Book Briefs Spring 2008

Book reviews from Spring 2008.

Alexander Gardner
1 March 2008

Mt. Koya, on the southern part of Japan’s main island of Honshu, was the seat of Kobo Daishi, otherwise known as Kukai, the founder of Japan’s Shingon sect of esoteric Buddhism. Since the ninth century, the mountain has been a major pilgrimage destination for Japanese followers of Kukai, who is said to still be present on the mountain. Koyasan is also a primary place to worship the Great Sun Buddha, Vairocana, the central deity of Shingon. In Sacred Koyasan (SUNY Press, 2007), Philip Nicoloff presents a portrait of the mountain that ably transports the reader to the heart of the Shingon world. The book, primarily an ethnography of Mt. Koya’s Buddhist community, is a capable piece of scholarship, referencing academic studies of Koyasan, Kukai, and Shingon. Yet the descriptions of the landscape and ritual activity, and even the lengthy section on the history of the place, are so beautifully written that it reads more like a fine piece of travel writing. This is Buddhism as a living—and lived—phenomenon, and a welcome reminder that Buddhism remains a vibrant presence in Japanese society.

Jeffrey Hopkins is well known for his translations of Tibetan and Indian classics and his erudite studies of doctrine. But in recent years, he has also been making efforts to reach a wider audience. In A Truthful Heart: Buddhist Practices for Connecting with Others (Snow Lion, 2008), Hopkins draws on his extensive knowledge and personal experience to present an especially lovely book on the need for compassion and the way to cultivate it. In seventeen tightly composed chapters, highlighting six virtues (equanimity, recognizing friends, reflecting on others’ kindness, returning kindness, love, and compassion), Hopkins provides simple exercises for putting compassion into practice, something he emphasizes anyone can do. He underscores this point in his introduction, where he recalls his own youth as a loner and malcontent who earned himself the nickname “Mr. Puke.” If he was able to successfully cultivate compassion and reach across the self/other chasm, Hopkins contends, anyone can.

Patrick Olivelle’s The Life of the Buddha (Clay Sanskrit Library/SUNY Press, 2008) is a new translation of Asvaghosa’s Buddhacarita, a great poetic narrative of the Buddha’s life. Asvaghosa, who lived in the first or second century, was a convert to Buddhism, and, as Olivelle explains in his introduction, he brought his Brahmanism (the ever-evolving traditions of the Vedas) with him. Olivelle reads the text as a response to Brahmanical criticism, one that positions Buddhism as the fulfillment of Brahmanism rather than its opponent. Because the second half of the text no longer survives in Sanskrit, preserved only in Chinese and Tibetan translation, Olivelle provides only a summary of Asvaghosa’s treatment of the period of the Buddha’s life following his enlightenment. Overall, the translation is nicely annotated with endnotes explaining the poet’s allusions and unfamiliar terms and names, and there’s also a helpful glossary of names.

In 1953, the journal Philosophy East and West published a debate between the popular Zen preacher D. T. Suzuki and the eminent Chinese historian Hu Shi. At stake was the “real Zen”—that is, whether it was a cultural phenomenon with a history or instead an ineffable mystery and an unmediated personal experience. As Steven Heine makes clear in his Zen Skin, Zen Marrow (Oxford University Press, 2008) this debate—he fancies it a “war”—is pervasive and ongoing, and of concern both to the scholar and the practitioner. I’m not convinced that all that many people are concerned with this issue, but the debate is a fascinating example of religious discourse in this country. Specifically, it illustrates the refusal—some would say inability—of religious scholars and practitioners to take one another seriously. In addition to laying out the dispute at hand, Heine points to a constructive compromise. It remains to be seen whether the opposing camps will see it that way.

David Loy’s Money, Sex, War, Karma: Notes for a Buddhist Revolution (Wisdom Publications, 2008) might have a flashy title, but it is a serious and substantial book that poses real challenges to the committed reader. The book builds on a theme that Loy has been working on for several of his last books—namely, that the three poisons are so intricately built into our society (greed in the market economy, anger in the military industrial complex, and delusion in the fame-chasing omnipresent commercial media) that awakening needs to happen in the social as well as the personal realm. This places the book firmly in the realm of Engaged Buddhism. However, its overarching theme concerns how to ensure that the Buddhadharma survives and flourishes in the West. Loy argues with conviction that in order to have relevance in the West, the dharma must find the middle way between its many traditional Asian forms and the contemporary Western feel-good consumerism that characterize much of today’s spiritualism.

