Titles about the 2,500-year-old Eastern tradition are among the hottest sellers in religion books, attracting readers who once wouldn’t have known a lama from a lamp. At Chicago’s Transitions Book-place, Buddhist books “fly off our shelves, we can’t keep them in stock,” said co-owner Howard Mandel. At Bodhi Tree Bookstore in West Hollywood, California, books from longtime Buddhist publishers like Wisdom and Dharma share shelf space with titles from imprints like Putnam’s Riverhead and BDD’s Broadway Books, which launched its first Buddhism title two years ago. At least two new players will soon join the game, with Seastone, a new imprint from Ulysses, and White Cloud Press offering its first Buddhist titles in the next year.”
Buddhism is coming of age,” said Arnie Kotler, president and editor-in-chief of ten-year-old Parallax Press, a small nonprofit publisher of 100 Buddhist titles, thirty by Vietnamese monk Thich Nhat Hanh. Parallax now has a mailing list of 100,000. “Every year there have been more people reading these books. Even the blue-haired ladies on my block know who the Dalai Lama is. Buddhism is mainstream now.”
None of the publishers who spoke with PW could pinpoint exactly why Buddhist titles have enjoyed such success in this country in the past five years. Some attribute it to the Dalai Lama’s charisma and Tibet’s status as the cause du jour, and some to the general millennial hunger for religion and spirituality. Still, most said the current crop of Buddhist titles is not driven by the embrace of a few Hollywood actors or the appearance of a few movies, but by a long fertilization of Buddhism in this country that has recently blossomed into a truly American brand distinct from its Asian roots. And all publishers and editors agreed that Buddhism’s greatest strength here lies in its ability to adapt to any culture it finds itself in. “Buddhism hasn’t spread throughout Asia because it is rigid, but because it is flexible,” said Bryce Willett, sales and marketing manager for Ulysses Press, which has seen Jesus and Buddha: The Parallel Sayings sell 10,000 copies in the past year. “You can find many ways to apply it, and that is true in America, whether people are actively seeking spiritual guidance or just looking for a way to make their day go better.”
Leaving aside the many scriptural translations, art and photography books, spiritual biographies and memoirs, volumes of poetry and humor and gift books, the real boom in Buddhist books has been in titles from American Buddhist authors. “Thirty or forty years ago the major teachers were not American born,” noted Trace Murphy, senior editor at Doubleday, where The Accidental Buddhist: Mindfulness, Enlightenment and Sitting Still - American Style, by Dinty Moore - first published last October - will appear in paperback next spring. “But as more and more Americans experience a full lifetime of Buddhism, we are seeing more of an American voice coming through,” he added. Robert Thurman’s Inner Revolution: Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Real Happiness (Riverhead), released this June, is the Columbia professor and former monk’s current bestseller, with more than 30,000 copies in print. Bearing Witness: A Zen Master’s Lessons in Making Peace (May, Bell Tower) is Bernie Glassman’s description of how Buddhism has helped him face everything from addiction to Auschwitz. Another recent hot seller is Awakening the Buddha Within (Broadway Books) by Lama Surya Das, the Long Islandï¿½born “Deli Lama.” The book has sold 55,000 in hardcover since its spring 1997 release, and the paperback version, released this June, has 54,500 copies in print.
Peter Turner [newly appointed Executive Editor at Shambhala Publications], which publishes a variety of Buddhist traditions, said one reason American authors are popular is because they show it is possible to be a Buddhist without trading in a bank account for a monk’s robes. “These authors are establishing a middle path that brings together traditional meditation practices with their everyday lives with spouses, children, political beliefs. This approach to Buddhism isn’t that common in Asia, but it is essential to what is happening to Buddhism in this country,” Turner said. Indeed, many American Buddhist authors apply meditation, mindfulness and compassion to problems associated less with Tibet and more with twentieth-century American life-work, stress management, alcoholism, addiction, weight loss, money. “There is no area of life that is safe from some form of Buddhist treatment,’ said Tim McNeill, president and publisher of Wisdom. Next February, Lewis Richmond will look at careers in Work as a Spiritual Practice: How to Attain Spiritual Fulfillment on the Job (Broadway Books), as will Gail Sher in One Continuous Mistake: Four Noble Truths for Writing (Penguin/Arkana, April 1999). If the Buddha Dated: A Handbook for Finding Love on a Spiritual Path, by Charlotte Kasl (Penguin Putnam, Feb. 1999), offers a Buddhist balm for lonelyhearts. The recent Breath by Breath: The Liberating Practice of Insight Meditation, by Larry Rosenberg (Shambhala, April 1998), describes how breath awareness can lead to well-being. Meditation Made Easy, by Lorin Roche (Harper San Francisco, Spring 1999), spells out how Buddhist practices can lower blood pressure and reduce stress.
