The Japanese Zen master Yamada Koun Roshi (1907–89), fearing that Zen was dying out in Japan, held out hope that it might live on as a tradition within the Catholic Church. Yes, you read that right. But why the Catholic Church? Richard Bryan McDaniel’s Catholicism and Zen (Sumeru 2017) traces the connections, looking to early Catholic encounters with Zen and contemporary Catholics invested in Zen practice. One such practitioner is Elaine MacInnes, a Catholic nun who was the first Canadian to receive authorization to teach Zen. She defines Zen practice as “responding to God’s presence at all times, in all circumstances.” He also speaks with Father Kevin Hunt, a Trappist monk who is the primary Zen teacher of the Day Star Sangha in Massachusetts, and whose early attempts at cross-legged sitting got him kicked out of his Trappist community’s main chapel by superiors who thought he was crazy. Thoughtful and perceptive, this book reveals some of the fascinating ways that practitioners have operated with a foot in each tradition.
Kyabje Ling Rinpoche (1903–1983) was a luminary of the Geluk tradition and the senior tutor of the Dalai Lama. In The Life of My Teacher (Wisdom 2017), composed in Tibetan by the Dalai Lama himself and translated by Gavin Kilty, the stories of this figure come brilliantly to life. We learn of his humility, his mastery of the vast Geluk curriculum, and his dramatic experiences escaping Tibet and fostering one of the world’s great spiritual leaders. We also hear of his constant concern for others: when rushing to flee Lhasa, he asked that his beloved dog Dolma be well taken care of, and while escaping with the Dalai Lama over the Himalayas, he made jokes to keep the young leader laughing. We see these qualities today in the Dalai Lama, who refers to Ling Rinpoche as the single greatest influence on his life. Complete with over one hundred archival photos and an introduction by Thupten Jinpa, this book is a landmark record of an extraordinary teacher.
What is the importance of the four jhanas for Buddhist practice? Though commonly described as states of absorption that are neither liberative nor uniquely Buddhist, Keren Arbel argues in Early Buddhist Meditation (Routledge 2017) that they were fundamental components of the early Buddhist path. Through a close examination of Pali source materials, she concludes that the four jhanas represent a progression from ordinary, unwholesome states of mind to a purified state that is “wholesome and free,” prompting her to frame them as the “actualization and embodiment of insight (vipassana).”
What do Pali texts tell us about aging, sickness, and death? In Older and Wiser (Barre 2017), three contemporary teachers—Mu Soeng, Gloria Taraniya Ambrosia, and Andrew Olendzki—look to these ancient sources for guidance. On the topic of mourning, they examine the famous mustard seed story, in which the Buddha tells a mother frantic to revive her son that she must find a mustard seed from a household untouched by death. She fails, of course, and awakens to the universality and inescapability of death. Olendzki, a Theravada scholar, reads this as showing that death seems tragic only from “the narrow perspective of ‘me,’” while a more cultivated understanding of the human condition lets us see it as completing or even perfecting a human life. Mu Soeng, a teacher in the Korean Zen tradition, reads it as evidence that we most fully respect our dead when our grief is restrained rather than dramatic. Finally, Ambrosia, a teacher in the Thai Forest tradition, sees this story as a testament to the importance of suffering on the path: “How deeply must we feel the pain of delusion before releasing our attachment to the world?”
At a time when social justice is at the forefront of so many people’s awareness, José Cabezón brings us The Just King (Snow Lion 2017), a text that draws on centuries of Buddhist writing to formulate a unique vision of the ethical life. Commissioned by an eastern Tibetan prince and written by the famous Tibetan scholar Ju Mipham (1846–1912), it sets high expectations for rulers, declaring that their power is only temporary and insisting that in order to govern, they must be highly educated, ethically cultivated, and tireless in their service to their subjects. Failing this, any “wastrel” of a leader (as Cabezón so compellingly translates Mipham’s word choice) might soon see their powers disappear.
The activist-turned-Buddhist-reformer Taixu (1890–1947) is typically remembered in Chinese history as a modernizer, someone who attempted to strip Buddhism of its mythologies. Yet as Justin Ritzinger argues in his outstanding book Anarchy in the Pure Land (Oxford 2017), Taixu’s vision for Buddhism was hardly secular. He remained focused on ritual, supernatural beings, and the afterlife as he shifted attention away from Amitabha, the Buddha of the Pure Land, to Maitreya, the Buddha of the future. His pursuit of a better society through activism evolved into a belief in the gradual perfection of the world and the coming of Maitreya, producing a unique vision of modernity for Chinese Buddhists of his era.
Despite the predominance of male figures in Chinese Buddhist history, not all Chan masters were men. In fact, a remarkable verse commentary on a collection of classic koans was written by Miaozong, a twelfth-century nun. Some five centuries later, two more nuns—Baochi and Zukui—wrote commentaries on these same koans. In Beata Grant’s Zen Echoes (Wisdom 2017), we find the poetry of all three women in translation, complete with the original Chinese. These poems are profound and sometimes profane—responding to the famous koan When Linji saw a monk enter the gates, he shouted, Zukui writes: “This single shout of Linji’s—what a piece of shit it is!”