Book Briefs – Spring 2014

Brief summaries of Buddhist books from the Spring 2014 issue of Buddhadharma magazine.

Michael Sheehy
18 February 2014

Breathing sustains us and shapes our experiences, yet as Allison Choying Zangmo and Anyen Rinpoche note in The Tibetan Yoga of Breath (Shambhala 2013), it is not always something we are terribly good at. This book teaches us not only to become more aware of how we breathe but also how to use breath to tackle physical and emotional suffering. Zangmo and her husband, Anyen Rinpoche, start by citing myriad reasons for working with the breath, drawing on Tibetan tradition as well as contemporary medical research. They detail how breathing directly affects the health of individual cells in the body and how the neurotic mind can be calmed through breath yoga. They then outline specific practices, including basic wind-energy techniques, breath meditations on impermanence, meditations for overcoming destructive emotional patterns, and techniques for breath- ing through pain.

Alfred Bloom’s The Shin Buddhist Classical Tradition: A Reader in Pure Land Teaching, Volume 1 (World Wisdom 2013) unites a broad sampling of classic Buddhist writings on Pure Land teachings. As Bloom explains in his introduction, for decades Pure Land traditions received little attention from Western writers who regarded them as degenerate and unworthy of careful engagement. But with a surge in reliable translations and engagement with Pure Land scholars and practitioners, the complexity and richness of Pure Land traditions has become better known. From discussions on the psychology of dying, to reflections on the necessity of faith, to the Pure Land pioneer Shinran’s profound articulations of the ways in which ordinary life and the ultimate interrelate, Bloom shows that there is much to be admired in this important strand of Buddhist literature.

Hearing the word “intimacy,” our minds might jump right to sex or a conversation between confidantes. But as Roshi Pat Enkyo O’Hara explains in Most Intimate: A Zen Approach to Life’s Challenges (Shambhala 2014), this word can mean a lot more in Buddhist contexts, denoting “the underlying liberation of Zen,” which involves becoming radically intimate with everyone (including ourselves) and with every situation that arises. The founder and abbot of the Village Zendo in Manhattan and a core figure in the Zen Peacemaker Order, O’Hara takes intimacy as her starting point for social engagement, framing it as something indivisibly linked with personal transformation. She recalls the moment years ago when she came across a fellow Zen student who had just learned that he was HIV positive: she had reached out to others before, but her experiences by his side transformed her attitude toward outreach, and she would go on to make it central to her practice.

In Stillness, Insight & Emptiness (Snow Lion 2013), Lama Dudjom Dorjee describes his youth as a Tibetan refugee in India. Competitive in all arenas— from debate to fist fighting— he recalls how his intensity propelled him through the rigors of Tibetan Buddhist monastic education, earning him a prestigious acharya degree from Varanasi’s Sanskrit University. Yet despite his accomplishments and a new job editing an edition of the Kangyur, he felt distracted and lost, so he turned to meditation, embarking on his first three-year retreat. His experiences during those years became a catalyst for his book, in which he details with clarity the building blocks of meditation before focusing on the stages of shamatha, vipashyana, and Mahamudra. Appended is his beautiful doha or “poem of realization” composed at Yolmo Kangra in Nepal, a site where Milarepa is said
to have practiced.

Nagarjuna’s second-century masterwork on the philosophy of the Middle Way, the Mulamadhyamakakarika, is among the most influential texts in the history of Buddhist literature. Its pithy and puzzling verses reject basic assumptions about our world—the reality of causality, motion, and time, among them—and point to the limits of language in understanding the nature of things. While a number of English translations of Nagarjuna’s text have been published to date, Mark Siderits and Shoryu Katsura’s Nagarjuna’s Middle Way (Wisdom 2013) stands out for its careful scholarship and philosophical precision. It is also accessible: for each chapter Siderits and Katsura provide succinct introductory remarks, a breakdown of the chapter’s arguments, and a discussion of the individual verses, drawing on four foundational Indian commentaries. The book is an essential resource for all interested in Middle Way thought.

Attempts at “a very short introduction” to Tibetan Buddhism could take a variety of unfortunate turns, confining Tibetan religion to, among other things, a selection of doctrines, texts, or meditative systems. But Matthew Kapstein’s Tibetan Buddhism: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford 2013) manages to paint a nuanced picture of Tibetan religion in just a handful of short chapters. Kapstein begins by explaining that for the majority of Tibetans, lay and monastic alike, the objectives of religious life have not been to transcend the world through esoteric practices but rather to avoid negative karma and demonic forces and participate in meritorious and purificatory rites. He therefore describes some of the fascinating ways in which Buddhists (and Bonpos) have sought to achieve these objectives before examining a range of topics, including the stories of major Tibetan political/religious figures, the formation of religious sects, philosophical controversies, death rituals, and the question of how the current Dalai Lama’s succession will be secured.

The Korean Zen master Daehaeng Kun Sunim (1927–2012) grew up in poverty during the Japanese occupation of Korea. She recalls spending long periods hiding in the woods where she contemplated suffering and eventually recognized a purity inside herself that she would later know as buddhanature. After taking ordination and spending years inretreat, she became one of South Korea’s most prominent Zen masters, founding multiple centers in her home country and overseas. Wake Up and Laugh (Wisdom 2014) presents a collection of her public talks and the lively discussions that followed, documenting her gift for articulating Zen teachings on a wide range of topics.

Maria Heim’s The Forerunner of All Things (Oxford 2013) inquires into Buddhist understandings of intention and agency according to the fifth-century author Buddhaghosa, the most influential commentator in the Pali tradition. Heim explores Buddhaghosa’s treatment of these concepts in relation to Buddhist doctrines of karma and liberation. She also shows us how Buddhaghosa teaches us to read the words of the Buddha in new ways, not seeking to assign a singular meaning to a given passage but rather to “open and expand it.” Buddhaghosa models this through his efforts to contextualize and draw connections between the Buddha’s discourses, while at the same time recognizing—and frequently articulating—that none of his interpretations can be exhaustive. Heim likewise considers how Buddhaghosa’s discussions of intention might challenge the overly narrow notions of personal autonomy that are frequently assumed by contemporary ethicists.

Tanya Zivkovic’s Death and Reincarnation in Tibetan Buddhism (Routledge 2013) is an ethnographic study of deceased Buddhist figures and their enduring presence in contemporary communities. Drawing on her experiences as a researcher in Darjeeling, India, Zivkovic shows how rigid dichotomies between life and death are collapsed in the Tibetan Buddhist context. She describes, for instance, how a deceased local lama, Khenchen Sangay Tenzin, remained present to his community not only through the identification and rearing of his reincarnation but also through the community’s continual interaction with his relics and official biography. In the same vein, she considers the case of Bokar Rinpoche, whose embalming yielded substances for his devotees’ consumption; the salt used to dry his body, for example, was distributed and ingested, its soteriological power regarded as equivalent to his living presence.

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.