Book Briefs – Summer 2014

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

Lion’s Roar
13 May 2014

In 1941, after seven years of travel and study in South Asia, rebel Tibetan scholar Gendun Chopel mailed from Sri Lanka to Tibet the text he considered his life’s work. Much more than a travelogue, he had produced a remarkable work of scholarship exploring topics ranging from comparative linguistics to descriptions of Indian flora and fauna to his criticisms of Tibetan tradition and his thoughts on nineteenth-century European race theory. Though ignored during Gendun Chopel’s lifetime, these writings were a major turning point in Tibetan literature, marking one of the first Tibetan encounters with modernity. Now, with the release of Donald Lopez Jr. and Thupten Jinpa’s Grains of Gold: Tales of a Cosmopolitan Traveler (University of Chicago 2014), Gendun Chopel’s opus is available to English readers for the first time, accompanied by a lucid introduction, notes, and Gendun Chopel’s own illustrations.

Fabio Rambelli’s Zen Anarchism (BDK 2013) describes the life and works of the radical Japanese Soto Zen priest Gudo Uchiyama (1874–1911), whose socialist-anarchist publications attacked the one percent, resulting in his imprisonment and execution. Resident priest at a small Buddhist temple outside Tokyo, Uchiyama came to resent deeply the conditions faced by Japan’s working class and drew on Mahayana ethics and anarchist thought to imagine an egalitarian and free Japanese society. Sallie B. King notes in her introductory essay that Uchiyama’s readiness to stand up for the repressed in the face of a violent and authoritative government resonates with socially engaged Buddhist movements, making him an early exemplar of modern Buddhist activism. Alongside Rambelli’s essays on Uchiyama’s life and works are a selection of his writings in translation.

If prompted to imagine the lives of Buddhist monks and nuns in ancient India, our first thoughts may not be of nuns nursing infants or of married men and women joining the sangha as monastic couples or of monks returning home to visit their former wives after renouncing worldly life. The sutras and other Buddhist writings that circulated outside the monasteries do not reflect such behavior, nor does most modern scholarship on the topic of ancient Indian Buddhism. Yet in his outstanding book, Family Matters in Indian Buddhist Monasticisms (Hawaii 2014), Shayne Clarke examines ancient Indian Buddhist inscriptions and monastic rulebooks to show that these facets may indeed have factored into early monastic life, thereby greatly enriching our understanding of Buddhist renunciation from its earliest phases.

Nirmala Salgado’s Buddhist Nuns and Gendered Practice (Oxford 2013) is a nuanced and provocative study of female Buddhist renunciants in Asia. The product of twenty-five years of research, the book confronts liberal feminist presentations of contemporary Buddhist nuns, arguing that the establishment of full ordination for women in Sri Lanka does not reflect a social movement in which nuns have sought to gain equality. Rather, Salgado argues that such interpretations reflect the projections of Western feminist writers who ignore what she calls the “renunciant everyday”; that is, the everyday life of many Asian nuns. Such a life, she explains, involves running a hermitage, cooking, cleaning, meditating, receiving alms, performing religious services, teaching, and so forth, and does not center around liberal notions of equality and freedom. Indeed, Salgado observes that in many communities, full ordination has little effect on a woman’s social status, leading her to look elsewhere to understand its recent appeal.

The writings of Longchenpa (1308–1363) revolutionized the Nyingma school and Tibetans’ understanding of the Great Perfection, advancing and honing the system’s doctrines while also explicitly commenting on his own meditative experiences. Following in the tradition of Tibetan biographers who interwove available writings into new textual wholes, Jampa Mackenzie Stewart’s The Life of Longchenpa: The Omniscient Dharma King of the Vast Expanse (Snow Lion 2013) offers a new biography of Longchenpa by compiling previously translated stories into a single handsome volume. The result is a fascinating look at the myriad ways in which Longchenpa has been written about, including stories of his previous lives, his scholastic training, his visions and retreats, his exile in Bhutan due to political controversies in Tibet, and his final days.

In Perspectives on Satipatthana (Windhorse 2013), the German-born Theravadin monk and scholar Analayo examines mindfulness meditation in the context of the Satipatthana Sutta from the Pali Canon, alongside parallel passages surviving in Chinese, Sanskrit, and Tibetan. While Analayo notes that it is impossible to ascertain with certainty what the Buddha taught (at least from an academic perspective), he argues that his sources likely reflect the earliest available Buddhist teachings on mindfulness. While Analayo is sensitive to academic concerns, his primary focus is the practice of mindfulness; he guides the reader through numerous traditional meditative techniques, making this an outstanding resource for those seeking to enrich and expand their own meditation practice.

Tibetan autobiography and visual arts meet in Benjamin Bogin’s The Illuminated Life of the Great Yolmowa (Serindia 2013), which documents the writing and artwork of the seventeenth-century lama Yolmowa Tenzin Norbu. Bogin explains that while Tenzin Norbu was influential during his lifetime and admired by many, including the Fifth Dalai Lama, his legacy later faded, in part because he never built a monastery to sustain his tradition and also because his writings were never widely circulated. Yet his approach to autobiography was striking in that he chose not only to write about his current and previous lives but also to illustrate them. Bogin’s introductory essay sets the stage for his lush, full-color presentation of Tenzin Norbu’s visual creations, coupled with translations of their captions and Tenzin Norbu’s complete autobiography.

Eminent Buddhist Women (SUNY 2014), edited by Karma Lekshe Tsomo, interweaves a diverse range of current scholarship on Buddhist women. In her chapter “What Is a Relevant Role Model?” Rita Gross describes the need for more stories about Buddhist women, particularly those whose feats are not so fabled as to seem out of reach for contemporary practitioners. This volume advances that objective, mapping the paths of numerous, often lesser-known women who have dedicated their lives to Buddhism and inspired their communities. Punyawati Guruma, for instance, writes about the Nepalese Theravadin Buddhist nun Dhammawati Guruma, who fled her homeland in 1950 to study in Burma before returning to Nepal to establish a new Buddhist center and a free medical clinic, and to publish widely in Newari and Nepali. Amy Holmes-Tagchungdarpa discusses the Sikkimese teacher Pelling Ani Wangdzin, who was unaffiliated with any official record or institution yet whose life story survives orally and whose practice lineage attracts adherents in Sikkim to this day.

Mark Blum’s The Nirvana Sutra, Volume 1 (BDK 2013) is the first installment in a four-volume translation of the famous Nirvana Sutra—or Mahaparinirvana Sutra, as it is fully titled—from Chinese to English. As Blum notes in his introduction, the sutra was pivotal in the development of Buddhism in East Asia, prompting commentary after commentary and ultimately contributing to the creation of the Chan and Pure Land schools. The text’s focus is buddhanature, which it describes as eternal, common to all beings, and a cure for those addicted to the no-self doctrine. Paradoxically, however, it also describes individuals it calls icchantikas—people who are unwilling to believe in the supremacy of the Mahayana teachings—whom it suggests will not be liberated, a provocative claim that caused controversy from the text’s earliest moments on the East Asian scene.

Lion's Roar

Lion’s Roar

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