Another indication of American Buddhism’s maturity is the trickle of books on Buddhism’s history and expression here and in the rest of the West. Need to find a sangha in Morristown, New Jersey? A temple in Port Arthur, Texas? Shambhala’s The Complete Guide to Buddhist America ,edited by Don Morreale, is almost as thick as the Yellow Pages. Buddhism in the West: Spiritual Wisdom for the 21st Century (New Dimensions, March 1998) is a compilation of essays by both American and Asian teachers. There is also Prisoners of Shangri-La: Tibetan Buddhism in the West ,by Donald Lopez (Univ. of Chicago Press, May 1998). Due this coming spring is Richard Baker-roshi’s Original Mind: The Practice of Zen in the West (Riverhead, April 1999).
Death has been a strong topic in Buddhism since Sogyal Rinpoche’s The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying (Harper San Francisco, 1992). Amy Hertz, now a senior editor at Riverhead, worked with Rinpoche at Harper San Francisco and said the Buddhist take on dying has hit a nerve with American audiences. “No one wants to talk about it in this culture, so Rinpoche’s book filled a need.” The trend continues with The Zen of Living and Dying: A Practical and Spiritual Guide, by Philip Kapleau (Shambhala, April 1998) and Graceful Exits: How Great Beings Die, by Sushila Blackman (Weatherhill, 1997). Lessons from the Dying,by Rodney Smith, is Wisdom’s newest take on the subject (May 1998).
Asian Buddhist authors remain popular here, too, and pick up new readers with each round of speaking tours and teaching engagements, their publishers noted. The Dalai Lama and Thich Nhat Hanh lead the top sellers at smaller, Buddhist publishing houses and the general trade houses. Parallax Press has The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching (July 1998), and Riverhead is planning the Dalai Lama’s Ethics for the Next Millennium (March 1999). Wisdom offers Lama Thubten Yeshe’s The Bliss of Inner Fire: Heart Practice of the Six Yogas of Naropa (June 1998), and Dharma Publishing has Teachings from the Heart: Introduction to the Dharma by Tarthang Tulku (March 1998). Shambhala releases Dainin Katagiri’s You Have to Say Something: Manifesting Zen Insight this month, and Being Good: Buddhist Ethics for Everyday Life, by Master Hsing Yun, is due from Weatherhill in November.
Rima Tamar, director of sales for Dharma, said American Buddhists often find a deep connection to the tradition through Eastern teachers who have lived the faith for decades. Many of the Asian teachers’ older books are perennial sellers, with Shunryu Suzuki’s Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind (Weatherhill, 1970) leading the pack at 30,000 copies a year, with almost one million in print. The Dalai Lama’s Kindness, Clarity and Insight (Snow Lion) has been through thirteen printings since it appeared in 1984, five years before he received the Nobel Peace Prize, and Nhat Hanh’s Being Peace (Parallax Press, 1988) has sold a quarter of a million copies. Broadway Books hopes Crooked Cucumber: The Life and Zen Teaching of Shunryu Suzuki, by David Chadwick (October 1998), will appeal to the monk’s early readers and find new ones as well.
Some publishers say, as Americans continue to grow in Buddhism, so will their curiosity about forms other than Zen and Tibetan. “There are still many other flavors out there, particularly in China,” said Murphy of Doubleday, which offers its first overview of one form of Chinese Buddhism in River of Fire, River of Water: An Introduction to the Pure Land Tradition of Shin Buddhism, by Taitetsu Unno (May 1998). Next month, Shambhala releases Complete Enlightenment, by Master Sheng-yen, about China’s Ch’an Buddhism, and Doubleday plans its own Ch’an title next year. Polishing the Diamond, Enlightening the Mind: Reflections of a Korean Buddhist Master, by Jae Woong Kim (January 1999), will be Wisdom’s introduction to Korean Buddhism.
