Book Briefs Fall 2007

Benjamin Bogin reviews books from Fall 2007.

Benjamin Bogin
1 September 2007

Benjamin Bogin reviews books from Fall 2007.

John Daido Loori, the abbot of Zen Mountain Monastery in upstate New York, is also an accomplished photographer and committed environmental activist. These interests and talents were combined in his 1999 publication, Teachings of the Earth: Zen and the Environment. It is fitting that this hard-to-find manifesto on the place of the natural world in the practice of Zen should be reprinted (Shambhala Publications, 2007) at a time when global warming has brought the environment to the forefront of our attention. Loori extends the Buddhist doctrine of interdependence into the ecological ethic: “What you do to the smallest thing on this great earth, you do to yourself.” Drawing upon sources ranging from Dogen to Walt Whitman to Gary Snyder, and beautifully complementing the text with his own photographs of the natural world, Loori’s timely meditation on Zen and the environment is a poetic and definitive statement of American Buddhist ecology.

The American-born monk Ajahn Sumedho is one of the foremost teachers of Theravada Buddhism in the West. A longtime disciple of the Thai master, Ajahn Chah (1918–1992), Ajahn Sumedho established one of the first Theravada monasteries in the West and has ordained hundreds of monks and led many long retreats. The Sound of Silence: The Selected Teachings of Ajahn Sumedho (Wisdom Publications, 2007) is a collection of talks delivered during retreats in 2001 and 2005. Organized in twenty-seven short chapters with titles such as “Suffering Should Be Welcomed” and “Don’t Take It Personally,” at first glance the book might appear to belong in the self-help section. However, within this reader-friendly framework, there are detailed and often technical explanations of Theravada meditation. The teachings combine Ajahn Sumedho’s thorough grounding in the Pali sources of the Thai forest tradition with the humor and humility of a teacher who speaks frequently from his own experience.

In Visions of Awakening Space and Time: Dogen and the Lotus Sutra (Oxford University Press, 2007), Taigen Dan Leighton draws our attention to the deep, complex, and oft forgotten connections between Japanese Zen and the classic Mahayana scripture, the Lotus Sutra. Leighton demonstrates that Dogen’s Lotus-focused Tendai training exerted a greater influence upon his later career than Zen scholars have previously acknowledged. In fact, as Leighton shows, Dogen quotes the Lotus Sutra far more than any other text in his writings. Leighton focuses on Dogen’s interpretations of the sutra’s striking story of countless bodhisattvas emerging from below the earth and paying homage to Shakyamuni Buddha. This episode stands out as a key image in Dogen’s view of space and time as awakening itself. Leighton also examines the place of Dogen in the long history of Chinese and Japanese interpretations of the Lotus Sutra.

Many Tibetan homes contain an image of a bearded, corpulent man who holds a length of chain in his fingers. The figure is Tangtong Gyalpo (1385–1464), a beloved hero of Tibetan Buddhism who is remembered as an innovator in the construction of iron-chain bridges and in artistic creation, medicine, and meditation. Until now, other than a few scholarly articles, there has been almost nothing available on this figure in English. This latest Tsadra Foundation Series publication presents the fruits of thirty years of research by Cyrus Stearns: his 700-page tome, King of the Empty Plain: The Tibetan Iron-Bridge Builder Tangtong Gyalpo (Snow Lion Publications, 2007). The core of the book is a translation of Lochen Gyurme Dechen’s biography of the saint, filled with travels, adventures, miracles, and a wealth of instructions on Buddhist practice and bodhisattva conduct. It is a shame that English-speaking readers have had to wait so long for this book, but Stearns’ masterful translation and erudite introductions and annotations assure this contribution a very long life.

China’s Chan Buddhist traditions have been viewed for the most part through the lens of their Japanese Zen descendants. Many of the sources for studying Chan Buddhism in its own terms were lost or destroyed, and those that remained pose tremendous challenges of interpretation. One such source, the Lidai fabao ji (Record of the Dharma-Jewel Through the Generations) was recovered from the caves of Dunhuang in far-western China at the beginning of the twentieth century, and its importance has been debated by scholars ever since. Wendi Adamek’s The Mystique of Transmission: On an Early Chan History and Its Contexts (Columbia University Press, 2007) presents an authoritative and illuminating study of this fascinating text. In Adamek’s hands, the Lidai fabao ji becomes a window through which we may explore the shifting conceptions of authority, enlightenment, and lineage that shaped eighth-century Chan communities. The first three hundred pages of the monograph explore in depth the Bao Tang School of Sichuan and examine this Chan tradition’s connections with material culture, lay practice, Daoists, and Tibetan Buddhists. An annotated one-hundred-page translation of the entire Lidai fabao ji is provided in the second part of the book.

