Book Briefs – Summer 2013

Brief summaries of Buddhist books from the Summer 2013 issue of Buddhadharma magazine.

Michael Sheehy
21 May 2013

If asked where the Pure Land Buddhism was historically practiced, most people would likely say China and Japan. In Luminous Bliss (Hawaii 2013), author Georgios Halkias offers a new per­spective on the influence of Buddha Amitabha and his Pure Land through a detailed study of the tradition in Tibet. The book begins with a history of the practice and literature of the Pure Lands in India and Tibet, with emphasis on how Tibetans supported and received these teachings. It goes on to present a translation of the Sukha­vati Sutra, the Buddha’s discourse describing Amitabha’s Pure Land, interviews with several of the most influential Tibetan commentators on the Pure Land literature in Tibet, and discussion of the rituals for transferring one’s consciousness at death to be reborn in the Pure Land. Thanks to Halkias, we now have a fuller vision of the pervasive historical influence of what is the most widely practiced tradition of Buddhism today.

Women’s leadership and teaching is an extraor­dinary force currently shaping Buddhism in North America and Europe. Dakini Power (Snow Lion 2013) profiles twelve female Buddhist teach­ers (nine from the West and three from Tibet), exploring their impact on the transmission of Tibetan Buddhism in the West. Author Michaela Haas devotes a chapter to the life and teachings of each woman, including Pema Chödrön, Tsultrim Allione, Jetsun Khandro Rinpoche, and Thubten Chödrön. The final chapter is dedicated to the extraordinary story of the late Khandro Tsering Chödrön, wife of the twentieth-century master Jamyang Khyentse Chokyi Lodro. Regarded as a supremely realized Buddhist practitioner her­self (Dilgo Khentse Rinpoche called her “Queen of the Dakinis”), her powerful influence offers a fitting segue into a new era of female Buddhist practitioners.

Magnolia and Lotus (White Pine 2013) is a collec­ tion of poems by Chin’gak Kuksa Hyesim (1178–1234), the earliest Korean Zen (or Son) master dedicated to writing poetry. Translated by Ian Haight and T’ae-yong Ho, these selected poems touch upon the poet’s life, practice, philosophy, and the natu­ral world. Steeped in imagery, Hyesim’s verses contain all that a poet needs: a mirror, clouds, boiling tea, peach blossoms, and a still mind. As with all good Buddhist poetry, each line brings a surprise. While not overtly mystical, the verses capture projections of the meditative mind: “Have you seen within the endless void / how mind blows traces of clouds, how they come and go? / The clouds laugh easily at your long seques­tered life— / in the far east in the Earth’s recesses, like a tree, you’ve sat, taken root.”

Very often when we read books about Bud­dhism, we’re unaware of the filter of the inter­preters who write them. In Making Sense of Tantric Buddhism (Columbia 2013), Chris­tian Wedemeyer takes issue with problem­atic language that has come to shape modern understandings of Buddhist tantra. Employing semiology, the study of symbols and words, Wedemeyer examines how Western authors have crafted a vision of tantra since the nineteenth century. He searches this sec­ondary literature for patterns of speech and traces them to their Buddhist sources. In so doing, he reveals how authors have misconstrued Buddhist tantra as well as how Bud­dhist logic has hidden or sub­verted tantric practice. Some of the examples that emerge from this critical lens include how Western authors have reduced tantric sex to “fun” or claimed that originators of the tantras were “tribal” and that tantra itself is “degenerate”—all layers of interpretation that are not accurate yet are so often understood by readers to be true.

One of the most enduring genres of Buddhist writing is the travelogue of pilgrims. In Song of the Road (Wis­dom 2013), the travel journal of the great Tibetan mas­ter Tsarchen Losal Gyatso (1502–1566) is eloquently translated by Cyrus Stearns. The book weaves together verses by Tsarchen exclaiming his on-the-spot realizations along with his autobiographical narrative of traveling in central Tibet. The entire landscape through which Tsarchen and his entourage jour­ney becomes an utterly magical ground for spiri­tual transformation as they climb over mountain passes and into deep valleys and camp beside enchanted spirit lakes. The characters they meet along their way, including local rulers and wild deities, also shape Tsarchen’s poetic imagination.

Shozan Jack Haubner, a Zen monk for nine years, offers a series of personal vignettes about the “nitty-gritty realities of spiritual work” in his book, Zen Confidential (Shambhala 2013). Leon­ard Cohen, who trained with the same teacher as Haubner, writes in his forward, “This is the best account I have ever read of the education of a Zen monk in America.” While not everyone may agree with his assessment, the book does provide a quirky, funny, and at times crude look at monastic life. A former Hollywood screenwriter, Haubner employs a self-conscious style, using his persona as a Zen monk to frame and recount startling episodes of living in a Zen mountain monastery, from exces­sive boozing to shitting his pants in the zendo, and a scene that could have been crafted by Hunter S. Thompson.

The Record of Linji (Oxford 2013) is a new translation by Jeffrey L. Broughton and Elise Yoko Watanabe of the ancient Chinese Chan text, the Linjilu. Attributed to Zen master Linji (d. 866/867), the work is a compilation of sayings and episodes from meetings between teacher and disciple. Many of the episodes are framed with a question such as “What sort of thing is the Land of the Three Eyes?” or by a pro­vocative statement such as “a Buddha is a latrine hole.” The book serves both as a histori­cal record of Chan Buddhism and as a series of lessons and teaching tools. Particularly interested in how the Linjilu was influential in the monasteries of Japan when the Five Moun­tain System flourished in the late 1300s through to the early 1700s in Kyoto, the translators draw on ten Japanese Zen commentaries that illumi­nate Linji’s original work.

The formation of philosophical thinking in Tibet is the subject of José Cabezon’s The Bud­dha’s Doctrine and the Nine Vehicles (Oxford 2013). Dur­ing the early period of Bud­dhism’s reception in Tibet, in the eleventh and twelfth centuries, several influential thinkers were creatively orga­nizing the Buddha’s teachings, tantra in particular. Among them was Rog Banden Sherab (1166–1244), also known as Rogben, a Nyingma master who arranged the nine vehicles of the Buddha’s teach­ings translated here. This work is an important contribution to understanding the philosophical schools and history of how the dharma devel­oped in Tibet. Of particular interest to many readers will be Rogben’s discussion and defense of Dzogchen.

A Lamp to Illuminate the Five Stages (Wisdom 2013), translated by Gavin Kilty, is Tsongkhapa’s (1357–1419) presentation of the five stages of the Guyhasamaja Tantra. One of the great works on tantra written in Tibet, and one of thirty-two volumes selected for inclusion in the Library of Tibetan Classics series, it presents a Vajrayana vision of the human body, voice, and mind. This is a guide for those involved in the advanced practices of the Guyhasamaja. The text explains how subtle transformative shifts occur in the body and mind as a practitioner moves deeper into each of the tant­ric yogas. Notoriously enig­matic, the text is descriptive yet conceals interpretive lay­ers of meaning for the reader to unpack.

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.