In spite of the apparent health of the category, not everyone is bullish on Buddhism. Harper San Francisco axed plans for a Tibetan library series in 1997 and now plans a major marketing campaign to move its hefty Buddhist backlist. Senior editor John Loudon told PW there has been a “shakeout in the Buddhist market,” with significant sales sticking to introductory titles or to well-established teachers. Another publishing executive, who wished to remain unnamed, said too many titles by one author, or on one subject, may confound would-be readers. “They might want to read a Dalai Lama book, but they are overwhelmed, and I imagine the stores are overwhelmed, too. You can’t stock 100 Dalai Lama titles.” Some booksellers also see the market cooling a bit. Stan Madsen, co-owner of Bodhi Tree, which carries 1,900 different Buddhist titles, said there is a slight decline of interest in general Buddhism titles, with the exception of those about Tibet, Zen and books by established teachers. “There just seems to be a movement away from Eastern studies,” Madsen said. “In the books that we are bringing in from India” - Buddhism’s birthplace - ”the quantities are down.” But at Transitions, sales associate Roberto Sanchez said many Buddhist books, especially those by Americans, sell well because they are easily digestible.” They don’t have to buy the religion, they don’t have to buy the culture, they just have to buy the book and explore it for themselves,” he said. Where Buddhist books go from here depends on the stamina of the established audience, said Riverhead’s Hertz. “Either it is going to take root and people are going to want still more on specific topics, or Buddhism will become just another flavor of the month.”
Kimberly Winston is a California-based religion writer. This article is reused from the September 14, 1998 issue of Publishers Weekly, published by Cahners Business Information. Copyright ©1998 Publishers Weekly.
Developing Balanced Sensitivity: Practical Buddhist Exercises for Daily Life
Snow Lion Publications: Ithaca, 1998
275 pp., $14.95 (paper)
What do you get when you cross Abhidharma (Buddhist psychology) with Lojong (a Tibetan Buddhist tradition of spiritual transformation), marry it to the contemporary Western tradition of self-help, and dress up the hybrid offspring as a workshop manual? You get Developing Balanced Sensitivity, by Alexander Berzin, which, in spite of its unusual and ingenious format, is unmistakably a guide to Buddhist practice.
In recent years, a number of seasoned Western translators of Tibetan Buddhism have begun to write innovative books about Buddhist philosophy, practice, and culture. This trend mirrors the Tibetan scholarly custom of writing commentaries on the classics before venturing into original composition. However, unlike Tibetan commentators, who see themselves as transmitters of tradition, many Western scholars have cast themselves in the role of reinterpreters of existing traditions. Witness, for example, the controversial marriage of Buddhism with existentialism in Stephen Batchelor’s Alone with Others, the creative history - some would say revisionism - in Robert Thurman’s Inner Revolution, or the potent cultural criticism in Donald Lopez’s Prisoners of Shangri-La.
While these authors are all concerned with the assimilation of Buddhist philosophy and Tibetan culture in the West, what Berzin does here is explore practical aspects of transforming the mind, primarily in a Tibetan Buddhist context, but using language accessible to anyone with an interest in spiritual development. Thus, Berzin - a Harvard Ph.D. in Buddhist Studies - has written primarily as a translator and transmitter of traditional ideas, rather than as a critic or self-appointed cultural revolutionary. It is the language he chooses, not his agenda, that marks him as an innovator.
Berzin’s personal study and practice of Tibetan Buddhism is founded in the Gelug tradition, but as anyone familiar with his many translations, published by the Library of Tibetan Works and Archives, will know, he has also studied the other schools of Tibetan Buddhism, particularly the Nyingma Great Perfection and the Kagyu Mahamudra. Accordingly, while much of Berzin’s discussion has the kind of analytical rigor to be expected from a Gelug scholar, he also invokes theories and methods typical of the latter traditions. The keynote here is cultivating a balanced approach to self-understanding.
In his preface, Berzin suggests that sensitivity, or the lack thereof, is a universal human concern. His book is addressed both to experienced meditators who have reached a plateau in the integration of their practice with daily life, and to anyone who might have a “sensitivity disorder.” Included in this latter category are all those people who either emotionally overreact - “hypersensitive” - or simply shut down - “insensitive.” This would seem to cover pretty much everyone.
In the first chapter, Berzin notes that balanced sensitivity has two components: attentiveness and responsiveness. Two additional factors, empathy and understanding, promote balanced sensitivity. In the remainder of the chapter, he analyzes the various ways in which hypersensitivity and insensitivity show up in our experience and behavior. The ramifications of the ideas and practices set forth here are then explored in depth in the twenty-one chapters that follow, and are supplemented with exercises that may include a partner.
