Lion’s Roar September 2023 Book Reviews

From simple healing instructions for daily meditation to a scientific theory of complexity and a thoroughgoing investigation into suicidal ideation, Bonnie Nadzam reviews this season’s latest titles.

Bonnie Nadzam
25 July 2023

As cocreator of Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction, Jon Kabat-Zinn is famed as the pioneer of the secular mindfulness movement. In his new book, Mindfulness Meditation for Pain Relief: Practices to Reclaim Your Body and Your Life (Sounds True), he guides us through evidence-based practices to address even intense physical pain and suffering. (You can even access audio instruction by the author himself.) If your doctor has told you you’re going to have to “live with” a condition of suffering, this book will explain how to do that. Kabat-Zinn writes with remarkable empathy and compassion, directing us toward our innate capacities for healing and transformation.

Buddhist scholar and author Paula Arai’s The Little Book of Zen Healing: Japanese Rituals for Beauty, Harmony, and Love (Shambhala) gently reorients the reader from the potential chaos of a difficult life, season, or task, to making meaning with the whole body-heart-mind. Whether our circumstances are mundane or tumultuous, Arai writes, ritual can be driven by thoughtful intent and engaging deepest love. Arai learned these rituals when bereaved on pilgrimage in Japan, and drew wisdom from grandmothers, Zen masters, the chronically ill, and many others. Her guidance comes not in list form, but in gorgeous reflections addressing central questions such as: “How do I clean in a way to connect more intimately with myself, my loved ones, and my environment?” In partial response to each such question, Arai makes beautiful offerings in verse: “Holding an old broom, / My troubled heart awakens. / Cosmic dust glitters.”

In Three Minutes a Day: A Fourteen-Week Course to Learn Meditation and Transform Your Life (New World Library) research scientist and longtime Buddhist practitioner Richard Dixey offers readers some “meditation experiments” to help us to cultivate deepening practice and insights. The book is designed for the true beginner who wonders, “Why meditate at all?” and for whom a regular daily practice comes most smoothly in secular, bite-sized pieces. The goal is to investigate direct experience. For instance, the first exercise involves watching a candle for three minutes, every day, for seven days, and the second exercise is listening to the sound of a fading bell. For each exercise, Dixey provides reflections and discusses obstacles the practitioner may encounter. This is a satisfying and thorough read grounded in practical exercises and explanations for why they work, offering solid, simple tools centered on the body and awareness.

The Gathering: A Story of the First Buddhist Women (Equinox) is a bold, sometimes painful, and always inspiring narrative of stories within stories within stories. Professor of religious studies Vanessa R. Sasson uses the 2,000-year-old Therigatha—seventy-three poems by some of the initial women to join the Buddhist monastic community—to tell the tale of those women, beginning with Gotami, who first sought ordination and training from the Buddha. Sasson describes vividly and lyrically what these poems relay: on the heels of great suffering—working as prostitutes, feeling suicidal, slaves to cruel husbands, losing children and loved ones—these women didn’t take Buddha’s early refusal to ordain for an answer. Sasson writes: “These women set themselves free. And they never apologize for it, diminish it, or pretend it was no big deal.” Gritty and painful, the intimate lives of the women who gathered to liberate themselves are illuminating and wonderful to experience in narrative form.

Born in Vietnam, Reverend Liên Shutt is a lineage holder in the Shunryu Suzuki tradition and founding member of Buddhists of Color. She has written Home Is Here: Practicing Antiracism with the Engaged Eightfold Path (North Atlantic) for all who’ve been harmed by white supremacy and other systemic wrongs and are seeking restoration and healing. “There is a way to understand, be with, and then find empowerment and the agency to use our locations when useful or skillful and yet not be used by them,” she writes. Reframing impacts of racism to support healing, Shutt lays out three aspects of healing aligning with the eightfold path: acknowledging what is, knowing what shifts are needed, and learning to put those shifts into practice. She has interspersed “practice pauses”—meditations, reflections, and practices—to check in on what arises as one reads and opens to questions of why and how racism hurts so very much, and what healing might begin to look like.

In Notes on Complexity: A Scientific Theory of Connection, Consciousness, and Being (Spiegel & Grau), longtime Zen practitioner and NYU professor Neil Theise elucidates complexity theory and its breathtaking mystery with the clarity, humility, and sense of wonder only an excellent and experienced teacher can have. Complexity theory will likely resonate deeply with any practitioners of Zen, as complexity in this context refers to a class of patterns of interactions that are open-ended, evolving, unpredictable, adaptive, and self-sustaining—a lot like life itself. In this deceptively simple, elegant volume, Theise makes the insights of an apparently esoteric and impenetrable field of study accessible and exhilarating. In my experience, it transforms how the reader understands themselves and the universe.

The power and healing in How Not to Kill Yourself: A Portrait of the Suicidal (Pantheon) is, I think, directly related to the compassion, vulnerability, and straight-up naked guts of author Clancy Martin. He writes that despite the possible danger and taboo of discussing it, “suicide is all around us, and we must talk about it.” Martin—a father, husband, professor of philosophy, celebrated writer, and Buddhist—has survived multiple suicide attempts. This book is part memoir and part critical inquiry into the longing for nonexistence, into suffering, into the four noble truths, and into Buddhist and Western philosophers’ and artists’ views on death and dying. It includes valuable appendices for readers in immediate crisis, and unflinching personal stories and reflections for any human, especially those familiar or struggling with suicidal ideation, or who’ve lost a loved one to suicide. Martin’s offering of his own inner world and failed suicide attempts—he has never once wished they’d succeeded—is a profound service, and I am grateful to him.

The Jataka tales are instructive stories about past lives of the Buddha. The Brave Little Parrot (Wisdom) tells the story of the time the Buddha-to-be was a small bird trying to save the other animals in the forest from a raging fire. Believing that “stories must present renewed relevance for each generation,” author Rafe Martin wisely reinterprets the traditional ending and some of the messages along the way to inspire twenty-first-century children (and parents). The illustrations are created in the way of the Pahari School of miniature painting. “Instead of drawing something once,” artist Demi explains, “I would draw it a hundred times until it seemed to come alive and run across the page.” The cumulative effect in this children’s book is a fresh, relevant, moving take on an old wisdom tale.

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.