Book Briefs Summer 2006

The State of Mind Called Beautiful; Buddhists, Brahmins, and Belief; Zen in Brazil; Dzogchen Teachings; On Buddha Essence; Explaining Pictures; and more.

Benjamin Bogin
1 June 2006

Dan Arnold’s Buddhists, Brahmins, and Belief: Epistemology in South Asian Philosophy of Religion (Columbia University Press, 2006) is not an easy read. However, unlike with many books on the complex and intricate arguments of classical Indian philosophy, the reader’s efforts will be amply rewarded. The book brings to life the philosophical debates of sixth- and seventh-century India that radically altered the course of classical Indian philosophy and formed the foundations for the philosophical schools that developed in Tibet. By focusing on the parallel critiques of foundational Buddhist epistemology found in the works of the Brahmanical Purva-Mimamsa tradition and the Buddhist Madhyamaka tradition, Arnold reveals a fascinating debate on the basic question of how we know—that is, the very process through which we make sense of the world. His analysis leads to some surprising claims about seventh-century Madhyamaka that differ significantly from the way these views are later understood in the Tibetan tradition.

On the cover of Cristina Rocha’s Zen in Brazil: The Quest for Cosmopolitan Modernity (University of Hawai’i Press, 2005), a Brazilian soap opera star holds her palms together on a magazine cover with the headline announcing: BUDISMO. Rocha attempts to unravel the complex web of events and influences behind the popular interest in Buddhism that seemed to sweep Brazil in the 1990’s. The journey takes her from the settlements of Japanese immigrants in the early twentieth century, through the activities of Zen modernists such as D. T. Suzuki, and into the Internet discussions of today’s Brazilian Zen elite. The simple version of Rocha’s sophisticated argument is that Zen’s popularity in Brazil must be understood in relation to its presentation in the media as a globally modern phenomenon. Readers familiar with the history of Buddhism’s North American transplantation and transformation will find illuminating parallels and divergences with Brazil’s case.

Chögyal Namkhai Norbu’s lectures, teachings, and books have profoundly influenced the transition of Dzogchen from relative obscurity in the contemporary Buddhist world to a topic of tremendous international interest. Although there are now enough books to warrant a “Dzogchen” section in some bookstores, very few authors address the subject with the clarity, experience, and authority found in the pages of Namkhai Norbu’s Dzogchen Teachings (Snow Lion, 2006). Editors Jim Valby and Adriano Clemente have mined the Dzogchen Community’s newsletter, The Mirror, for talks delivered by Namkhai Norbu around the world, and they’ve extracted gems on a wide variety of subjects. Whether discussing the difference between sutra and tantra, the meaning of vajra, or the education of children, Namkhai Norbu’s inimitable voice remains persistently focused on the nature of mind. Each topic discussed includes the reminder that “all the movements of the mind, all circumstances, are part of our clarity.”

The Mahamudra teachings taught and practiced in the Kagyü school of Tibetan Buddhism emphasize the essence of the buddhas present in all beings. Many of the greatest scholars and adepts of the Kagyü tradition have elucidated the importance of this point as the foundation of Mahamudra practice. Among their texts, the Treatise on Buddha Nature by the Third Karmapa, Rangjung Dorje (1284-1339) takes pride of place. A translation of this renowned treatise is now available with a detailed commentary by Khenchen Thrangu, senior tutor to the present Karmapa. In On Buddha Essence: A Commentary on Rangjung Dorje’s Treatise (Shambhala Publications, 2006), Khechen Thrangu expertly leads the reader through every line of this penetrating examination of the nature of buddhahood, and Peter Alan Roberts does a skillful job of translating the treatise and its modern commentary.

When one thinks of Buddhist art, the image that often comes to mind is a painted or sculpted depiction of a seated Buddha. However, scroll paintings and murals throughout the Buddhist world display a wide variety of narrative scenes, illustrating stories from the Buddhist scriptures and from the lives of Buddhist masters. In Japan, these narrative works of art are the focus of the etoki tradition, a performative tradition of Buddhist teaching that uses the images as the basis for oral teachings. In Explaining Pictures: Buddhist Propaganda and Etoki Storytelling in Japan (University of Hawai’i Press, 2006), Ikumi Kaminishi traces the history and development of this tradition. Her research reveals that etoki’s combination of visual enjoyment and religious education played a central role in the spread of Buddhism throughout Japan. The wandering etoki preachers took the dharma beyond the walls of the monasteries, telling the stories depicted in their paintings to people from all walks of life.

In the Himalayan Buddhist world, painters and sculptors have created many of their most original and beautiful works of art in response to the challenge of depicting the outrageous, miracle-working masters of enlightenment known as mahasiddhas (“great perfected ones”). The new exhibition at New York City’s Rubin Museum of Art (on display through September 4, 2006), Holy Madness: Portraits of Tantric Siddhas, gathers together an unprecedented collection of such works, stunningly reproduced in the catalog by the same title, edited by Rob Linrothe (RMA/Serindia Publications, 2006). Featuring original essays by leading scholars and art historians, Holy Madness opens the doors to an entire world of literature, ritual, and art focused on the mahasiddhas.

Most Euro-American Buddhists were raised in another religious tradition before embracing Buddhism. As a result, their experience differs significantly from most of the world’s Buddhists, whose births are often marked by Buddhist rituals and whose entire lives unfold in a Buddhist cultural context. Anthropologist Nancy Eberhardt explores the concept of selfhood in one such culture in her new book, Imagining the Course of Life: Self-Transformation in a Shan Buddhist Community (University of Hawai’i Press, 2006). Drawing on three years of fieldwork in a small village on the Thai-Burmese border, Eberhardt examines the theory of human development that she discerned as central to the inhabitants’ understanding of the self. From death to rebirth, through childhood, adulthood, and old age, Eberhardt describes and analyzes the Shan life cycle in relation to Buddhist doctrine and local practice. Although it’s written primarily for readers in the field of ethnopsychology, Imagining the Course of Life has much to offer anyone with an interest in the underpinnings of living Buddhist culture and its complicated relationship to the abstract Buddhism of books and ideas.

The radical and brilliant master of the Jonang tradition, Dolpopa Sherab Gyaltsen, was simultaneously one of the most controversial and influential writers in Tibetan Buddhist history. In the early fourteenth century, his teaching on the two types of emptiness—self-emptiness and other-emptiness—identified other-emptiness as the ultimate truth. This doctrine of other-emptiness (shentong) was banned for centuries in Tibet but was embraced by the savants of the nineteenth-century nonsectarian Rimé movement. The life and teachings of this exceptional teacher are known to many through Cyrus Stearns’s masterful study, The Buddha from Dolpo. However, until now, Dolpopa’s own writings had not been translated. In Mountain Doctrine: Tibet’s Fundamental Treatise on Other-Emptiness and the Buddha Matrix (Snow Lion, 2006), Dolpopa Sherab Gyaltsen’s most famous composition is edited, translated, and introduced by Jeffrey Hopkins. With over eight hundred pages of dense philosophical argumentation, Mountain Doctrine may not top your summer reading list, but this monumental publication will serve as an invaluable source on emptiness and buddhanature for generations to come.