Berzin refers to the concepts and methods of Tibetan Buddhism throughout the book. For example, the traditional meditative exercises of calming the mind (shamatha) and discerning awareness (vipashyana) are discussed at length. Nonetheless, in keeping his focus on sensitivity, which he defines as nurturing oneself without being selfish and caring for others without being manipulative, the central “problem” - sensitivity disorder - and its “solution” - various techniques for balancing sensitivity - are for the most part discussed in the language of everyday experience and relationship.
The structure of the book is informed by a traditional form of Tibetan contemplation on emptiness, what Berzin calls the “four-point analysis.” First, the problem - a distorted sense of self - is identified. Next, techniques for dispelling the problem - such as analysis and meditation - are studied. Finally, steps are taken to eliminate the two “extreme positions,” which I assume to be those of eternalistic projection (manifesting as hypersensitivity) and nihilistic denial (manifesting as emotional withdrawal or insensitivity). It is an arrangement roughly corresponding to the familiar Tibetan Buddhist triad of View, Meditation, and Conduct.
As Berzin notes in the second chapter, there are both rational and intuitive types of individuals. The rational type will naturally rejoice in the organization and analytical precision of this book. A more practical or intuitive person, who might otherwise be put off by this book, will find its highly germane examples and exercises rewarding. Both the rational and intuitive approaches are valid, according to the author; indeed, he maintains that they must be combined in order to develop balanced sensitivity.
Throughout the book, the author has translated the concepts and methods of Tibetan Buddhism into language any reader can understand. But this is not to say that he has dumbed down the material. The deceptively sophisticated concept of “sensitivity,” in particular, is treated with finesse. A skillful writer, Berzin has pulled off the tricky feat of addressing an erudite discussion of Buddhist psychology to the here and now without falling into either psychobabble or translationese. On the whole, it could be said his approach has attained a sensitive balance of its own: intellectually lucid and eminently practical.
John Pettit has a Ph.D. in Buddhist Studies from Columbia University and translates Tibetan texts.
The Bond Between Women
A Journey to Fierce Compassion
Riverhead Books: New York, 1998
344 pp.; $25.95 (cloth)
Kate Lila Wheeler
Can ferocity be spiritual? Can anger be a positive force? Can this suffering world be saved, and each of our personal histories simultaneously rescued? In The Bond Between Women, China Galland relates her search for answers to determine if these things are possible. If they are not possible just yet, she’s driven by pain - hers, and the world’s - to make them so.
This book narrates Galland’s quest to resolve her personal pain and rage and her examination of the outrageous suffering that exists in many parts of the world. Implicitly, the book exhorts each of us to be as brave, to act as forcefully for the good as do the goddesses and real-life heroines Galland presents.
As with most pilgrimages, her questions aren’t clear when she first sets out. She quests through Asia and South America; by the end of the book, she’s dancing in a park in her home town of San Francisco, feeling integrated, no longer struggling. If we wonder at that point what she is planning to do about the world’s pain, we have the book in our hands as an example.
The first way station is Nepal, where we see Galland receiving spiritual teachings from lamas and worrying about rampant child prostitution and AIDS. Here, the main theme of her personal suffering is reflected in global problems of sexual cruelty and ignorance. And she’s very angry about all of it. Galland remembers being raped at the age of four by a family friend, who denies the event. This complex, pervasive trauma drives her to seek resolution as an adult. She connects this story with themes beyond herself: encounters on her journey are woven in with tales of local goddesses, travel observations, and interviews with exceptional women whom she seeks out and adopts into her personal pantheon of allies.
These are activists, dancers, healers, travelers, and spiritual friends, women who, with the title’s 'fierce compassion,’ are transforming their surroundings for the better. Most are flesh and blood; but in Galland’s hands, the ones who aren’t mythical goddesses might as well be. It’s a privilege to meet them, even on paper, and we can thank Galland for bringing them to us. There is Sister Jessie, teaching impoverished villagers to read near Bodh Gaya, India; Indramaya, an old Nepali woman who dances and sings, possessed by a goddess; Tara, the deity who long ago vowed always to reincarnate as a woman. The most affecting story is that of Laura Bonaparte, who suffered the loss of seven family members when they were murdered by the military dictatorship in Argentina. Bonaparte now lives as witness to their disappearance; her section of the book brings tears.
