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« Analyzing Enlightenment | Main | Profile: Forest Sangha »
Friday
Sep012006

Book Briefs

Foundational teachings on Buddhist meditation are contained throughout the collection of texts known as the Pali canon. Much of this material has been translated into English but remains hidden in rare or out-of-print books and obscured in the archaic language of a bygone age. Sarah Shaw successfully remedies this unfortunate situation with her new book, Buddhist Meditation: An Anthology of Texts from the Pali Canon (Routledge, 2006). The structure of Shaw’s anthology follows the list of forty subjects of meditation established by the scholar-monk Buddhaghosa in the fifth century BCE and used in Theravada countries to the present day. Under each heading, Shaw provides elegant and highly readable new translations of relevant passages from the Pali canon and its earliest commentators. With introductory chapters addressing questions such as “What is meditation?” this excellent anthology is both a practical handbook for meditators and a useful reference for students of Buddhism at any level.

Reading the history of a Buddhist institution can be a tedious endeavor, with dizzying lists of abbots and detailed analysis of legal and tax documents. Skillfully told, however, the story of a single Buddhist institution may provide unique insights into the actual functioning of Buddhism in society. Zen Sanctuary of Purple Robes: Japan’s Tokeiji Convent Since 1285 (SUNY Press, 2006), by Sachiko Kaneko Morrell and Robert E. Morrell, is a delightful triumph in which a Rinzai Zen convent emerges as the fascinating protagonist of a tale spanning seven hundred years. The Morells write with the authority of scholars with an exhaustive knowledge of Japanese history, literature, and religion, and yet their prose contains a humility and candor rarely found in academic publications. Their study includes thoughtful reflections on the complex relationship of women and Buddhism and takes care to present as complete an image as possible of the lives of the women who passed through Tokeiji’s gates over the past centuries.

Unbounded Wholeness: Dzogchen, Bon, and the Logic of the Nonconceptual (Oxford University Press, 2006) bridges the gap between traditional commentary and Western academic study with a rarely seen grace and ease. Years of conversations and collaborative translations between co-authors Anne Klein and Tenzin Wangyal Rinpoche have born fruit in an extraordinary publication. Challenging the notion that the Bon and Dzogchen traditions lack sophisticated philosophical reasoning, Unbounded Wholeness introduces the rich poetic logic of the little known Bon scholastic (or pandita) tradition. A complete translation of the Authenticity of Awareness, a core text of Bon Dzogchen attributed to the eighth-century sage Lishu Daring, forms the heart of the book. Around this important translation, there are two hundred pages of accessible yet subtle discussions of the text’s fundamental themes and explorations of its place in the intertwined histories of Bon and Buddhism.

Zen Master Who? A Guide to the People and Stories of Zen (Wisdom Publications, 2006) provides a thorough orientation for the prospective student of North American Zen. Author James Ishmael Ford, a Zen priest and Unitarian Universalist minister, tells the story of Zen’s journey from India—through China, Japan, Korea, and Vietnam—to the United States. The historical overview in the first section and the introductions to major modern masters in the second are presented in a balanced and straightforward style, peppered with enough original anecdotes to make it enjoyable, even to Zen students already familiar with the basic material. The third and final section, “The Future of Zen in the West,” contains Ford’s reflections on the challenges facing the West’s nascent Zen institutions, as well as the promise and potential of what he describes as a post-monastic “liberal Buddhism.”

Honen (1133-1212) is revered as the founder of the Jodo (Pure Land) school of Buddhism. Despite the continuing popularity of the many branches of this tradition, there are regrettably few books in English on either the Japanese monk who founded the tradition or his controversial teachings. The most detailed study of Honen available in English is his official biography, translated in a five-volume study by Rev. Harper Havelock Coates and Rev. Ryugaku Ishizuka in 1925. This somewhat dated and intimidating monument has been given new life in a slim abridged edition by Joseph Fitzgerald, entitled Honen the Buddhist Saint: Essential Writings and Official Biography (World Wisdom, 2006). Alfred Bloom provides a comprehensive introduction to the study of Pure Land Buddhism in the new edition that places Honen’s life, and the present volume, in context. It is fitting that the life of the man credited with bringing Buddhism out of the monasteries and to the common people should finally become available to a wider reading public.

