Book Briefs Summer 2008

Review of books from Summer 2008.

Alexander Gardner
1 June 2008

During the Renaissance, European thinkers famously bifurcated the world into physical and mental realms, charging science with investigating the physical world, and leaving religion to deal with mental phenomena. In Embracing Mind: The Common Ground of Science and Spirituality (Shambhala, 2008), B. Alan Wallace continues his tireless effort to bridge this gap. The book begins with a lengthy critique of Western science, exposing many of the irrational assumptions of the scientific world and pointing out the perspective that has long been missing: attention to the mind. Wallace goes on to offer a quick survey of religious (mostly, but not exclusively, Buddhist) theories of mind and a discussion of some of the recent conversations between scientists and religious leaders. The final section, “Tools and Technologies of a Buddhist Science of Contemplation,” is a strong statement that the mind is a perfectly reasonable subject for scientific inquiry.

In 1989 the government of China released, in English, a small booklet titled 100 Questions about Tibet. The booklet was meant to provide Westerners with what the Chinese considered an accurate presentation of the history and contemporary status of Tibet, but it was largely dismissed as propaganda. Authenticating Tibet: Answers to China’s “100 Questions” (University of California, 2008), edited by Anne-Marie Blondeau and Katia Buffetrille, attempts to set the record straight. In this English update of the 2002 French original, a number of international experts respond to each of the Chinese government’s 100 statements. Many of the Chinese assertions are easily dispatched with factual corrections, but on some issues there are no easy answers, and the scholars respond with careful non-ideological analysis. The subtlety of the essays will inevitably disturb partisans in both Dharamsala and Beijing, even though the obvious conclusion of the book is that Tibetans have endured grave injustices at the hands of the Chinese. This book is a must read for anyone paying attention to recent events in Tibet.

In Focused and Fearless (Wisdom Publications, 2008), longtime practitioner Shaila Catherine presents an insightful instruction manual on shamatha, based on the traditional teachings on the eight jhanas, or stages of concentration, through which a practitioner of shamatha progresses. Catherine focuses on the first four concentrations, which produce states of joy, detachment, tranquility, and equanimity beyond pleasure and pain, and she provides simple instruction and commentary based on her own meditative experience as well as that of her teachers. Although shamatha is not considered by Buddhist teachers to be sufficient for attaining enlightenment (it must be practiced in tandem with vipassana, by which one ultimately accomplishes the goal), the practice has considerable value and benefits, both mental and physical. In addition to being a useful guide to a fundamental Buddhist meditation, Focused and Fearless helps redress the historical perception that shamatha is the poor cousin to vipassana practice.

Between 2001 and 2004 Snow Lion released a masterful three-volume translation of Tsongkhapa’s Lamrim Chenmo, the Great Treastise on the Stages of the Path. That dense and difficult text is one of the masterpieces of Tibetan literature, covering topics ranging from taking refuge to meditation on emptiness. Now Guy Newland, the editor of that translation project, offers readers a valuable tool for understanding these teachings in his Introduction to Emptiness (Snow Lion, 2008). Newland presents his own fresh and straightforward commentary to the challenging wisdom section found in Volume Three of the translation, and breaks down the complexity of Tsongkhapa’s presentation into short two- to three-page sections spread over ten chapters. Although one would ideally read Newland’s book alongside the root text, one need not do so; the book is complete and comprehensive in itself.

The Buddha directed his teachings at two groups: the ordained and the laity. While later Buddhisms may have blurred the distinctions and the goals of the two groups, there is still much to be learned from the early Buddhist teachings on the ethical life of the householder. Bhikkhu Rahula Basnagoda, a Texas-based Theravadan monk and teacher, has drawn from the extensive teachings for the laity in the Pali canon and skillfully organized it in The Buddha’s Teaching on Prosperity (Wisdom Publications, 2008). It includes chapters on a variety of practical topics, such as being a good parent and life partner, earning wealth, and making good decisions. The author’s clear and easy to follow translations and commentary reveal that contrary to received wisdom, the Buddha actually had a lot to say about improving daily life in samsara.

Mainstream Chan history has long claimed that its teachings were formally institutionalized during the Tang Dynasty, a golden age of Chinese Buddhism. Over the last several decades however, scholars have called this history into question. In The Linji lu and the Creation of Chan Orthodoxy (Oxford, 2008), Albert Welter draws on much of this scholarship to trace the development of the literary genre known as the “records of sayings.” Welter focuses on the famous Linji lu, the recorded sayings of the ninth-century Chan master Linji, and shows how these sayings, far from being the stable and accurate expression of a founding patriarch’s message, were manipulated over the centuries by those in need of heroic and glorious origins to legitimate their own teachings and institutions. Welter’s study is an appreciation of the remarkable skill with which Chan masters forged the history necessary to promote their teachings.

Anthropologist Charlene Mackley presents a remarkable study of the impact of the Chinese economy in Tibet in her new book, The Violence of Liberation: Gender and Tibetan Buddhist Revivial in Post-Mao China (University of California Press, 2007). Her study focuses on the town of Labrang, considered a cultural center of Tibet, and reveals that Labrang’s “Tibetan” identity is fairly recent, due in large part to the influence of Chinese occupation. In particular, the booming Chinese tourist market in Tibet has brought with it the increasing commodification of Tibetan culture. Using gender as her principle analytical lens, Mackley argues that the Chinese economy has also brought in new gender practices that alternately support and undermine traditional social structures. The book is not written for the general audience, and readers not well versed in anthropologese might find some paragraphs excessively dense, but such passages are rare and always worth the effort. Mackley is a terrifically talented writer and thinker, and the book is a significant contribution.

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.