Fiercely honest, Galland opens her eyes to the suffering and injustice in pilgrimage sites such as Bodh Gaya and Kathmandu. After a lama’s teaching, she asks him to account for child abuse. (It’s the kind of question that many students are afraid to ask, since it seems out of keeping with lofty teachings and could easily be taken as obnoxious.) The lama tells her point blank that she must take responsibility for her anger, no matter how justified it seems. This could have been a bitter, humiliating pill for a seeker less uncompromising than Galland, but she swallows the instruction and begins to understand the transformation of personal rage into the fierce, world-saving compassion of certain deities (and certain people.)
Her vulnerability is raw on the page as she writes a letter to her rapist on his deathbed; worries about how her Catholic upbringing might cause her to damage her daughter; congratulates herself for making a minor, brave gesture to a disappointed friend. Readers must be generous through occasional bouts of emotional self-indulgence and clunky writing (the title, for example). Not everyone may resonate with Galland’s intense relationship to myths, nor the idea that a feminine essence exists to be discovered. Still, the various myths come alive as a poetic structure for Galland’s narrative about healing.
By the end of the book, we’re just about convinced that if women would galvanize themselves (ourselves), we (they) could save the world. Surely Galland would agree that the world will be saved soonest if as many men would act, or whenever enough beings make an earnest beginning like Galland and her heroines have done. This book leaves us hoping to elect ourselves as members of this fiery, redemptive band.
Kate Lila Wheeler, contributing editor to Tricycle, is the author of Not Where I Started From (Houghton Mifflin). Her novel, When Mountains Walked, is forthcoming from the same publisher.
Putting Buddhism to Work
A New Approach to Management and Business
Translated by Duncan Ryuken Williams
Kodansha International: New York, 1997
144 pp., $18 (cloth)
What an appealing idea for a book: an examination of a Buddhist approach to business, written by Shinichi Inoue, a Japanese economist in Japan’s financial industry who has been a president of Japan’s Miyazaki Bank and is the chairman of the Foundation for the Promotion of Buddhism.
Putting Buddhism to Work promises the distilled experience of a person who “throughout his career has sought to combine the principles of Buddhism with his expertise in economics and management.” Such a work could offer a real report from the trenches: a deep personal meditation on the effort to be present to one’s life, and true to one’s inner search, in the chaotic world of capitalism and commerce.
Unfortunately, the book doesn’t deliver. Instead, it offers a simplistic analysis of economic theories, “facts that cannot be disputed,” and a collection of almost cartoonlike descriptions of Buddhist entrepreneurs who have done well by doing good, all held together in a shallow and pedestrian assembly that might well be called “Opinions of Our Chairman.”
To be sure, there are good ideas in the book. How could there not be good ideas in a work that attempts to examine “an economics that benefits oneself and others, an economics of tolerance and peace, and an economics that can save the earth”?
For example, Inoue discusses the idea that Buddhist cosmology has the entire universe at its center, in contrast to the anthropocentric worldview characteristic of Christian culture. He goes on to say: “the need to balance market-based self-centered economics with the interests of society at large . . . lies at the heart of Buddhist economics.” He illustrates the thought that “the middle way is fundamental to Buddhist economics” by describing how the Buddha rejected the two extremes of asceticism and indulgence of desire. He mentions a new model of economic development, advocated by a Thai Buddhist activist, that takes into account “inner development” as well as material development, though he does not describe how this interesting idea might work. He reminds us that to have the strength to say no to the unessential products in life leads to freedom from the chains of consumption. The attitude of wanting only what is really essential reflects the Buddhist view of consumption: happiness is not achieved by consuming more and more products but by being able to enjoy the simple, beautiful things in life.
While Inoue tries to make a case for the power of Buddhist economics to help the world, much of what he describes is merely ethical behavior at its best. And the problem with most of the good ideas is that they are bland, bloodless, and scattered among disconcerting oddities. He asserts that quantitative approaches to economics “were more readily accepted in the United States, perhaps because of its original status as a British Colony.” He says economic cycles are bad because they cause suffering, and then argues against economic programs that try to alleviate the suffering caused by agricultural cycles. He takes the grim view that “economics is about the exchange of goods, and . . . at the root of that exchange lies greed,” and leaves completely unexamined the joy of willing labor and exchange.
Even noneconomists can understand the attraction of big cities: they can offer a wide variety of economic opportunities, access to culture and people, and a stimulating pace. In economic terms, cities can reduce economic risk by offering a wide portfolio of jobs, and reduce transportation transaction costs through proximity. So it’s puzzling to have Inoue dismiss big cities with this simplistic analysis:
Many rural areas in Japan have seen an exodus of young people, who have been lured to the big cities by the myth that cities are more prosperous. While it is true that the average salary in a large city can be double or even triple that in the countryside, when one considers the price of land and housing, the advantage is clearly weighted in favor of the countryside. The combination of a higher salary and the myth that more money equals more happiness continues to dazzle people.