Students of the Dzogchen tradition owe a tremendous debt of gratitude to the translating, editing, and publishing efforts of the husband-and-wife duo of Marcia Binder Schmidt and Erik Pema Kunsang. The clarity, power, and thoughtful organization of their previous books The Dzogchen Primer and Dzogchen Essentials have made the study of Dzogchen approachable in a way that was hard to imagine a generation ago. Now two new anthologies, Quintessential Dzogchen: Confusion Dawns as Wisdom and Wellsprings of the Great Perfection: The Lives and Insights of the Early Masters (Rangjung Yeshe Publications, 2006) add to their growing library of expertly translated selections from Dzogchen scriptures and the teachings of modern masters. Quintessential Dzogchen, excerpted in this issue, closely follows the earlier books in the series, dividing its content into teachings that provide an overview, followed by those focused on the ground, path, and fruition. Wellsprings explores the sources of the entire tradition through the inspiring stories and songs of those masters involved in the initial transmission of Dzogchen from the buddha realms to the human world and from India to Tibet.

Modern koan practice in the Rinzai Zen tradition is often traced back to the influential teachings of Hakuin (1689-1769). While scholars and historians may debate the precise nature and context of his often vitriolic and iconoclastic rhetoric, there can be no doubt regarding his impact on the subsequent practice of Zen and the importance afforded to kensho (awakening). In Hakuin on Kensho: The Four Ways of Knowing (Shambhala Publications, 2006), Zen teacher Albert Low provides a line-by-line commentary on Hakuin’s short classic composition, “Four Ways of Knowing of an Awakened Person.” Low’s commentary draws not only on the Zen tradition but also on parallels to modern psychology and a wide spectrum of spiritual teachings. This diversity of sources supports the author’s view that Hakuin’s “Four Ways of Knowing” remind us that awakening is not a single homogenous state to be attained, but rather a variety of experiences to be continuously cultivated.

No individual has done more to show the enduring legacy of Chan in its homeland than Master Sheng Yen, who has led nearly three hundred intensive retreats around the world over the past thirty years. Master Sheng Yen’s close ties to the Chan masters of the preceding centuries are celebrated in his latest publication, Attaining the Way: A Guide to the Practice of Chan Buddhism (Shambhala Publications, 2006). Clear and inspiring instructions on Chan practice by the sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Chan masters Boshan and Jiexian are skillfully translated in the book’s first two parts. The third section focuses on the famous Master Xuyun (“Empty Cloud,” 1839-1959) and includes a wonderful record of a 1942 retreat interview between this master and Sheng Yen’s own teacher, Master Lingyuan (1902-1988). The fourth (and longest) part of the book consists of teachings by Master Sheng Yen himself that introduce the reader to the entire spectrum of Chan practice.

The lineage of Mahamudra teachings at the pinnacle of Tibet’s Kagyu school stretches from today’s Kagyu masters back to the tantric siddhas of India. The Indian sources of these teachings have remained an essential part of their transmission over the past thousand years. In A Song for the King: Saraha on Mahamudra Meditation (Wisdom Publications, 2006), the eminent Kagyu teacher Khenchen Thrangu Rinpoche demonstrates the ongoing vitality of this long engagement with Indian sources through his lively commentary on the great siddha Saraha’s Song for the King. One of a trilogy of songs expressing the nature of enlightenment through verses rich with metaphor, Song for the King is a poetic classic of Buddhist literature. Editor Michele Martin has supplemented Khenchen Thrangu Rinpoche’s lucid commentary with notes and appendices that make the book as accessible for novices as it is rewarding for experienced practitioners and scholars.

Also New and Noteworthy:

Practicing Peace in Times of War, by Pema Chödrön (Shambhala)

Wanting Enlightenment Is a Big Mistake: Teachings of Zen Master Seung Sahn (Shambhala)

Mindfulness, Bliss, and Beyond: A Meditator’s Handbook, by Ajahn Brahm (Wisdom)

The Kindness of Others: A Commentary on the Seven-Point Mind Training, by Geshe Jampa Tegchok (Lama Yeshe Wisdom Archive)

All Is Change: The Two-Thousand-Year Journey of Buddhism to the West, by Lawrence Sutin (Little, Brown & Co., 2006)

Zen-Brain Reflections, by James H. Austin, MD (MIT Press)

The Rime Philosophy of Jamgon Kongtrul the Great, by Ringu Tulku (Shambhala)

Empowered Masters: Tibetan Wall Paintings of Mahasiddhas at Gyantse, by Ulrich von Schroeder (Serindia)

Into the Jaws of Yama, Lord of Death: Buddhism, Bioethics, and Death, by Karma Lekshe Tsomo (SUNY Press, July 2006)

Old Man Basking in the Sun: Longchenpa’s Treasury of Natural Perfection, by Keith Dowman (Vajra Publications)



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