Book Briefs Winter 2006

Taking the Path as the Result; Dogen on Meditation and Thinking; The Platform Sutra; The Mirror of Zen; Songs and Instructions of the Karmapas; and more.

Benjamin Bogin
1 December 2006

The Sakya school of Tibetan Buddhism has been the most conservative in maintaining the secrecy of its lineage’s special practices. In particular, leaders of the school have been reluctant to authorize any publications on their supreme esoteric system, the Lamdré (“Path and Result”). The latest volume in the Library of Tibetan Classics series, Taking the Path as the Result: Core Teachings of the Sakya Lamdré Tradition (Wisdom Publications, 2006; $59.95) represents a major breakthrough by bringing these teachings to light with the full blessings of the Sakya masters. In nearly seven hundred pages of translation, the indefatigable Cyrus Stearns presents an anthology of essential texts on Lamdré. The first section includes both the Vajra Lines of the seventh/eighth-century Indian adept Virupa (the root text of the entire tradition) and the commentary by Sachen Kunga Nyingpo (1092-1158). Writings on the history and the practice of the tradition by the sixteenth-century master Jamyang Khyentse Wangchuk (updated by later lineage holders) comprise the second part of the volume. This collection will be an invaluable resource for practitioners of the Lamdré system.

Thirty years ago, Hee-Jin Kim published Dogen Kigen: Mystical Realist, one of the first books in English devoted to the preeminent Soto Zen master. Since that time, dozens of studies of Dogen (1200-1253) have produced strikingly different conclusions about the life and thought of this enigmatic master (see Norman Fischer’s review of Steven Heine’s Did Dogen Go to China? in the Fall issue). In Kim’s new book, Dogen on Meditation and Thinking: A Reflection of His View of Zen (SUNY Press, 2006; $21.95), he challenges many of these presentations of Dogen, arguing they are simplistic distortions of the complex thought of a “thoroughly praxis-oriented” Zen master whose writings directly addressed various audiences in thirteenth-century Japan. The book’s six short chapters contain philosophical essays covering Dogen’s views on the relationship between nonduality and duality, the unity of practice and enlightenment, emptiness, language, meditation, and reason. Written for students and scholars of Dogen, the book is a challenging read for those not familiar with the issues at stake. However, Kim spells out his thinking with such clarity that any reader interested in making a serious effort to understand Dogen’s thought will find Kim’s insights indispensable.

Aspiration prayers are not generally held in the same high regard as meditation instructions or explanations of emptiness, and this bias is reflected in the lack of publications dealing with such prayers. The Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche goes against the grain of contemporary American Buddhism — and with the current of thousands of years of Buddhist tradition — by focusing on one such prayer in his new book, Penetrating Wisdom: The Aspiration Prayer of Samantabhadra (Snow Lion Publications, 2006; $22.95). This beautiful prayer is recited daily by practitioners of the Dzogchen tradition. As they chant, they give voice to the words of the primordial Buddha Samantabhadra, who describes the origin of samsara and nirvana, the nature of mind, the realms of existence, and the aspiration for the liberation of all beings. Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche’s explanations reveal that the entire path is contained in the words of this one short prayer. As a transcript of oral teachings, the book retains the lively and humorous style of the author. However, more thorough editing might have removed some jokes (such as references to Nirvana the rock band and Samsara the perfume) that might be funny in person but are awkward in print.

Ponlop Rinpoche is also the inspiration behind Songs and Instructions of the Karmapas (Nalandabodhi Publications, 2006; $15), a small book of translations compiled as an offering for the twenty-first birthday of the Gyalwang Karmapa. Among its many gems are an aspiration prayer by the Third Karmapa, the Eighth Karmapa’s commentary on Milarepa’s song of instruction to Gampopa, and a short selection of verses by the Sixteenth Karmapa.

