Book Briefs Spring 2007

Benjamin Bogin reviews books published in Spring 2007.

Benjamin Bogin
1 March 2007

Benjamin Bogin reviews books published in Spring 2007.

Most of the scholars and translators of Tibetan Madhyamaka philosophy who have published on the topic studied with masters of the Geluk tradition. Recently, some of these same scholars have turned their attention to the historic opponents of this view, whose positions are vociferously refuted in the debate manuals studied at Geluk monastic colleges. For example, Jeffrey Hopkins has produced a number of important translations of works by the Jonangpa teacher Dolpopa. Now, José Ignacio Cabezón and Geshe Lobsang Dargyay have made a major contribution to the library of alternative Tibetan views of Madhyamaka with the publication of Freedom from Extremes: Gorampa’s “Distinguishing the Views” and the Polemics of Emptiness (Wisdom Publications, 2007). The text translated here is a classic of Tibetan polemical literature in which the great Sakya master Gorampa Sonam Senge (1429–89) presented refutations of the Madhyamaka explanations of both Dolpopa and Tsongkhapa. A wide-ranging introduction, spanning from religious polemics in general to the precise context of Gorampa’s composition, sets the stage for the text’s meticulously annotated translation.

Buddha Takes No Prisoners: A Meditator’s Survival Guide (North Atlantic Books, 2007), by Patrick Ophuls, presents Buddhism as an unwavering attack on the ceaseless distractions and deceptions of the deluded self. However, it does so in a straightforward and humorous style that makes it more palatable without dulling the edge of its insights. Although the topics covered in this introduction to the Buddhist path will be familiar to most practitioners, Ophuls provides fresh and often surprising readings of well-known concepts. For example, he challenges the common description of the Middle Way as a path between ascetism and sensory indulgence, proposing instead that it be redefined as the meditation practice that steers between tyrannical control and unbound license. The author reveals an intimate knowledge of meditation and the retreat experience, ranging from the chiding description of “two-legged hyenas who cherry-pick the almonds from the granola” to practical instruction on the subtleties of mindfulness practice.

Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche represents one of the “rising stars” of a generation of Tibetan lamas who were educated in both the traditional manner and in the theories and methods of Western science. This cross-cultural fluency was unimaginable a few decades ago, and its exciting results are only now beginning to be seen. The Joy of Living: Unlocking the Secret of Science and Happiness (Harmony Books, 2007) intertwines stories of Mingyur Rinpoche’s life with his reflections on the connections between Buddhism and cognitive science. The chapters move from the author’s descriptions of his own childhood struggles with intense anxiety and fear, through his studies with some of the most famous Tibetan lamas of the past century (including his father, the late Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche) and his encounters with leading cognitive scientists, from Dr. Francisco Varela (whom he befriended as a child) to Dr. Richard Davidson (Mingyur Rinpoche served as a research subject for Davidson’s clinical research on meditation). The end result is a very compelling, readable, and informed book on the topic of Buddhism and science.

Another recent publication on this topic, Contemplative Science: Where Buddhism and Neuroscience Converge (Columbia University Press, 2007), by B. Alan Wallace, takes a more polemical approach. One of the most prominent voices in the discussions of Buddhism and science, Wallace has written a concise manifesto for “contemplative science,” a hybrid containing the strengths of the scientific method and Buddhist contemplative disciplines. In the first part of the book, he argues against the “dogma of scientific materialism,” describing it as a reductionist view that cannot account adequately for consciousness and also as a nihilist view that underlies many of society’s ills. In later chapters, he presents shamatha meditation as a tool for research that will change our understanding of consciousness in the same way that Galileo’s telescope changed our understanding of the cosmos. Although Contemplative Science is a useful primer, the forcefulness of its arguments may seem too propagandistic for readers wanting a more balanced introduction to the convergence of Buddhism and science.

