Books in Brief September 2008

Review of books from September 2008.

Andrea McQuillin
1 September 2008

The Majesty of Your Loving: A Couple’s Journey through Alzheimer’s
By Olivia Ames Hoblitzelle
Green Mountain Books, 2008; 314 pp., $16.95 (paper)

For six years, Olivia Ames Hoblitzelle was caretaker for her husband, Hob, as his symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease progressed. But the two, both practitioners of mindfulness meditation, were determined to grow with the illness and to bring awareness and compassion to bear on their difficult circumstances. The Majesty of Your Loving describes a sometimes frustrating and often painful journey that culminates with Hob’s death. It is also a touching yet unsentimental testament to a couple’s commitment to one another, and to finding the most graceful, loving, and amusing ways to “let go.” By offering insights and suggestions based on her experience, Hoblitzelle, a psychologist, gives guidance and therefore hope to those who will have to tread a similar road.


Tibetan Buddhism & Modern Physics: Toward a Union of Love and Knowledge
By Vic Mansfield
Templeton Foundation Press, 2008; 180 pp., $19.95 (paper)

Largely because of the Dalai Lama’s interest in Western science, Buddhists and scientists have been carrying on an active dialogue for several decades, at conferences of the Mind and Life Institute and elsewhere. What is it about Buddhism that attracts these scientists to explore Buddhism? Vic Mansfield, a physicist with a longtime interest in Buddhism, was excited by the parallels he saw between key concepts in Tibetan Buddhism and quantum mechanics. The popular college professor also cared passionately about sharing those correlations with others. Tibetan Buddhism & Modern Physics doesn’t assume knowledge of either system, but takes the reader step by step from basic concepts to more complicated ones, such as the relationship of emptiness/interconnectedness to quantum nonlocality. Mansfield died this spring, not long after an emotional ceremony at Colgate University where he gave the Dalai Lama a newly minted copy of this, his last book.


The Essence of Zen: The Teachings of Sekkei Harada
Translated and edited by Daigaku Rumme
Wisdom Publications, 2008; 164 pp., $15.95 (paper)

Zen discourse has an uncanny ability to jolt you out of self-centeredness, leaving you feeling vaguely unhinged—and deeply relieved at the same time. Harada Roshi’s The Essence of Zen, a collection of introductory talks to Westerners, has this kind of effect. As far as Zen masters go, the abbot of Hosshingji, a small Soto Zen monastery and temple in Obama (sic!) on Japan’s western coast, is by all accounts the genuine article. And as Zen masters are apt to do, Harada Roshi goes straight to the heart of the matter with his plain explication of the principles of Zen, exhortation to practice (rather than just think about) Zen, and critique of “Zen sickness” (the sickness of thinking you’re not sick). It’s a tough love approach to Buddhism that might be our best protection against mutual self-destruction: “Only by awakening to the law of causality,” Harada Roshi says, “is it possible to stop the sufferings and deluding passions of human beings.”


Authenticating Tibet: Answers to China’s 100 Questions
Edited by Anne-Marie Blondeau and Katia Buffetrille
University of California Press, 2008; 364 pp., $24.95 (paper)

Authenticating Tibet illustrates the power of scholarship to respond to misinformation. It’s a targeted reply to 100 Questions about Tibet, a booklet distributed by Chinese embassies worldwide that defends Chinese policy and activity in Tibet. The 1989 booklet was widely dismissed as propaganda, but scholars Anne-Marie Blondeau and Katia Buffetrille decided to use it as a means to challenge official Chinese assertions about Tibet. They assigned fifteen Western subject experts to write clear, concise, and historically accurate answers to the hundred questions. In Authenticating Tibet, you can read each question posed in the original document and the answer given by its Chinese authors, followed by a scholar’s response, complete with references. In this way, the facts—insofar as they are discernable by experts outside the country—are allowed to speak for themselves, and China’s public relations campaign to manage “the Tibet problem” is exposed to scrutiny.


Gandhi: The Man, His People, and the Empire
By Rajmohan Gandhi
University of California Press, 2008; 738 pp., $34.95 (cloth)

Among the many books on the father of modern India, this biography, penned by his grandson Rajmohan, an historian and research professor at the University of Illinois, offers something unique. Drawing on material from the family archives, as well as quotes from his grandfather’s autobiography, columns, and correspondence, the author portrays the changes in thought and attitude that marked Gandhi’s development from a shy student to a bold political and spiritual leader. Because Rajmohan Gandhi is thoroughly familiar with both Mahatmsa Gandhi and his epoch (Rajmohan Gandhi’s other books include biographies of two of the Mahatma’s allies in the independence movement, a study of Indian Muslims, and a broad history of South Asia), this may well turn out to be the definitive work on the beliefs and relationships that formed the core of Mohandas Gandhi.


Buddhism for Busy People: Finding Happiness in an Uncertain World
By David Michie
Snow Lion Publications, 2008; 240 pp., $14.95 (paper)

For those who have been searching for a sincere, accessible introduction to Tibetan Buddhism—specifically, the Lam Rim (gradual path) teachings—this is your book. In Buddhism for Busy People, David Michie, an Australian communications consultant and “non-professional” Buddhist, describes his growing interest in Buddhism and the small steps that resulted in profound changes in his life, Michie employs storytelling and humor without being falsely enthusiastic or superficial. Buddhism is practical and helpful to the busy person, but, unlike other self-help systems, its profound effect on the way you think has deeper implications. “Even if we come to the dharma looking only for a few tools to help make ourselves happier,” says Michie, “we stumble on an altogether different understanding of reality.”


Plant Seed, Pull Weed: Nurturing the Garden of Your Life
By Geri Larkin
HarperOne, 2008; 208 pp., $22.95 (cloth)

Author and Zen priest Geri Larkin has had success in wooing non-Buddhist readers with her wry humor and shrewd observations about contemporary life (see Stumbling Toward Enlightenment and The Chocolate Cake Sutra). In Plant Seed, Pull Weed, Larkin turns her attention to gardening as a contemplative practice and pathway to spiritual growth—and as a window onto life itself. Life as gardening is hardly an original metaphor (most famously employed by Peter Sellers’ Chauncey Gardner in Being There), but Larkin breathes fresh life into it with anecdotes, insights, and enjoyable prose. Drawing on themes from Shantideva’s Way of the Bodhisattva, such as the cultivation of calmness, courage, generosity, patience, and joy, Larkin encourages us to focus on the “small doings” in life that reap great rewards. Her focus on present-moment awareness and being “as wise and compassionate as we can be, right where we are” will resonate with all readers.