Buddhadharma on Books: Summer 2023

Joie Szu-Chiao Chen reviews eight new books for the Summer 2023 issue of Buddhadharma.

Joie Szu-Chiao Chen
12 June 2023
Photo by Asal Lotfi.

For the analytically minded who appreciate a systematic presentation of ideas, the Science and Philosophy in the Indian Buddhist Classics series (Wisdom), conceived by the Dalai Lama, compiled by a team of monastic scholars, and edited by Thupten Jinpa, is a useful collection of Buddhist primary sources. The latest volume in the series, entitled Volume 4: Philosophical Topics, translated by Dechen Rochard, meticulously covers major topics in Buddhist philosophy: the two truths, no-self, emptiness, epistemology, and the philosophy of language. These topics are explained in a direct and authoritative voice that moves with the clear progression of logic often found in traditional Tibetan commentaries. Replete with cited passages from Indian sources by the heavy hitters of Buddhist philosophy such as Nagarjuna, Candrakirti, Vasubandhu, and Dignaga, this edited compilation will appeal to those who prefer a straightforward approach to philosophy.

Can poetry, that most elusive of literary art forms, be the conveyor of enlightened experience? The ancient Chinese poets certainly seemed to have thought so, as does renowned translator of Chinese poetry Red Pine (Bill Porter), who once called language “our greatest collective lie” and poetry “our attempt to undo that deception.” For decades, Red Pine has breathed new life into some of the most profound yet humble poetic expressions of realization, many of which have been collected together in the anthology Dancing with the Dead: the Essential Red Pine Translations (Copper Canyon). Whether translating Puming’s verses on the oxherd taming the ox—a quintessential Zen metaphor of taming the mind through meditation—or the vernacular poetry of the enigmatic Buddhist hermit Cold Mountain, it is the utter simplicity of Red Pine’s translations that is most alluring. He renders the evocative essence of the Chinese into English with confident economy; there are no extra words or punctuation, nor is there want of more. Lovers of poetry as art and believers of poetry as a conduit to rarified experiences will find no shortage of pleasure or insight here.

According to the Dzogchen teachings of the Tibetan Nyingma School, the innate nature of every being is wisdom itself—pure, luminous, complete. Ironically, being so close to this awakened mind means that such proximity obscures our ability to perceive it. In Being Human and a Buddha Too: Longchenpa’s Sevenfold Mind Training for a Sunlit Sky (Wisdom), Anne Klein calls this obliviousness to our true nature the state of being “backlit by completeness.” Dzogchen, which Klein translates as the “Great Completeness” rather than the more conventional “Great Perfection,” is aimed at helping us step back into the sunlight of complete awareness. This book is the fruit of Klein’s own extensive experience with the practice and is rooted in a sensitive analysis of the works of the great Longchenpa (1308–64), a commentary by the visionary Jigme Linga (1730–98), andas well as the oral teachings of the contemporary master Adzom Paylo Rinpoche (1971–). Klein’s lyrical style as well as her manifest intelligence invites the reader into an understanding of awakening as a real possibility for real humans. Awakening, after all, “is not something to take someone else’s word for,” she says. Nothing short of seeing the sunrise for yourself will do.

The force of addiction, whether to substances or non virtuous habits, is suffocating and all-consuming. Yet freedom is possible, and Laura Burges provides one such aspirational account in The Zen Way of Recovery: An Illuminated Path out of the Darkness of Addiction (Shambhala). Using her personal struggle with alcoholism as a starting point, Burges examines the complexity of addiction and the insufficiency of a singular approach for uprooting the disease. In her own experience, Zen practice alone was not enough to cure her addiction without the additional support of recovery programs. What Zen did teach her is that the key to recovery is not merely keeping the addiction at bay, but finding lasting freedom in daily, ordinary choice. Through practice and reflection, an addict learns that limitations are the grounds for freedom. Sitting meditation thus becomes a restriction whose result is liberation: the simple choice to stay still is an adamant refusal to engage with our normal scope of destructive activities. “We might have seen addiction as freedom and sobriety as a limitation,” she opines, “but each of us finally came to a fork in the road and had to choose between the limitation of addiction and the freedom of recovery.” By recommitting to the path of recovery again and again, and knowing that no one travels the road alone, the “alchemy of recovery” finally works its contagious magic.

One look at the internet is enough to prove that our world is addicted to material things. Into the Mirror: A Buddhist Journey through Mind, Matter, and the Nature of Reality (Shambhala) by Andy Karr addresses this rampant materialism. By pointing out the reductiveness of seeing reality as merely what is physical and of assuming that the mind is just the functioning of the brain, his challenge is not against science, but rather the materialist foundation upon which the sciences are built. For example, while most scientists and philosophers see the mind-body conundrum as a problem of explaining how consciousness arises from physical matter, Karr wonders why the question is not, instead, how it is that consciousness assigns solidity and permanence to physical matter that is in fact impermanent. This book is a clever companion for navigating the age of materialism without losing sight of deeper truths.

Jodo Shinshu, or Shin Buddhism, the offshoot of Pure Land Buddhism founded by the thirteenth-century Japanese master Shinran (1173–1263), is the largest Buddhist school in Japan today and perhaps America, too. With such an immense following, it is easy to forget just how radical Shinran’s views were for his time. In Living Nembutsu: Applying Shinran’s Radically Engaged Buddhism in Life and Society (Sumeru), Jeff Wilson reminds us of his radical departure from mainstream ideas and how this radicalness might help us live socially engaged lives that protect the environment, the rights of those different from ourselves, and more. Shinran himself lived a life of persecution, and his story offers us a way to think about how deeply felt experiences can lead us into solidarity with others. When Shinran claimed that the practice of reciting the name of the Buddha Amitabha is an act of embracing all beings and “the response to our initial awakening,” he was pointing to the worthiness of all beings. When he said that the good and the evil are equally saved, he was espousing a compassion that knows no bounds. In Wilson’s reading, Shinran’s teachings exhibit a relinquishment of the desire for respectability, embracing instead the true possibility of change within ourselves and society.

Thinking in discrete categories helps us make sense of the world, but doing so can also lead us to overlook deep interconnections. In Esoteric Pure Land Buddhism (Hawai’i) by Aaron Proffitt, the author combines two terms that are usually considered distinct—“Esoteric” and “Pure Land”—to show that both traditions as we know them today in Japan were incubated in the same historical and intellectual context. Their disambiguation did not happen until much later, and much of the reification happened in modernity. By focusing on a thirteenth-century Japanese monk named Dohan, who was affiliated with the institutions that later became what we now call the esoteric Shingon School, Proffitt shows us that even someone like Dohan did not eschew Pure Land practices. Quite to the contrary, we see that he relied on both esoteric rituals and Pure Land practices such as nembutsu and aspiring for rebirth in Amitabha’s pure land. With scholarly acumen, Proffitt shows that Esoteric Buddhism and Pure Land Buddhism were not mutually exclusive categories, but rather elements existing in the same cultural sphere, each influencing and shaping the other. Dohan could be devoted to both Kukai, the father of Esoteric Buddhism in Japan, as well as the Buddha Amitabha, the supreme refuge of Pure Land prayers. If the lines between even Esoteric Buddhism and Pure Land Buddhism “are not as sharply etched as some modern scholarship holds,” then what else are we overstating with our dualistic minds, seeing differences rather than the shared ground?

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.