Book Briefs Fall 2008

Books Briefs from Fall 2008.

Alexander Gardner
1 September 2008

Zen Sourcebook (Hackett Publishing, 2008) is an invaluable collection of Zen teachings from China, Korea, and Japan, revealing the brilliant use of language to evoke the Buddha’s realization. The collection begins with the Heart Sutra, believed to have been composed in China in the seventh century and later translated into Sanskrit, and continues through to the poetry and teachings of Japanese and Korean Zen masters of the nineteenth century. Although it includes excerpts from many previously translated and well-known favorites, such as the Platform Sutra, the Blue Cliff Records, and the Wumenguan, the book also presents quite a few texts that are less known in the West, which deserve to be placed alongside those great works. Each chapter gives a short introduction about the text’s author and where he or she fits in the history of the tradition, as well as a brief explanation of the importance of the text. This is a rich anthology that one can study at length or dip into repeatedly for inspiration.

Ralph Flores begins his Buddhist Scriptures as Literature: Sacred Rhetoric and the Uses of Theory (SUNY, 2008) with the observation that Westerners have been misreading Buddhist scripture for several centuries. It’s not a new lament, but it’s a situation he aims to improve by applying modern Western literary theory to the reading of scriptures, such as the Nikaya tales of the Buddha’s enlightenment, the Dhammapada, the Heart Sutra, the Tibetan Book of the Dead, and others. For Flores this means setting aside the obvious doctrinal message and appreciating the texts’ use of myth, legend, epic, and other literary modes of presenting truths. It is a useful approach, a corrective to the tendency toward a literal reading of scripture that tends to lose so much. Still, if there’s any message that contemporary critical theory and Buddhism both share, it’s that all truth is a matter of interpretation, and thus Flores’ suggestion that he’s found the “right” way to read texts, where those who came before him have failed, is a bit puzzling.

Lion of Siddhas: The Life and Teachings of Padampa Sangye (Snow Lion, 2008) is a rare portrait of an elusive yet important religious figure in Tibetan Buddhism. Padampa Sangye was an Indian mahasiddha who traveled to Tibet in the eleventh century during the second propagation of Buddhism there. Among his students was the female yogi Machig Labron, who is credited with spreading the chod (“cutting”) teachings. Like chod, Padampa Sangye’s own teaching lineage, known as shijay, or “pacification,” was absorbed by the dominant schools of Buddhism in Tibet, and he left no monastery or independent lineage. The translations included in the book might not provide a full understanding of Padampa Sangye’s life and teachings (the book isn’t annotated, and there is only a cursory introduction to the man and his teaching), but the material presented here does offer an entertaining glimpse into the life of a classic tantric iconoclast.

In Buddhism and Taoism Face to Face (University of Hawaii, 2008), Christine Mollier reveals the extent of the two religions’ interaction in China from the seventh to thirteenth centuries, when Buddhism took root and Daoism became a fully developed religion. Buddhist and Daoist patriarchs had long vied for influence and supremacy in China, each engaging the other in virulent attacks. Yet during the Chinese medieval period, they regularly stole ideas and even entire texts from each other, not unlike two sports teams stealing each other’s techniques. Mollier gives several fascinating examples of this literary theft of ritual manuals, revealing the lengths to which the two competing religions imitated each other in their quest to dominate the Chinese religious landscape. Readers will come away not only with a better understanding of the history of these religions but also with a new appreciation for the similarities between the two that remain evident today.

Douglas Samuel Duckworth’s Mipam on Buddha-Nature: The Ground of the Nyingma Tradition (SUNY, 2008) is a valiant explication of the remarkable early twentieth-century Tibetan scholar Ju Mipham’s influential synthesis of the sutric and tantric poles of Tibetan Buddhist discourse and practice. There are already a handful of respectable studies of buddhanature, a topic that goes to the heart of the definition of emptiness and nirvana. In Tibet, the issue is usually debated in terms of shentong and rangtong, or intrinsic and extrinsic emptiness: Is ultimate reality void, or is there a presence that can be described? This is subtle philosophy, and unfortunately most studies that tackle it have made few concessions to the non-initiate. Duckworth’s is not one of these; his presentation is well-framed with conceptual and historical context, and his reasoning can be followed without excessive effort. While some sections delve into the arcane matters of the various categories and subcategories of Indian logic on which so much of Tibetan philosophy is based, Duckworth kindly walks his reader carefully along.

The Tibetan Bon religion and its important relationship to Buddhism remains poorly understood in the West. A new catalog from the stunning Bon exhibition at the Rubin Museum of Art in New York, Bon: The Magic Word: The Indigenous Religion of Tibet (Rubin Museum of Art, 2008), sheds some brightly colored light on the topic. Bon followers claim theirs is an independently arisen religion that has persevered in Tibet despite centuries of Buddhist suppression; others argue it is a heterodox Buddhist tradition that is thoroughly modeled on Buddhism. The debate notwithstanding, the impact of Buddhism on Bon, and vice-versa, is unmistakable, and anyone interested in Tibetan Buddhism would be ill-advised to ignore Bon’s rich heritage. The book’s chapters, written by top scholars in the field, cover a wide range of topics, including the religion’s history, rituals, sacred geography, deities, and doctrine, all illustrated with exquisite art.

James Apple’s new book, Stairway to Nirvana (SUNY, 2008), may have a whimsical title, but it is anything but light. Even Tibetan scholars consider its topic—the twenty sanghas—one of the most difficult to comprehend. The twenty sanghas are the possible stages through which one might pass en route to enlightenment; it’s an expansion of the early Buddhist soteriological systems of the four noble beings (stream-enterer, once-returner, non-returner, and arhat) and the five paths (accumulation, preparation, seeing, cultivation, and no-more-training), as well as the later Mahayana addition of the three beings (shravaka, the pratyekabuddha, and bodhisattva) and other categorizations of noble beings who are firmly on the path to enlightenment. Making sense of the complicated path structures that bring together these categories and make them all fit together nicely has long been an important part of the Tibetan scholastic endeavor. Although Apple is an accomplished scholar and his book is impressive, it will likely only be of interest to the specialized reader.

Bryan Cuevas’ thin new Travels in the Netherworld (Oxford, 2008) is a study of delog narratives, which are accounts of Tibetan women and men who die, visit the afterlife, and then come back to tell of their experience. These narratives are largely teachings on karma: the delog, having encountered recently deceased relatives and neighbors and witnessing the punishments for their sins, returns to preach to the living about the terrible consequences of one’s negative actions. Cuevas’ analysis helps to explain the lasting and widespread appeal of the delog narratives; he approaches the stories as examples of popular religion—not “popular” as opposed to “elite,” but in the sense of “common to all.” As he rightly points out, the concern with basic morality and death is something that cuts across all divisions and classes of Tibetan religion.

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.