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« The Dark Side of Tibetan Buddhism | Main | Profile: Buddhist Global Relief »
Wednesday
Aug032011

Book Briefs

Wisdom Wide and Deep (Wisdom 2011) by Shaila Catherine is a contemporary manual on Theravadan methods for cultivating vipassana meditation and jhana states of meditative absorption. Thought to predate the Buddha, concentration practices of jhana are central to meditation in the Pali Tipitika. Catherine pulls extensively from the fifth-century commentator Buddhaghosa’s magnum corpus, the Visuddhimagga, or Path of Purification, and bases her instructions on those she received from the Burmese meditation master Venerable Pa Auk Sayadaw. Theravadan meditation instructions repeated here include focusing attention on specific colored circles, reflecting on the benefits of joy, and contemplating the repulsiveness of a rotting human corpse. While referencing classical sources, Catherine seeks to make jhana-induced states accessible, “even when immersed in a busy lay life.” It’s an ambitious goal, given that these meditations were traditionally taught to adepts and forest-dwellers in monastic settings.

The River of Heaven (Counterpoint 2011) is a collection of haiku writings by the Japanese poet Zen masters Basho, Buson, Issa, and Shiki, with commentary and a short introduction to each poet by the late American Buddhist elder and teacher Robert Aitken Roshi. Aitken passed away on August 5, 2010, soon after submitting the final draft, so this book was edited and published without him, which his longtime editor and friend Jack Shoemaker notes was a “lonely task.” Each haiku transliterated in Japanese is presented along with its English translation and a paragraph comment by Aitken. Restricted by three phrases that total seventeen syllables, the Japanese poetic form of the haiku juxtaposes image and idea to give a simple breakthrough expression. As Basho writes, “An old pond; a frog leaps in— the water sound.”

Tibet: A History (Yale University 2011) by Sam van Schaik accomplishes the remarkable task of narrating Tibet’s 1,400-year history from its appearance on the world stage through its empire building and golden age renaissance up to its present-day struggle for identity. An ambitious undertaking that could span numerous volumes, van Schaik keeps it at a mere 300-plus pages, and he writes like a storyteller, keeping his reader intrigued. The story begins with the tsenpo, or divinely descended kings of Tibet, whose empire expanded as far west as Kashmir and Turkestan, north into the deserts of Central Asia, and across the Silk Route to the borderlands of China. Key historical events are profiled, including Sakya Pandita’s arrival at the Mongol court after the fall of the Tibetan empire, the Dzogchen master Longchenpa’s political exile in Bhutan, and the death of the Fifth Dalai Lama, which was kept a national secret for fifteen years.

Purifying Zen(University of Hawaii 2011) is Steve Bein’s translation of the Japanese scholar Watsuji Tetsuro’s (1889–1960) writing on the Zen master Dogen (1200–1253). Titled “Shamon Dogen,” this work is a Japanese interpretation of Dogen as a philosopher. Convinced that Japanese Buddhism was becoming corrupt at the turn of the twentieth century, Watsuji sought to purify the Buddhist philosophy of his time by turning to the writings of Dogen. He brought this Zen master’s thinking into conversation with social problems, discussed his criticisms of art, and compared Dogen to Shinran, the founder of Shin Buddhism. His work struck a chord within Japanese intellectual circles, bringing Dogen out of Japan’s suppressed Buddhist history, where he was hidden, and into the light of modern East Asian philosophy.

Incarnation (Shambhala 2011) is an insider’s look at the complex spiritual and political system of the tulku, or Buddhist master reborn in the Tibetan tradition. The author, Tulku Thondup, a tulku himself, highlights different types of reincarnated identity. In addition to the well-known recognized tulkus, the author discusses those tulkus who live their lives unrecognized, those who have fallen from their elevated tulkuhood, and those who call themselves tulkus but are charlatans. Illustrating the lives and miraculous deaths of tulkus, much of the book comprises biographical sketches of Tibetan masters that many readers will be familiar with, including the Dalai Lamas, Karmapas, and Panchen Lamas.

Buddhist Practice and Visual Culture (Routledge 2011) is a study of the Mahayana and tantric artwork—and its function—at the Buddhist monument of Borobudur on the island of Java in Indonesia. Built as a Buddhist site of pilgrimage in the eighth century, Borobudur was abandoned in the fourteenth century and remained entangled in the jungle until unearthed by British surveyors in 1814. The author, Julie Gifford, examines how the art was used for Buddhist practice within this multi-tiered monument in the shape of a mandala. In one chapter she discusses how the imagery on a particular relief panel reflects guidance on the practice of exchanging oneself with others, known in Tibetan as tonglen. The relief depicts the practitioner traveling to all of the six realms in Buddhist cosmology and benefiting those who live in each one. Gifford suggests it was used as an aid to simulate visualization in the process of cultivating compassion during meditation.

Preparing for Tantra (Snow Lion 2011) presents a psychological understanding of ngöndro, or Tibetan Buddhist preliminary practices. The author, Rob Preece, is a psychotherapist and student of the late Gelukpa master Lama Thubten Yeshe. Emphasizing the need for a psychological ground for tantric practice, the author reflects on anecdotes from his own experience and makes frequent reference to the insights of the psychologist Carl Jung. For instance, Preece elaborates on Jung’s symbolism of medieval alchemy to make use of the metaphor of an “alchemical vessel,” a secure space in which the transformative practice of the preliminaries takes place. Divided into three parts, the book discusses preparing the body and mind, the traditional preliminary practices that include bodhichitta, prostrations, and guru yoga, and a conclusion on the importance of psychotherapy alongside Buddhist practice.

Miracles of Book and Body (University of California 2011) is an academic look at how Mahayana sutras were interpreted in medieval Japanese culture. Building on earlier scholarship on the “cult of the book” in Buddhism, Charlotte Eubanks sheds light on how Japanese sought to distill the essence of Buddhist sutras through popular explanatory tales known as setsuwa. The author pays particular attention to how setsuwa tales relate to the human body, metaphorically and literally. Giving literal readings of the metaphor of bodily sacrifice in the sutras, she uses the story of the Japanese monk Myoe who cut off his ear as an expression of deep devotion with the hope that this act would miraculously rewrite the Buddhist sutras to place his name on the list of attendees in the presence of the Buddha.  

Stilling the Mind  (Wisdom 2011) is a work on shamatha practice by the nineteenth-century Nyingma master Dudjom Lingpa. Translated and explained by B. Alan Wallace, this Tibetan text instructs meditators on how to develop and sustain the powers of concentration. Part of a larger work, what is published here is the initial section on shamatha from Dudjom Lingpa’s Vajra Essence, a text that is restricted to Vajrayana initiates. Dudjom Lingpa’s succinct and practical presentation emphasizes cultivating shamatha as a foundation for Dzogchen practice. One section discusses the multiple pitfalls and signposts of superficial meditation experiences known as nyam in Tibetan, experiences that can range from visions of rainbows and buddhafields to paranoia and insomnia. Many elements will be familiar to practitioners of shamatha meditation from all Buddhist traditions.

) by Shaila Catherine

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