Book Briefs

Alexander Gardner reviews books from Winter 2007.

Alexander Gardner
1 December 2007

Pure Land Buddhism is still relatively unknown among Western Buddhist converts and others exploring the path, but husband-and-wife duo David and Caroline Brazier are hoping their new books will help change that. David Brazier, who heads the Amida Order based in England, has written Who Loves Dies Well (O Books, 2007), which takes a personal approach to the Shin path of Pure Land Buddhism and draws upon the experiences surrounding his mother’s death. Caroline Brazier’s new book, The Other Buddhism: Amida Comes West (also by O Books, 2007), offers “a simple exploration of Pureland Buddhism… and a way to practice in the Western context.” Occasionally, though, in making her case for the value of the Pure Land teachings, she pushes her criticism of meditation-based traditions a bit far, as in her repeated assertion that meditation is rooted in delusional thinking about one’s ability to effect liberation.

One morning in the mid-nineteenth century, the treasure revealer Chokgyur Lingpa had a vision of Tara, who whispered “excellent, excellent, excellent” in his ear, in reference to the three vehicles, or divisions, of the Tibetan Buddhist path. This prompted a teaching of the complete path to buddhahood to spontaneously emerge from Chokgyur Lingpa’s mind. Skillful Grace: Tara Practice for Our Times (Rangjung Yeshe, 2007) presents a translation of that revelation, together with commentaries by Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche (1920–1996) and Adeu Rinpoche (b. 1930). Adeu Rinpoche’s teaching is based on an earlier commentary by Chokgyur Lingpa’s colleague and patron Jamgon Kongtrul (1813–1899). The treasure text is a sadhana (ritual manual) for the worship of Tara, the female bodhisattva of compassion, and the commentaries are instructions on how to perform that practice. The commentaries—well-edited transcriptions of concise and personal teachings—provide practitioners with what is perhaps the most helpful guide to Tara practice in English. Moreover, readers of this skillfully arranged book will find a masterful explanation of the entire path to enlightenment. Those already engaged in Tara practice might also find Khenchen Palden Sherab and Khenpo Tsewang Dongyal’s Tara’s Enlightened Activity (Snow Lion, 2007) a useful companion. The book is a slightly revised transcript of their series of teachings on the Twenty-One Praises to Tara.

Women Practicing Buddhism: American Experiences (Wisdom Publications, 2007) is the finely edited proceedings of a conference that took place at Smith College in 2005. Contributors include artists, activists, authors, nuns, and teachers, such as Meredith Monk, Jane Hirshfield, bell hooks, Thubten Chodron, Karma Lekshe Tsomo, and Carol Wilson. Some address heavy issues, such as whether self-sacrifice and service perpetuate female subordination or whether forgiveness and compassion might permit abuse; others look at how their Buddhist practice informs their art or writing. The end result is a slightly eclectic but informative look at the lives of a diverse group of women practicing Buddhism in America and the various lessons to be learned from their experiences.

Despite the persistent desire to know “what the Buddha really taught,” scholars now generally agree that the available sources are not sufficient to allow us to conclude much of anything in this regard. The early Pali texts are of uncertain date, and they have too many layers of alteration to locate an original element. In The Origin of Buddhist Meditation (Routledge, 2007), Alexander Wynne nevertheless persists with the quest. He seeks to prove that the two meditation teachers, Alara Kalama and Uddaka Ramaputta, with whom the bodhisattva Siddhartha trained prior to his awakening, were actual historical figures, and that the instructions they gave him—on the “sphere of nothingness” and the “sphere of neither perception nor non-perception,” respectively—were real teachings current in India during the Buddha’s life. The book is dense and presumes too much familiarity with the Pali texts; Wynne also relies too heavily on weak evidence. Yet in his excavation of early Brahmanical materials, he does present a compelling case for the possibility that these two teachings contributed significantly to the formation of Buddhist meditation.

