Book Briefs Summer 2007

Book reviews by Benjamin Bogin in Summer 2007.

Benjamin Bogin
1 June 2007

Book reviews by Benjamin Bogin in Summer 2007.

One of the threads connecting Buddhists throughout the world is a collection of stories know as the jatakas, which depict Shakyamuni’s hundreds of previous lives spent perfecting virtues as animals of different species and humans of different classes. In The Jatakas: Birth Stories of the Bodhisatta (Penguin, 2007), Sarah Shaw offers new and highly accessible translations of twenty-six stories from the ancient Pali collection. The previous six-volume translation of all 547 stories, edited by E.B. Cowell in the late-nineteenth century, was intimidating to many readers because of its sheer size and also its archaic Victorian language. Shaw offers a much smaller selection, and her translations are in clear and contemporary English, which makes the book more appealing for new readers as well as old. She skillfully bridges the gap between the necessary compactness of the Penguin paperback and the large body of scholarship on the jatakas with an informative introduction to the book, short introductions to each story, helpful appendices, and a glossary of terms.

The classical approach to Buddhist training consisted of study, contemplation, and meditation practice. Although both study and practice receive a lot of attention in the West, the contemplation that bridges the two is relatively ignored. Andy Karr’s new book, Contemplating Reality: A Practitioner’s Guide to the View in Indo-Tibetan Buddhism (Shambhala Publications, 2007), invites experienced practitioners to explore the fertile ground between study and practice through guided contemplations on views of reality. The progressive stages of meditation on emptiness (particularly as explained by Karr’s root teachers, Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche and Khenpo Tsültrim Gyamtso Rinpoche) are discussed in relation to the tenets of the Vaibhashika, Sautrantika, Chittamatra, and Madhyamaka systems. Unlike many other accounts of Buddhist views of reality, Karr’s book is written specifically with the contemporary practitioner in mind and includes a series of helpful guided exercises.

Perle Besserman’s A New Zen for Women (Palgrave Macmillan, 2007) combines personal memoir with feminist insights and original interpretations of Zen teachings. Besserman is a gifted storyteller who draws in the reader by breaking up the more didactic sections of her book with tales of her own Zen training: from her first encounter with Dokyu Roshi in Jerusalem and her first sesshin in London through her long stay at Ryutakuji Monastery in Japan and experiences with Robert Aitken Roshi’s Diamond Sangha in Hawaii. The first half of the book details the struggles faced by Besserman and other women attempting to train in the patriarchal and hierarchical world of Zen monasticism. The second half focuses more upon the positive changes to Zen practice in the West that have resulted from the efforts of women Zen teachers such as Charlotte Joko Beck, Blanche Hartman, Joan Halifax, and Wendy Egyoku Nakao.

In the preface to Straight from the Heart: Buddhist Pith Instructions (Snow Lion Publications, 2007), translator Karl Brunnhölzl aptly compares his new anthology to a box of fine chocolates. There is a tremendous variety within the collection, and, as with chocolates, these unique and rich poems, songs, and pithy treatises are best appreciated one or two at a time. In the hands of an impatient reader, this book might come across as a jumbled collection of disjointed teachings drawn from the Mahayana and Vajrayana traditions of India and Tibet. For readers who enjoy a book that may be repeatedly dipped into for inspiration, Straight from the Heart is a very deep well indeed. Brunnhölzl strives for a balance of precision and clarity in his translations that make these esoteric instructions more accessible, and his commentaries contextualize the verses just enough without burying them in too much explanation.

Toni Packer studied Zen with Phillip Kapleau Roshi at the Rochester Zen Center for thirteen years before eventually turning away from the institutional and ritual structures of Zen and developing a bare-bones approach of meditative inquiry influenced by Krishnamurti. This approach became the foundation of the Springwater Center she founded in New York State. The Silent Question: Meditating in the Stillness of Not-Knowing (Shambhala Publications, 2007) invites the reader into the silent space of sustained questioning that she has made her spiritual home. The collected talks, dialogues, and essays present a multivocal exploration of who we are, how we act, how we die, and how we live that is at once richly varied and strangely coherent. Packer consistently adopts the stance of an outsider who critiques religious traditions that comfort us with the illusion that practice leads to enlightenment. Although her commitment to questioning echoes aspects of Zen, the method of inquiry found in Packer’s Silent Question is uniquely her own.

