Buddhadharma on Books: Fall 2023

Joie Szu-Chiao Chen reviews seven new books for the Fall 2023 issue of Buddhadharma.

By Joie Szu-Chiao Chen

Photo by Engin Akyurt

In 1959, Shunrya Suzuki arrived in San Francisco and the religious landscape of America was forever changed. Among Suzuki’s earliest students was the late Mel Weitsman, who became a beloved and esteemed Zen teacher in his own right. Seeing One Thing Through: The Zen Life and Teachings of Sojun Mel Weitsman (Counterpoint),
a posthumous collection of autobiographical writings and lectures edited by Hozan Alan Senauke, conveys the profound enchantment of those earlier days of Zen in America, as well as the remarkable wisdom of a humble life of practice. Weitsman’s remembrances are full of charm and told without pretension, and his teachings, too, are without frills, going straight to the point and to the heart. When asked about commitment, he answered: “In zazen, it means that you don’t move from your position. In your daily life, it means that you don’t move from your intentions.”

If sitting in zazen is liberation through stillness, then koans might be characterized as verbal devices that catalyze nonverbal breakthroughs. A Fire Runs Through All Things: Zen Koans for Facing the Climate Crisis (Shambhala) by Susan Murphy considers what happens when we meet catastrophic challenges with a koan-like mindset, in which a crisis is “accepted as a question with the force to overturn the thinking that created it.” When this happens, a crisis becomes an opportunity to break out of our habitual tendencies, a chance to cultivate the “not-knowing mind” of enlightenment. Murphy’s prose, gorgeous and fluid, burns with the urgency of a love letter to Mother Earth and the passion of a rallying cry to care for her. She constantly reaches inward to Zen and outward to indigenous wisdom to contemplate our plight and illuminate our innate goodness, showing that engagement with a crisis can be serious yet exuberant, grounded yet imaginative.

The mind left to its own devices, without mindful awareness, is often likened to a stormy sea. Weather Any Storm (Bala Kids), a storybook written by Vanessa Zuisei Goddard and illustrated by Paddy Donnelly, takes this potent metaphor and sails to its figurative depths. Goddard’s sing-song voice crackles with warmth as she guides the reader through the torrential uproar of emotional ups and downs, while Donnelly’s illustrations, in turns buoyant and serene, show the reader the magical calmness of the ocean’s depths. While the forces that threaten mental stability are personified as “Billies,” colorful Seussian creatures who wreak havoc by feeding on mental agitation, Goddard demonstrates that they are no match at all for stillness and quiet. Meditation instructions are given as kindly whispered secrets. Parents hoping to help their child “tame the Billies” will appreciate the clarity and joyfulness that the story and images provide.

Contrary to other Indian religions, Buddhism famously denies the existence of self (atman). Much philosophical ink, both in centuries past as well as today, has been spilt in establishing and defending this position. But why has it been so important to Buddhist philosophers to maintain this view, and why should we care whether we believe one way or the other? As we go about our daily lives, does it really matter whether we think we have a permanently existing self or not? In Losing Ourselves: Learning to Live Without a Self (Princeton), Jay Garfield argues that it does matter on a practical and ethical level. Why? Because believing in a self is just plain wrong and, more importantly, because it is detrimental to the way we behave in the world—in other words, it is not a “harmless illusion.” Clear, methodical, and engaging in his presentation, Garfield is invested in showing that the illusion of self makes us fundamentally misunderstand our place in the world and our relation­ship to it, negatively impacting how well we are able to live. This may be just the book we have been waiting for to give to interested but skeptical friends for whom “no-self,” so seemingly counterintuitive and absurd, is the last hurdle to fully engaging with Buddhism.

Bhikkhu Anālayo could not have chosen a trickier subject to tackle than his new work, The Signless and the Deathless: On the Realization of Nirvana (Wisdom). With the aim of closely investigating the experiential aspect of nirvana as taught in the early scriptures, he anchors his expert analysis around two adjectives that are closely associated with nirvana: signless (animitta) and deathless (amata/amrta). Much of his attention is dedicated to unpacking the issue of “signs” and how they function to kick our ordinary perception of the world into gear. Anālayo points out that signs—the markers by which we can recognize things in the world—are not innocuous but are in fact “responsible for the type of associations and evaluations that usually come intertwined with the perceptual process.” These conceptual entanglements stand in the way of enlightenment, and thus necessitate specific meditative practices to counteract their insidious power. Meditative practices such as “nonattention” (amanasikara) counter “the tendency of the mind to get carried away by signs” and thus help the practitioner reach a state in which nirvana is merely a radically different way of paying attention and perceiving. Ultimately, Anālayo opines, nirvana is “deathlessness” for the practitioner even before the moment of death because it transcends all signs, being “completely other than anything else imaginable.”

The practices of King Gesar of Ling may seem like local deity worship with a distinctly Tibetan flavor, but for some he represents none other than the very essence of the Vajrayana. Gesar: Tantric Practices of the Tibetan Warrior King (Shambhala), translated and edited by Gyurme Avertin, collects together for the first time the Gesar practices and supplications written by the eminent nineteenth-century master Jamgön Mipham. Helpful introductory essays by Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche and Orgyen Tobgyal Rinpoche elucidate the tantric significance of Gesar practice. As Trungpa explains, he stands for the principle of warriorship, where being a warrior means “realizing the power, dignity, and wakefulness that is inherent in all of us as human beings.” It should be noted that the practices contained within this volume are only intended to be undertaken by those who have received the proper initiations.

Buddhism came into being within the structures of patriarchy and is in many ways implicated within it. In recent years, scholars have applied feminist lenses of critique to Buddhist materials to highlight the women who have been instrumental to Buddhism and have thus made significant contributions in providing a more balanced view of Buddhist history and societies. However, this does not erase the fact that masculinity and its ideas of hegemonic power have always been an important element of Buddhist culture, beginning with the representation of the Buddha himself as a paragon of man. Scholars have thus found it useful and fruitful to engage in a new project entitled Buddhist Masculinities (Columbia), edited by Megan Bryson and Kevin Buckelew, that attempts to understand the ways in which ideas of masculinity have played out in Buddhist thought and practice. They do so not to give men more of the spotlight than they already have but to “reveal how masculinities are constructed and contingent, rather than natural and inevitable.” In a series of fascinating essays that range from examinations of the masculine violence of seminal Buddhist figures such as Padma­sambhava, to the interplay between royal and ascetic masculinities in Prince Siddhartha’s life, to the gender fluidity of the popular representation of Xuanzang, scholars contend with how Buddhists have negotiated with masculine ideals and the effect that this has had on Buddhist culture.

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.