Book Briefs – Winter 2009

Brief summaries of Buddhist books from the Winter 2009 issue of the Buddhadharma magazine.

Alexander Gardner
1 December 2009

Unmasking Buddhism (Wiley-Blackwell, 2009), by Columbia University professor Bernard Faure, is an insightful corrective to enduring stereotypes about Buddhism. Some of these are old: Buddhism is nihilistic, the Buddha taught a form of humanism. And some are new: Buddhism is a philosophy not a religion, Buddhism is compatible with science, Buddhism is a kind of therapy. Faure believes that oversimplification and the introduction of conflicting theories pose a threat to the religion, and he wants to restore “the complexity and richness of the Buddhist tradition.” He assumes no prior knowledge of Buddhism on the part of the reader, and the book serves as a nice introduction to Buddhism. More important, though, his critiques of Western inventions are warranted and worth taking seriously.

Kurtis Schaeffer explains in The Culture of the Book in Tibet (Columbia, 2009) that although scholars and practitioners of Tibetan Buddhism are familiar with the content of the great canonical collections of Tibetan scripture—of which there are many—very little is known about how and why they were created. Schaeffer, one of the best contemporary historians of Tibet, offers insight into the motivations and concerns of the monks, patrons, worshipers, and artisans who were involved in the process of creating the Tibetan canons. He begins with a letter by the fourteenth-century scholar Buton Rinchendrub, who edited the first Tibetan canon, outlining what Buton considered the necessary conditions for editing scripture, and ends with a detailed account of the creation of the Dege canon in the eighteenth century. Worshiped as sacred objects in Tibet, the Tibetan canons are rarely unwrapped and handled. But Schaeffer successfully reminds us that these collections were created by and for ordinary people.

The woman who was married to Siddhartha Gautama, and whom he left behind with an infant son when he went to attain enlightenment, is lost to history—she is not even named in the early sutras. But as Ranjini Obeyesekere reveals in her Yasodhara, the Wife of the Bodhisattva (SUNY, 2009), the figure of Yasodhara has, over the centuries, been fleshed out in literature. A folk poem, well-known to the women of Sri Lanka, gives voice to the abandoned Yasodhara’s lament, and monastic commentaries give us an heroic nun who recounts her multi-life service to the Buddha and attains arhantship. Obeyesekere gives us a masterful translation of the poem, and of the prose account of the nun (whose felicitous enlightenment is probably a clerical apology for the Buddha’s sin of abandoning his family). She prefaces them both with an introduction that surveys the literary tradition that gave Yasodhara life and also discusses contemporary readings of the story.

Traveling the Path of Compassion (KTD, 2009) will help introduce many Western readers to the Seventeenth Karmapa, a charismatic young Tibetan lineage holder who is sometimes mentioned as the possible successor to the Dalai Lama in his capacity as the international face of Tibetan Buddhism. It is a fitting choice for a lama of his stature to teach on the Thirty-Seven Practices of the Bodhisattva, a beloved Tibetan instruction by the fourteenth-century lama Ngulchu Thogme on the proper attitude and behavior of a person intent on cultivating compassion in order to liberate all beings from samsara. The Karmapa has divided the thirty-seven verses of the text into seventeen chapters that address topics such as emptiness, renunciation, and taming the mind. While there are many English translations and commentaries of Ngulchu Thogme’s text, the Karmapa’s commentary deserves attention for the elegance of his explanations. It’s the work of a teacher whose impact will likely be felt for decades to come.

Although the Buddha was depicted in early Buddhist literature as a virile and stunningly beautiful man, in the modern West he has been largely stripped of his masculinity by well-meaning, if historically inaccurate, attempts to render him asexual and gender neutral. In A Bull of A Man (Harvard, 2009) John Powers seeks to reinvigorate the Buddha and his early disciples, restoring to them the masculinity that the authors of the Pali canon clearly intended them to have. Powers’ readings of the early biographies of the Buddha show that the story is one of heroic and manly self-control, in the Vinaya he finds evidence in the stories of sexual escapades that early Indian monks were routinely depicted as models of masculinity. While their chastity may have yoked their seminal energies for the pursuit of the exalted goal of liberation, their minds appear to have remained with their manhood.

