Book Briefs Winter 2010

Brief summaries of Buddhist books from Winter 2010.

Alexander Gardner
3 November 2010

Living This Life Fully (Shambhala 2010) is a curiously effective narrative portrait of Anagarika Sri Munindra, the Bengali Vipassana master who has had an enormous influence on the contemporary Western Vipassana community. Author Mirka Knaster patched together recollections and reflections from Munindra’s many students, using a manuscript autobiography he came across in Burma as a narrative framework, along with occasional passages from a few of Munindra’s recorded teachings and interviews. (Antioch professor Robert Pryor contributes a brief biographical sketch that opens the book.) Born in Bengal in 1915, Munindra worked with the Mahabodhi Society in India for several decades before training with Mahasi Sayadaw in Burma. Back in Bodhgaya in the early 1960s, he taught many of today’s Western Vipassana teachers, frequently traveling in North America and Europe until his death in 2003. Although he was a passionate scholar, Munindra wrote no books, and thus Knaster’s volume, with each of its sixteen chapters dedicated to a particular Buddhist virtue, provides an especially valuable record of this influential teacher.

Elise Anne DeVido’s Taiwan’s Buddhist Nuns (SUNY 2010) is a brief study of contemporary Taiwanese female Buddhists, both ordained and lay. There are about 15,000 ordained women in Taiwan, far more than male clerics, as well as a sizeable number of female lay activists, and they are at the forefront of a remarkable Buddhist revival. DeVido, an historian of contemporary China, is particularly interested in the impact that the nuns and laywomen are having in wider Taiwanese society. Much of the book is dedicated to a subject that has already received some attention—the charismatic nun Zhengyen and her Ciji order, a vast charitable organization with branches around the globe. However, DeVido also includes another prominent Taiwanese female-led Buddhist charitable organization known as Luminary Buddhist Institute. The book is both a study of female Buddhist leadership and of the thousands of engaged Buddhists at work in Taiwan.

Trent Pomplin’s Jesuit on the Roof of the World (Oxford 2010) is the first book-length study of Ippolito Desideri (1684–1733), an Italian missionary who was one of the earliest Westerners to encounter Tibet and possibly the first to seriously engage with Tibetan religious philosophy. Pomplin provides a full and carefully drawn portrait of the man and his mission, situating him in the wider history of Jesuit missionary history. Although Pomplin admires him as a theologian committed to interreligious dialogue, he doesn’t shy away from the fact that Desideri railed against what he saw as a false religion. While in Tibet, Desideri composed a lengthy attack on Buddhism and the doctrine of emptiness in classical scholastic Tibetan style, a work that reveals how deeply he understood the prevailing Gelug philosophy, even though he considered Tibetan Buddhism to be the work of the Devil and thoroughly rejected it.

Desideri was in Tibet in the early eighteenth century, and his account of his travels, unknown until the mid-nineteenth century, and largely ignored until the early twentieth century, has now been translated into English in its entirety by Michael Sweet, as Mission to Tibet (Wisdom 2010). Desideri was in Lhasa when the Dzungar Mongols invaded and vanquished the Quoshot Mongols, who had assumed power after the death of the Fifth Dalai Lama. Fleeing the chaos of the Dzungar sacking of Lhasa, Desideri went south to Kongpo, narrowly avoiding being conscripted into a Tibetan militia as the Manchu army marched in and expelled the Mongols, claiming Tibet as part of the new Qing Empire. In this work we have not only the account of his adventures, but also his description of the history and beliefs of the religion he hoped to eradicate, as well as his unsuccessful efforts to control the Catholic missions in Tibet. Sweet and editor Leonard Zwilling, to prepare the reader for the extraordinary amount of information in the narrative, include a hundred pages of introductory essays that place the book in both its historical and literary context.

Niguma, Lady of Illusion, by Sarah Harding, is a translation of seventeen texts that form the core of the Shangpa Kagyu tradition of Tibetan Buddhism. All texts, while written by the great eleventh-century Tibetan translator Khyunpo Naljor, are attributed to Niguma, a figure whom Harding refers to as “a reportedly historical person.” She is said to have been the sister, or possibly consort, of Naropa, and the teacher of Khyunpo Naljor, who passed on to his disciples the teachings known as the “five golden dharmas,” initiating the Shangpa lineage. Harding does a fine job of explaining all of this in her introduction to the book and the brief introductions to each text. The main text of the collection, the Stages of the Path of Illusion, together with its commentary, runs about a hundred pages in translation, while the others are all only a few pages long. The works are poetic and obscure, typical of tantric material, even in Harding’s straightforward translations.

Jataka Tales of the Buddha (Buddhist Publication Society 2009) by Ken and Visakha Kawasaki, is a three-volume collection of 217 of the 547 Jataka, or “birth stories” from the Pali Canon. Rather than being a new translation (the Pali Text Society’s complete translation is now more than a hundred years old), the authors have retold the stories in simple, modern English, dispensing with the repetition that often weighs down the originals. The authors give each story a title of their own invention, but they preserve the Pali title, and they provide a glossary of names that serves as an index. Although many of the Jataka originated as folk tales and are often presented in the West as children’s stories, they are in fact complex and often quite lengthy works of literature, as is made evident in the Kawasakis’ rendering.

Gone Beyond (Snow Lion 2010) is the first of an exhaustive three-volume translation of the Abhisamayalamkara and Tibetan commentaries by Karl Brunnholzl. While the Abhisamayalamkara—an Indian commentary on the Prajnaparamita by Asanga/Maitreya—has been translated into English before, notably by Edward Conze in the 1950s and more recently by Gareth Sparham, this contains the first publication of the Fifth Shamarpa’s important commentary, which Brunnholzl supplements with excerpts from numerous other Kagyu and Nyingma commentaries. Prajnaparamita literature, which deals with the Mahayana doctrine of emptiness, is notoriously impenetrable, certainly not the sort of material that one can jump right into, no matter how fine the translation. However, Brunnholzl provides a masterful introduction that surveys the history of the text and its many Tibetan commentaries, and makes sense of the complex subject matter.

Michael Walsh’s Sacred Geographies (Columbia 2010) is a study of medieval Chinese Buddhist monasteries through the lens of economics, specifically the possession and control of land. Until the middle of the twentieth century, monasteries owned a significant portion of cultivated land in China, making them hubs of commerce and political influence. Walsh analyzes what he calls the “material religiosity” of the monastery—how institutions that cultivated the ideal of world-renunciation successfully functioned on the ground and in society. Walsh builds on previous studies of the economy of merit—the system by which the faithful donated land in order to receive merit dispensed by the virtuous sangha—for a highly informative and thoughtful study of Chinese monasticism and its place in the complex economic, social, and political medieval Chinese realms.

Alexander Gardner

Alexander Gardner

Alexander Gardner is executive director of The Shelley & Donald Rubin Foundation and director and chief editor of Treasury of Lives, an online bibliographic encyclopedia of Tibet, Inner Asia, and the Himalaya.