Book Briefs Winter 2008

Books in review by Alexander Gardner, from Winter 2008.

Alexander Gardner
1 December 2008

Treasures from Juniper Ridge (Ranjung Yeshe, 2008) is a marvelous new collection of terma, or revealed texts, that brings together a range of revelations—from meditation instruction and the Dzogchen view to advice for women householders and a description of the bardo. The “Pointing Out Instructions to the Old Lady” is especially moving. Here Padmasambhava tells a woman devotee, who introduces herself as “being of lesser intelligence,” that the nature of her mind is “truly perfected Buddha.” Erik Pema Kunsang, one of the best translators working today, has done another excellent job of preserving the profound simplicity of the original Tibetan. The book begins with a general introduction to Nyingma teachings crafted by the editors from talks by the late Tulku Urgyen, reminding us of what the world lost when this remarkable teacher passed away.

In Eminent Nuns; Women Chan Masters of Seventeenth-Century China (University of Hawaii, 2008), scholar Beata Grant points out that there is a long tradition of women earning high status in Chan Buddhism, although little is known about their contributions because few records of these women have survived. Her study makes use of a rare collection of recorded teachings, or yulu (a genre of highly revised and edited public talks and letters), of female Chan masters. The eminent nuns that Grant writes about were all inheritors of a dharma transmission stemming from a remarkable teacher named Qiyuan Xinggang, a woman whose struggle to enter the order and attain realization is told here in some detail. She eventually received dharma transmission in the short-lived Linji Chan sect and served as abbess of a small but well-established nunnery. Grant translates many poems and excerpts from the other nuns’ writings, showing them to be able teachers who did not shy away from engaging in the combatative exchanges that defined their Linji method of teaching and training.

At age ninety-one, Robert Aitken is one of the oldest and longest-serving Zen masters in America. In his new book, Miniatures of a Zen Master (Counterpoint, 2008), his instructions are brief and direct. He recorded many of the pithy chapters—most no more than thirty or fifty words—late at night, upon awaking from a dream or being struck with a memory or inspiration. Like some of the finest Zen literature, they read like the contents of one’s own mind and also like a mirror held up to show the mind’s quotidian chatter to be somehow pure. In one piece, he recalls a classmate bully who left school at age eleven after it was revealed that he couldn’t read. In another, he reports on a Zen master who asked his embarrassed audience to raise their hands if they had attained enlightenment. And in another, he admits that in his early days of searching for books on dharma in Japan, he would get lost in the section on law (the Japanese character for both words is the same).

Modern pilgrims to Buddhist India would be hard pressed to find a better guidebook than Ven. Shravasti Dhammika’s Middle Land Middle Way: A Pilgrim’s Guide to the Buddha’s India (BPS, 2008). The book explains that Buddhism’s holy sites have multiplied well beyond the four that the Buddha reportedly said were worthy of pilgrimage: the places of his birth, enlightenment, first teaching and mahaparinirvana. Ven. Dhammika lists an additional seventeen sites—all lavishly illustrated with color plates—located in Northern India. The author is an Australian Theravadin monk with extensive knowledge of the early Buddhist scripture and history. With each entry, he explains the significance of the site, drawing on scripture, famous travel accounts, and his own keen observations. It’s an wonderful guide for anyone interested in Buddhist pilgrimage to Northeastern India, though as the author points out it’s not meant to replace the Lonely Planet guidebook that can tell you how to get there and where to stay.

Another book of interest for pilgrims is Frederick M. Asher’s Bodh Gaya (Oxford, 2008), which belongs to a series, Monumental Legacy, dedicated to all twenty-two of India’s cultural sites on UNESCO’s World Heritage List. Each of the books in the series—including four others dedicated to Buddhist sites—offers a brief overview of the history and significance of each site, as well as a detailed description of its glory days and what remains of it today. Asher’s historical account of the place where the Buddha gained enlightenment is a fair telling of a site whose ownership has been hotly contested by Indians, Burmese, Sri Lankans, and the British, as well as the Shaivite and Buddhist communities that both continue to worship there. Little is currently known about the history of Bodhgaya’s famous Mahabodhi stupa, and Asher sheds no new light on the matter. However, he provides an interesting account of the important sculptures found at Bodhgaya, many of which are still on site or in the local museum, and he describes the modern day town and nearby sites of interest to the pilgrim.