Over the past twenty years, Red Pine (Bill Porter) has emerged as one of the most prolific and powerful voices in the translation of Chinese Buddhist literature. Ever since his translation of Cold Mountain Poems was published in 1983, an expanding group of admirers has eagerly awaited the appearance of each new translation. Those familiar with Red Pine’s work will be delighted to find his signature balance of precision and poetic beauty in his latest offering, The Platform Sutra: The Zen Teaching of Hui-Neng (Shoemaker & Hoard, 2006; $28). Although this Zen classic has been translated numerous times, Red Pine’s is the first to be based on a newly available manuscript discovered in the Dunhuang caves. The translation of the Platform Sutra, without annotation, occupies the first fifty pages of the book. This is followed by Red Pine’s wry and erudite introduction and two hundred-page commentary on the text.

Popularizing Buddhism: Preaching as Performance in Sri Lanka, by Mahinda Deegalle (SUNY Press, 2006; $65), bears the unmistakable marks of a doctoral dissertation: exhaustive references to previous scholarship and the announcement and defense of specific interpretive strategies. Despite these stylistic encumbrances, Deegalle’s study presents a fascinating and often ignored aspect of Buddhism: the art of preaching. Tracing the preaching tradition from the earliest records of the historical Buddha to the present day, the author demonstrates both continuity and change in this vital point of contact between the monastic community and the general public. The book is strongest in its detailed investigations of the “marathon preaching” that developed in eighteenth-century Sri Lanka, wherein one preacher recites the text as another explains the meaning. The development of Sinhala preaching in the hands of later innovators such as Anagarika Dharmapala (1864-1933) and Palan Vajiranana (1878-1955) provides a fascinating example of the adaptation of ancient traditions in the modern world.

In the seventeenth century, a group of Chinese Chan masters and their Japanese disciples founded the Obaku sect of Zen. In time, this community came to be recognized as the third major sect of Zen, alongside the older and more famous Rinzai and Soto. Helen J. Baroni, the author of the only English-language study of Obaku Zen, continues her explorations of the sect in Iron Eyes: The Life and Teachings of Obaku Zen Master Tetsugen Doko (SUNY Press, 2006; $77.50 hardcover; $29.95 paperback). By far the most famous master of the Obaku tradition, Testugen Doko (1630-1682) is remembered in Japan primarily for his publication of a new (“Obaku”) edition of the Chinese Buddhist canon and his legendary relief efforts in the Kansai famine of 1682. In four chapters of historical biography and analysis, Baroni places these achievements in context by carefully examining the available records of his life as well as the later myths that accrued to this revered figure. Her rigorous scholarship demonstrates the connections between these famous deeds and Tetsugen’s broader goals of reforming Zen through a renewed emphasis on scripture and monastic discipline. These chapters are followed by more than one hundred pages of original translations of his writings, letters, and poems.

In Pointing Out the Great Way: The Stages of Meditation in the Mahamudra Tradition (Wisdom Publications, 2006; $29.95), Daniel Brown attempts to write a practical meditation manual that’s firmly based in the Tibetan tradition yet directed at Western practitioners. A clinical psychotherapist and meditation instructor, Brown has spent more than thirty years studying and translating the vast Tibetan literature on the Mahamudra system of meditation. In Pointing Out the Great Way, he expertly guides the reader through each stage of the path in plain English, referencing the classic sources on Mahamudra sparingly and in a manner that supports his presentation without confusing it. The resulting manual is a valuable synthesis of more than a thousand years of meditation instructions filtered through the author’s understanding of Tibetan and Western ways of describing the mind.

In The Mirror of Zen: The Classic Guide to Buddhist Practice of Zen Master So Sahn (Shambhala Publications, 2006; $14.95), one of Korea’s great works of Buddhist literature is translated into English for the first time. So Sahn (1520-1604) was a meditation master, a unifier of Korean Buddhism, and a national hero who led armies of monks in defense against a Japanese invasion. A learned scholar, he composed The Mirror of Zen, a work that has been treasured by Korean monks for centuries. It features So Sahn’s selection of the eighty-six passages from Buddhist scriptures that he recognized as the essential heart of the dharma, along with brief commentaries and short verses he composed for each passage. As So Sahn wrote in his own original introduction: “The writings are spare, even deceptively simple, but their meanings are perfectly complete.”