Book Briefs: Fall 2010

Brief summaries of Buddhist books from Fall 2010.

Alexander Gardner
2 September 2010

American Buddhism as a Way of Life (SUNY 2010), edited by Gary Storhoff and John Whalen-Bridge, seeks to examine how Buddhism has spread into North American culture and daily life. The authors, most of whom are specialists in American religion, tend toward a positive view of Buddhism and the benefit it might bring to American society in discussions of abortion, environmentalism, and other current social issues. Roger Corless adds an interesting twist in his discussion of the American gay rights movement, suggesting that North American culture also has something to offer Buddhism and the international community of Buddhist theorists. The book begins with essays on two teachers who had a significant impact on Buddhism in America: D.T. Suzuki and Alan Watts.

Audrey Yoshiko Seo and Steven Addiss’ The Sound of One Hand (Shambhala 2010), is the first comprehensive collection of the art of the Japanese Zen master Hakuin, who is credited with revitalizing Rinzai Zen in the eighteenth century. The book is illustrated with masterpieces from temples and museums around the world, and its publication is timed to coincide with a major exhibition of Hakuin’s art, curated by the authors, that opens in New York in October and later travels to New Orleans and Los Angeles. As Seo and Addiss explain, Hakuin was involved in the restructuring of both monastic and lay practice, which is reflected in the stunning art he created throughout his life, from drawings of patriarchs and deities to the comic folk figure Hotei, all designed to inspire and teach. Even his simple image of an ant on a grindstone is instructive, reminding all of the futility of samsara, and that one should strive toward liberation.

Elegant Failure (Rodmell Press 2010) by Richard Shrobe is a selection of twenty-two koans that the author has found valuable during more than thirty years of practicing and teaching. Shobe, the guiding teacher at the Chogye International Zen Center of New York, drew the koans from three classic collections: the Blue Cliff Records, the Gateless Barrier, and the Book of Serenity. Shrobe explains the story behind each of the twenty-two koans and provides his own commentary, often describing his personal struggle with the koan or his students’ struggle with it, which gives the reader a more intimate view of this practice. Throughout the book, Shrobe takes the position that koans are not remote and impenetrable riddles, but rather practical tools for everyday reflection and practice.

Anne Blackburn’s Locations of Buddhism (Chicago 2010) is a fascinating biography of Hikkaduve Sumangala (1827–1911), a Buddhist monk who was a leading scholar and teacher in nineteenth-century Sri Lanka and a prominent anti-colonial activist. More than just a biography, the book is a nuanced portrait of Sri Lankan Buddhism under British colonial rule, and includes timely discussions of the loaded terms “Buddhist revival,” “Buddhist Modernism,” and “Protestant Buddhism.” Blackburn divides her book into six chapters covering the life of Sumangala, including his involvement in Sri Lankan Buddhist institutions and scholarship, and his outreach to international leaders and Buddhist activists (including Colonel Olcott of the Theosophists and his own student, Anagarika Dharmapala of the Mahabodhi Society). Most interestingly, she argues that colonialism, in addition to bringing destruction to Sri Lankan Buddhism, also brought opportunity, such as new urban centers in which to preach and the means to connect with international communities of scholars and fellow Buddhists.

The Buddha’s first teaching, which he gave at Sarnath to the men with whom he had practiced austerities prior to his enlightenment, is recorded in the Dhammachakapavattana Sutta. In Turning the Wheel of Truth (Shambhala 2010), Ajahn Sucitto, a British monk who was ordained in Thailand in 1976 and helped found the West’s first monastery in the Thai forest tradition (Cittaviveka, in England), has translated this short sutra and provided an accessible commentary to the doctrine it sets out: the philosophy of the middle way and the four noble truths. The author translates the sutra into colloquial English, and his commentary, broken into short chapters, continues in the same vein, skillfully drawing out its many essential points.

Zen Masters (Oxford 2010), edited by Steven Heine and Dale Wright, is a collection of ten biographies of Chan and Zen masters from the early days of the tradition in Medieval China and Japan through to contemporary Asia and America. The authors situate each figure (all men) in his historical and religious context, and discuss both the individuals themselves and the hagiographic tradition that has rewritten the story of their lives several times over. Many of these masters have been widely studied, such as the ninth-century Chan master Dongshan and thirteenth-century Zen master Dogen, but others, such as the modern masters Hisamatsu Shin’ichi and Taizan Maezumi, are less familiar.

Jan Westerhoff’s The Dispeller of Disputes (Oxford 2010) is a translation of the Vigrahavyavartani, one of Nagarjuna’s most important works on epistemology and philosophy of language. The text is structured as a series of objections by a hypothetical opponent to the author’s Madhyamakan philosophy, followed by an autocommentary in which Nagarjuna replies to each criticism, in no obvious order. This short work—just shy of one hundred pages—has been translated several times before, from the Chinese or Tibetan versions, but this is the first to make use of a Sanskrit manuscript taken from Tibet in 1936. Indian Madhyamaka is never easy to read, and this translation is no exception. Westerhoff assumes familiarity with Nagarjuna and Madhyamaka philosophy, and his introduction is simply a quick summary of the text’s arguments.

Gene Reeves has previously translated the Lotus Sutra, and he retells its many tales in Stories of the Lotus Sutra (Wisdom 2010). In some of these stories, such as the well-known parable of the Conjured City, the Lotus sets forth a strident defense of the Mahayana and disparages early Buddhist thought. However, Reeves downplays this partisan aspect of the text, focusing instead on the many positive doctrines that the Lotus popularized, from the promise of universal buddhahood—including the possibility of enlightenment for women—to the notion of a single vehicle that absorbs all previous yanas (sravaka, pratyekabuddha, and bodhisattva). The book also explores how the Lotus was instrumental in promoting the cult of Avalokiteshvara, introducing the notion of a savior bodhisattva—Guanyin—to East Asia.

Cyrus Stearns’ The Buddha From Dolpo (Snow Lion 2010) is a revised and expanded edition of a foundational work of scholarship that was originally published in 1999 and has since gone out of print. This highly accessible book is a study of the life and teachings of Dolpopa Sherab Gyaltsen (1292–1361), together with translations of several of his most influential works. Dolpopa, who is credited with establishing the Jonang tradition of Tibetan Buddhism, was the proponent of the controversial philosophical view of zhentong, or “other-emptiness,” about which countless treatises and debates—and severe sectarian violence—have erupted over the centuries. In addition to a new translation not included in the original, this edition includes information from newly available Tibetan texts and scholarship, as well as many new illustrations.

Eugène Burnouf (1801–1852) was one of the greatest Western scholars of Buddhist literature, and his Introduction to the History of Indian Buddhism — translated here into English for the first time by Katia Buffetrille and Donald S. Lopez Jr. (Chicago 2010) — was his masterpiece. As Lopez points out, most Europeans learned that India was Buddhism’s native land through Burnouf’s widely read work. Although Burnouf’s book popularized his bias against Mahayana sutras and tantra, and helped establish the unfortunate habit of evaluating contemporary Buddhism solely according to the ideals and norms found in ancient texts, he nevertheless gave the West its first, and largely fair, portrait of the religion.

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.