Books In Brief – May 2009

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

Lion’s Roar
1 May 2009

Natural Wakefulness: Discovering the Wisdom We Were Born With
By Gaylon Ferguson
Shambhala Publications, 2009; 176 pp., $21.95 (cloth)

Profound yet practical, Natural Wakefulness is a meditation manual that will be of special interest to beginners but will also serve to inspire seasoned practitioners. Author Gaylon Ferguson is a senior teacher in the Shambhala tradition, with thirty-three years of experience leading meditation retreats, a core faculty member at Naropa University, and a prominent African-American Buddhist teacher. In this, his much-anticipated first book, he offers advice and contemplative exercises to help us both uncover our basic goodness and commit to practice. Additionally, he shares helpful selections from question-and-answer sessions with his students. In the forward, Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche says, “This book will be of tremendous benefit to those who have the courage to engage their minds and heart and develop their potential.” Personally, what I most appreciate about Natural Wakefulness is the warmth and accessibility of Ferguson’s voice.

Buddhism of the Heart: Reflections on Shin Buddhism and Inner Togetherness
By Jeff Wilson
Wisdom Publications, 2009; 176 pp., $16.95 (paper)

Jodo Shinshu Buddhism, also known as Shin, is the most popular form of Buddhism in Japan, but not much has been written about it that is aimed at Western readers. Buddhism of the Heart helps to address that gap. Author Jeff Wilson’s approach is to stay away from Shin’s long history of scholarship and instead unpack Shin the way most practitioners do—through stories and anecdotes. The point, he says, isn’t separating the fact from the myth; it’s understanding how the stories reveal the way we can learn to live in accord with the dharma. Shin, a heart-based Buddhism, is geared toward laypeople, so it is only fitting that Wilson’s book is user-friendly, with a helpful glossary of terms and suggestions for further reading at the back, plus a liberal sprinkling of humor throughout.

Mindful Eating
By Jan Chozen Bays, MD
Shambhala Publications, 2009; pp. 240 pp., $16.95 (paper)

According to the U.S. Department of Health, nearly two out of three American adults are overweight and it’s estimated that millions of Americans are bulimic or anorexic. A primary cause of this epidemic of eating disorders, says longtime Zen teacher Bays, is the lack of one essential human nutrient: mindfulness. Her book, Mindful Eating, will help you learn to be present at the table—to notice how each bite looks, feels, smells, and tastes. This in turn will allow you to identify your habits with food; tap into your body’s innate wisdom about what, when, and how much to eat; and develop a more compassionate attitude toward yourself and your food difficulties. Bays, who has been teaching mindful eating for more than twenty years, peppers her book with exercises and the real-life stories of people who have discovered that, although the palate offers many pleasures, sometimes what we hunger for isn’t food, but rather the feeling of being truly alive.

Zen Wrapped in Karma Dipped in Chocolate: A Trip through Death, Sex, Divorce, and Spiritual Celebrity in Search of the True Dharma
By Brad Warner
New World Library, 2009; 288 pp., $14.95 (paper)

While living in Japan in the nineties, Brad Warner was ordained a Buddhist monk. In 2004, he returned to the U.S., began teaching Buddhism in his homeland, and earned a name for himself as the author of Hardcore Zen and Sit Down & Shut Up. To Warner’s dismay, he became what he’d always despised—a religious authority figure and spiritual celebrity. “People began expecting me—of all people—to be the thing they envisioned a Buddhist master ought to be,” writes Warner. “But let me clue you in on a little secret, friends and neighbors, not only am I not that thing. No one is.” In Zen Wrapped in Karma Dipped in Chocolate Warner unpacks his failed marriage and the deaths of his mother and grandmother and in the process reveals that the shit can hit the fan for anyone, even so-called spiritual supermen. That said, he tells us, even when the worst does go down, the philosophy and practice of Buddhism can provide rational, realistic ways to cope.

Saltwater Buddha: A Surfer’s Quest to Find Zen on the Sea
By Jaimal Yogis
Wisdom Publications, 2009; 256 pp., $15.95 (paper)

Bored by his cool-kid, suburban life, sixteen-year-old Jaimal Yogis left his mom a note: “Please do not worry. I am somewhere in the world and I will call you when I get there.” Saltwater Buddha, his memoir of the adventures that followed takes readers first to Hawaiian communes and then later to French monasteries and to the chilly New York shore. But this isn’t just a tale that travels the compass directions; it also goes surprisingly deep. In this, his first book, Yogis offers us his Zen insights, which he melds with surf wisdom. Water, however, is at the heart of it all—that substance that sustains all life, that is both perfectly yielding yet strong enough to grind rock. Surfers and Zennies alike will want to catch this wave.

Wildwood: A Journey through Trees
By Roger Deakin
Free Press, 2009; 416 pp., $26.95 (cloth)

If Saltwater Buddha was about water, Wildwood is about wood—wood as it exists in nature and in our psyches, culture, and lives. In this, the last book by the late Roger Deakin, he takes us with him on a journey through forests on three continents. He unearths the history of the domestic apple in wild apple groves in Kazakhstan; goes on a hunt for bush plums with a band of Aborigines in Australia; and gets lost in the frozen woods of Poland. Plus, Deakin introduces us to artists who seem to be kin with the Green Man himself, among them David Nash, who creates large-scale, outdoor tree-based installations and Margaret Mellis, who is known for her sun-bleached driftwood sculptures. At once a natural history, an autobiography, and a poetic piece of travel writing, Wildwood will leave you seeing ash and oak in a whole new way. “To enter a wood,” Deakin wrote, “is to pass into a different world in which we ourselves are transformed.”

Yantra Yoga: The Tibetan Yoga of Movement
By Chögyal Namkhai Norbu
Snow Lion Publications, 2008; 406 pp., $34.95 (paper)

Yantra yoga, also known as trulkhor, is a Tibetan Buddhist practice that entails physical movements, breathing exercises, and visualizations. While there are several systems of yantra, what is presented in this new book is the system that the Dzogchen and tantra teacher Chögyal Namkhai Norbu began transmitting in the West in the early 1970’s. Yantra Yoga is composed of Chögyal Namkhai Norbu’s commentary on what is considered the definitive work on yantra, an eighth-century text by Vairocana. Illustrated with many photos and drawings, Yantra Yoga also includes a translation of the ancient text. Practitioners of hatha yoga will be interested to discover that many yantra poses look familiar. This makes sense; yantra (though now very much associated with Tibet) traces its earliest roots back to India.

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