Buddhadharma on Books: Winter 2023

Constance Kassor reviews “Notebooks of a Wandering Monk” by Matthieu Ricard, “Illumination” by Rebecca Li, “The Buddhist Tantras” by David B. Gray, and more.

By Constance Kassor

Photo by Pixabay.

The French-born writer and photographer Matthieu Ricard earned a PhD in molecular genetics in 1972, and then walked away from his career to become a Buddhist monk in the Tibetan tradition. Today, Ricard is perhaps best known for his collaborations with neuroscientists studying the effects of meditation on the brain, and the results of some of these studies, which included him as a subject, have led to him being labeled as “the happiest person in the world.” Ricard’s memoir, Notebooks of a Wandering Monk (MIT Press), recently translated into English by Jesse Browner, beautifully illustrates the unconventional path that Ricard followed as a traveler in India, as a researcher at the Pasteur Institute in France, and as a world-renowned Buddhist monk. The book begins with the author’s first meeting at age twenty-one with his root teacher, Kangyur Rinpoche, and goes on to detail his years in graduate school, his subsequent travels in Asia, and his life as a monk. Ricard writes that his book is not really about him, but about his teachers: he is “merely an intermediary, a ferryman” to his teachers and others who have been with him and supported him along his path. This respect and veneration for his teachers is especially salient in his writings about Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche, the teacher with whom he spent thirteen years. At more than seven hundred pages, the book contains a great deal of detail, informed by notebooks and Tibetan calendars in which Ricard kept daily notes. But the author’s evocative, illustrative prose makes this an engaging read and serves as a teaching on the interconnectedness of us all. 

Many practitioners who are new to meditation—and even some who have been meditating for quite some time—tend to think that meditative practice must involve stopping thoughts or blocking mental activity altogether. But Rebecca Li’s Illumination: A Guide to the Buddhist Method of No-Method (Shambhala) skillfully demonstrates that this is a misconception. She describes the Chan practice known as “Silent Illumination,” explaining that it is not about forcing our minds into silence, but rather that it is “a way of clear and total open awareness, moment-to-moment experience that simultaneously reveals our intrinsic enlightenment.” This book, which draws on the author’s years of studying under the Chinese Chan master Sheng Yen and his earliest Western Dharma heirs John Crook and Simon Child, is an instruction manual that shows readers how to practice Silent Illumination, and how to apply it in everyday life. Using clear, relatable, real-world examples, this book invites readers to put the teachings of Silent Illumination into practice, allowing our minds to be fully present as they are.

Tantric texts are the least studied—and perhaps most misunderstood—parts of the Buddhist canon. David B. Gray aims to correct some of these misunderstandings in The Buddhist Tantras: A Guide (Oxford). This book offers an introduction to Buddhist tantra to readers with no prior knowledge of the subject—a formidable goal, considering that the tantras comprise a vast body of literature, much of which is intended to be kept secret or practiced only under the guidance of a qualified master. Still, Gray manages to deliver on his promises. The book strikes a balance between detail and clarity, and explores Buddhist tantra in broad strokes, covering the history, context, contents, and transmission of tantric literature from India in the seventh century to communities across Asia and around the world today. The final chapter addresses the issue of transgressive practices in tantra, exploring themes of sex and violence within their broader historical and religious contexts. Presented with clear detail, and refraining from untranslated foreign words as much as possible, this book offers an excellent foundation for the understanding of Buddhist tantra.

Going beyond an introduction to the literary contexts and histories of tantra, The Ethnography of Tantra (SUNY), edited by Carola E. Lorea and Rohit Singh, offers a more expansive look at tantra through an ethnographic lens. This collection of essays considers the living voices of tantric practitioners in an effort to offer more balance to tantric studies, which the editors argue tend more toward isolated analyses of texts. Tantra is not solely a Buddhist enterprise, and this book considers the genre from multiple contexts, cultures, and perspectives across regional and religious divides. The essays in this volume explore the material and media through which tantra is expressed, the lives and livelihoods of tantric practitioners, and social groups and institutions engaged in tantric practices. The resulting volume offers a detailed and rich picture of tantra as an ongoing, evolving, lived set of practices.

Scholars of Buddhist Studies have written at length on the historical development and philosophical theories of the Yogacara school of Buddhism, which first developed in India in the early centuries of the Common Era. But none have done so as skillfully and straightforwardly as William S. Waldron in Making Sense of Mind Only: Why Yogācāra Buddhism Matters (Wisdom). This book serves as an accessible introduction to Yogacara, intelligible to those who are completely new to Buddhist philosophy, as well as to those who wish to dig a bit deeper into key philosophical teachings in Indian Buddhism and the early Mahayana tradition. Waldron draws on excerpts from early Indian Buddhist literature and contemporary examples to explain concepts such as karma, samsara, nirvana, the four noble truths, the five aggregates, no-self, and dependent arising. Based on this contextualization, he then draws out key teachings and themes in Yogacara, showing how and why these teachings and themes developed out of earlier Buddhism. Supplementing his study of classical sources with psychology and cognitive science, Waldron explores key teachings of the Mahayana tradition, including emptiness, the two truths, the three turnings, the three natures, storehouse consciousness, and mere perception. But Waldron doesn’t stop at historical exposition. The book concludes with a more interpretive angle, exploring how all of these philosophical ideas hang together, and showing how they are relevant in the context of the Buddhist path, as well as in the contexts of our broadened historical, global, and philosophical perspectives today. The result is an exceptionally clear and thought-provoking presentation of Yogacara and its relevance to contemporary life.

The constitution of Sri Lanka, adopted in 1978, privileges Buddhism within the state, but it also allows citizens certain religious freedoms. By the end of Sri Lanka’s civil war in the early 2000s, a variety of Christian groups—Pentecostal, mainline Protestant, and Catholic—had begun to grow in popularity in the country. Some Buddhist groups turned toward nationalism and conservatism in response, leading to tensions and anxieties between these different religious communities. Ethically, ritually, and soteriologically, Christians and Buddhists in Sri Lanka are at odds, yet they must find ways to coexist. Neena Mahadev examines these tensions and possibilities for coexistence in Karma and Grace: Religious Difference in Millennial Sri Lanka (Columbia). This ethnography draws on the author’s experiences living and working within several different Buddhist and Christian communities in order to understand points of conflict and instances of tolerance between them. Drawing on stories from individuals and various kinds of print and digital media, the author skillfully examines these pressing issues from multiple angles, presenting a full and engaging picture of religious plurality in the face of conflict. 

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