Books in Brief – January 2009

Brief summaries of Buddhist books from the January 2009 issue of Lion’s Roar magazine.

Lion’s Roar
1 January 2009

Learning to Breathe: One Woman’s Journey of Spirit and Survival
By Alison Wright
Hudson Street Press, 2008; 271 pp., $24.95 (cloth)

Photojournalist Alison Wright had spent more than a decade traveling the world documenting human rights issues and endangered cultures when the crowded bus she was riding collided with a logging truck in a remote area of Laos. During the fourteen hours she waited for medical attention, bleeding externally and internally, it was Wright’s meditation training—her ability to focus on her breathing—that sustained her. This compelling account of that day is also a reckoning of Wright’s life before and after. In due time, Wright—mended but irrevocably changed—returned to the life she loved. Her most profound healing arose from a deeper realization of the preciousness of life and an awareness of human interconnectedness. “I realize now it’s not about covering the story,” says Wright. “It’s about being a part of the story.”

The Way of the Buddha: The Illustrated Dhammapada
By The Rubin Museum of Art
Abrams, 2008; 320 pp.; $16.95 (cloth)

This little collectible edition of The Way of the Buddha is both a handsome and a handy reference. Tradition says that the 423 short verses of this classic Theravada text are the Buddha’s answers to his students’ questions on ethical matters, and since the comparative religion scholar F. Max Muller first translated the text into English in 1881, many scholars and practitioners have turned their hand to it, including Eknath Easwaran, Thanissaro Bhikkhu, and Gil Fronsdal. Here the Muller edition, is illustrated by beautiful images from the Rubin Museum’s vast collection of Tibetan Buddhist art.

The Garden of Truth: The Vision and Promise of Sufism, Islam’s Mystical Tradition
By Seyyed Hossein Nasr
HarperOne, 2007; 256 pp.; 24.95 (cloth)

The Other Islam: Sufism and the Road to Global Harmony
By Stephen Schwartz
Doubleday, 2008; 275 pp.; $24.95 (cloth)

Sufism, the mystical tradition of Islam, has long fascinated Westerners, and the poet Rumi, one of its most famous adherents, has always had particular appeal. After all, his poetic expression of the central teaching of Sufism—transcendence of the human state through union with God—crosses religious boundaries. For those with an interest in the roots and potential of Sufism, these two titles will go some way toward a fuller understanding of the tradition. The Garden of Truth, by the eminent Iranian-American scholar Seyyed Hossein Nasr, is a philosophical overview of the living reality of Sufism. Nasr’s aim is true, but the casual student will be bogged down at times by his dense intellectual framework. The Other Islam, by Stephen Schwartz, a journalist and convert to Islam, has a two-fold focus: Sufism’s promise for individual liberation and its potential as a natural ally for Americans in the ongoing war on terror. Schwartz spends a fair amount of ink on his criticism of Wahabism, an extreme literalist branch of Islam.

Sanctuary: Global Oases of Innocence
By Michael Tobias and Jane Gray Morrison
Council Oaks Books, 2008; 338 pp.; $60 (cloth)

This beautiful coffee table book is a visual and textual homage to the preservation of the natural world and to the individuals, worldwide, who protect it. Husband and wife team Michael Tobias and Jane Gray Morrison traveled the world to document twenty-four havens for non-human life forms, from the Alertis bear refuge near Utrecht in the Netherlands to Gene Baur’s farm animal sanctuary in Upstate New York; from Howard Buffet’s cheetah reserve near Johannesburg in South Africa to the Kingdom of Bhutan, where 60 percent of the country is protected as inviolable primeval forest. Tobias and Morrison suggest that there is a “sanctuary movement” afoot, a spontaneous worldwide happening that will “rectify ongoing anthropogenic (human-induced) assaults on biodiversity; and halt the global epidemic of cruelty to animals.” This book gives us some evidence for hope.

Mind and Life: Discussions with the Dalai Lama on the Nature of Reality
By Pier Luigi Luisi with Zara Houshmand
Columbia University Press, 2008; 240 pp.; $24.95 (cloth)

The Dalai Lama’s lifelong interest in Western science has been fortified over the last eighteen years by the Mind and Life Institute, which organizes annual conferences that allow an exchange of knowledge between His Holiness and leading scientific researchers. Participants from the Institute typically disseminate the highlights from these gatherings, in either book or DVD form, and Pier Luigi Luisi’s account of the 2002 conference, which took place at the Dalai Lama’s residence in Dharamsala and focused on a discussion of the nature of matter and life, is about as sexy as you can make a conference report. By following the scientists’ presentations and the ensuing dialogue, you begin to understand why both these groups get such a charge out of meeting periodically to talk. The scientists at this conference were joined by a cadre of Tibetan monks, who, at the Dalai Lama’s behest, have begun studying Western science along with the traditional monastic curriculum. Before the Dalai Lama fell ill and was advised by his doctors not to travel last fall, he was scheduled to visit Berlin in October 2008 for the Mind and Life Institute’s eighteenth weeklong meeting.

The Blue Heron Ranch Cookbook: Recipes and Stories from a Zen Retreat Center
By Nadia Natali
North Atlantic Books, 2008; 222 pp., $21.95 (paper)

One Taste: Vegetarian Home Cooking from Around the World
By Sharon Louise Crayton
Provecho Press, 2008; 206 pp., $29.50 (paper)

Though different in style, both of these cookbooks will make you more mindful of your next meal. Nadia Natali and her husband purchased a remote, unserviced 40-acre property near Ojaj, California when the eldest of their children was three-and-a-half. For twenty-eight years since then they have lived close to the land, providing for their family and for the visitors to their small Zen retreat, dubbed the Blue Heron Ranch. Natali’s simple, wholesome, and practical dishes are the result of long hours in the kitchen and can be adapted to serve two or twenty. Recipes are complemented by charming illustrations by one of her daughters and her short reflections on the joys and challenges of living in the Californian wilderness.

One Taste author Sharon Crayton is a trained nutritionist and sophisticated chef who traveled the world to collect recipes and know-how. But the search left her empty. “I was completely caught up in my expectations for perfect, specific results,” she says, “a slave to my shoulds, coulds, and woulds.” The Tibetan Buddhist teacher Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche motivated Crayton to transform the way she cooked, which had a deep effect on her life: “Over time I realized that maybe the problem was not the task of cooking itself but the attitude I had toward this universal and essential activity.” Her hybrid cookbook/meditation manual will motivate you to take your meditation from the cushion to the kitchen.

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