Book Briefs – Spring 2009

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

Alexander Gardner1 March 2009

There is no shortage of coffee-table-size tomes on Buddhist art. The Art of Buddhism (Shambhala, 2008), however, is a rare instance of an art book you can carry with you—and fortunately neither images nor quality of scholarship have been sacrificed for smaller size and affordability. The book by Denise Patry Leidy is lavishly illustrated with close to two hundred full-color images, and the essays reveal an encyclopedic breadth of knowledge. The book displays and explains Buddhist art from every corner of Asia, from the earliest surviving examples to the nineteenth century. Leidy, an Asian art curator at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, is not breaking new ground here, but each chapter displays her expertise in Buddhist iconography, and is as good a survey of the state of contemporary scholarship as one is likely to find.

David L. McMahan explains in The Making of Buddhist Modernism (Oxford, 2008) that much of what is commonly recognized as Buddhism today is in fact a hybrid of multiple intellectual and cultural traditions of East and West that have interacted over the last two hundred years. McMahan does an excellent job of showing how encounters with such things as Western scientific rationalism, Romanticism, psychology, and monotheism have largely stripped Buddhism of layers of myth, ritual, and beliefs to produce a religion—Buddhist Modernism—that is more familiar and accessible for today’s modern and diverse population. McMahan’s study is refreshingly free of judgment; he’s not faulting past or present misinterpretations of the tradition so much as drawing a fairly comprehensive portrait of Buddhist Modernism and including it as a valid member of a 2,500-year-old tradition.

Daniel Boucher’s Bodhisattvas of the Forest and the Formation of the Mahayana (University of Hawaii, 2008) is an elaboration of the theory that the Mahayana arose in part as a lay revolt against clerics and monasteries that no longer upheld the ethical principles necessary for the pursuit of enlightenment. The book is a translation and study of an early Mahayana sutra, the Rastrapala, in which the Buddha’s ethical triumphs—his forest-dwelling hardships as a bodhisattva in particular—are glorified, while sedentary monks are disparaged. Many of the arguments that Boucher puts forth have been made before, and the Rastrapala has been previously translated. Still, the book makes a strong case that wilderness-dwelling renunciates were key players in the Mahayana refashioning of the Buddha as both an enduring presence and a model for the bodhisattva path, and he offers thoughtful discussions of early Mahayana attitudes toward monasticism and ascetic discipline.

Richard Shankman’s The Experience of Samadhi (Shambhala, 2008) is a study of samadhi drawing on scripture, commentary, and living masters. Traditionally, samadhi, or “concentration”—a general term for meditative practice—is divided between shamatha (“calm abiding”) and vipassana (“insight”); whether the practitioner can skip the first, or to what degree one must combine the two, has been a topic of controversy since the early days of Buddhism. Shankman divides his book into three sections, which allows him to explore in depth some of the different ways samadhi has been dealt with over the centuries. He first focuses on how samadhi is addressed in the Pali Canon, and then how the commentarial tradition explains it. The final section consists of eight quite stimulating interviews with contemporary Buddhist teachers, Eastern and Western, including Jack Kornfield, Sharon Salzberg, and Ajahn Thanissaro (aka Thanissaro Bhikkhu).

Relative Truth, Ultimate Truth and The Awakening Mind (Wisdom Publications, 2008) by Geshe Tashi Tsering are the second and fourth books, respectively, in a series of six that cover the basic doctrines of Tibetan Buddhism (the series begins with the four noble truths and will end with tantra). Although coming in the form of a very traditional Gelugpa presentation of the Buddhist path, the books are written for a modern Western audience, and therefore “happiness” is presented as a principle goal, alongside the more traditional goal of enlightenment. The first book is a much-needed presentation of the two truths, a central topic of Tibetan philosophical inquiry, in a language that is accessible to non-academic readers. The Awakening Mind deals with bodhichitta, the Mahayana doctrine of enlightening compassion. This is a topic that is equal parts ethics, philosophy, and practice, and Geshe Tashi Tsering covers all three with remarkable ease. The author’s personal tone and his fluent language, combined with his obvious mastery of the material (he is a Lharampa Geshe, the highest degree awarded to Tibetan scholars) help to make the series a tremendously valuable resource for the study of basic Buddhist teachings from a Tibetan perspective.

The Record of Linji (University of Hawaii, 2008) is one of the foundational texts for Chan/Zen, both for the tradition itself and for anyone who struggles to understand its history and teachings—particularly its koan practice. Ostensibly the recorded sayings of Linji, the patriarch of Linji Chan (known as Rinzai Zen in Japan), the text is a collection of often cryptic statements, sermons, and stories. Starting in the early 1950s, a team headed by Ruth Fuller Sasaki worked on the translation until Fuller Sasaki’s untimely death in 1967. The translation was published in 1975, but without the hundreds of annotations the team had produced; these have now been restored through the painstaking effort of scholar Thomas Yuho Kirchner. The resulting book is a masterpiece of scholarship not only on Linji Chan, but also on Chinese Buddhist language and history—the annotations, which constitute almost two-thirds of the book, explain in astonishing detail the meanings, references, and grammar of each line of text. The edition preserves the excellent historical introduction, and includes a lengthy glossary, index, and table of names.

In Gathering Leaves and Lifting Words (University of Washington, 2008), Justin McDaniel sets out to understand how Buddhists in Laos and Thailand “teach Buddhists to be Buddhists.” With this book, McDaniel, a gifted textual scholar, has produced the first systematic study of how monks have been educated in Southeast Asia over the last five hundred years. He does this primarily through tracing the development of teaching manuals and the ways they are used in the curricula. Perhaps the most surprising discovery for readers will be that monks do not study the Pali Canon, nor have they done so traditionally; instead, teachers long ago “lifted” words from the Pali sources and explained them orally, teaching through extensive glosses on Pali words. These lectures, having been written down as guides for later teachers, became canonical in themselves, and thus are core texts of the monastic curricula. McDaniel’s study of this material allows him to see the continuities and change in Southeast Asian presentations of the Buddhist teaching.

Tibetan Logic (Snow Lion, 2008) by Katherine Manchester Rogers is the latest attempt to make this exceedingly dense and difficult topic comprehensible to a Western audience. And as with previous attempts, this one meets with varying success. Roger’s book is a study and translation of a nineteenth-century logic manual that is widely used in Gelug monastic colleges. As Rogers takes the reader through the text, by the thirteenth Dalai Lama’s primary tutor, Purbu Jok Champa Gyatso (1825–1901), she makes note of alternate positions also taken by the tradition, making the important point that even the Gelug should not be thought of as monolithic in their doctrinal positions. The book is not a casual read by any stretch, but for those with a strong background in Tibetan epistemology, or in need of an English guide when studying the original Tibetan, it could be quite useful.

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.