Collage image of recent buddhist books, featured in Buddhadharma Summer 2024 issue.

Buddhadharma on Books: Summer 2024

Constance Kassor reviews the latest in Buddhist books, including The Jhanas, Buddhism Between Religion and Philosophy, and more.

By Constance Kassor

The sanskrit term dhyana is translated as “meditation.” As Buddhism has spread across Asia, different communities have come to interpret dhyana practices in various ways. Theravada Buddhists, for example, understand dhyana—translated into the Pali language as jhana—as a fundamental aspect of right concentration on the noble eightfold path: when the jhanas are practiced sequentially, they can transform the mind, and eventually lead to awakening. Shaila Catherine skillfully unpacks and explains this process in The Jhānas: A Practical Guide to Deep Meditative States (Wisdom). Catherine describes the jhanas as “states of happiness that can radically transform the heart, reshape the mind, imbue consciousness with enduring joy and ease, and provide an inner resource of tranquility that surpasses any conceivable sensory pleasure.” The Jhānas, previously published in 2008 as Focused and Fearless, guides readers through the eight levels of meditative absorption that constitute jhana practice, and offers exercises and reflections for readers to try on their own. These exercises are spaced throughout the book, and range from more traditional practices such as counting the breath to more imaginative practices such as imagining your thoughts like baseballs that you catch and then throw back. Catherine renders complex theories easy to understand, making this book suitable for those who are new to jhana practice, as well as those with some experience who are looking to deepen their understanding. 

As Buddhism made its way into China, the term dhyana became transliterated as chan. (Later, in Japan, it would be pronounced zen.) And while Chan Buddhism also involves meditative practices that transform the mind and lead to awakening, these practices are taught differently than the jhana practices of Theravada Buddhism. David Hinton’s translation of the classic Chinese text known as The Blue-Cliff Record (Shambhala) encapsulates Chan teachings on meditation. The text’s multiple kung-an (koan in Japanese) are cases for a practitioner to consider deeply in meditation. Each case is followed by a gatha—a poetic commentary that adds another layer of meaning. In his translation, Hinton asks readers to consider these cases as something more than cryptic poetry. They are, he argues, “masterpieces of classical Chinese literature, carefully constructed literary/philosophical texts” designed to induce a state of awakening in those who contemplate them. Hinton’s translation is followed by a list of key Chan terms with detailed explanations of their meanings, a glossary of more general Buddhist terms, and an index of important names and references to other Chinese texts that present similar cases. 

Buddhist meditative practices continued to change as they spread into different communities, cultures, and contexts. In some Tibetan traditions, a practice known as Dzogchen (“Great Perfection”) grew in popularity. Dzogchen is almost always studied under the guidance of a qualified master, and teachings called shaldam are personal spiritual instructions given directly by a teacher to an individual student. Christina Monson translates a collection of shaldam composed by the great female teacher Sera Khandro Dewai Dorje in A Dakini’s Counsel: Sera Khandro’s Spiritual Advice and Dzogchen Instructions (Shambhala). Dewai Dorje (the name she most frequently used for herself) composed her shaldam for disciples ranging from renowned lamas to ordinary practitioners, and this book skillfully brings those teachings together. Each of the book’s eight chapters begins with an introduction and then a selection of various shaldam, organized categorically. Topics include prayers and poems, pure visions, pith instructions, and more. Monson’s introductory material contextualizes Dewai Dorje’s shaldam, and her translations are lucid and engaging, conveying the ideas, imagery, and poetic intentions of this renowned master. 

Monson’s translations highlight the important, and at times deeply personal, relationship between a master and a disciple. Other types of Buddhist literature are not always so explicit in evoking a conversational or relational tone. But Sara McClintock and John Dunne, translators of Nāgārjuna’s Precious Garland: Ratnāvalī (Wisdom), suggest that readers would be better served by considering the broader relational contexts of Buddhist texts. The  Ratnāvalī is composed as a set of instructions to an Indian king, offered by the master Nagarjuna. Although it is not written as a dialogue, McClintock and Dunne reason that this text is best understood as a voice. Reading the text well, they argue, “requires us as readers to train ourselves to discern that voice more clearly.” In other words, this is not some disembodied work of philosophy but a narrative and evidence of a relationship between two human beings. Approaching the text in this way can give readers insight into “the perennial and difficult problem of whether it is possible to integrate one’s spiritual journey with the hard-nosed realities of political life.” The translation itself is thoughtful and clear, based on the text’s extant but incomplete Sanskrit verses, as well as Tibetan translations and Indian commentaries. The second half of the volume contains working editions of the Sanskrit and Tibetan versions of the text in order to facilitate readers’ own study of Nagarjuna and enable them to examine the translators’ choices.

McClintock and Dunne urge readers to consider Nagarjuna as a human being who taught others in the context of real, personal relationships. But many readers still understand Nagarjuna as a philosopher who offers arguments that can be considered independently, isolated from a broader religious context. Rafal K. Stepien considers this in his book Buddhism Between Religion and Philosophy: Nāgārjuna and the Ethics of Emptiness (Oxford). Stepien argues that contemporary interpreters have placed too much emphasis on ensuring that Nagarjuna is palatable to Western analytic philosophers. As a result, much attention has been placed on the author’s so-called “philosophical” works that are concerned with metaphysics and epistemology, while ignoring his more “religious” concerns with ethics and liberation. This book is an attempt to correct that Eurocentric approach. It reconsiders  contemporary philosophical views on Nagarjuna’s writings from a more holistic standpoint, and attempts to avoid imposing Western philosophical ideals on topics such as the tetralemma, emptiness, and ethics. While this book ought to be required reading for those whose understanding of Nagarjuna is primarily informed by Western analytic lenses, it is also clear enough to be useful to those who are attempting to understand Nagarjuna’s thought without such prior baggage.

It is not only Buddhist philosophy that carries the baggage of prior assumptions. Our understanding of Buddhist history is also worth examining, and two books invite readers to reconsider their assumptions about Buddhist history in two very different times and places: the Uyghur Kingdom of northwest China centuries ago, and America in the 1960s. 

Centuries ago, the Uyghur people of northwestern China were largely Buddhist. Before that, they were Christian and Manichaean. But in the face of expanding Muslim power, they were eventually converted to Islam, severing ties with their past religious alliances. In A History of Uyghur Buddhism (Columbia), Johan Elverskog explores the history of the Uyghur Kingdom and its people, and the evolution of their religious alliances. Elverskog sheds new light on common perceptions about the meeting between Buddhism and Islam in Asia, explores what it means to be Buddhist, and highlights the importance of both Uyghurs and Buddhism in shaping Asian history more broadly. Lucidly written and accompanied by maps and images, this book offers fascinating insight into a region and people who have been largely overlooked in the field of Buddhist Studies. 

Helen Tworkov’s Lotus Girl: My Life at the Crossroads of Buddhism and America (St. Martin’s) opens with the author’s first encounter with Buddhism in the 1960s, when the monk Thich Quang Duc set himself on fire to protest the persecution of Buddhist clergy in Vietnam. The memoir details Tworkov’s’s encounters with Buddhism, her travels to Asia, her study of Zen and Tibetan traditions, and the founding of Tricycle magazine. This book offers an intimate perspective on the history of Buddhism in America, combining personal reflection with historical touchstones. 

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