Books in Brief May 2008

Review of book from May 2008.

Andrea McQuillin
1 May 2008

Money, Sex, War, Karma: Notes for a Buddhist Revolution
By David R. Loy
Wisdom Publications, 2008; 160 pp., $15.95 (paper)

David R. Loy is an original thinker on the intersection of Buddhism and modern society. Money, Sex, War, Karma collects essays by the professor of philosophy and comparative religion expanding on his thesis that the greatest potential of Buddhism for the West is as a framework for collective, not just individual, liberation. Loy analyzes the ways that society and its institutions contribute to the delusion of “self” and to the drive for transitory rewards like wealth, fame, sex, and so on by molding our attention and limiting our awareness. The book’s subtitle is apt—for Loy, Buddhism is not just some gentle spiritual path; it’s a tool for social criticism and change. But the revolutionary sword cuts both ways, and just as the West needs Buddhism, says Loy, a living, vital Buddhism also needs the West. “The Buddha was more flexible and open-minded than the institutions that developed to preserve his teachings,” he writes. “Today we find ourselves in a situation where that flexibility needs to be recovered.”

Dancing with Life: Finding Meaning and Joy in the Face of Suffering
By Phillip Moffitt
Rodale Books, 2008; 352 pp., $24.95 (cloth)

Many Buddhists are tempted just to scan the Buddha’s first teaching, on the four noble truths, before moving on to the more “advanced” stuff. But in Dancing with Life, Phillip Moffitt makes a solid case for a lifetime’s serious study of these insights on suffering and its cessation. The vipassana teacher and former Esquire editor models his investigation on a method outlined in the Samyutta Nikaya, teachings from the original Buddhist canon, which gives instruction on the development of twelve separate insights, three for each of the noble truths. These insights arise from practicing with the truths: first reflecting on them, then opening to the direct experience of them, and, lastly, knowing what each truth implies. This valuable contemporary study of Buddhism’s fundamentals demonstrates why these ancient teachings are so essential and relevant to today’s world.

Warrior-King of Shambhala
By Jeremy Hayward
Wisdom Publications, 2008; 476 pp., $18.95 (paper)

This memoir will be illuminating to those of us who were elsewhere occupied or too young to take part in the early Buddhist scene in North America, when pioneers like Chögyam Trungpa mixed it up with hippie seekers and began to mold today’s “senior students” of Buddhism, many of whom, like Jeremy Hayward, are now teachers themselves. Warrior-King of Shambhala is a personal chronicle of the skeptic’s journey, as well as an insider’s account of the events that marked the establishment of one of the more vibrant and lasting Tibetan Buddhist communities in North America. Those who come to this book seeking either a sordid tell-all or a saccharine endorsement of “the good old days” will be equally thwarted. In the end, Hayward demonstrates the difficult personal and public business of sorting out the ambiguous legacy of a powerful teacher. His honesty is courageous and imperfect—and that’s likely the way Chögyam Trungpa would have had it.

Feeding Your Demons: Ancient Wisdom for Resolving Inner Conflict
By Tsultrim Allione
Little, Brown & Company, 2008; 256 pp., $23.99 (cloth)

In Feeding Your Demons, Tsultrim Allione, author of the classic Women of Wisdom and founder of the Tara Mandala retreat center in southwest Colorado, teaches an adaptation of the practice called chöd (roughly translated as “cutting through”), an elaborate visualization practice developed by the eleventh-century female Tibetan Buddhist teacher Machig Labdron. Allione’s pared-down five-step approach begins by giving a mental form to our “demons”—our fears, obsessions, illnesses, and other problems. The practitioner then identifies and mentally “satisfies” that demon’s needs before dissolving the visualization and resting in awareness. Like many complicated rituals, this practice has a simple central objective, which is to resist projecting our suffering onto others and to recognize how we create our own enemies. In practicing feeding our own demons, says Allione, “we might develop a world in which people no longer think that the best alternative is to destroy whatever opposes them.”

Unplug: An Interactive Kit
By Sharon Salzberg
Sounds True, 2008; 27-page guidebook, 2 audio CDs, and 32 cards, $26.95

This introduction to Buddhist meditation, including two audio CDs, a short guidebook, and deck of contemplation cards, covers a lot of ground in a compact package. But that won’t surprise those acquainted with vipassana veteran Sharon Salzberg, cofounder of the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts. After 35 years in the business, Salzberg’s teaching method is well developed, as is her knowledge of the strengths and weaknesses of Westerners coming to meditation. This box, with its helpful supplements of guided meditations and pithy contemplation cards, is designed for busy, distracted people with lots of excuses. If there’s a takeaway message from Unplug, it’s that the barriers to meditation are few and the benefits many.

Enlightenment for Idiots: A Novel
By Anne Cushman
Shaye Areheart Books, 2008; 384 pp., $24 (cloth)

If you’ve ever pursued enlightenment—or just toyed with the idea—you’ll see a bit of yourself in this playful but introspective first novel by Anne Cushman, a contributing editor to Yoga Journal and Tricycle whose writing also appears regularly in the Shambhala Sun. Enlightenment for Idiots follows Amanda, a prototypical questing Californian with a passion for yoga and a weakness for unreliable men. An unenthusiastic travel writer, Amanda finally sees a chance to get it all together when she lands a job to research and write a guide to spiritual sites in India. But the actual pursuit of enlightenment—hunting gurus and chasing poses and escaping irritating fellow seekers—turns out to be a bit mundane, if not downright disappointing. It’s Amanda’s own life that demands her attention, and as more chaos is heaped upon her, she’s forced to look inside for the answers she has been seeking. Cushman’s send-up of the New Age American dream is both thoughtful and wise.

The Buddha’s Diamonds
By Carolyn Marsden and Thay Phap Niem
Candlewick Press, 2008; 112 pp., $14.99 (cloth)

This short coming-of-age story by Carolyn Marsden is aimed at preteen readers and is inspired by the childhood experiences of co-author Thay Phap Niem, a Buddhist monk in the Order of Interbeing, founded by Thich Nhat Hanh. Marsden’s protagonist, Tinh, lives in a small village by the sea in post-war Vietnam. By custom, at ten years old, Tinh helps his father on the family fishing boat, where the two earn a subsistence income for the family. Though he is anxious to please his “Ba” and to help look after his sister and mother, Tinh is also reluctant to give up the idle interests of a child, and when a crisis occurs he falls short of his own and his family’s expectations. But all’s well that ends well in this gentle moral tale. With Quan Yin, the goddess of compassion, as his inspiration, Tinh eventually learns to look beyond his own self-interest to overcome his fears.