Book Briefs Summer 2009

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

Alexander Gardner
1 June 2009

Sallie B. King’s Socially Engaged Buddhism (Hawaii, 2009) is a general introduction to contemporary Buddhist responses to social problems. Of course, Buddhism was never not engaged in the world and its problems. As King explains, the term “Engaged Buddhism” refers specifically to activism that arose in the second half of the twentieth century in response to various crises in Southeast Asia, including war, social inequalities, and ecological destruction. King, who is widely published on this topic, looks at how Engaged Buddhism combines traditional Buddhist teachings with Western approaches to social activism and Gandhian notions of nonviolence, producing not so much a new form of Buddhism but a new way to engage with modern society’s problems. Julia Huang’s Charisma and Compassion (Harvard, 2009) is a full-length study of one of the groups examined by King: the Taiwanese charity Tzu Chi, founded in the 1960s by the Taiwanese nun Cheng Yen. Huang’s extensively researched ethnography charts the growth of Tzu Chi (which means “compassion relief”) from a small women’s group in Taiwan to a global relief organization with more than five million members.

Alan Cole’s Fathering Your Father: The Zen of Fabrication in Tang Buddhism (California, 2009) is a detailed study of the creation of, as Cole puts it, “Chinese Buddhas,” referring to Chinese Buddhist patriarchs who were said to possess the complete and perfect realization of the Buddha. According to Cole, the famous ineffability of the early Chan doctrine was developed by early Chinese Buddhist promoters as a cover for the fact that they actually had very little doctrine under their belts. Cole argues that only later, once Chan patriarchs had established the school’s institutions and its distinct Chinese identity, did Chan fill out and become the dynamic and complex philosophical and ritual tradition known to us today. Scholars have long known about the fabrication of the Chan lineage, motivated by politics and power struggles. Cole fills in important details about the Chan patriarch fabrication from the seventh and eighth century, which saw the rise of masters such as Huike and Hongran claiming to be direct descendents of Bodhidharma .

Jeff Wilson’s Mourning the Unborn Dead (Oxford, 2009) presents a fascinating portrait of contemporary American Zen viewed through an unlikely lens: the Americanization of the mizuko kuyo ritual, which is a funeral of sorts for aborted and miscarried fetuses. The ritual was originally developed in postwar Japan amid the explosion of so-called New Religions known for their focus on worldly concerns and dealing with spirits. American Zen communities are often depicted as rejecting ritual, and one might be surprised to find so many favoring this rite. But as Wilson shows, female teachers and students in convert Zen temples have embraced the ritual and fashioned it to serve the American sangha.

In Riven By Lust (Hawaii, 2009), Jonathan Silk takes an innovative approach to a central issue in Buddhist history: the schism of the early Indian Buddhist sangha. According to legend, the initial division of the sangha into the Mahasamgika and Sthaviravadin orders (subsequent divisions of which produced the numerous Indian Buddhist sects) came about because a monk named Mahadeva taught five heretical doctrines, all but one of which claimed that arhats were not fully enlightened. The Sthaviravadin, who rejected this teaching, disseminated a story about Mahadeva that eventually became widespread. The story goes that when Mahadeva was a young man, he took his mother as his lover, and killed his father, later killing an arhat to conceal his crime. He is said to have ordained in remorse and become a teacher. However, his doctrine, according to the story, was heretical.

As Silk tells it, the story was created as an ad hominem attack on a rival sect’s teaching. Although Silk is interested in the fabrication of the accusation and the motivation behind it, he’s more interested in the peculiar nature of the charge—that is, why incest would be a factor used in the attack. The book is therefore less a history of the schism than a thorough analysis of the story that is told about it, and of the motif of incest in Indian literature.

Death and the Afterlife in Japanese Buddhism (Hawaii, 2009) reveals there are ample reasons why Japanese Buddhism has been characterized as “funerary Buddhism.” Edited by Jacqueline Stone and Mariko Namba Walter, the book doesn’t dispute this characterization so much as offer historical insight into the very real and important relationship Buddhism has with death in Japan. The book’s essays address the theme of death and the afterlife from a wide variety of angles, including the aspiration to be born in the pure land of Amitabha, deathbed rites, posthumous ordination, and funeral services. Contributors include some of the best-known American scholars of Japanese Buddhism, such as Stone, George Tanabe, and Duncan Williams.

Rupert Gethin’s Sayings of the Buddha (Oxford, 2008) is a book of translated excerpts from the Pali canon, published as part of the Oxford World’s Classics series, which puts out inexpensive English editions of the world’s great literature. Gethin is the current president of the Pali Text Society, and the author of a widely used textbook, The Foundations of Buddhism. In his introduction, Gethin provides an overview of the Pali canon and its place in the history and literature of Buddhism, and he also prefaces each reading with a brief summary of the doctrine it contains. The selections are translated with an eye toward readability, dispensing with the turgid English found in early translations of the canon. This short volume is sure to join Gethin’s other work as a resource for teachers and students, and anyone interested in early Buddhist literature.

Kevin Vose explains in his Resurrecting Candrakirti (Wisdom, 2009) that this great seventh-century Indian philosopher, whom most Tibetans now revere as the finest expositor of Buddhist truth, was all but ignored in his own time. Vose tells how Indian thinkers rediscovered Candrakirti in the twelfth century and translators later brought his writings to Tibet during the second propagation of Buddhism there. It was only then that Tibetans elevated Candrakirti’s interpretation of Nagarjuna’s Madhyamaka to the highest status. Vose explains how Candrakirti’s new Tibetan champions used his writings in their own philosophical innovations, making him a central figure in the developments of the so-called Tibetan Renaissance.

Korean Buddhism has long been portrayed as “state-protection Buddhism,” but the extent to which Buddhism was organized to serve the interests of the government and its people, and the mechanisms by which this operated, have largely gone unexplored. Sem Vermeersch’s exhaustive study, The Power of the Buddhas (Harvard, 2008), is a political history of Buddhism and the Koryo Dynasty of Korea (918–1392). Running nearly 400 pages, with another 100 of supplementary material, index, and bibliography, the book more than fills this lacuna in the scholarship. Although not for the general reader, it is a gift for those with a serious desire to understand the ideology and institutions of medieval Korean Buddhism.

The Crystal Mirror of Philosophical Systems (Wisdom, 2009), by Thuken Losang Chokyi Nyima, is volume 25 in Wisdom Publications’ Library of Tibetan Classics. Judging by this and the other volumes published so far, it is an important series for serious students of Tibetan Buddhism. The Crystal Mirror is one of the most famous examples of the drupthob genre, describing the many schools of Buddhism in sequence from early Indian Buddhism to the author’s own Gelug school. The author was a prominent Gelug monk of Mongolian heritage, who was at home in ruling circles of both Beijing and Lhasa, and the book, written in 1802, is particularly interesting for its inclusion of Chinese Buddhism, Confucianism, and Daoism, which Thukden equates with Bon. Despite its decidedly Gelug sectarian bias, The Crystal Mirror is widely read in Tibet for its wealth of information on all schools of Buddhism, and the translators of this volume have done a terrific job in annotating it with more than 1600 footnotes.

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.