Books in Brief – March 2010

Brief book reviews from March 2010.

Lion’s Roar
1 March 2010

The Way of Mountains and Rivers: Teachings on Zen and the Environment With Commentary on Zen Master Dogen’s Mountains and Rivers Sutra
By John Daido Loori
Dharma Communications, 2009; 133 pp., $24.95 (cloth)

The ancient Zen Master Dogen’s writing is known for being both gorgeously creative and notoriously difficult to understand. In his commentary on the Mountains and River Sutra, John Daido Loori, Roshi, unpacks what many consider to be Dogen’s most eloquent sutra, and he does so using clear and engaging prose. He also illuminates each of the twenty parts of the text with original poetry and serene yet powerful photographs of nature. The Way of Mountains and Rivers is John Daido Loori’s final volume in his photography trilogy on the environment, and his last book before his death in October 2009. Daido Loori, born in 1931, was the founder of the Mountains and River Order of Zen Buddhism and abbot of Zen Mountain Monastery.

Awakening Joy: 10 Steps That Will Put You on the Road to Real Happiness
By James Baraz and Shoshana Alexander
Bantam, 2010; 336 pp., $26 (cloth)

According to Awakening Joy, our state of mind isn’t solely determined by what is happening to us, but rather our relationship to what is happening. This book is based on the curriculum of James Baraz’s “Awakening Joy” course, which has been attended by thousands. He has been teaching Buddhist meditation for thirty years, and, as a result, the book is grounded in Buddhist thought. Yet readers of any (or no) faith will find the advice, exercises, and anecdotes accessible. We learn that one key to being happy is being fully present, and that means facing the truth about life: life includes anger, sadness, and fear, but these negative emotions are temporary states. “Cultivating our goodness, aliveness, and joy not only feels good,” say the authors, “it also helps us express our love more and awaken it in others. Our own joy becomes a gift to everyone we meet.”

Wholesome Fear: Transforming Your Anxiety About Impermanence & Death
By Lama Zopa Rinpoche and Kathleen McDonald
Wisdom Publications, 2010; 168 pp., $14.95 (paper)

If the topic of death has ever made you squirm, this book is for you. If you have ever lost a loved one and then been dismayed when your closest friends avoided talking about it, this book is for you, too. Indeed, if you’re the sort of person who will die someday, this is a good book to read. As it says, many people feel that talking about death will take the joy out of living. “Yet in truth, when we actively think about death and prepare for our own deaths, the opposite actually happens: we connect more to the peace, fulfillment, and happiness available in our lives. What’s more, our fear of death starts to disappear.” Wholesome Fear explains Buddhist—particularly Tibetan Buddhist—ideas about life and death, and it offers meditations to help us transform our lives.

The Bag Lady Papers: The Priceless Experience of Losing It All
By Alexandra Penney
Voice, 2010; 240 pp., $23.99 (cloth)

This memoir doesn’t mention the word “dharma,” but its lessons on impermanence nonetheless make it a fit for a Buddhist’s bookshelf. When Alexandra Penney was a child, she saw her first bag lady—alone, out in the cold, and wearing a frayed sweater held together with safety pins. After that, Penney’s greatest fear was becoming homeless herself, and this fear haunted her even after she became editor-in-chief of Self magazine and wrote a best-selling advice book. Penney went into therapy to deal with her groundless fears, but then suddenly, her fears weren’t so groundless. She’d invested all of her savings with Bernie Madoff and—now at retirement age—she had nothing. The Bag Lady Papers reveals how Penney survived her worst nightmare and discovered what in life is truly valuable.

The Awakener: A Memoir of Kerouac and the Fifties
By Helen Weaver
City Lights Books, 2009; 262 pp., $16.95 (cloth)

This book is evidence that the fifties had more going on than Leave It to Beaver. It’s primarily the story of Helen Weaver’s love affair with Jack Kerouac, but it also delves into her juicy romances with other lovers (of both genders), most notably Lenny Bruce. Weaver, who Kerouac portrayed as Ruth Heaper in Desolation Angels, had a whirlwind life outside of bed, too. She was involved with the publishing industry, was a French–English translator, and fought for the legalization of marijuana. At twenty-five, Weaver got her first taste of Buddhism from Kerouac, but she wasn’t yet ready for the first noble truth. Years later she read The Miracle of Mindfulness, by Thich Nhat Hanh, and felt that she had come home. That said, she admits, “My own practice has never really taken hold, and in this I am a little like Jack.”