Inoue’s model practitioner of Buddhist economics is an enlightened entrepreneur who uses the company he leads to support social goals, improve the lot of his employees, and reduce suffering. While this type of behavior is a good thing, Inoue’s focus on leaders is disturbing. If, at their best, spirituality and business can have universal and selfless goals, nevertheless they must start with our own experience. We can’t depend on leaders to do our business or our Buddhism for us. Each of us has to take responsibility for the experience we have of our own lives, for our actions in an economic system, and for the effect we have on the people and the world around us.
It might have been interesting to hear of Inoue’s personal struggles. Perhaps he’s saving them for another book. But a useful book about Buddhism and business is still waiting to be written.
Paul Harris lives with his wife and two daughters in New York and develops electric power plants in northeastern North America.
Landscapes of Wonder
Discovering Buddhist Dhamma in the World Around Us
Wisdom Publications: Boston, 1998
192 pp; $14.95 (paper)
This book is sure to appeal to Western readers. Chock-full of koanlike epiphanies at each turn, it offers the richness of Theravada Buddhist teachings reinterpreted together with keen observations about what Nature can teach us concerning life, change, and death.
Two approaches distinguish this fine book of eighteen essays: reflections on the practice of Buddhism in relation to the dharma and the conditions of modern life, and literary observations about Nature - a fallen trunk, a flood, and the changing seasons. In so combining these approaches, the author astutely takes us through the permutations of nama-rupa (mentality and material form), utilizing the formations of nature and the cycle of the human body as metaphors for the impermanance of existence and the possibility of another season: rebirth.
In the essay “Age and Wisdom,” for example, the author states: “Too often we use the idea of old age as a convenient storage bin for good intentions we are not willing to act upon at present, such as the intention to devote ourselves more seriously to meditation or religious study . . . . Such temporizing should make us blush, for it amounts to thinking, Now I am too busy for the Dhamma, but when I am old and tired and can’t do anything else, then I will see about getting enlightened.”
This particular example was vividly brought to mind by a recent I article (Sept. 7, 1998), about a former textile executive and Russian immigrant, Lena Beker, twenty-eight years of age, who, after her grandmother died in an impersonal hospital room, vowed to help terminally ill people die in comfort. When she decided to start a hospice service, many people often told her that she was far too young to do this type of work. Her response was: “I smile at that because, I mean, how old do you have to be to want to do this?”
Here we have an example of how modern society tries to prevent us from integrating study, discipline, and mindfulness into our daily lives, and instead convinces us of the need to await retirement, a better income, or less family or job obligations. Just as many other Buddhist writers have done before him, Ven. Nyanasobhano reiterates that there is no better time than the present to integrate compassion and social action. In whatever season of life we may find ourselves - the springtide of youth or the wintertime of demise - we must (and here I borrow the titles of his own essays) lead “A Life of Honor” so that we may have “An Open View” in order to discern the “Four Elements” and accept even “Death and Chrysanthemums,” for these are the “Emblems of Dhamma.”
Contemplative, sensitive, and lyrically written, Landscapes of Wonder deftly manages to avoid the facileness of New Age wisdom, yet gently insists on the importance of sangha, disciplined meditation, and the necessity to confront the daily reality of impermanence (annica), suffering (dukkha), and non-self (annata), no matter what our position in life.
Russell Leong is a contributing editor to Tricycle, a poet, and the editor of Amerasia Journal. He lives in Los Angeles.
U Sam Oeur
Translated from the Khmer by Ken McCullough and U Sam Oeur
Coffee House Press: Minneapolis, 1998
226 pp.; $15.00 (paper)
This collection of poetry dates from the early fifties almost to the present day. U Sam Oeur wrote these poems in traditional Cambodian forms, which are sometimes replicated in the translations with the oddly graceful effect the reader will notice below. Sacred Vows is a significant human, Buddhist, and poetic creation.
