Lion’s Roar November 2023 Book Reviews

How do we transform suffering into happiness? Bonnie Nadzam surveys new books that are helping to show the way.

Bonnie Nadzam28 September 2023
collage of book covers

With her child experiencing mental health challenges, Celia Landman long blamed herself. “At times in my life, I’ve encountered so much pain I questioned why I became a parent,” she writes in When the Whole World Tips: Parenting Through Crisis with Mindfulness and Balance (Parallax Press). This is not a “truth that’s pretty,” but she knows she isn’t alone in feeling it. Indeed, such intense pain is inevitable when we understand parenting as loving someone yet being powerless to keep them from hurting. Parenting, though, is also finding a way forward when the ground is suddenly gone. Landman relies on three limbs of Buddhism—Theravada, Vietnamese Zen, and Vajrayana—for practical instructions on cultivating steadiness, compassion, wisdom, and strength in the face of uncertainty. In addition to sharing her own personal experiences, she weaves in anecdotes from other parents.

Award-winning journalist Amy Yee details fourteen years’ worth of journeying among displaced Tibetans in Far from the Rooftop of the World (The University of North Carolina Press). She takes us with her into the homes, streets, schools, and communities of Tibetan refugees in India, intimately introducing us to unforgettable individuals and showing us their dreams and losses and the ordinary moments of their lives. In his introduction, the Dalai Lama writes of the Tibetan people’s “rock solid” courage in coping with difficult challenges and adapting to unfamiliar environments, saying that their values “have the potential to make an important contribution to peace and harmony.” Indeed, despite their home being in profound crisis, Tibet’s refugees have long demonstrated resilience and compassion. At this stage in the twenty-first century—when political and environmental upheaval is creating a growing refugee crisis—many of us have much to learn from them.

“What I had understood as silence was not silence.” So writes Rebecca Li of her early Chan practice in Illumination: A Guide to the Buddhist Method of No-Method (Shambhala Publications). In this instructive guide, Li describes silent illumination not as a sequence, not as a step, or a state, but as a way of being in which silence and illumination are concurrent and simultaneous. But if there is no method, the reader might ask, what is one supposed to do? “There is nothing to do,” Li explains, “but you can’t do nothing, so you have to start with something.” In direct and lucid prose, Li describes what we can start with: a willingness to come into full contact with whatever shows up in the mind. This is a practice for the deeply curious who want to shed habits of self-centered attachment, compulsion, and noise. A professor of sociology and a dharma teacher in the lineage of Chan Master Sheng Yen, Li’s insights are grounded not just in the teachings of Sheng Yen, but also in classic Buddhist texts and life itself.

Lama Rod Owens is the author of Love and Rage: The Path of Liberation Through Anger and a coauthor of Radical Dharma: Talking Race, Love, and Liberation. Now, we have his latest book, The New Saints: From Broken Hearts to Spiritual Warriors (Sounds True). Sick and tired of what he calls “performative goodness” and the present “apocalypse,” Owens declares himself a New Saint and invites the reader to join the saintly cause. What does that entail? Hint: New Saints are not good people; they disappoint each other; they make mistakes; they have to figure out what they need; and much of their labor will go unseen. Yet, Owens says, a person who has genuinely “chosen to give a s—” about themselves and others around them can make the world a better place. For putting this into practice, he offers guidelines that are both ordinary and accessible.

The late Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh taught that with mindfulness, we can transform our tears into rain. That is, when we take care of our suffering, it can become something beautiful, joyous, and refreshing. Now, in the new anthology Tears Become Rain: Stories of Transformation and Healing Inspired by Thich Nhat Hanh (Parallax Press), more than thirty mindfulness practitioners share vivid, intimate accounts of how they faced hardships, such as the death of a parent or partner, the trauma of being a refugee, or the pain of confronting racism at work. The editors Jeanine Cogan and Mary Hillebrand have organized the stories into sections on such topics as the power of community; coming home to ourselves; facing fear; and the wonders of the present moment. Section by section, readers gain insight into how they, too, can transform their strong, difficult emotions.

Renowned Buddhist monk Matthieu Ricard insists he’s not the subject of his new memoir, Notebooks of a Wandering Monk (The MIT Press). Rather, he says, he serves as a translator or ferryman—an intermediary—for relaying the insights of his many beloved teachers. As a young man from France, Ricard was a scientist with a career in genetics, and he had a rich, privileged, engaging life surrounded by nature, music, art, and intellectual beauty. But six years after meeting Tibetan teacher Kangyur Rinpoche, Ricard left it all behind in order to meditate and train in the Himalayas. This beautifully written tome details his life journey out of the world, as it were, and into wisdom and compassion. Ricard is an extraordinary exemplar. Even after decades traversing India, Nepal, and Bhutan, he demonstrates a sense of stillness and groundedness.

In Impermanence in Plain English (Wisdom Publications), author and teacher Bhante Gunaratana and cowriter Julia Harris use clear, direct prose to explain that impermanence—a foundational Buddhist tenet—is not just an abstract, metaphysical idea. It is, rather, something that we can see for ourselves. Indeed, one of the most powerful, important utterances of the Buddha was a single word: ehipassiko. It means “come and see.” In other words, right away and without any hesitation, come see for yourself the truth of impermanence and how you can directly realize the liberating insights that free us from suffering. Finally, I appreciate how this book has reoriented me toward the suttas. “Suttas are not pretty verses; they are pithy, step-by-step instructions of utmost clarity to be practiced here and now,” writes Bhante Gunaratana.

I am so grateful that filmmaker and artist Sachi Ediriweera’s Enlightened (Atheneum Books for Young Readers) is in the world—there are already a dozen young folks to whom I am sending a copy. This graphic novel recounts a story that many of us know: The young Prince Siddhartha lives in his childhood home, kept away from the suffering of the world. But his very curiosity is a source of suffering, and it’s one that he trusts and pursues outward into the world, ultimately discovering what it means to be liberated. As a mother of two young, voracious readers, I’m familiar with graphic novels, and I’m impressed by the degree of nuance in this one. As a work of literature and art, it’s a pleasure to read, and as a spiritual text, it’s instructive and moving.

Bonnie Nadzam

Bonnie Nadzam

Bonnie Nadzam’s most recent novel is Lions. She’s a student in the White Plum Asanga and the mother of twin boys.