Uncommon Happiness: The Path of the Compassionate Warrior
By Dzigar Kongtrul Rinpoche
North Atlantic Books, 2009; 192 pp., $16.95 (paper)

In the eighth-century, Shantideva was a student at the famed Nalanda University in India. He was considered a lazy, disobedient student and his fellow monks claimed his only three realizations were eating, sleeping, and shitting. But then, it is said, Shantideva surprised everyone. When asked to give a teaching, he presented The Way of the Bodhisattva, which has become one of the most important source texts on bodhichitta, or awakened mind. Uncommon Happiness is comprised of Dzigar Kongtrul Rinpoche’s commentaries on Shantideva’s seminal verses. The central idea in the book is that we suffer and are otherwise unhappy because we do not practice bodhichitta. Dzigar Kongtrul Rinpoche is the founder of the organization Mangala Shri Bhuti and the author of Light Comes Through.

The Heart of the Universe: Exploring the Heart Sutra
By Mu Soeng
Wisdom Publications, 2010; 150 pp., $15.95 (paper)

“Form is exactly emptiness; emptiness exactly form”—that is a famous line, certainly the most oft-repeated in the Heart Sutra. Yet the rest of the text is equally profound and cryptic. In his latest commentary, Mu Soeng helps us understand this seminal sutra and its intuitive view of the nature of ultimate reality. He also gives his commentary an ultramodern twist by focusing on the place where quantum physics and Mahayana Buddhism converge. Mu Soeng has written two other books unpacking important Buddhist texts: The Diamond Sutra and the Second Zen Ancester’s poem “Trust in Mind.” He is scholar-in-residence at the Barre Center for Buddhist Studies.

Sky Train: Tibetan Women on the Edge of History
By Canyon Sam
University of Washington Press, 2009; 278 pp., $24.95 (paper)

Sky Train is a travel memoir, woven together with interviews with various Tibetan women, including a freedom fighter, a child bride, and a Chinese Communist gulag survivor. The women’s accounts are filled with struggle and tragedy, but also courage and hope. And the narrative is colorful, filled with sights, sounds, smells. The author, Canyon Sam, a third-generation Chinese American, left the U.S. in 1986 with plans to live in her ancestral home for a year. Instead, however, she spent the bulk of that time in Tibet and Dharamsala, India, where she fell in love with Tibetan culture. There was just one thing about it that made her uncomfortable: the sexism. In Tibetan, one of the words for “woman” means “lower birth.” Yet, according to Sam, Tibetan women are anything but spiritually low. They are, she tells us, role models of strength who have shouldered the responsibility to preserve their culture.

The Novice: Why I Became a Buddhist Monk, Why I Quit & What I Learned
By Stephen Schettini
Greenleaf Book Group Press, 2009; 345 pp., $24.95 (cloth)

Stephen Schettini was born in 1952 to English–Italian circus people turned restaurateurs. He had a lonely and repressed childhood, which turned him into a disillusioned young man who eventually sabotaged his university finals and hitchhiked to India. The journey almost cost Schettini his life as he sank into sickness and drug addiction. Then his trajectory took another turn: at twenty-two, he was ordained as a monk in the Gelug tradition of Tibetan Buddhism. This memoir offers a frank look at the eight years Schettini lived in robes, training in Switzerland and Asia to be a translator and instructor. It also explores how those years have affected Schettini’s perceptions in the decades that have followed.

Eyes Wide Open: Cultivating Discernment on the Spiritual Path
By Marianna Caplan
Sounds True, 2009; 289 pp., $18.95 (paper)

The underlying idea of Eyes Wide Open is that on the path of psychological and spiritual transformation we need to cultivate our ability to be discerning, because only in that way will our practice bear fruit. Caplan begins the book with an overview of what spirituality is in a Western context. She considers how ego, psychology, and karma are intimately connected and how there are traps we can fall into when our development in these areas is uneven. Then she dives into the value of discernment as a tool. Caplan explains: “The careful application of discernment can literally turn internal and external poisons into medicine and ordinary experience into the extraordinary.” The book concludes with reflections on how discernment relates to the teacher–student relationship, and on what it means to really grow up.

Buddha on the Backstretch: The Spiritual Wisdom of Driving 200 MPH
By Arlynda Lee Boyer
Mercer University Press, 2009; 160 pp., $27 (cloth)

NASCAR developed in the 1930s in the southern Appalachians because moonshiners, who were souping up their cars to escape revenue officers, would challenge each other to races. What could NASCAR possibly have to do with Buddhist truths? Arlynda Lee Boyer answers that by quoting Dogen: “If you cannot find the truth right where you are, where else do you expect to find it?” Having grown up in the South, Boyer is a lifelong NASCAR aficionada and, in particular, a fan of Dale Earnhardt. He and other accomplished drivers, Boyer says, are good teachers because—like those on a spiritual path—they’ve learned to relax in chaos, uncertainty, imperfect circumstances, and pain. Buddha on the Backstretch is part of a series by Mercer University Press about intersections between sports and religion.

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