose not to include the letters themselves but rather to use them as a way to highlight the issues that Aitken was responding to.

Continuing the Teachings of the Buddha series, The Numerical Discourses of the Buddha (Wisdom 2012) is a translation of the Anguttara Nikaya, the fourth collection of the Pali suttas. Consisting of over eight thousand suttas in eleven distinct bundles arranged numerically, the Anguttara Nikaya is the single largest collection of the early discourses of the Buddha. While much of the Buddha’s philosophical teachings are found in the Majjhima and Samyutta Nikayas, the shorter suttas found in the Anguttara Nikaya are concerned primarily with practical advice. Much of this advice, more so than any other collection of suttas, is tailored to laypersons. In one-on-one dialogues and in community settings, the Buddha teaches on a spectrum of issues, from how to run a harmonious household to the sex life of couples to how to rule as a righteous king.

Lojong, a Tibetan word that literally means mind (lo) training (jong), is the subject of the Zen priest Zoketsu Norman Fischer’s Training in Compassion (Shambhala 2012). Why would a contemporary Zen teacher write a book about a Tibetan practice text from the twelfth century? Well, Fischer suggests that this kind of crosstradition study sheds new light on this practice and that Zen offers a “commonsense simplicity.” He adds that this crossover of Buddhist traditions is important because of Zen’s “deficiency in explicit teachings on compassion.” What we have then is a hybrid: Zen lojong. The book is a commentary on the classic Tibetan text by Geshe Chekawa (1101–1175), The Seven Points of Mind Training, arranged by fifty-nine slogans. While the slogans themselves are pith and to the point, the commentary is teeming with helpful anecdotes, instructions, and Fischer’s fresh and gentle touch.

What is Theravada? Seeking to address oversimplified and cliché responses to that question, the collection of articles in How Theravada is Theravada (Silkworm 2012) challenges our conventional view of the Theravada in some pretty radical ways. Each chapter focuses on unpacking what Theravada is (or isn’t). Beginning with the premise that Theravada is a longstanding form of Buddhism, the authors boldly debunk this widely held belief and suggest instead that Theravada is in fact a twentieth-century invention. This is a pretty strong and unusual statement, especially since Theravada has become a cover term not only for the traditions of Southeast Asia but also for early Buddhism. Examining the teachings of rival Buddhist schools, Asian ideas about Hinayana and Mahayana, and how Theravada came into existence in conversation with Japanese and Europeans, this book asks us to reevaluate what we think we know about Theravada Buddhism.

Giving us a more mainstream presentation of this tradition is Theravada Buddhism (Hawaii 2012), a book that looks at how Theravada is understood and practiced today. Asanga Tilakaratne, a professor of Pali literature in Sri Lanka, provides an introduction to the tradition, bringing his own observations on the “view of the elders.” The first part presents fundamental teachings of the Buddha that many readers will be familiar with, such as the triple gem, the four noble truths, and karma. The latter part focuses on Theravada culture and practice, giving attention to the modern Theravada tradition in South and Southeast Asia, as well as Europe and North America. Tilakaratne does not offer any insights into the ritual life of Theravada practitioners and instead chooses to emphasize merit making.

The fifth-century Buddhist sage Bodhidharma was not only the first patriarch of Zen, as Andy Ferguson’s new book, Tracking Bodhidharma (Counterpoint 2012), details, he was also an exemplary pilgrim. As the title suggests, this book traces the journey of the legendary Bodhidharma, with the author himself undertaking the great Zen master’s pilgrimage. The journey begins in Bodhidharma’s homeland in south India and follows him to the Pearl River delta in China, the departure point from where he spent the rest of his life wandering, transmitting Zen. Though much of this story is reconstructed from myths, Ferguson bases his journey largely on recordings by Chinese Buddhist pilgrims and readings of local inscriptions at the pilgrimage sites along the way. The author’s firsthand account provides a helpful travelogue of Bodhidharma’s trail and allows readers to vicariously join his pilgrimage to some of the most sacred sites of Chinese Buddhism.

With the translation Jewels from the Treasury (KTD 2012) by David Karma Choepel, we have another translation of one of the primary textbooks for the study of Buddhism in English, along with a full commentary. The root text is the fourth-century Indian Buddhist master Vasubhandu’s classic, Treasury of Abhidharma; its verses are paired with the Ninth Karmapa Wangchuk Dorje’s (1556–1603) commentary, Youthful Play. As Thrangu Rinpoche states in his forward, since many of the explanatory commentaries on the Abhidharma are long and complex, the contribution made by the Ninth Karmapa’s commentary is its brevity. Vasubhandu’s verses detail eight metaphysical themes, including the interplay of the physical elements that make up the world, how perceptions function within an individual, the dynamics of karma, and the powers of meditation. For anyone interested in studying Buddhist philosophy and cosmology, especially within the Kagyu tradition, this book is a welcome addition.

Based on an exhibit at the Rubin Museum of Art in New York City, The Black Hat Eccentric (RMA 2012) is the first catalog dedicated entirely to the art and study of the Tenth Karmapa, Choying Dorje (1604–1674). Because Tibetan artists often remained anonymous, it’s unusual to have an occasion to look closely at a collection of art by a Tibetan artist, especially one as celebrated as the Tenth Karmapa. The catalog includes an impressive array of images of his paintings and sculptures from collections now found around the world. Essays by the compiler of the catalog, Karl Debreczeny, and contributing authors highlight the dramatic life of the Karmapa, who lived for years in exile during a turbulent period in central Tibet. They also explore the Chinese style of painting that he adopted while living in the Lijiang border area, and the influences of far-removed early western Tibetan art on his work. However, what is most exceptional about this book is that it brings us artwork distinguished by the hand of this master artist.

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.