Book Briefs Summer 2010

Briefs of Buddhist Books from Spring 2010.

Alexander Gardner
1 June 2010

Practicing the Jhanas (Shambhala, 2009) is a highly technical instruction on the practice of the eight jhanas, or meditative absorptions, for a modern Western audience. The authors, Steven Snyder and Tina Rasmussen, base it on instructions they received from their teacher, the contemporary Burmese meditation master Pa Auk Sayadaw, and they offer it as a supplement to his book Knowing and Seeing, which lays out the Theravadan path to enlightenment. The meditations taught here, on specific emotional/psychological and visual experiences that meditators encounter on each of the eight absorptions, are quite esoteric. The authors assume a considerable amount of familiarity with the Theravadan path, and provide little commentary in this otherwise finely constructed meditation manual, assuming that those who engage in these practices are doing so with the guidance of a teacher.

Uncommon Happiness (Ranjung Yeshe, 2009) is a teaching on bodhichitta by Dzigar Kongtrul Rinpoche, a dynamic young Tibetan lama who has been teaching in North America since 1989. The book originated as a series of oral teachings on Shantideva’s Bodhicaryavatara, but the author makes only occasional reference to that text. The thirteen short and well-edited chapters are centered on traditional topics such as rejoicing and the six paramitas, but they address a decidedly contemporary audience and are largely free of technical vocabulary. The chapter on digesting pain is particularly effective in communicating the book’s central point that transforming the mind and developing bodhichitta involves rethinking daily experiences, not just engaging in sophisticated and challenging meditation techniques.

A Complete Guide to the Buddhist Path (Snow Lion, 2010) is a translation of and commentary on one of those rare texts that is both a masterpiece of poetry and a profoundly moving religious instruction. The 131 verses by Drigung Bhande Dharmadradza (1704–1754) are known, in typical Tibetan disregard for numerical accuracy, as the “One Hundred Verses of Advice.” They do indeed encompass the entire path as it is understood in Tibetan Buddhism, from developing a revulsion toward samsara to completion-stage tantric practices. Translated with extensive commentary by Khenchen Konchog Gyaltsen, the book can be read from start to finish or opened anywhere. The editors have done an excellent job with the book, providing glossaries of enumerations, texts mentioned, and technical terms, as well as an index to first lines, and short biographies of the authors.

The essays collected in Pointing at the Moon (Oxford, 2009) deal with philosophical responses to the ineffability of truth and the problem of language—a tough nut to crack for philosophers who must use language to express truth. The majority of the ten chapters—with titles such as “Zen and the Unsayable” and “Mountains Are Just Mountains”—were prepared for the “Buddhism in Logic and Philosophy” conference at Cambridge University in 2005. The papers also address two related topics: two-truth theory and the philosophy of mind. The authors, who include Tom Tilleman and Jay Garfield, are highly regarded scholars of Buddhism, and they take seriously the various Buddhist solutions to the paradox of accurately expressing an inexpressible truth. As should we all—if Buddhist masters hadn’t written about and taught extensively on that which is beyond language, the religion would have faded away long ago.

Anyen Rinpoche’s Momentary Buddhahood (Wisdom Publications, 2009) is a marvelous teaching on mindfulness directed at the Western Vajrayana crowd, reminding advanced practitioners that mindfulness is the foundation of all Buddhist practice, and that enlightenment is none other than perfected mindfulness. Anyen Rinpoche is an exceptional teacher, and he is well served here by a skilled translator, Allison Graboski, his longtime student. The book’s chapters include discussions of guru yoga, emptiness, and the mind–body connection, all within the context of Dzogchen and Mahamudra. He uses a beautiful metaphor of the mind as a spring, where water emerges pure and cold but accumulates detritus as it flows. Mindfulness is what allows the mind to remain clear as one travels through samsara, recognizing the dharmakaya in every moment. Anyen Rinpoche capably guides the reader toward a remarkable goal, all the while making it seem fully attainable.

The Zen Art Book (Shambhala, 2009) is a small, delightful book of beautifully reproduced pieces of art, including both calligraphy of koans and haiku, and representational paintings and portraits. The book has two authors: Stephen Addiss, a professor of art history and respected calligrapher, and John Daido Loori, the highly regarded American Zen teacher who died last October. Both authors comment on each of the forty pieces of art, and both wrote brief essays to introduce the book—Addiss provides an historical overview of the place of painting in Zen, and Daido Loori, whose comments on the art tend toward the cryptic, does a lovely job of recounting an act of Zen painting by one of his Japanese teachers. As a pair, the authors succeed in making the important point that Zen art is intended to be enjoyed aesthetically, even as it subtly—often subversively—conveys its religious message.

Teachings From the Medicine Buddha Retreat (LYWA, 2009) is a nearly complete record of the teachings given by Lama Zopa Rinpoche during a twenty-five-day Medicine Buddha retreat in the fall of 2001. The sections are short, on topics such as making offerings to the buddhas and the nature of mind. The retreat was held less than two months after the 9/11 attacks, and Lama Zopa’s teachings are full of references to terrorism, war, Iraq, and Afghanistan. The book is not meant as a coherent presentation on any particular topic; however, one is rewarded by just opening it and reading anywhere. Lama Zopa is a clear and effective teacher, and his stories are endlessly entertaining and inspiring.

A Spacious Path to Freedom (Snow Lion, 2010) is a partial translation by Alan Wallace of a treatise on meditation by the great seventeenth-century lama Karma Chagme, with extensive commentary by the contemporary Nyingma master Gyatrul Rinpoche. Karma Chagme, a Karma Kagyu monk who served as patron and scribe for the Nyingma treasure revealer Mingyur Dorje, famously brought together Kagyu Mahamudra and Nyingma Dzogchen. The translation begins with a discussion of right intention, but then skips over chapters on preliminary practices to get right into fairly advanced instructions on meditation. These begin with concentration (in the form of visualizations of deities) and insight, and progress through to Mahamudra and Dzogchen. Most chapters are, in classic Tibetan fashion, almost entirely comprised of quotations from scripture and earlier masters. Gyatrul Rinpoche’s informative commentary is the clear voice that pulls the book together.


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.