Book Briefs – Fall 2009

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

Alexander Gardner
1 September 2009

The eighteenth-century Japanese Zen master Hakuin is famous for his teaching and writing, including his well-known “sound of one hand clapping” koan, and for his revitalization of the Rinzai school. As Katsuhiro Yoshizawa explains in The Religious Art of Zen Master Hakuin (Counterpoint, 2009), Hakuin is also well-known for his religious paintings. A large number of his works have long been dismissed as comic, almost frivolous. Yoshizawa, however, invites us to view these paintings, reproduced throughout the book, as subtle Zen teachings and powerful social commentary. Yoshizawa is a respected scholar who has published widely on Hakuin’s many literary compositions, and he is better suited than most to understand the master’s intention behind the whimsical images of prostitutes and pissing soldiers. The book is expertly edited and translated by Norman Waddell.

Jeffrey Hopkins has written extensively for advanced practitioners and scholars on emptiness and deity yoga in Tibetan Buddhism. Having previously contended that deity yoga is the essence of tantra, in Tantric Techniques (Snow Lion, 2009) he now asserts that it is the chief tantric method for realizing emptiness. Hopkins takes the reader through what he calls a paradigm shift from sutra practice to tantra, arguing that tantric practice solves certain difficulties that meditation on emptiness in the Mahayana tradition gives rise to. This is subtle material, and Hopkins relies on familiar Indian and Tibetan exegesis to guide and substantiate his claims. He works in a very traditional format—lengthy translated passages followed by commentary—which some readers might find difficult. An unexpected pleasure, tucked in among commentaries on Tsongkhapa and Longchenpa, is a chapter responding to Carl Jung’s warning of the dangers of deity yoga. Hopkins shows that Jung’s dire predictions of ego inflation and other psychological traps were anticipated and resolved by the Tibetan masters’ attention to emptiness and compassion.

Shoji Yamada’s Shots in the Dark: Japan, Zen, and the West (Chicago, 2009) is a very enjoyable meditation on the curious thing called “Zen”—not the Japanese religious tradition but rather the Western cliché of Zen that is embraced in advertising, self-help books, and much more. Yamada builds his discussion around Eugen Herrigel’s Zen in the Art of Archery, as well as the curious Western fascination with so-called Zen rock gardens. He knows that many people still hold Herrigel’s book dear, and that it brought many people to the dharma. Yet, as he points out, its content owes more to Freudian psychoanalysis and poor translation than to an accurate understanding of either Japanese archery or Zen Buddhism. Yamada, who is both a scholar of Buddhism and a student of archery, offers refreshing insight into Western stereotypes of Japan and Japanese culture, and how these are received in Japan. For example, he explains how the famous Ryoanji rock garden was largely ignored by the Japanese until it was celebrated in the West as an embodiment of Zen.

In his new book, Answers From the Heart (Parallax Press, 2009), Thich Nhat Hanh gives simple Buddhist advice in response to some everyday questions. The slim volume is divided into seven chapters on topics such as family and relationships, religious practice, engaged Buddhism, and illness and death. It also includes a section on children’s questions about Buddhism. The book’s questions, for the most part, are broadly posed, and the answers tend toward general affirmations of the value of compassionate listening and respect. Yet Thich Nhat Hanh does not neglect issues that often challenge other teachers, such as abortion and homosexuality (“if you are a lesbian, be a lesbian”), and his steadfast insistence that peace and mindfulness are a practical part of the response to any situation is both reassuring and convincing.

Shattering the Great Doubt (Shambhala, 2009) by Chan Master Sheng Yen, who passed away in February, is an elegant exposition on huatou, or “seeing one’s own face.” In huatou practice—unlike koan practice, to which it is closely related—one does not try to resolve the huatou, but instead uses it to directly experience one’s own buddha mind. Sheng Yen was well-known for his clear and practical teachings, and this book is a fine example of that. It is drawn from teachings he gave during huatou retreats at his New York center, Dharma Drum, between 1999 and 2006, edited and translated with exceptional skill. The first half of the book is made up of dharma talks on the huatou method, and the second contains four commentaries on Chan classics by eminent teachers such as Hanshan and Dahui.

In The Truth of Suffering (Shambhala, 2009), a collection of teachings on the four noble truths by the late Chögyam Trungpa, the presentation is traditional, using standard categories such as the eight sufferings and the five paths, but the language is pure Trungpa—informal, easygoing, and easily taken in. It is a fine introduction to both Buddhism and to Trungpa Rinpoche’s remarkable teaching ability. Throughout the book are reminders that much of what is too often pejoratively labeled Hinayana provides the very foundation for all of Buddhism, even the esoteric tantric tradition of the Vajrayana to which Trungpa Rinpoche belonged. After all, he contends that without acknowledgement of pervasive and universal suffering, acceptance of its cause, faith in its cessation, and access to the means to achieve that cessation, no Buddhist practice of any kind can be possible.

Buddhist Philosophy (Oxford, 2009), edited by William Edelglass and Jay Garfield, is a collection of excerpts from classic Buddhist works, almost entirely from the Mahayana corpus, translated and introduced by some of the top scholars working in Buddhist philosophy, including Matthew Kapstein, José Cabezón, and Brook Ziporyn. With thirty-eight essays divided into five categories that address key themes in Buddhist philosophy—metaphysics, philosophy of language, epistemology, philosophy of mind, and ethics—the book manages to cover a lot of ground. The editors’ introduction nicely reminds the reader that debates about truth and the proper interpretation of the Buddha’s teachings have been ongoing since the religion was first organized in India, and have resulted in a multiplicity of views. With that in mind, the book does not claim to offer a normative list of important Buddhist philosophical issues, but rather to provide a valuable sourcebook for, as the subtitle puts it, some of the “essential readings.”

There have been a handful of books that bring Buddhist teachings to bear on contemporary environmental issues, but none has challenged its teachers to respond to the subject as successfully as A Buddhist Response to the Climate Emergency (Wisdom, 2009). The editors, John Stanley, David Loy, and Gyurme Dorje, have compiled a selection of provocative and even beautiful essays, interviews, and poetry by Asian and Western Buddhist teachers, almost all composed specifically for the book. The aspirational prayers are perhaps the most effective and inspiring. Rather than lecture from a distance, many of the teachers present with refreshing honesty their own struggles to articulate a position on climate change and address the myriad related problems that developing countries and Western nations face. The editors also provide introductory essays to the various sections of the books that serve as concise summaries of the science and potential dangers of the climate crisis.

The Heart of the Path (Lama Yeshe Wisdom Archive, 2009) is a lengthy teaching on guru yoga by a contemporary exemplar of the practice, Lama Thubten Zopa. A close disciple of Lama Thubten Yeshe for more than three decades, Lama Zopa has taught by word and example the importance and power of properly following a guru. The book is based on several decades of dharma talks organized by editor Ailsa Cameron into twenty-four chapters, beginning with the question of why one needs a teacher to progress along the path. The remaining chapters discuss in considerable detail how to cultivate and practice devotion, and generate the view of one’s own teacher as the Buddha. It concludes with several short guru yoga visualization practices. Throughout the book Lama Zopa offers personal reflections and stories to illustrate his message that guru yoga truly is the heart of the path to liberation.

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.