Buddhadharma on Books: Spring 2024

Constance Kassor reviews “The Sound of Vulture’s Wings” by Jeffrey W. Cupchik, “The Kalachakra Mandala” by Edward Henning, “Xuedou’s 100 Odes to Old Cases” by Steven Heine, and more.

By Constance Kassor

Photo by cottonbro studio.

The Chöd Tradition developed by the female Tibetan adept Machik Labdrön in the eleventh and twelfth centuries is a practice aimed at cutting (chod) one’s attachment to the idea of a self through ritualized meditative practices that involve specific musical elements. While the historiography, translation, and hagiography of Chöd practice has received a fair amount of attention from Western scholars, its musical and performative aspects have not been studied to the same degree. The Sound of Vultures’ Wings: The Tibetan Buddhist Chöd Ritual Practice of the Female Buddha Machik Labdrön (SUNY), by Jeffrey W. Cupchik, fills this gap by examining Chöd through the lens of ethnomusicology. In researching this volume, Cupchik apprenticed with recognized Chöd masters in order to better understand the functions of music in the practice. The resulting findings suggest that this ritual music was not composed in spontaneous moments of masters’ realizations as previously believed, but in ways that would enhance the meditative experience of practitioners. 

Like Chöd, practices related to the Kalachakra tantra have made their way to wider audiences. The Dalai Lama now gives Kalachakra initiations to tens of thousands of devotees every few years, and it has become one of the more well-known tantric traditions among Tibetan Buddhists and others. An important component of Kalachakra practice is the Kalachakra Mandala, which is the focus of Edward Henning’s The Kalachakra Mandala: The Jonang Tradition (Wisdom). This book offers a meticulously detailed account of the context, symbolism, and iconography of the Kalachakra mandala according to the Jonang tradition of Tibetan Buddhism. The book contains diagrams, charts, and images of the Kalachakra mandala in two and three dimensions, and describes the theories, systems, and meditations that inform its construction. Henning’s is one of the most comprehensive overviews of the Kalachakra mandala available, of interest to dedicated practitioners and appreciators of Buddhist art alike.

Of course, Tibetan Buddhism involves more than esoteric tantric practices. In the nineteenth century, the Tibetan master Jamgön Kongtrul Lodrö Thayé compiled and composed five massive collections of texts in an effort to preserve the teachings of all of the main practice traditions of Tibetan Buddhism. One of these collections, called the Treasury of Precious Instructions, is an eighteen-volume compendium of empowerments, teachings, and practices from various Tibetan Buddhist lineages. The third volume, translated into English by Artemus B. Engle as Kadam: Stages of the Path, Mind Training, and Esoteric Practice: Part One (Shambhala), is the first of two volumes in this compendium that focuses on the Kadam school, which traces its origins back to the Indian master Atisha. The translation of Kongtrul’s compendium is a massive undertaking: this volume alone is over one thousand pages long and includes eighteen different texts by Atisha and other Kadampa masters. Ten works within are associated with Atisha’s well-known text, Lamp for the Path to Enlightenment, while others are associated with the set of practice instructions known as Mind Training. Despite its length, the translations are exceptionally clear and are edited in ways that will help readers in their understanding. In his English translations, Engle has helpfully included the relevant verses of the root text into the passages where they are being explained, and he identifies key words and phrases from the root text that occur in the commentaries themselves. This, combined with extensive notes, makes what might otherwise be a difficult and dense collection of texts readable and accessible. 

Between the eighth and tenth centuries in China, Buddhist monastic writers blended literary and religious traditions by writing poems infused with Buddhist practices and ideas. These “poet-monks,” as they came to be called, were initially disparaged by the Chinese literati. Their poetry was derided as unsophisticated, described as having the “stench of vegetables and bamboo shoots.” Still, these poet-monks persisted, understanding themselves as advocates for the inherent harmony between poetry and Buddhism. In Poet-Monks: The Invention of Buddhist Poetry in Late Medieval China (Cornell), Thomas J. Mazanec shows that despite their marginalized status, these writers were actually “the inventors of Chinese Buddhist poetry for their time.” Mazanec presents a history and analysis of the poet-monk tradition around the fall of the Tang Dynasty, focusing in particular on two monks: Guanxiu and Qiji. In addition to analyzing individual poems for their literary and religious content, Mazanec also utilizes digital resources to analyze broader trends in Chinese Buddhist poetry more broadly. The result is an engaging, sophisticated presentation and analysis of an important period in the development of Chinese Buddhist history. 

The tradition of Buddhist poetry in China continued to evolve after the poet-monks of the late Tang dynasty. In the Northern Song dynasty, the tenth- and eleventh-century Chan master Xuedou composed one hundred verse commentaries on select gong’an (Japanese: koan) cases. This collection of verses was eventually incorporated into the Blue Cliff Record, but, as Steven Heine argues in Xuedou’s 100 Odes to Old Cases: A Translation with Commentary (Oxford), it is an autonomous text that deserves careful study. This book contains the first complete translation of Xuedou’s Odes, situating his work in terms of its broader religious and literary contexts. Alongside the translation of each of Xuedou’s odes, Heine includes a critical summary of the gong’an case considered and an explanation of the Odes’ religious symbolism and broader context.

We conclude with two books that offer fresh takes on well-known classic Buddhist literature, each of which can serve as an accessible introduction to newcomers, as well as helpful framing and contextualizing for more advanced readers. The first of these is Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi’s Noble Truths, Noble Path: The Heart Essence of the Buddha’s Original Teachings (Wisdom). This volume developed out of one of his previous books, Reading the Buddha’s Discourses in Pāli, compiled for his students in a three-year language course. Several students suggested that he compile his translations of sutras in that book without their linguistic explanations, in order to benefit a wider audience. Noble Truths, Noble Path is a compilation of works from the Samyutta Nikya, arranged into six different categories that “take us straight to the heart of the Buddha’s teaching, summed up in two interrelated structures: the four noble truths and the noble eightfold path.” Each section of the translated sutras is prefaced by a substantial introduction, which serves to orient readers to key components of Buddhist doctrine and training.

In the Madhyamaka tradition of Mahayana Buddhism, Candrakirti’s important seventh-century work Introduction to the Middle Way has achieved semicanonical status. This is an incredibly dense and occasionally cryptic work, and it requires a commentary in order to be understood in any detail. Many such commentaries have been written, both by Candrakirti himself and by later Tibetan scholars. But Jan Westerhoff has made an important contribution to this commentarial tradition in Candrakīrti’s Introduction to the Middle Way: A Guide (Oxford). This commentary, like its Indian and Tibetan predecessors, is intended to be read alongside Candrakirti’s root verses. It follows the structure of Candrakirti’s writing, carefully explaining and contextualizing each verse. Westerhoff acknowledges that his own commentary is limited, focusing primarily on the philosophical aspects of the Introduction to the Middle Way, but this focus makes the commentary readable and understandable, even to readers without much prior knowledge of Buddhist philosophy or Madhyamaka

Constance Kassor

Constance Kassor

Constance Kassor Ph.D. is an assistant professor of Religious Studies at Lawrence University in Appleton, Wisconsin, where she teaches courses on Buddhist thought and Asian religious traditions, with a special interest in how Buddhism relates to questions of social justice and gender. She is the creator and voice of Religious Lessons from Asia to the World, a ten-part program on Audible. For more information visit constancekassor.net