Buddhadharma Book Briefs for Spring 2023

Joie Szu-Chiao Chen reviews “The Two Truths in Indian Buddhism,” “Buddhist Ecological Protection of Space,” “Forgiveness: An Alternative Account,” and more. 

Joie Szu-Chiao Chen
16 March 2023
Photo by Ioann-Mark Kuznietsov.

Buddhism’s fundamental concern is freeing beings from the delusions that are the causes of suffering. One method that is often used to do this is distinguishing two truths, or two realities: the relative truth of how things appear conventionally, and the ultimate truth of how things really are, beyond the bounds of conceptual and linguistic conventions. In The Two Truths in Indian Buddhism: Reality, Knowledge, and Freedom (Wisdom)—a volume that will be relished by the philosophically minded—Sonam Thakchoe systematically surveys the various ways these realities are presented by preeminent Indian philosophers of the first millennium. From Vasubandhu to Dharmakirti, from Nagarjuna to Candrakirti, Thakchoe deftly elucidates the diversity, nuance, and innovations of their philosophical stances on what, if anything, exists and how it can be known to exist. Thakchoe concludes that careful investigation reveals that the conventional and the ultimate are two aspects of a single reality.

If the act of taking a vow to not kill can seem perfunctory or merely ceremonial for most of us, Nancy Mujo Baker insists otherwise in Opening to Oneness: A Practical & Philosophical Guide to the Zen Precepts (Shambhala). Baker’s fresh take on the ten bodhisattva precepts argues for their universal relevance—in other words, a precept such as non-killing does not apply only to, say, serial killers. By casting the metaphorical web wider, Baker exposes how we are all in fact intimately familiar with what it means to kill, lie, steal, be miserly, and so forth, in ways big and small. When we “look deeply into the ways we fail to live up to what each precept asks of us,” this radical honesty removes the barriers that keep us from manifesting the meaning of the precepts in our lives. For Baker, the precepts are not simply a code of ethical conduct, but “expressions of enlightened reality” through which we can realize Zen patriarch Dogen’s exhortation to “have all of life be practice.”

Does any act pose more of a challenge to human beings than the act of forgiving a grievous wrong? Most religions cast forgiveness as a moral good, but as a concept it remains one of the most difficult to achieve and believe. Christian theologian–scholar Matthew Ichihashi Potts reckons that the seeming incredibility of true forgiveness is a result of the overly grandiose and unduly idealistic vestments in which we have clothed it. Forgiveness: An Alternative Account (Yale) is Potts’ defense of the possibility of forgiveness as a lived reality, one in which forgiveness does not demand forgetfulness or reconciliation, nor promise miraculous healing. It only asks of the injured a commitment to refrain from vengeance in the process of grieving an unrecoverable loss, a resolution to cultivate a “habit of non-retaliation.” Potts opines that “forgiveness trucks in much messier and more miserable stuff” than we usually allow for, but though it may be “difficult and trying and painful and unending…
it can be real perhaps, and holy sometimes too.” Broad in its philosophical sweep and fine in its literary analysis, this work redefines forgiveness as the modest yet heroic ability to hold pain and anger together with hope and nonviolence—and so will offer ample value to Buddhist readers.

As space travel and planetary exploration become more reality than science-fiction pipe dream, discussion on the moral obligations we owe to other planets and even lifeforms will soon be unavoidable. Buddhist Ecological Protection of Space: A Guide for Sustainable Off-Earth Travel (Lexington) by Daniel Capper serves as a starting point for this conversation. Capper believes that Buddhism offers a practical framework for developing a “space ethics,” in part because Buddhism already gives attention to treatment of nonhuman life forms as well as nonliving entities. In one unusual but compelling comparison, he explains how dry rock gardens found at Japanese Zen temples might be an apt place for us to start practicing seeing lifeless landscapes as “gorgeous, magnificent, and valuable in their own rights.”

Religion as lived on the ground is not purely adherence to doctrinal beliefs or scriptural orthodoxies. Rather, lived religion is tradition that is continually reinvented and reinvigorated by the daily practices of the devout. This point is key to Living Theravada: Demystifying the People, Places, and Practices of a Buddhism Tradition (Shambhala) by Brooke Schedneck, a book that seeks to represent the cultural vibrancy of Buddhism across Southeast Asian countries. Eschewing the parochial view that “popular Buddhism” is necessarily less meritorious than its more literate cousin of “elite Buddhism,” Schedneck sees much virtue in the popular practices that have evolved in local communities. From praying for wealth to sacred tattoos consecrated by monks, the lived realities of Theravada Buddhism today are rich and lively. After all, allowing for tangible goals such as protection and health as well as ultimate goals like enlightenment “is what makes this lived religion extend out to everyone.”

Conjuring the Buddha: Ritual Manuals in Early Tantric Buddhism (Columbia) by Jacob P. Dalton tells the story of early tantric Buddhism through the extra-canonical genre of ritual manuals. These Tibetan ritual texts discovered in the Dunhuang Library Cave, mostly “scrappy local compositions,” are fascinating windows into tantric Buddhism before formal codification. As Dalton puts it, they are, in a way, “the DNA of the early tantric Buddhism, the quickly mutating substance that shaped the larger canonical tradition.” Being more quotidian artifacts of religious practice that were “cobbled together, scrawled, and altered by community priests exercising interests specific to their own time and place,” these manuals served as unique spaces for ritual innovations to take place, innovations that would go on to have a significant impact on the imaginative and meditative scope of tantric Buddhism.

Noble Truths, Noble Path: The Heart Essence of the Buddha’s Original Teachings (Wisdom)—compiled, introduced, and translated by Bhikkhu Bodhi—is a succinct and accessible collection of primary sources. Bhikkhu Bodhi, has translated from the Samyutta Nikaya section of the Pali Canon, choosing suttas for what they illuminate about the Four Noble Truths or the Noble Eightfold Path. While not intended to be comprehensive, the anthology’s texts “illuminate the Buddha’s radical diagnosis of the human condition” as they relate to the Buddha’s earliest teachings. Introductions at the beginning of each chapter provide context to the translations and explanations of key concepts, making this book a useful treasury for the practitioner to have on hand.

Joie Szu-Chiao Chen

Joie Szu-Chiao Chen is a PhD candidate in Buddhist Studies (Study of Religion) at Harvard University, where her research interests include pre-modern Tibetan religious life writing, institutional history, travel literature, and Buddhist art. She is the Chinese communications coordinator for 84000: Translating the Words of the Buddha.