Books in Brief November 2008

Review of books from November 2008.

Andrea McQuillin
1 November 2008

Emotional Awareness: Overcoming the Obstacles to Psychological Balance and Compassion
By the Dalai Lama and Paul Ekman
Times Books, 2008; 288 pp., $23 (cloth)

If you regularly peruse this department, your eyes may glaze over at the mention of yet another book on psychology and Buddhism. But Emotional Awareness—which takes the form of an extended conversation between high-caliber subject experts Paul Ekman and the Dalai Lama—offers a fresh, unique exploration of many subtle issues raised by the intersection of these disciplines. The conversation format works well here because it allows the reader to witness a personal relationship develop between two “scientists of the mind” as they gently probe each other’s system of thought with striking intellectual rigor. Both have dedicated their lives to reducing psychological suffering and now, in the autumn of their careers, seem to enjoy the opportunity to refine their views through dialogue. (The two first met in 2000 through the Mind and Life Institute, which brings together the Dalai Lama and researchers to discuss scientific topics.) Full of intelligence, unexpected humor, and tender surprises, Emotional Awareness clarifies for the layman what the big deal is about psychology and Buddhism.


The Wishing Year: A Memoir of Fulfilled Desire
By Noelle Oxenhandler
Random House, 2008; 282 pp.; $24 (cloth)

Like many Buddhists, Noelle Oxenhandler had an ambivalent relationship with desire (a bit of a dirty word in Buddhism) and skepticism about putting her own wishes “out there.” But at fifty—divorced, alone, and with nothing to lose—the longtime Zen student suspended her habitual doubt to embark on a yearlong experiment where she dared to think, articulate, and hope for what she wanted (which was, by the way, a house, a new love, and spiritual renewal). Oxenhandler is a gifted writer and this thoughtful memoir delivers more than you would expect, particularly if you share her entrenched mistrust of wishing. Since we’re all wishing all the time, it seems well worth exploring it with some vigor. Wishing’s real power, she says, is the way that its practice opens you up to what is. “At all times,” says Oxenhandler, “we can choose to move from the not yet of unfilled desire to the already of what is present.”


Razor-Wire Dharma
By Calvin Malone
Wisdom Publications, 2008; 224 pp., $15.95 (paper)

Letters from the Dhamma Brothers: Meditation Behind Bars
By Jenny Phillips
Pariyatti Press, 2008; 220 pp., $15.95 (paper)

Through prison chaplaincy and rehabilitation programs, a number of Buddhist communities and networks offer support for ongoing meditation and study in North American prisons. Now two new books show us how prisoners reach out to others from behind bars. Letters from the Dhamma Brothers describes a 10-day Goenka-style vipassana (“insight”) meditation program delivered at a maximum-security Alabama prison in 2002. The book also collects some of the 200 letters the 20 participants sent to the course leaders over the next four years, documenting their difficulties practicing in prison and their ongoing experiences of personal transformation. Razor-Wire Dharma, a collection of autobiographical stories by Calvin Malone, currently serving the final days of a 20-year sentence for aggravated assault, gives us a window on life “on the inside.” Through his stories of a committed Buddhist placed under great pressure, Malone asks us to reflect on the nature of difficult circumstances and the obstacles to practice. “Prison can be a hard place,” Malone says, “so can the world outside the prison gates.” What both these books illustrate is that, however narrow or broad our freedoms, we all make choices that will either imprison or liberate us.



Zen Heart: Simple Advice for Living with Mindfulness and Compassion
By Ezra Bayda
Shambhala Publications, 2008; 198 pp., $21.95 (cloth)

This is the fourth book from Zen teacher Ezra Bayda, who, with each outing, has refined and deepened his advice on increasing awareness in our day-to-day lives. This advice is hard-won and based on the close scrutiny of Bayda’s own practice. In Zen Heart, Bayda defines spiritual practice as “all the ideas and techniques that focus on the effort to practice maintaining awareness,” and he breaks its progress down into three phases: 1) the Me phase—becoming free from the attachment to “me,” 2) the Being Awareness phase, and 3) the Being Kindness phase. Whether you accept these precise categories as the map of the path or not, Bayda’s close analytical thinking can offer insights into your efforts to further develop awareness. Zen Heart will most benefit those who have already made a commitment to and have some prior experience in observing the mind.


Turtle Feet: The Making and Unmaking of a Buddhist Monk
By Nikolai Grozni
Riverhead Books, 2008; 326 pp.; $24.95 (cloth)

In this travel/spiritual memoir, Nikolai Grozni, a gifted young pianist and novelist from Bulgaria, has a crisis of meaning and quits his college music program in America to study at the Dalai Lama’s university in Dharamsala. Quickly, Grozni becomes a monk, and nearly as quickly becomes disenchanted with the dogma and ritual of the Tibetan monastic system. Grozni falls under the influence of a lusty young Bosnian expat monk who keeps him engaged with the material world at the same time that he struggles to observe his vows. (“There’s nothing like a taste of healthy Balkan irreverence after overdosing on emptiness,” he writes.) Inevitably, Grozni hands in his robes and returns with renewed appreciation to the world’s pleasures. This memoir is not without reverence for the search for meaning, but above all Grozni’s candidness is a tonic for mindless piety and naive belief in the pristine sanctity of religious life.


Wake Up: A Life of the Buddha
By Jack Kerouac
Viking, 2008; 146 pp., $24.95 (cloth)

The Dharma Bums
By Jack Kerouac
Viking, 2008; 224 pp., $24.95 (cloth)

In 1954, years before his breakthrough success with On the Road, Jack Kerouac toiled in the obscurity of public libraries, poring over Buddhist writings. The creative result was Wake Up, a Kerouac-styled biography of the historical Buddha. It was published posthumously in serialized form in Tricycle: The Buddhist Journal between 1993 and 1995. Its issue this year, coinciding with the 50th anniversary of Dharma Bums, marks its first publication in book form. If you’re a collector, you can also pick up a commemorative edition of Dharma Bums, Kerouac’s semi-fictional chronicle of his West Coast adventures with poet–naturalist Gary Snyder. The novel provides a loose paper trail of Kerouac’s deep, but ultimately fleeting, interest in Buddhism. Dharma Bums never received the positive critical acclaim of On the Road, and by unhappy circumstance, its publication coincided with a parting of ways for Kerouac and many of his Beat contemporaries.


Why I Came West: A Memoir
By Rick Bass
Houghton Mifflin, 2008; 250 pp., $24 (cloth)

Rick Bass is best known as a top-flight American nature writer, but the one-time oil geologist has also gained a reputation with his neighbors as an environmental activist—a passionate warrior in a long fight to save the wilderness of his chosen home in northern Montana. Bass’ memoir is a paean to the wildness of the Yaak Valley, an ardent defense of activism, and a sad commentary on the inevitable clash between the foot soldiers of development and the ordinary folks (and beasts) who just want to get by. “I never wanted to go to war,” Bass writes, “and the war, I realize, will never end.” Why I Came West is a biography of a place and person, and the opportunities for interactions between the two that should be preserved for the future. But, grasping Bass’ weariness and sense of futility, one is left to worry over the personal cost and outcome of such a fight.