If you’re hoping Thich Nhat Hanh’s new book, The Art of Power (Harper Collins, 2007), holds the key to becoming rich and powerful, you’ll be disappointed. Nhat Hanh is concerned first and foremost with redefining the notion of power and one’s relationship to it. The book’s intended audience is primarily the folks in suits with desks who make up the Western business community, and although Nhat Hanh admonishes readers not to get caught up in “craving for success, power, and fame,” there’s no disdain for the rat race here, merely a kind and gentle challenge to examine its goals and methods, reminding us that happiness and freedom are what matter most, not new cars and houses. He doesn’t tell us to stop working per se, but rather argues that our work must include the cultivation of love and compassion, and that in order to succeed in our endeavors we must clarify our motivations, recognize our interdependence with others, and cultivate mindfulness. While the focus is the office, the connections between work, family, and community are everywhere spelled out with stories drawn from his students’ experiences.

The Nectar of Manjushri’s Speech: A Detailed Commentary on Shantideva’s Way of the Bodhisattva (Shambhala, 2007), by Kunzang Pelden, is a key addition to the growing library of Tibetan Buddhist classics now available in English. This one has been made possible by the Padmakara Translation Group, which includes some of the finest translators working today. Kunzang Pelden was one of the most important figures in the religious fluorescence that took place in eastern Tibet a hundred years ago. His expansive treatment of Shantideva’s masterpiece is based on a six-month teaching on the Bodhicaryavatara given by Patrul Rinpoche, his root guru, and covers topics such as anger, bodhicitta, and wisdom. Despite being a largely formal exposition, the book’s mix of profundity and ease recalls Patrul’s famous Words of My Perfect Teacher. Readers may wish to consult a translation alongside the work, as Shantideva’s text is not included in the commentary; the translators have helpfully supplied the verse numbers.

The seventh-century Korean Chan master Wonhyo was a Buddhist exegete famous for his promulgation of the doctrine of original enlightenment. Robert Buswell’s Cultivating Original Enlightenment (University of Hawaii Press, 2007) is a translation of Wonhyo’s most influential work, his commentary on the Vajrasamadhi Sutra. The book is an extensive exposition on the doctrines of tathagatagarbha and alaya vijnana, and how it is that, if our true nature is already perfect buddhahood, we still have to practice in order to realize that truth. Buswell’s translation is rather daunting in its technical precision, but these things are well explained in his introduction, which is a fascinating study not just of original enlightenment and the many philosophical issues that doctrine raises but also of the commentarial tradition in East Asia.

Buddhism has produced an astoundingly vast and diverse collection of sacred literature, so when publishing a collection of translated Buddhist scriptures, the editor is often compelled to justify his or her selection of texts. This usually comes down to two choices: either represent the religion’s great diversity or attempt to present its “core teachings.” Glenn Wallis, in his Basic Teachings of the Buddha (Modern Library, 2007), has opted for the latter. He offers eighteen nicely translated excerpts from the Pali canon, each of which is given a brief but thoughtful commentary, and his introduction is a fine essay on reading suttas as literature. The selections together do offer a coherent picture of Buddhism’s doctrine and practice, but a more apt title might simply have been “The Early Teachings” rather than “The Basic Teachings” of the Buddha, as he includes nothing from the Mahayana’s radical reinterpretation of those early teachings.

Dear Lama Zopa (Wisdom Publications, 2007) presents this teacher’s intriguing and often helpful correspondence with students who have asked for guidance on topics ranging from addiction to war, and also his letters to a few politicians who presumably did not ask for his advice. Lama Zopa Rinpoche consistently responds with frankness and compassion; however, those who prefer their Buddhism to be stripped of any magic and ritual might be surprised to learn that he often performed a divination to determine the best course of action, or that he occasionally recommends that students undertake various Buddhist practices to try to alter the physical circumstances with which they are grappling, such as AIDS or carrying an unborn child diagnosed with birth defects. Lama Zopa repeatedly stresses that the conditions in which we find ourselves are the results of our own karma, and, as a corollary, that we have the ability to improve our own existence. Moreover, he drives home the message that our personal circumstances are meaningful only in so far as they are opportunities to develop and practice compassion for self and other.

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.