The Kwan Um School of Zen was founded by the Korean Zen master Seung Sahn (1927–2004). Twenty years after its original publication, his little classic, Ten Gates: The Kong-an Teaching of Zen Master Seung Sahn (Shambhala Publications, 2007) now appears in a revised edition. The “ten gates” are ten koans that Seung Sahn selected as representative of the ten different types of koans in the traditional collections of 1,750 koans. Each chapter of the book presents a koan, Seung Sahn’s brief commentary, and correspondence between him and his students who are practicing that particular koan. The book offers readers practical insights into how the often mystified practice actually works, as well as a taste for Seung Sahn’s teaching style, which ranges from giving personal advice to his closing lines repeated in nearly every letter to his students: “I hope that you always go straight, don’t know, keep a mind that is clear like space, soon finish the great work of life and death, get enlightenment, and save all people from suffering.”

Although some Pali classics such as the Dhammapada have been translated into English dozens of times, translations of the masterpieces of Sanskrit Buddhist poetry remain rather hard to find. Linda Covill’s excellent new translation of Ashvaghosha’s Handsome Nanda (Clay Sanskrit Library, 2007) makes one such classic widely available. Ashvaghosha (second century) is renowned as one of the greatest Buddhist poets of ancient India and is best known for his Acts of the Buddha (Buddhacharita). Handsome Nanda is in many ways a more challenging poem. It is a tale of the forceful conversion of the Buddha’s half-brother, Nanda, from lustful sensualist into a celibate monk, and it lavishes such poetic detail upon the depictions of Nanda’s beloved wife and other objects of desire that renunciation takes on a visceral and painful meaning.

In the Kagyu school of Tibetan Buddhism, the lives of the lineage lamas play a central role. In The Biographies of Rechungpa: The Evolution of a Tibetan Hagiography (Routledge, 2007), Peter Alan Roberts provides both an introduction to the life story of Milarepa’s great disciple Rechungpa (1084–1161) and an insightful case study of the development of a Tibetan hagiography. Through exhaustive research into rare manuscripts of early biographies and histories, Roberts uncovered the various strands of stories about Rechungpa that circulated from the time of Milarepa to their eventual codification in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. His ability to turn complex textual issues into a good story makes even the philological puzzling a pleasure to read. Along the way, we see how representations of Rechungpa shifted over time, largely in response to the towering success of lineages traced from Milarepa’s other most famous disciple, Gampopa.

Awakenings: Zen Figure Painting in Medieval Japan (Japan Society, distributed by Yale University Press, 2007) documents a recent exhibition celebrating the Japan Society’s centenary. The curators, Gregory Levine and Yukio Lippit, crafted a show at once ambitious and restrained. There are paintings from the twelfth through the sixteenth centuries, from China as well as Japan (and by Chinese painters in Japan). Familiar subjects such as the wild-eyed Chan patriarch Bodhidharma are seen in a new light here when presented between the austere Shakyamuni and the comic Budai. There is also the stunning “Manjushri in a Robe of Braided Grass,” depicting the bodhisattva of wisdom in the form of a boy with long hair and eyes as piercing as they are serene. It is no insult to the excellent essays included in Awakenings to say that the paintings themselves will be the book’s most enduring feature.

Another recent catalog, Kannon: Divine Compassion—Early Buddhist Art from Japan (Paul Holberton Publishing, 2007) features Japanese paintings and sculptures of the bodhisattva of compassion from a recent exhibition at Zurich’s Museum Rietberg. Edited by Katharina Epprecht, the catalog supplements thirty-seven full-color plates with seven scholarly essays. Among these, Sherry Fowler’s illustrated discussion of the iconography of different forms of Kannon, and Washizuka Hiromitsu’s account of Japanese wood-carving methods, stand out as particularly notable complements to the catalog’s beautiful works of art.