The Japanese Zen Buddhist establishment actively supported the nation’s war effort in the mid-twentieth century, and any dissent was outlawed. the most famous Japanese critic of Zen’s contribution to Japanese nationalism and militarism, Zen priest Ichikawa Hakugen, kept quiet during the war, speaking out only in the decades following the surrender. Christopher Ives, in Imperial-Way Zen (Hawaii, 2009), undertakes the first English language study of Ichikawa’s explanation of how the Zen community came to compromise its ethics and promote a war of aggression, and also justify atrocities. According to Ichikawa, the roots of this ethical failure lay in Japanese Buddhism’s historical role as protector of the state, a problematic yet productive role it inherited from China. Ives outlines this history and analyzes Ichikawa’s ethical critique and efforts to ensure that Zen would never again be used to promote war. This provides a rare glimpse into the Japanese Zen community’s struggle to come to terms with what was surely its darkest period.

Living Yogacara (Wisdom, 2009) by Tagawa Shun’ei, a contemporary master of the surviving East Asian Yogacara school, Hosso, is a rare presentation of the Yogacara tradition as a coherent and self-contained doctrinal system. Yogacara, also known as “Mind Only” (Chittamatra), is a philosophical school of Buddhism that has had considerable impact on the Buddhism of Tibet and East Asia. This is despite the fact that many of its theories on topics such as karma and the continuation of consciousness over multiple lives are routinely dismissed. Other doctrinal innovations of the school, including buddhanature (tathagatagarbha) and the storehouse consciousness (alayavijnana), have become central, if controversial, Mahayana concepts. The book, written in Japanese and expertly translated by Charles Muller, who also provides a lengthy introduction, is all the more exceptional for making an extremely complex tradition accessible to the general reader.

Buddhist ethics is a relatively new field that was largely established by the British scholar Damien Keown, beginning with his 1992 book, The Nature of Buddhist Ethics. Before Keown’s work, Buddhist scholarship in the West was mainly focused on metaphysics, logic, and psychology (academic attention to ritual is, like ethics, also recent). Keown initiated a sea change with his attempt to find in Buddhist literature a concern with social issues. Destroying Mara Forever (Snow Lion, 2009), edited by John Powers and Charles Prebish, is a collective appreciation of Keown’s career by fourteen scholars whose work reflects the impact of his scholarship. The essays in the book cover topics such as ethnic conflict, environmental degradation, and globalization, which are examined in both historical and contemporary Buddhist settings in Asia and the West. Many of the scholars are widely read—such as Sally King, who writes about Engaged Buddhism, and Charles Prebish, who writes widely about Buddhist ethics —but some are newer authors who have only recently begun to make their mark.

The Śūrangama Sūtra (Buddhist Text Translation Society, 2009) its title from the particular form of samadhi (concentration) called “indestructible” (surangama), which is the primary meditation set forth in the sutra. Also central to the text is a lengthy mantra that is still regularly recited by both clerics and laity in East Asia; both the meditation and the mantra are said to be effective aids on the path to enlightenment. The sutra was translated from Sanskrit into Chinese in the eighth century (although the lack of an Indic original has caused some scholars to suggest it was a Chinese composition), and it quickly became a key source text for Mahayana theory and practice in East Asia. Although the sutra has been translated into English before, its cryptic language has rendered earlier efforts almost as unreadable as the Chinese. Here the translators have interspersed the text with commentary by the contemporary Chan master Hsuan Hua, helping to unpack the difficult text, and Ron Epstein and David Rounds, the translation committee’s chairs, provide a preface that introduces the history and ideas of the sutra.

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.