Writings on the Buddhist thought of Shinran (1173–1262) focus almost exclusively upon his doctrinal views concerning devotion to Amida Buddha and rebirth in the Pure Land. In The Prince and the Monk: Shotoku Worship in Shinran’s Buddhism (SUNY Press, 2007), Kenneth Doo Young Lee argues that the narrow focus on Shinran’s role as the founder of the Jodo Shinshu has obscured the importance of Shinran’s faith in another figure: the legendary Prince Shotoku (574–622). He points out that of the 500 hymns Shinran composed, 190 are devoted to Prince Shotoku. Lee’s thorough review of the cult of Shotoku worship and thoughtful analysis of Shinran’s dream of Shotoku as a manifestation of the bodhisattva Kannon lead him to conclude that Shinran’s famous innovations were more closely grounded in medieval Japanese religious traditions than previous scholars have suggested.

When the great Bengali master Atisha (982–1054) traveled to Tibet, he presented the essence of the Mahayana teachings as a practice of mind training, known in Tibetan as lojong. The Kadampa masters, who made these teachings the heart of their tradition, formulated fifty-nine slogans, arranged according to seven main points, which have been contemplated for over a thousand years. Two new books by contemporary Tibetan lamas demonstrate the enduring vitality and power of the lojong tradition: Ringu Tulku’s Mind Training (Snow Lion Publications, 2007) records the author’s oral teachings on the slogans, complete with questions-and-answer sessions with his students. The lively little book is a window into how mind-training slogans can be used as a teaching tool. Traleg Kyabgon’s The Practice of Lojong: Cultivating Compassion Through Training the Mind (Shambhala Publications, 2007) is a longer and more deliberate commentary on each of the fifty-nine slogans that combines the author’s own insights with those of earlier teachers, such as the Kagyu masters Gampopa, Jamgön Kongtrul, and Chögyam Trungpa.

Surely one of the most unusual books on Buddhism to appear in recent memory, Brad Warner’s Sit Down and Shut Up: Punk Rock Commentaries on Buddha, God, Truth, Sex, Death & Dogen’s Treasury of the Right Dharma Eye (New World Library, 2007) will likely appeal to a rather select audience of readers. The book alternates between the author’s memories of a trip to Akron, Ohio, for a reunion concert featuring his old punk rock band Zero Defects and his idiosyncratic reflections on Dogen’s Shobogenzo. Although Warner’s colloquial style is refreshingly unpretentious, many readers will quickly tire of phrases such as “some book by some old dead Japanese dude” and chapter titles such as “Buddha Never Metta Man He Didn’t Like.” Too much of an adolescent rant for most Zen readers and too much of a middle-aged strut down memory lane for most punk readers, Sit Down and Shut Up will likely get an enthusiastic reception only from the small group of readers who already identify as Zen punks.

Two new books on the Dzogchen (Great Perfection) teachings of Tibetan Buddhism share a common source in the efforts of Sogyal Rinpoche. Mind in Comfort and Ease: The Vision of Enlightenment in the Great Perfection (Wisdom Publications, 2007) records the teachings that His Holiness the Dalai Lama offered to over 10,000 attendees at Sogyal Rinpoche’s center in the south of France in 2000. The teachings consisted of an extensive commentary on one of the classic texts of the Dzogchen tradition, Longchen Rabjam’s fourteenth-century masterpiece, Finding Comfort and Ease in Meditation on the Great Perfection. This is the first oral commentary on this work to be published in English, making it a major contribution to Western literature on Dzogchen.

The second book, Losing the Clouds, Gaining the Sky: Voices of Dzogchen Wisdom (Wisdom Publications, 2007) is an eclectic collection of writings on Dzogchen drawn principally from the newsletters and magazines of Sogyal Rinpoche’s centers around the world. Editor Doris Wolter has compiled translations of poems and instructions by luminaries such as Sogyal’s own teachers, Jamyang Khyentse Chokyi Lodro and Dudjom Rinpoche, and original writings by the current generation of lamas. Not surprisingly, the book includes seven pieces authored by Sogyal Rinpoche himself. The many voices gathered here demonstrate the wide range of styles with which individual teachers of the past century have expressed the Great Perfection.