Books in Brief January 2008

Review of books from January 2008.

Lion’s Roar Staff1 January 2008

Psychotherapy Without the Self: A Buddhist Perspective
By Mark Epstein, M.D
Yale University Press, 2007; 261 pp.; $25 (cloth)

Mark Epstein, a Harvard-trained physician, studied Buddhism before he studied psychiatry, and he has been a pioneer in articulating Buddhist concepts to the Western medical community and pointing out the common ground between Buddhist and Western psychology. This collection of essays is divided into sections that chronicle Epstein’s evolving dialogue with his peers, his attempts to communicate the Buddhist understanding of the mind to a broader audience, and his assessment of Buddhism’s influence on the Western psychological model. Summing up the advantage of the Buddhist approach, Epstein says, “Buddhism teaches that it is not how much you know about yourself, it’s how you relate to what you do know that makes a difference.”

Women Practicing Buddhism: American Experiences
Edited by Peter N. Gregory and Susanne Mrozik
Wisdom Publications, 2007; 241 pp.; $16.95 (paper)

In 2005, American Buddhist women gathered at Smith College for a conference to discuss their lives and their practice. If you weren’t able to attend, you can still get the gist by picking up Women Practicing Buddhism, which offers edited presentations—a number of them roundtable discussions—on topics discussed by the gathered artists, activists, writers, nuns, and Buddhist teachers. Highlights include essays by Susanne Mrozik and Karma Lekshe Tsomo examining the domestic and international contexts in which a new type of Buddhist woman—the American Buddhist—practices. bell hooks’ salient “Moving Beyond Gender” is an appreciation of Buddhism’s essential gender neutrality and of the role that American Buddhist women have played in critiquing Buddhism’s patriarchal institutions. Other essays reflect on creativity, activism, and issues of race, class, and ethnicity. This book reveals the diversity of women practicing Buddhism in America, the keenness of their practice, and the depth of their reflections.

Insight Dialogue: The Interpersonal Path to Freedom
By Gregory Kramer
Shambhala Publications, 2007; 293 pp.; $18.95 (paper)

On the eightfold path, practicing right speech is an essential step on the spiritual journey. “Insight Dialogue” is a modern elaboration of that old injunction. Recognizing that much of our present-day confusion arises in interpersonal relationships, Gregory Kramer, a former composer and longtime Insight Meditation practitioner, codeveloped this practice of “meditation through conversation,” and for more than ten years he has taught it at retreats as a complement to meditation. The practice consists of six basic instructions that are grounded in the framework of mindfulness—pause, relax, open, trust emergence, listen deeply, speak the truth. While we usually think of contemplative practice as a silent, solitary pursuit, Kramer makes it clear that there are opportunities for insight in our social relationships as well.

The Activist’s Ally: Contemplative Tools for Social Change
By Contributors to the Center for Contemplative Mind in Society
The Center for Contemplative Mind in Society, 2007; 120 pp.; $20 (paper)

This first book from the Center for Contemplative Mind in Society, a nonprofit with the mission to “bring contemplative practice to people who are working to improve our world,” is aimed at young social justice activists. The many contributors to this compact, colorful workbook manage to strike a tone that is engaging without being preachy or patronizing. Activists get a brief introduction to contemplative practices that might sustain them “over the long haul”—practices for the self (categorized as “movement practices,” “stillness practices,” “ritual practices,” and so on) and practices for groups (conducting contemplative meetings, conference calls, conflict resolution, staff retreats). Ultimately this resource lets the young activist choose the right path for him- or herself.

Meditation Now or Never
By Steve Hagen
HarperOne, 2007; 200 pp. $14.95 (paper)

Here’s another short, pithy—and what will likely be popular—primer from Steve Hagen, head teacher at Dharma Field meditation and Learning Center in Minneapolis. The Zen priest and author of Buddhism Plain and Simple is an advocate for an American Buddhism that is unadorned and accessible. To that end, Meditation Now or Never is free of much of the cultural and religious jargon that we associate with Zen, but still gets, as Zen has a way of doing, to the heart of the matter: meditation as a necessary practice rather than a nice idea. “Either commit to meditation and do it regularly, or forget about it and do something else instead,” says Hagen. “You can’t dabble in meditation any more than you can dabble in breathing or eating or sleeping.” Newcomers will find Hagen’s reflections on the day-to-day challenges of establishing a meditation practice helpful, and even those who have been at it for a while will find resonance in Hagen’s advice for the long haul.

Breakfast with Buddha: A Novel
By Roland Merullo
Algonquin Books, 2007; 323 pp.; $23.95 (cloth)

In the tradition of Kerouac’s On the Road, Breakfast with Buddha is about a road trip and a spiritual journey. Otto Ringling is an older version of Kerouac’s Sal Paradise, an ordinary guy in his forties who is married with children and has a decent job as an editor. When Otto plans a trip to North Dakota to settle his parents’ estate, he expects to bring along his sister, but his flakey sibling saddles him instead with her guru, Rinpoche Volya, to whom she wants to bequeath her share of the family farm. Although Otto’s a tolerant guy, as the miles roll by his patience is tested by his traveling companion’s mystical musings and unwelcome interest in his spiritual growth. In this merry but poignant novel, Merullo uses just the right recipe of humor and insight to characterize the spiritual curmudgeon and the spiritual savant.

Coffee with the Buddha
By Joan Duncan Oliver
Duncan Baird Publishers-Sterling Publishing Co., 2007; 144 pp.; $9.95 (cloth)

If you’ve imagined breakfast with the Buddha, perhaps it stands to reason that you’d imagine meeting him for coffee, too. This book is the eighth in a series imagining conversations with famous artists, philosophers, and spiritual teachers. Author Joan Duncan Oliver is a frequent contributor to publications like Tricycle and O and her last book, Good Karma, used a similar question and answer format. Here her “interview” with the Buddha (his answers are proximately abstracted from Buddhist texts) asks him to explain the truths he uncovered 2,500 years ago and how they apply to modern-day life. In the time it takes to brew and drink a pot of coffee, you’ll glean from this small book some highlights from the Buddha’s life and teachings.

Lion s Roar Staff

Lion’s Roar Staff

Lion’s Roar is the website of Lion’s Roar magazine (formerly the Shambhala Sun) and Buddhadharma: The Practitioner’s Quarterly, with exclusive Buddhist news, teachings, art, and commentary. Sign up for the Lion’s Roar weekly newsletter and follow Lion’s Roar on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Pinterest.