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« Reviews: Investigating the Subtle Body | Main | Profile: Sanshin Zen Community »
Tuesday
Nov122013

Book Briefs

Steven Heine’s Like Cats and Dogs (Oxford 2013) examines the history of the famous Mu koan. In a dialogue between an anonymous monk and the master Zhaozhou Congshen (778–897), the former asks if a dog has buddhanature and is met with a colossal “No.” Or so one version of the story goes, for as Heine explains, this redaction—found in the Gateless Gate collection of 1229—is just one of many. In some accounts we find positive responses, in others an amalgam of affirmation and denial, and in still others ambiguity and irony. The Record of Serenity, for instance, predates the Gateless Gate and has our master first affirm that a dog has buddhanature, only to inform another monk that it does not. This classic puzzle becomes even more puzzling when the broader textual record is taken into consideration.

The eighteenth-century Buddhist visionary Jigme Lingpa is one of the most gifted authors to have written from the Tibetan plateau. His innovations in the philosophy of the Great Perfection (Dzogchen) and his charisma as a teacher won him numerous admirers, including a young queen in Eastern Tibet whose loyalty to his tradition prompted not only the printing of his collected works but also a bloody rebellion. With the publication of the Padmakara Translation Group’s Treasury of Precious Qualities, Book Two: Vajrayana and the Great Perfection (Shambhala 2013), we again catch sight of his brilliance at work, this time in articulating the Nyingma tantric path. Jigme Lingpa’s elegant verses describe the stages of Nyingma esoteric practice and its culmination in the Great Perfection, while Kangyur Rinpoche’s twentieth-century commentary provides critical insight into the systems behind the stanzas. Appended are vignettes from Khenpo Yöntan Gyamtso’s popular turn-ofthe-century commentary.

Soto Zen teacher Eido Frances Carney’s Kakurenbo: Or the Whereabouts of Zen Priest Ryokan (Temple Ground Press 2013) intertwines moments in the life and poetry of the influential Zen hermit priest Ryokan (1758–1831) with Carney’s own reflections on her Zen training in Japan and her experiences as founder and head teacher of Olympia Zen Center in Olympia, Washington. Ryokan’s fascination with nature, his playfulness (being, as he was, highly adept at hide-and-go-seek, or kakurenbo in Japanese), his calligraphy, and his verses have long inspired Zen practitioners, but rarely do we have the opportunity to read about the mechanics of such inspiration. Also poignant is Carney’s narration of Ryokan’s late-life encounter with a young nun named Teishin, with whom he exchanged love poems and who cared for him in his final days.

The Buddhist Schools of the Small Vehicle by Buddhist studies scholar André Bareau (1921– 1993) has been the standard reference work on the history and doctrines of the sects of the socalled “small vehicle” of Buddhism since its publication in French in 1955. Now, with the release of the late Sara Boin-Webb’s English translation (Hawaii 2013), Bareau’s classic is finally available to a broader audience. With precision and clarity, Bareau reveals the incredible diversity among the non-Mahayana schools of Buddhism in India, reminding us that Theravada Buddhism, while prominent today, was just one among twenty to thirty schools claiming to represent the original teachings of the Buddha. Particularly useful is Bareau’s appendix tabulating all of the major controversies and the particular parties involved. The prominent Sammatiyas, for example, insisted that the Buddha posited a self neither identical to, nor different from, the five aggregates, thus approaching the famous “no-self” doctrine in a surprisingly different way.

Larry Rosenberg has taught meditation for over forty years. Once a professor of social psychology at Harvard, Chicago, and Brandeis, he changed course after meeting the influential nonsectarian teacher Krishnamurti; he left academia and began training in Zen meditation and vipassana. In 1985 he founded the Cambridge Insight Meditation Center in Massachusetts, where he has continued to develop his unique mixture of traditional meditative techniques. In his new book, Three Steps to Awakening (Shambhala 2013), written with Laura Zimmerman, Rosenberg distills decades of experience into three essential meditation practices designed to aid in any life situation.

Reading it is like being with Rosenberg in person, and the clarity with which he details each practice makes it an exceptional companion for the aspiring meditator.

The Tibetan polymath Tsongkhapa (1357– 1419) tackled many subjects during his remarkable literary career. Yet while much has been written about his contributions to Madhyamaka, surprisingly little has been published about his works on Buddhist tantra. In Great Treatise on the Stages of Mantra (AIBS/Columbia 2013), Thomas Freeman Yarnall has narrowed this gap with his translation of two key chapters from Tsongkhapa’s text by that name, along with an insightful and accessible introduction. Yarnall guides us through Tsongkhapa’s positions on particularly knotty issues, including what distinguishes the tantric path from other forms of Buddhist practice and how the conceptual creation stage of tantric meditation leads to nonconceptual buddhahood. Yarnall’s companion volume, The Emptiness That Is Form, is due out next year.

Burton Watson’s Record of Miraculous Events in Japan (Columbia 2013) offers in translation anecdotal literature of Japan’s early encounters with Buddhism. Compiled by the Buddhist priest Kyokai in around 822, these short stories—116 in total—reveal how storytelling priests used the doctrine of karma to convert the masses. Many of the stories describe miraculous rewards reaped by practicing Buddhists, such as the tale of a monk who was spared from drowning by reciting a Mahayana sutra. Others warn of the disaster awaiting those who oppose the dharma, including the story of an evil prince who hit a monk and immediately died of illness and that of a man who spoke ill of a woman copying the Lotus Sutra and suffered the torture of a “twisted mouth.”

Since its original release in 1990, Tim Ward’s travelogue, What the Buddha Never Taught, has been published in seven countries and five languages, including Chinese. In it he recounts his 1985 dive into Thai Buddhist monastic life, spotlighting the complications that renunciation has to offer. The continuing popularity of Ward’s book no doubt stems from his talent for addressing important issues for modern Buddhists, including the relevance of monastic commitments for spiritual development. In the new twentieth-anniversary edition (Changemakers Books 2013), Ward describes his shock when, after the book’s initial publication, he attempted to interview a group of Western monks in Bangkok. After realizing he was the author of this “exposé” of the sangha, they refused to talk with him; yet later some of those same monks approached him individually to tell him they believed books like his are important.

In The Easy Path (Wisdom 2013), edited by Lorne Ladner, we find in translation the presentation of the stages of the path by the First Panchen Lama (1570–1662) alongside commentary by the contemporary Tibetan teacher Gyumed Khensur Rinpoche Lobsang Jampa. From the preliminaries to the bodhisattva vow to calm abiding and special insight meditation, Rinpoche’s comments consistently light up the Panchen Lama’s lines, adding accessible vitality to a classic framework. Appended for the busy practitioner is the “extremely brief preliminary practice,” which can be performed before meditation on any of the topics the Panchen Lama and Rinpoche address, inviting immediate engagement with their teachings in a traditional mode. Also included are biographies of the First Panchen Lama, a fascinating figure who worked as a peacemaker in unstable times and identified and taught the Great Fifth Dalai Lama, and Khensur Rinpoche, who was born near Lhasa in 1939 and fled Tibet in 1959, pursuing intensive study in India before becoming the resident teacher at the Foundation for the Preservation of the Mahayana Tradition’s Guhyasamaja Center in Washington, D.C.

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