Tyler Dewar’s The Karmapa’s Middle Way (Snow Lion, 2008) is a capable translation of the Ninth Karmapa, Wangchuk Dorje’s (1556–1603) commentary on Candrakirti’s Entrance to the Middle Way (Madhyamakavatara). The philosophical doctrine presented here, Madhyamaka, is among the most beguiling of the Buddhist teachings, and Dewar’s introduction is an admirable attempt at explaining the issues for the general audience. Though the text is unquestionably important in its Tibetan tradition, and its dharma is profound, it is nevertheless a highly technical piece of literature that was written for a very selective audience. A reader might find particular sections of this book useful, however, the unfortunate method of presenting the Tibetan section-numbering system—so complex as to warrant its own appendix—is of little help.

Patricia Graham’s Faith and Power in Japanese Buddhist Art (University of Hawaii Press, 2007) is a reassessment of the Japanese Buddhist art that takes into consideration the overlooked Tokugawa and modern periods. The Tokugawa era (1600–1868) is generally said to have been a time in which Confucianism was dominant and Buddhism was in decline. But as Graham shows, the Tokugawa was in fact a vibrant period for Buddhism and its art and should not be dismissed. The book is densely written and copiously illustrated, rich with evidence that Buddhist art has thrived over the last four hundred years and continues to do so. One of the book’s many contributions is how it traces the widening patronage of Buddhist art, which helped to create and support a new class of Buddhist artists and appreciation for their art beyond the walls of the Buddhist temples.

The seven-line prayer to Padmasambhava, who is known in Tibet as Guru Rinpoche, is one of the best-known supplications in all of Tibetan Buddhism. Now Jamgon Mipham’s (1846–1912) commentary on this prayer is masterfully translated and annotated by the Padmakara Translation Group in White Lotus (Shambhala, 2007). Although this is not the first English rendering of Mipham’s commentary (Tulku Thondup used it in his Enlightened Journey), it is the first full translation. Mipham used eight different layers of meaning to explain the prayer, including: the basic “outer” meaning, which tells us who Padmasambhava the person was; its meaning according to the Dzogchen teachings; and an explanation of the prayer as a guru yoga practice. The text includes a lot of scriptural quotations that the modern reader might find taxing, but the passages in which Mipham uses the words of the seven lines to expound doctrine are beautiful in their brevity and clarity.

The bodhisattva Dizang (Jizo in Japanese) is known in China as the lord of the underworld, a deity with the power to intervene on behalf of those tormented in hell because of their misdeeds. The assumption with Chinese Buddhist gods has long been that they are simply Chinese variations on the Indian Buddhist pantheon. (In fact, “Dizang” is a Chinese rendering of the Sanskrit “Ksitigarbha”). But in The Making of a Savior Bodhisattva: Dizang in Medieval China (University of Hawaii Press, 2007), the author Zhiru—a Chinese Buddhist nun who is now an associate professor at Pomona College in Claremont, California—digs through Chinese Buddhist art, scripture, and tales of miracles to reveal that, save for the name, the deity was an entirely Chinese creation. Her fascinating exploration of the cult of Dizang in Medieval China shows how widely Buddhism reached into Chinese culture as it successfully put down roots in the society.

During the second propagation of Buddhism in Tibet, scores of translators brought new teachings from the far side of the Himalaya, and Tibetans began to openly compose their own commentaries on the doctrine. In the midst of rampant innovation, the great scholar-monk Sakya Pandita (1182–1251) articulated a standard by which the true dharma might be differentiated from the false. In The Dharma’s Gatekeepers (SUNY Press, 2007), Jonathan Gold presents a partial translation and study of Sakya Pandita’s Gateway to Leaning, which he describes as a “textbook on the basic skills of a good scholar.” Although parts of this important text have been previously translated and examined, Gold’s analysis of what he calls Sakya Pandita’s “neoconservatism” is a fresh contribution, offering a fine examination of the ideals, methods, and anxieties of the Tibetan scholastic community.

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.