Book Briefs – Spring 2011

Brief summaries of Buddhist books from Spring 2011.

Lion’s Roar
3 February 2011

The Caves of Dunhuang (Dunhuang Academy and London Editions 2010) by Fan Jinshi is a rare glimpse into one of the great artistic achievements of human history. With spectacular photographs that reveal the caves’ murals and sculptures in magnificent detail, this is a book to get lost in. The art and architecture of the Dunhuang caves, which were excavated by hand between the fourth and the fourteenth centuries, contains a dazzling array of styles and subject matter, from Daoist-inspired early Chan topics to multi-armed tantric deities dancing in sexual union. The author, a Chinese scholar who has been leading research at Dunhuang for decades, packs the book with short essays describing the history, architecture, sculpture, styles and content of the murals, and includes also a chapter on conservation and on the library cave, which was discovered sealed in 1900 and yielded tens of thousands of texts that changed the way we understand Chinese and Tibetan Buddhism.

The Influence of Yogacara on Mahamudra (KTD Publications 2010) by Traleg Kyabgon Rinpoche is rare discussion of Yogacara philosophy and its relationship to tantra (Mahamudra is the tantric tradition of the Kagyu lineage of Tibetan Buddhism). As the author points out, much of tantric theory is derived from Yogacara, such as the concept of Tathagatagharba, or buddhanature, and the notion that what is impure can be transformed into purity. The book is drawn from teachings Traleg Rinpoche gave in Melbourne in 1984, and its format lends itself well to the difficult subject matter, with simple, clear presentations of a topic followed by questions from an informed audience, the sort of questions that the reader would likely ask. Following a brief overview of the common points between Yogacara and Mahamudra, the book addresses basic Yogacara concepts such as the three levels of consciousness and the three truths (as opposed to Madhyamaka’s two truths) and then discusses basic Mahamudra theory, dealing with the transformation of consciousness, buddhanature, and the nature of absolute reality.

Zen Radicals, Rebels, and Reformers (Wisdom 2011) by Perle Besserman and Manfred Steger contains biographies of eight Zen masters, from familiar figures such as Linji (Rinzai in Japanese), and Hakuin to the contemporary Rinzai Zen teacher Nakagawa Soen (1907–1984), all drawn from English-language sources. The authors’ depiction of these men—as heroes who defy convention, reject ritual, resist authority at every turn, and spread a teaching of personal realization—presents a somewhat romantic view of Zen shaped by American individualism and anti-institutionalism, virtues that the authors suggest are at the heart of Buddhism itself.

Moonshadows (Oxford 2011), by a group of scholars calling themselves Cowherds, is a wonderful, if challenging, book on the topic of conventional truth. Referring to their book a “polygraph,” the ten authors take individual credit for specific chapters but assert collective authorship of the entire project. As the authors explain, the concept of conventional truth was likely developed to classify those teachings of the Buddha that were not to be taken literally. But this suggests that the conventional truth is not in fact true, and two-truth theory as is understood by the Madhyamaka is quite adamant that both the ultimate and the conventional truths are equally valid. The book is dedicated to understanding how this can be, with chapters that try to sort out particularly thorny issues such as the possibility of a rational analysis of truth. It also enters into longstanding disputes over whether one can accurately posit the conventional existence of things and explores the presentations of conventional truth by Tibetan luminaries such as Tsongkhapa and Gorampa, who drew on Candrakirti’s interpretation of Nagarjuna’s philosophy.

A new book by Chögyam Trungpa, Work, Sex, Money (Shambhala 2011), contains, as the title suggests, teachings relevant to everyday life. He addresses the ethical concerns of living in the modern world and speaks of daily activities as opportunities for mindfulness and insight—no longer the radical message it was in the early seventies when he first gave these teachings in America, but one that still needs to be heard nonetheless. Serious practice, he affirms in the first chapter, does not separate us from the world, but rather gives us renewed perspective on it so as to better live and serve others. Subsequent chapters continue on this theme, offering advice on integrating meditation and postmeditation. Later chapters deal with workplace-related issues such as conflict and maintaining attention; matters of love and sex, such as the passions and ego; and the psychology and ethics of having and craving wealth. Work, Sex, Money is a terrific reminder of Trungpa’s great gift to American Buddhism.

Heart of Buddha, Heart of China (Oxford 2011) by James Carter, a historian of modern China, is a biography of the Chinese monk Tanxu (1865–1963), a significant, if minor, player in the history of Buddhism in modern China. What makes the book a great read is the fact that Tanxu lived through some of the most dramatic and chaotic events of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century: the First Sino-Japanese War, the Boxer Rebellion, the collapse of the Qing Dynasty, and the Chinese Civil War. A dedicated nationalist, Tanxu established traditional Chinese Buddhist temples wherever he settled, a means to counter both foreign and modern influences, before fleeing to Hong Kong in the wake of the Communist victory. The life of Tanxu is a fascinating lens through which to view the turbulent events of the era and how such epic historical shifts were experienced by those who lived through them.

The Nepalese Legacy in Tibetan Painting (Rubin Museum of Art 2010) is the second of a planned series of eight catalogs by David P. Jackson accompanying exhibitions at the Rubin Museum of Art in New York (this exhibition runs until May 23). Jackson, one of the best scholars of Tibetan art publishing today, has unraveled many of the mysteries that surround the rich artistic traditions of Tibet. The book is dedicated to the Beri style of Tibetan art, with its dense geometric compositions and vibrant colors, which was developed starting in the twelfth century through a dynamic relationship between Newari artists from Nepal and Tibetans, reaching its finest expression at Ngor Monastery, founded around 1429. The Beri style went on to influence all Tibetan art, its elements diffused across traditions. Packed with exceptional reproductions of stunning art, the book’s eight chapters discuss the art’s stylistic features and content, drawing out the connections between Indian Pala style and the historical context of the artists and their patrons.

Sara L. McClintock’s Omniscience and the Rhetoric of Reason (Wisdom 2010) is a philosophical discussion of a curious Buddhist question: Does a buddha know everything at all times, have the ability to know anything they wish, or simply know all that is necessary for liberation? McClintock’s masterful exploration is built around two important eighth-century Indian Buddhist philosophical works: Shantarakshita’s Tattvasamgraha, and Kamalashila’s commentary on it. She nimbly draws out the twists and turns of their argumentation and their shifting definition of omniscience, and formulates a compelling theory of reason as rhetoric. Even logic, she argues, is designed to persuade, and thus every argument has to be understood in relation to its intended audience. The study is an elegant exposition of what happens when a tradition that prides itself on rational argument inherits a wildly irrational doctrinal position and uses it to defend and advance the tradition.

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Lion’s Roar

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