Born in 1936 and raised on a prosperous farm, Sam came to the United States to study industrial arts. Almost accidentally his talent for poetry was discovered, and he earned a degree at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop in 1968. Intensely matriarchic, Sam regards Cambodia as a sacred Buddhist land. When he was sixteen he bemoaned his country’s suffering, and in “Oath of Allegiance” vowed:
I shall never betray you
I was born from your womb
and I shall pay my debts
to the shade where I've rested
the shade of the thlok tree
where Gautama had once sat
Because of his concern for Cambodia, Sam returned there to serve in the military, work in industry, and later serve in Parliament. In the first poem in Sacred Vows, “Prophecy,” he describes a crumbling Cambodia:
And now everything goes haywire . . .
Dried gourds sink in the paddy fields,
while broken dishes are afloat everywhere;
this is called social upheaval
Events further deteriorated when the Khmer Rouge took control of Phnom Penh in April 1975. Sam, his family, and virtually all the nearly two million residents of the city were driven out with only what they could carry or drag in carts. In “The Fall of Culture,” he describes leaving his home:
O, home! home! the sacred ground where we lived happily,
the heritage built, bit by bit, by my father,
O, the Naga fountain with its seven heads,
preserving our tradition from days gone by.
O, monument of independence! O, library, O books of poetry!
I can never chant the divinely inspired poems again!
O, quintessential words of poets!
O, artifacts I can never touch or see again
Sam’s wife, son, and mother survived the next four years in six different concentration camps, but camp 'midwives’ murdered his newborn twin daughters before their own eyes:
Very pretty, just as I'd wished, but those fiends
choked them and wrapped them in black plastic.
Where it was death to be an intellectual, he played the role of an illiterate bumpkin, looking at words backwards or upside down and reading them in outrageous ways. He hid his education with the agricultural skills he had learned as a rural youth. Once, while he was actually eating his 'last meal’, he was saved from immanent execution for losing a water buffalo entrusted to his care only by that animal's fortuitous return. His captors teased him:
“Grandpa gold is lucky! He almost
traveled to the white bones village."
I feign not knowing what they mean
and keep stuffing myself with rice.
The poems describe a journey through the Hells. The Buddhist concept of Hell most nearly conforms to that of the Roman Catholic and Orthodox concept of Purgatory, since for Buddhists there is always an end to every being’s time of suffering. Because the poems of U Sam Oeur so deeply reflect the ultimate victory of understanding and compassion over the greatest evils imaginable, they equally deeply reflect the final hope and certainty of ultimate salvation that the Buddha’s teaching offers every sentient being. This is the inevitable corollary of Sam’s final statement in Sacred Vows: “Every strand is precious in the web of life.”
Though the torments of Purgatory may be exquisite indeed, there are always angels, hovering over the burning lake, finally able to offer salvation. The presence of the spirits was constant during Sam’s abysmal journey. His deep faith reflects his hope beyond hopelessness, and the visibility of the invisible. In these poems the spirits and angels hover above Sam, and he knows they are there. When he walks to the Mekong to bury his twin daughters, murdered in the very act of being born, he prays not for them but to them:
Even though I'll bury your bodies here,
may your souls guide me and watch over your mother.
Lead us across this wilderness
And light our way to the Triple Gem.
Paul Hansen, a poet, painter, and translator, is a contributer to The Clouds Should Know Me by Now (Wisdom Publications). He lives in northwestern Washington.
Tibet: Through the Red Box
Farrar Strauss Giroux: New York, 1998
58 pp., $25.00 (cloth)
In Tibet: Through the Red Box, Peter Sis has created a picture book for children that can speak eloquently to their parents as well. Based on bedtime stories Sis was told as a child, the book was written as a tribute to his father, whose Tibetan travel diary from the 1950s is the Red Box of the title.
Sis uses these exotic tales to explore what happens when a parent’s memories become the images that introduce a child to the wider world. And it’s his achievement as an illustrator to have found a Tibetan inspiration for putting this complex process into visual terms. His scrapbooklike compositions, in which different voices and points of view come together to form the bigger picture, resemble mandalas in Western translation.
Author of previously published children’s books about Columbus and Galileo, Sis has written Tibet: Through the Red Box in the form of two parallel journeys of discovery. The first is his father’s journey as a filmmaker sent by the Communist government of Czechoslovakia to record the construction of the China-Tibet highway. The second is the son’s own journey through memory as he returns to Prague from the United States, to which he had defected in 1982, and peruses the contents of the Red Box.
