Book Briefs Winter 2012

Brief summaries of Buddhist books from Winter 2012, reviewed by Michael Sheehy.

Michael Sheehy
23 April 2012

A Torch Lighting the Way to Freedom (Shambhala 2011) is the Padmakara Translation Group’s translation of instructions on Tibetan tantric preliminary practices given by the late Nyingma master Dudjom Rinpoche, Jigdrel Yeshe Dorje (1904–1987). In the same genre as Patrul Rinpoche’s classic The Words of My Perfect Teacher, this text details practical guidance on how to engage in the ngöndro meditations that prepare one for the main Vajrayana practice of deity yoga. Like a coach prepping an athlete for heightened performance, Dudjom Rinpoche leads the practitioner systematically through the stages of preparing for tantra. The instructions begin with the routine reflections on turning the mind toward what is meaningful and proceed to give direction on how to set one’s intent on enlightenment, purify negativities, successively gather favorable conditions, and train in visualization. This extensive explanatory manual is complimented by the short recitation text on the Heart Essence of the Dakini for those who wish to seek out this transmission from a qualified master and engage in these practices.

In Making Zen Your Own (Wisdom 2012), Janet Jiryu Abels begins her book by discussing how she used to conceive of Zen masters as generic archetypes, sitting on a mountaintop in a distant world. The purpose of this book, as she explains, is to humanize these idealized Zen ancestors. She selects twelve masters from the socalled Golden Age of Chinese Zen from the sixth to tenth centuries, and reconstructs life stories about them. Each biography is told as a teaching tool. Abels reads into the master’s life stories, asking what they can teach us, what motivated them, how they thought. For instance, she uses the anecdote of master Mazu kicking a disciple in the chest— upon which the disciple broke into incessant hysterical laughter—to discuss the deliberateness of Zen. By personalizing Zen lineage masters including Bodhidharma, Mazu, Guishan, and Xuefeng, these seemingly untouchable mystics are situated anew in a practitioner’s narrative of Buddhism.

Tsongkhapa’s Praise for Dependent Relativity (Wisdom 2011) is a translation of a eulogy to Buddha Shakyamuni by the fourteenth-century Tibetan master and founder of the Geluk order, Je Tsongkhapa (1357–1409). Famously composed at the break of dawn on the morning of Tsongkhapa’s realization of emptiness, these poetic verses make up the basis for many of his core writings. It is written in exalted reverence and awe for the realization that phenomena come about and cease due to their relationship with other forces, thereby lacking any essence of their own, like flowers in the sky. Though several versions of this praise exist in English translation, this translation by Graham Woodhouse carries the particular terse quality of these Tibetan verses, and with the supplemental commentary by the Geluk lama Losang Gyatso, this makes a valuable text for studying the Prasangika Madhyamaka view.

Bringing Home Zen (Hawaii 2011) considers healing rituals in the lives of Zen laywomen in Japan. The author, Paula Arai, bases her writing on fourteen years of fieldwork living in Japan and cultivating interpersonal relationships with twelve Japanese Zen women. In addition to being a book on contemporary Buddhist women, this work reveals prominent ritual aspects of Zen, a tradition often presented as anti-ritual. She does this by exploring domestic Zen, which she describes as the “chaotic, emotional, and messy lives of people,” as opposed to the ideal of stern monastic Zen. In considering the affect of ritualized practices, Arai tells the stories of how these women participate in funeral rites to commune with ancestors, how they cook and ingest sacred pills in their Zen kitchen, how a family alter operates in a home, and how the women heal through their poetry, calligraphy, and music.

The Lovelorn Ghost and the Magical Monk (Columbia 2011) is a study of the pervasiveness of the occult in modern Thai Buddhism. The book focuses on the popular legend of Somdet To, one of the most famous magician monks in Thai history, and the ghost Mae Nak who haunted her husband and killed villagers. Author Justin McDaniel makes a case for how the magical and supernatural are neither obscure nor peripheral to Thai Buddhism. Using interviews and observations about Thai texts, rituals, amulets, stories, spirit-mediums, astrologers, and imagery he draws into question how Thai Buddhism is typically defined, challenging categorical associations of Thai Buddhism with a Vinaya-based Theravada. The outcome hints at the esoteric or “tantric” elements of Buddhism in Thailand.

The Lankavatara Sutra (Counterpoint 2012) is a classic Mahayana discourse and one of the core texts of Zen. This eloquent translation by Red Pine, based on the early Chinese translation made by Gunabhadra in the year 443, updates the well-known English translation that D. T. Suzuki did eighty years ago. The sutra is set in Sri Lanka during one of Shakyamuni Buddha’s journeys to that southern island. On this occasion, as the discourse unfolds, the Buddha responds to a series of one hundred and eight questions posed by a bodhisattva named Mahamati. Expounding dictums and riddles on emptiness, the Buddha responds to Mahamati’s inquiries by revealing how, on the one hand, reality is none other than a projection of one’s mind, while on the other, it is an experience that cannot be expressed with ideas. In Chinese Zen, this came to be known as the twofold teaching to “have a cup of tea” and to “taste the tea.”

Jamgon Mipam (Shambhala 2011) is an introduction to the life and teachings of the Tibetan Nyingma luminary Ju Mipam Namgyal Gyatso (1846–1912). One of the central figures in the nineteenth-century intellectual renaissance in eastern Tibet, Mipam was a formidable philosopher, mystic, and author. Douglas Duckworth gives historical background to important Buddhist discussions in India and Tibet that concerned Mipam, a survey of the philosophical themes that he addressed, and a selection of translations from his impressive array of writings. Though the translations are excerpts from longer works, they are valuable reading for practitioners. Many of the translations are of practical advice on topics such as how to understand emptiness and integrate a view of the illusory nature of reality onto the path, as well as settle into shamatha, work with afflictive emotions, and stabilize Dzogchen meditation. As a condensed anthology on Mipam, this book strikes an important balance, explaining the thought of one of Tibet’s great intellectuals while giving readers handpicked gems from Mipam’s forest of wisdom.

The Range of the Bodhisattva (Columbia 2011) is the first translation into English of the Mahayana sutra Bodhisattva-gocara, a key text on the Buddhist ethics of governance and warfare. This Buddhist canonical work was translated from the Tibetan and introduced by Lozang Jamspal as part of the Treasury of the Buddhist Sciences series. Arranged as a dialogue between a bodhisattva and a king, the important sixth chapter of this work on the “Policy of State” details the principles of righteous rule according to Indian Mahayana Buddhism. The bodhisattva expounds to the king the logic of governing: that through the relinquishment of internal defilements such as hatred and delusion, a ruler is empowered to maintain the happiness of the people, and by attracting the trust and friendship of fellow rulers, the people of the state are protected. A beneficent ruler is explained as one who governs with compassion towards the people, protects them from famine and foreign armies, provides for the poor and punishes the wicked. In bringing the dharma into the worldly domain of politics and statecraft, albeit on a classical Indian model of kingship, this sutra acts as a Buddhist prescription for a tough, lawful, and cautious ruler.

Michael Sheehy

Michael Sheehy

Michael Sheehy, PhD is a scholar of Tibetan Buddhism and contemplative studies. He is the director of scholarship at the Contemplative Sciences Center and faculty in religious studies at the University of Virginia.