Buddhadharma Book Briefs for Fall 2022

Joie Szu-Chiao Chen reviews Lauren Shufran’s “The Buddha and the Bard: Where Shakespeare’s Stage Meets Buddhist Scriptures,” Rachael Stevens’ “Red Tara: The Female Buddha of Power and Magnetism,” a new translation of Dogen’s Zuimonki, and more.

By Joie Szu-Chiao Chen

Photo by Fang-Wei Lin

What does Shakespeare have in common with the Buddha? Out of this seemingly flippant comparison comes The Buddha and the Bard: Where Shakespeare’s Stage Meets Buddhist Scriptures (Mandala Publishing), an intelligent and engaging book by Lauren Shufran. Shufran, who holds a doctorate in literature, wields this juxtaposition as a heuristic tool, using it to demonstrate how reading “Shakespeare toward Buddha” can illumine the Buddha’s teachings in surprising and often poignant ways. Each chapter begins with a quote from a play and becomes part Shakespearean masterclass—lessons in how to read with nuance—and part Buddhism seminar, lessons in the fundamental truths of existence. The book’s central thesis is that Shakespeare’s incisive talent for dramatizing the human condition is a perfect foil for understanding the Buddha’s teachings on transcending our existential quandaries. One of the lessons we might glean from this type of reading, where we “[t]ouch Shakespeare to Siddhartha over and over again,” is to realize that this “embodied drama we’re living is only part of the truth,” that we are “infinitely more spacious than the phenomena we experience in these bodies, with their small stories and their changing emotions.”

“But I’m so small,” bemoans Lumi, the tiny protagonist of writer–illustrator Molly Coxe’s latest storybook Lumi: Adventures in Kindness (Wisdom). And who, after seeing the images of faraway galaxies pinged back to us by the Webb telescope, could argue with her? Even so, Lumi quickly learns through the help of a friend that every being is capable of kindness and service, regardless of size. This spectacular children’s book, with its utterly unique visuals composited using photography, digital illustration, and collaging techniques, offers page after page of luminous and iridescent images that radiate with a sense of joyful adventure. Whimsical and wise, it is a resplendent feast for the eyes that will delight young readers and adults alike, all while teaching important life lessons. As Lumi would say, “Emaho! Isn’t it wonderful!”

“All the buddhas and ancestors were originally ordinary people…. We should not disparage ourselves, thinking we are foolish or dull-witted.” This is one of many exhortations spoken by Japanese Zen patriarch Dogen (1200–1253) and recorded by his chief disciple Ejo in a seminal compendium of informal teachings, newly translated into English by contemporary Zen master Shohaku Okumura under the title Dogen’s Shobogenzo Zuimonki: The New Annotated Translation (Wisdom). In this bilingual edition that presents the English alongside the Japanese, Dogen’s pithy teachings come alive in all of their directness, revealing a teacher who was both strict and encouraging, who commended discipline yet also advised flexibility. Welcome features of this volume include biographies of Dogen and Ejo, an account of the textual history of the Zuimonki, and a collection of Dogen’s poems with insightful commentary by Okumura. The poems show us an even more complex side to Dogen, for though he understood that words could not be depended upon, he never ceased to use poetry as a means of expressing his experiences: “Because the Dharma is / beyond the words I spoke / it leaves no trace / in my brushstrokes.”

The idea that the truth is ineffable finds its most (in)famous expression in the Mahayana sutra featuring the layman Vimalakirti; when asked by the bodhisattva Manjushri to explain nonduality, Vimalakirti chooses to remain silent. This text, with its inspired presentation of the Mahayana ethos, is often looked to as a Great Vehicle sutra par excellence. Fortunately for us, a momentous new translation has just been published as Vimalakirtinirdesa: The Teaching of Vimalakirti (Mangalam Press), translated by the late Luis Gomez and Paul Harrison, with contributions from the Mangalam Translation Group. For the first time ever, we have a complete English translation from a Sanskrit original—previous translations were made from classical Chinese or Tibetan, which are themselves translations from Sanskrit—that was considered lost until a manuscript surfaced in 1999 at the Potala Palace in Lhasa. Over a decade in the making, this meticulous translation by esteemed scholars is idiomatic and lively in its English renderings. It is a work of immense scholarship that bears the indelible traces of what Harrison describes as “the alchemy of scholarly collaboration,” yet it makes no claims to definitiveness. As Harrison puts it, Vimalakirti “is one tough customer, and translating him is no less daunting than visiting him to inquire after his health. And just as he always has the last word, our translation will certainly not be all there is to say.”

If the Mahayana asserts that words ultimately do no justice to reality, then the Vajrayana takes this predicament and leans into it. Rather than jettison words, it employs symbolic language and elaborate rituals to draw attention to its own rhetorical devices, thereby offering “an opportunity to recognize our attachment to linguistic constructions of the real.” Georgios T. Halkias and Christina Partsalaki examine how this functions in The Copper-Colored Mountain: Jigme Lingpa on Rebirth in Padmasambhava’s Pure Land (Snow Lion), a volume that is ostensibly a translation and commentary on an eighteenth-century treasure text, but in fact revels in the larger questions of context. What does a “pure land” mean for followers of the Diamond Vehicle? What literal and figurative vision does Jigme Lingpa’s prayer aspire to achieve? What can this prayer tell us about the interface of text and practice? The authors are sensitive in their reading of the verses, balancing a scholarly perspective with an interpretative angle that explicates the significance of each stanza for contemplative practice.

Tara is widely known in her white or green forms as a peaceful goddess who rescues and protects, but several of her twenty-one manifestations are red and semi-wrathful in countenance. Little has been written about these red-colored forms, a lacuna that Rachael Stevens fills in Red Tara: The Female Buddha of Power and Magnetism (Snow Lion). The volume provides an overview of the history and mythology of Tara as a Buddhist deity before delving into the specificities of her fiercer incarnations. The red Taras represent magnetizing and subjugating forces that are as essential to practitioners as pacifying ones, for they serve to attract both worldly and transcendent elements that a practitioner requires on the path. Stevens explains the various ways in which Tara’s strong power of attraction—her “magical aspect”—in her red forms works to subjugate obstructing forces on the path to enlightenment. This is Tara as not just savior, but also trailblazer.

Mingyur Peldron (1699–1769) was an unusual woman for her time. The daughter of the famous treasure revealer Terdak Lingpa who founded the prestigious Mindrolling Monastery, she lived as a celibate nun and received opportunities for religious education that were not afforded to her sisters, eventually becoming a Great Perfection specialist. The Tibetan Nun Mingyur Peldron: A Woman of Power and Privilege (University of Washington) by Alison Melnick Dyer maps out the complex matrix of privilege and disadvantage that Mingyur Peldron embodied as a woman born into a prominent family but who nonetheless had to navigate a singular path for herself amid changing circumstances and difficulties. She becomes a leader in her religious community, carving out a space in which she relied on her knowledge rather than familial connections to gain widespread respect.

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.