The heart of the book is the account of the father, whose position as an observer of the Chinese drive west records his own changing attitude towards socialist brotherhood. (It’s not so hard to see how Tibet and China might stand in for Czechoslovakia and Russia in this context.) Sis senior gets separated from the bulk of his party and wanders in Tibet, eventually reaching Lhasa itself. In classic discovery-story style, his progress becomes a path to personal knowledge, but his association with a politically implicated enterprise gives his account a self-awareness that other Tibet-drawn Westerners often lack.
This remarkable account from the fifties is bracketed - and the question of its “truth” thus complicated - by the second layer of story: Peter Sis’s discovery of the red box. It’s in mining his father’s rich bequest of recollection, scholarship, and fairy tale that Sis’s graphic technique really comes into its own. Within the intricate, Tibetan-inspired designs of the book, Sis has combined diary entries, notes, maps, and official stamps to recall Kipling’s description of a mandala - “half written and half drawn.”
Served such a feast of clues, each reader becomes a private detective: Which voice do I trust? What really happened? What part is fact, what is fiction? Sis is not only relating tales that were embellished for him by his father; he is also recasting them for a whole new audience.
Tibet: Through the Red Box is far from an escapist entertainment, or fantasized tales just for children. Sis maintains a sophisticated take on what’s at stake in the representation of history or geography through narrative. By situating his Tibet among such artifacts and traces of story, the author - himself an exile from his homeland - underscores the loss of country.
The book’s two journeys merge at the end. In a haunting sequence, the elder Sis’s entry to the Potala is made to represent Peter Sis’s quest for reconciliation with his father. The final encounter in the throne room depicts a boy Dalai Lama - much younger than he would have actually been at the time - who can be seen to stand in for the author’s own childhood self.
The dedication on the flyleaf reads: “From son to father and father to son.”
William Elison is a Ph.D. student at the University of Chicago
Wes Nisker speaks with Tricycle about his new book
What was your intention in writing this book?
My intention was to offer people my understanding of the dharma, including the use of the new information from the evolutionary sciences, as possible skillful means and support for liberation. Over the years, I have come to recognize that the discoveries in evolutionary science are really profound teachings of dharma, pointing to the truths of anatta (no-self), or dependent co-arising.
How does understanding or practicing the dharma affect our understanding of the new sciences?
The knowledge of science can be a powerful tool for transforming our lives, but only if it becomes integrated or “realized” within our hearts and minds. Even though we know how completely our lives are co-existent with the sun, the earth, the atmosphere, and the plants, we do not normally experience ourselves in that relationship, as embedded in natural processes. That’s where the Buddha’s teaching comes in. As I say in the book, I think the Buddha can be seen as a spiritual biologist. He instructs us to meditate and reflect on the body and the sense impressions, to examine how perception and cognition take place. He wants us to examine our biological condition, to drop below the individual story line and explore the base line of what we inherit as organic creatures, as human beings. In this process, we can begin to use our understanding of science as support for our medication practices.
Can you elaborate on how the specific practices which you offer in the book can help us realize our identity as an “ecological self?”
I have taken some of the traditional practices found in the Mahasatipatthana Sutra and focused them on realization of our evolved biological condition. For instance, I offer a guided meditation using the traditional body scan, which includes reflections on the major evolutionary changes that have shaped various parts of the body. I also frame the experiences of thought and emotion as being part of our common biological inheritance rather than having an individual psychological character. When we begin to realize how much of our experience is rooted in primal or evolutionary imperatives, we begin to see it as more impersonal, as archetypal. That perspective can begin to free us from the power of our biological conditioning and help to relieve our suffering.
Is this similar to the merging of dharma and physics that we saw in the seventies?
I think this marriage of dharma and biological science will be much more profound than the attempts to bring together physics and the dharma, primarily because the biological sciences are so accessible to our experience. We can feel evolution in our bones and see its legacy in our reactive mind.
What do you hope will come from the book?
Mostly, I hope that the book will help people understand themselves and others and find a new ease of being in their bodies, mind, and in the world. I also want this book to enhance the integration of dharma into the discourse of Western culture. Essentially, I think we are all in denial of our biological condition. We still want to think that we came from some other realm or were created through some medium other than natural processes. I think it would be a great blessing for all if we could embrace our biological and ecological selves.
from Wes Nisker's
Image 2: Black Madonna: Einsiedeln, Switzerland © O. Baur, courtesy Peter Habelt
Image 3: China Galland. Photo © 1997 Pat Strouch
Image 4: U Sam Oeur. Photo © Theodore D. Hall
Image 5: Wes Nesker. Photo © Jerry Bauer
Image 6: Tibet: Through the Red Box integrates designs inspired by mandalas