Books in Brief July 2008

Reviews of Books from July 2008.

Andrea McQuillin
1 July 2008

The Open Road: The Global Journey of the Fourteenth Dalai Lama
By Pico Iyer
Knopf, 2008; 275 pp., $24 (cloth)

Author and journalist Pico Iyer first met the Dalai Lama as a young boy accompanying his father, and he and the Tibetan spiritual leader have maintained a friendship for some thirty years. Often asked to comment on the Dalai Lama and Tibet for newspapers and journals around the world, Iyer, a non-Buddhist, has written what will perhaps be the definitive study of the man as exiled political leader, spiritual guide, and religious icon. The Open Road is a sober and thoughtful portrait of a disciplined monk who values empiricism and compassion above tradition, and who has fully accepted his lot in life. It takes more than a little courage and insight to “reveal” the Dalai Lama; in doing so, Iyer acquits himself well.


The Rules of Victory: How to Transform Conflict and Chaos—Strategies from the Art of War
By James Gimian and Barry Boyce
Shambhala Publications, 2008; 304 pp., $26.95 (cloth)

In The Rules of Victory, Shambhala Sun publisher James Gimian and senior editor Barry Boyce demonstrate that you can actually practice what the Sun Tzu (The Art of War) preaches—victory without war. The two are members (Gimian is codirector) of the Denma Translation Group, which in 2002 published a highly regarded new translation of the Sun Tzu. It would seem that by immersing themselves in the translation of the text and examining its key principles—interconnectedness, conflict, taking whole, knowing, and victory—Gimian and Boyce learned to apply the Sun Tzu in daily life. The result is a practical guide to dealing with the conflict that inevitably arises in our relationships at home, at work, and elsewhere.


American Earth: Environmental Writing Since Thoreau
Edited by Bill McKibben
Library of America, 2008; 997 pp. plus 80-page color portfolio, $40 (cloth)

With growing concern globally about climate change, this survey, selected and edited by Bill McKibben, couldn’t come at a better time. As McKibben, an activist/writer himself, points out, America’s unique contribution to world literature is the genre of “environmental writing.” From the prophet Thoreau to early conservationists like John Muir to alarm-sounders like Rachel Carson and contemporary philosophers like Gary Snyder, McKibben deftly leads the reader through the intellectual and artistic development of the modern environmental movement. These essays on consumption, overpopulation, and energy policy remind us that while a number of environmental battles have been won (control of pesticides, for example, and the protection of the Adirondacks), in McKibben’s words, “the war goes badly.” If we are to survive, the voices in this book must be the mainstream, and not on the artistic, intellectual, or spiritual fringe.


Motionless Journey: From a Hermitage in the Himalayas
By Matthieu Ricard
Thames and Hudson, 2008; 128 pp., $45 (cloth)

Motionless Journey is more than a beautiful coffee-table picture book. It’s the distillate of a year of solitary meditation retreat by the Tibetan Buddhist monk Matthieu Ricard, the author of (most recently) Happiness: A Guide to Developing Life’s Most Important Skill, and longtime French translator to the Dalai Lama. Ricard took photographs—one or two a week—from his hermitage in the Himalayas. In Motionless Journey, stunning full-color plates of mountains, mists, and monks are paired with cogent teachings from Buddhist teachers and Western philosophers. Ricard’s introductory essay explains both the motivation and necessity for retreat practice and conveys his utter joy at the opportunity for reflection without distraction: “As he lights his fire each morning, the hermit wonders if he will still be alive the next day to light another. Aware of the impermanence of everything, he practices assiduously.”


Ocean of Dharma: The Everyday Wisdom of Chögyam Trungpa
Edited by Carolyn Rose Gimian
Shambhala Publications, 2008; 384 pp., $15.95 (paper)

When he died in 1987, Chögyam Trungpa had been teaching in the West for only twenty years. But during that time an extraordinary number of audio and video recordings of his talks were made, some of which are still being transcribed, edited, and published. There is no one more knowledgeable about Chögyam Trungpa’s oeuvre than his longtime editor and archivist Carolyn Rose Gimian, who selected the short, pithy teachings in this book from both published and unpublished sources. Ocean of Dharma grew out of an e-mail list-serve that Gimian started in 2003, sending out weekly teachings to subscribers. The 365 teachings address a broad range of topics, from the ordinary to the profound—and often both at once. They preserve the timeless voice of a great Buddhist teacher.


The Moon in the Water: Reflections on an Aging Parent
By Kathy J. Phillips
Vanderbilt University Press, 2008; 160 pp., $19.95 (cloth)

Through a series of candid, poignant, and sometimes humorous vignettes, Kathy Phillips, an English professor at the University of Hawai’i, recounts the years her father lived with her as she cared for him during his decline and death. Phillips prefaces each mundane scene—a trip by wheelchair-accessible Handi-Van to the doctor’s office, navigating a perplexing maze of tax forms, the panic of a middle-of-the-night ambulance call—with a contemplation of an artistic representation of Kuan Yin, the bodhisattva of compassion. For Phillips, the images are both a spiritual anchor and a means to find perspective on her role as caregiver. Without being maudlin or precious, she conveys both the power and the ordinariness of serving on the front line during life and death.


The Buddha’s Teachings on Prosperity: At Home, at Work, in the World
By Bhikkhu Rahula
Wisdom Publications, 2008; 200 pp., $16.95 (paper)

Many of the Buddha’s teachings were given exclusively to monks and nuns. But the Buddha also gave specific moral guidance and advice to laypeople—those who wouldn’t necessarily devote their lives to meditation and living in a religious community. In Teachings on Prosperity, the Sri Lankan-born monk Rahula Basnagoda, who leads the Houston Buddhist Vihara, has compiled these teachings from original Pali sources. Many instructions (citations are provided in notes to the main text) have to do with practical matters like gaining and retaining wealth, or succeeding as partners and parents. Others provide advice for making sound decisions and guidelines (aka precepts) for harmonious everyday living. Rahula refrains from straying into the Buddha’s metaphysical teachings, but at the same time emphasizes the Buddha’s nontheistic approach: “Self-improvement or self-impairment is one’s own task; someone does not improve another.”