The abbot of the Zen Center of Los Angeles, Wendy Egyoku Nakao, and her student John Daishin Bukzbazen, have revived a rare and out-of-print classic in the new, revised edition of The Hazy Moon of Enlightenment (Wisdom Publications, 2007). Originally published thirty years ago, Hazy Moon presents dharma talks by ZCLA founder Taizan Maezumi Roshi and discussions led by his disciple Bernie Glassman on the subject of enlightenment. It includes reflections on sudden and gradual enlightenment, the relationship between delusion and enlightenment, and what Maezumi Roshi referred to as “the actualization of enlightenment in everyday life.” This final aspect is approached primarily through Dogen Zenji’s writing on “The Eight Awarenesses of the Enlightened Person.” The most significant change to this new edition is the inclusion of a memoir by Flora Courtois, one of the founding members of ZCLA, along with a remembrance of her by Hakuun Yasutani Roshi. Her fascinating life story depicts the sparse landscape of American Buddhism in the 1940s and ’50s, and her struggle with enlightenment complements the teachings in the book.

Fame and renunciation rarely go hand in hand. However, in the Tibetan Buddhist world, occasionally there are hermits who become revered and renowned precisely for the integrity of their renunciation. Chatral Rinpoche, a ninety-three-year-old Nyingma master, has exemplified this tradition throughout his life. Referred to by Thomas Merton as “the greatest man I ever met” and frequently described as the greatest living Dzogchen master, Chatral Rinpoche’s fame has spread despite the lack of any publications devoted to him. Now, his inspiring life and teachings are available in Compassionate Action (Snow Lion Publications, 2007), a collection of his translated teachings and compositions edited by his student Zach Larson. The book opens with a brief biography and continues with chapters exploring different aspects of the bodhisattva practices for which Chatral Rinpoche has become well-known, such as vegetarianism, his annual practice of freeing thousands of captured fish into the Bay of Bengal, his construction and veneration of stupas, and his training and guidance of the next generation of Nyingma lamas.

Bhikkhu Nyanasobhano, a former actor and playwright who is now a Theravada monk, has published a number of books in recent years that explore Buddhism through contemplation of the natural world. Readers who were inspired by the essays in Landscapes of Wonder will be pleased to find more of the same in Available Truth: Excursions into Buddhist Wisdom and the Natural World (Wisdom Publications, 2007). In his unmistakable sonorous and slowly meandering prose, Bhikkhu Nyanasobhano leads us through a series of encounters—with landscapes viewed from a car window, thorns and brambles encountered on a hike, a curious opossum—that serve as points of departure for reflections on the Buddhist teachings. Over the course of the journey, we are introduced to fundamentals of Buddhist doctrine, selected passages from the Pali canon, ruminations on the aversion to ritual exhibited by Western Buddhists, and a soft-spoken but strongly felt defense of the importance of ritual practice in Buddhism.

Some of the most shocking images in all of Buddhist literature are found in tales of the Buddha’s previous lives wherein the bodhisattva offers parts of his body in acts of radical and visceral generosity. On American shores, far removed from the cultural and literary contexts of India, these images are often met with an uncomfortable and uncomprehending silence. In Head, Eyes, Flesh, and Blood: Giving Away the Body in Indian Buddhist Literature (Columbia University Press, 2007), Reiko Ohnuma thoroughly examines these stories, which become windows into concepts of fundamental importance to Buddhism, such as gift, body, sacrifice, and gender. Head, Eyes, Flesh, and Blood allows us to approach the Indian sources on the subject as works of literature in their own right and to learn a great deal about the cultural world of Indian Buddhism.

Despite the worldwide fame of the Fourteenth Dalai Lama, the writings of the previous Dalai Lamas are not very well known outside of Tibet. The compositions of the Dalai Lamas that have appeared in English translation result almost entirely from the efforts of the prolific translator Glenn H. Mullin. The Dalai Lamas on Tantra (Snow Lion Publications, 2007) collects essential writings on tantra from Mullin’s books on individual Dalai Lamas into a single volume. Each chapter features a new preamble by the translator that helps to situate the work and describes the reasons for its selection, ranging from historical research to divination. While the individual chapters are too specialized to be particularly useful for beginners, readers who are familiar with the theory and practice of Tibetan tantra will find a wonderful array of writings by the Dalai Lamas, translated and annotated with Mullin’s characteristic clarity and precision.