Books in Brief November 2007

Book reviews from November 2007.

Andrea McQuillin
1 November 2007

Basic Teachings of the Buddha
by Glenn Wallis
Modern Library Classics, 2007; 181 pp.; $19.95 (paper)

Basic Teachings of the Buddha is “serious” Buddhism, both in its conception and its execution. Buddhist scholar and translator Glenn Wallis has rigorously selected, translated, introduced, and parsed sixteen essential discourses from the Pali canon, a vast collection of literature that is generally accepted as the complete record of Gautama Buddha’s forty-five-year teaching career. In his introductory essay—itself worth the $15-dollar price tag—Wallis touches on the cross-cultural dimensions and sectarian nuances of modern Buddhism. He makes clear, though, that his primary loyalty is to the original text and to training people to be better Buddhist readers by providing “a doctrinally responsible basis for further pursuing the study and practice of the Buddha’s teachings.” Employing a clever framework, Wallis presents translations of texts representing core teachings of the Buddha that are common to all sects and traditions, and then shows us the way to an in-depth reading of each. Refraining from interpretation, Wallis leaves the reader to “refine the material with the grit of daily life.” The result of Wallis’s careful efforts is a short primer that is a must-have for serious students of Buddhism.


Nothing to Do, Nowhere to Go: Reflections on the Teachings of Zen Master Lin Chi
by Thich Nhat Hanh
Parallax Press, 2007; 140 pp.; $12.95 (paper)

The Art of Power
by Thich Nhat Hanh
HarperOne, 2007; 240 pp.; $24.95 (cloth)
These two titles illustrate the differences between the approaches that mainstream and specialty publishers take with a bankable Buddhist author. Parallax Press has a long history with Vietnamese Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh, and Nothing to Do, Nowhere to Go reflects that mature relationship. Here we have an accepted authority speaking to a dedicated audience on a subject of mutual interest: teachings of the 9th-century Zen master Linji, who, even by Zen standards, is commanding and direct. Linji’s teachings are “strong medicine,” says Thich Nhat Hanh, “not a vitamin, but a laxative.” Those who like robust Zen will enjoy both Linji’s bluntness and Thich Nhat Hanh’s candor in commenting on the master’s work.

The Art of Power, in the tradition of bestsellers like the Dalai Lama’s The Art of Happiness, is Buddhism aimed at the broadest possible audience. Title notwithstanding, the book largely focuses on the Buddhist view of “true happiness” and the contemplative practices that support its realization. With its “art of” title and a marketing campaign that will appeal to householders and businesspeople of all types, The Art of Power will win new converts to one of Western Buddhism’s leading lights.

The Sutras of Abu Ghraib: Notes from a Conscientious Objector in Iraq
by Aidan Delgado
Beacon Press, 2007; 228 pp.; $24.95 (cloth)

The Sutras of Abu Ghraib is not so much a Buddhist story as a morality tale. Bored at college, Aidan Dalgado signed up in 2001 for the Army Reserve and served a year in Iraq as a specialist (a truck mechanic), first in Nasiriyah and then at the notorious Abu Ghraib prison. Three months into his tour, Dalgado had serious doubts—fueled by his growing interest in Buddhism—about his role as a soldier. At that point he set in motion an eighteen-month process to be honorably discharged as a Conscientious Objector. (For the remainder of his service in Iraq, he was weaponless and denied standard-issue body armor or regular leave). This is a fascinating story about the mundane struggles of modern military service, the dehumanizing effects of war, and the courage of one young man to live by his conscience: “I began to see my tiny fragment of war service as part of a structure comprising thousands of individual soldiers, each secure in the knowledge that what they were personally doing wasn’t wrong. I looked at the truth of the [Abu Ghraib] prisoners’ experience and then I looked at my stated life, and it felt false, right to the core.”

Tibetan Cooking: Recipes for Daily Living, Celebration & Ceremony
by Elizabeth Kelly
Snow Lion, 2007; 152 pp.; $19.95 (paper)

The Greyston Bakery Cookbook: More Than 80 Recipes to Inspire the Way You Cook and Live
by Sara Kate Gillingham-Ryan
Rodale, 2007; 200 pp.; $26 (cloth)

If there is a recipe for eating—and living—close to the earth, it must be Tibetan, a cuisine known for simplicity, not variety. Staple dishes are based around the scarce foodstuff available to a nomadic people living at altitude: meat, dairy products, and grains. Elizabeth Kelly is an adept at preparing traditional Tibetan food—even going so far as to dry supplies of meat in the eaves of her family home—and Tibetan Cooking offers a representative sample of Tibetan main dishes (both meat and vegetarian), hearty soups, and tasty condiments, as well as menus for traditional celebrations.

On the other end of the decadence scale are the desserts in the Greyston Bakery Cookbook. We’ve tried several of the recipes from this sumptuously designed collection and found them uniformly scrumptious. But beyond the recipes, Greyston Bakery’s history also bears noting. It was founded as a storefront cafe twenty-five years ago by Bernie Glassman Roshi, who wanted to run a business based on the principles and practice of Zen and to contribute to the struggling local Yonkers community. Today Greyston is a collection of businesses—including housing, child care, youth and AIDS health care programs—supported by revenue from the bakery and employing local disadvantaged community members.

The Mindful Leader: Ten Principles for Bringing Out the Best in Ourselves and Others
by Michael Carroll
Trumpeter/Shambhala Publications, 2007; 224 pp.; $23.95 (cloth)

For most of us, work is unavoidable. So if we want to live our lives fully and completely, says Michael Carroll in his second book on bringing Buddhist wisdom (i.e. “awake mind”) to the workplace, we’re going to have to practice doing that during the daily nine to five. The state of mind that operates at work can also influence our “off” time, Carroll warns, so that many of us end up “managing our lives like projects rather than actually living them.” The heart of The Mindful Leader is Carroll’s encapsulation of the “ten talents” of the leader, virtues like simplicity, poise, respect, and courage. Carroll also offers instructions on basic meditation and short exercises for shrugging off the spiritual ennui that thrives in the workplace.

No River to Cross: Trusting the Enlightenment That’s Always Right Here
by Daehaeng Kun Sunim
Wisdom Publications, 2007; 144 pp.; $14.95 (paper)

This slim volume introduces readers in the West to an unsung Zen heroine, eighty-year old Korean Buddhist nun Daehaeng Sunim. Daehaeng’s training and achievements as a Seon, or Zen, master are unusual, particularly for a woman. She spent thirty of her early years practicing alone in the mountains of South Korea and subsequently founded one of the largest and most influential Korean Buddhist institutions. No River to Cross is organized topically and presents a well-edited sampler of Daehaeng’s teachings, which range from the conceptual to the practical, from non-duality to money, from nirvana to family. This first taste of a fresh female voice leaves you hungry for more.