The Mind and Life Institute has been convening conferences for the last twenty years, bringing together Western scientists, Buddhist scholars, and the Dalai Lama. More than ten books based on these conferences have been published, each dedicated to a central issues of religious and scientific concern, such as physics and cosmology, emotions, consciousness, and, now with Mind and Life (Columbia, 2008), the nature of the physical world. The book, based on the 2002 conference, is edited by Pier Luigi Luisi and includes chapters written by several of the participants, as well as interviews with the Dalai Lama, the Seventeenth Karmapa, Matthieu Riccard, and Richard Gere. It has the informal tone of a conversation, though one between erudite people who are finding common language to address some very subtle questions. The editor’s English is not always fluent, but the book is well designed, and the chapters, integrating both the Buddhist and the scientific approaches to such issues as atomic theory, genetics, and the human genome, are a pleasure to read.

In 1724 the monk and de facto abbot of a large Zen temple in the far south of Japan made his way to Kyoto to sell tea. For ten years he set up his baskets and pots on roadsides and at scenic locals, before settling into a small shack in the city, where he spent the rest of his life writing poems and selling tea. This Zen master in disguise, named Baisao (the epithet means “old tea seller”), is the subject of Norman Waddell’s new book, The Old Tea Seller: Life and Zen Poetry in 18th Century Kyoto (Counterpoint, 2008). For Baiso, selling tea was a way to have contact with people on a daily basis in order to spread the dharma, something he felt he could not do at what he described as his closed and corrupt temple. Waddell does a fine job outlining Baisao’s long life and explaining the newly established Obaju Zen sect to which he belonged. Baisao’s poems, selections of which are reprinted here, offer nimble portraits of an itinerant tea seller dispensing a wealth of Zen wisdom and advice. Though he may not be as well-known as his contemporaries, Ryoken and Basho, Baisao’s poems, mostly in the classical Chinese Kanshi style, deserve to be regarded alongside those of his more famous peers.

The Book of Kadam (Wisdom Publications, 2008) is the second volume in a planned thirty-two-volume Library of Tibetan Classics. The book contains texts ascribed to the great tenth-century Bengali master Atisha and his Tibetan disciple Dromton, though the actual history of the book remains obscure. The Kadampa, as is explained in translator Thubten Jinpa’s erudite introduction, were followers of Atisha, and theirs was the first institution in what came to be known as the Second Propagation of Buddhism to Tibet. The book, the major part of which is in the form of dialogues between Atisha and Dromton, offers a rare glimpse into the Kadam teachings and practices of the stages of the path (lamrim) and mind training (lojong) as they existed before their absorption and alteration by later Tibetan Buddhist schools. Its teachings on visualization practice also provide a fascinating corrective to the long-held view that Atisha and the Kadampa downplayed Tantra.

One of the most popular legends about the bodhisattva Guanyin (the female version of Avalokitesvara) is the story of Princess Miaoshan. Wilt Idema’s Personal Salvation and Filial Piety (University of Hawaii, 2008) offers a fascinating analysis of the legend, along with a well-annotated translation of one of its most popular tellings, The Precious Scroll of Incense Mountain. The Miaoshan legend tells the story of a young girl who refuses her father’s command to marry and escapes his punishment in order to live her desired life as a religious renunciate. When her father becomes ill, she offers him flesh from her limbs and her eyes, which leads him to repent his cruelty. She then reveals herself to be the bodhisattva of compassion, Avalokitesvara/Guanyin, and later takes rebirth as a famous statue of Avalokitesvara at Incense Mountain. The legend’s emphasis on the bodhisattva’s selfless service, embodied so movingly by Miaoshan, offered a solution to one of Chinese Buddhism’s most difficult conflicts: the tension between salvation-seeking renunciation and the duty children have to their parents. Idema also addresses the issue of gender, reading the legend through some fairly provocative feminist theory.


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.