Books in Brief Fall 2003

Joan Duncan Oliver

In these uncertain times, there is a call for teachings that are grounded in tradition yet relevant to daily life. Happily, a number of experienced teachers are responding. The Path of the Human Being: Zen Teachings on the Bodhisattva Way (Shambhala, August, $21.95, cloth) is a deftly edited collection of dharma talks by Zen master Dennis Genpo Merzel, abbot of Kanzeon Zen Center in Salt Lake City. Genpo Roshi emphasizes that awakening is practical above all, enabling us “to choose to live in the world as it is.”

A dharma heir to Maezumi Roshi, Genpo espouses Soto Zen’s gradualist path, viewing Zen practice as a spiral: Through meditation we connect with our limitless nature, so that when we “find ourselves back where we started, in our limited, ego-centered mind,” we know the truth lies elsewhere. Each time we spiral back, attachment to the “small self” lessens. Merzel has sanghas throughout the U.S. and Europe, and it is easy to see how reassuring his presence must be to new and experienced practitioners alike. This is no-nonsense dharma: “The Zen approach of embracing ourselves relies on the same wisdom that forest-fire fighters discovered years ago: fight fire with fire.” No practice-oriented book today is complete without advice for troubled times, and Merzel obliges. Crisis is a bodhisattva’s opportunity, he points out: “Give all your merit away as fast as you can offer it.”

In Living Kindness: The Buddha’s Ten Guiding Principles for a Blessed Life (Inner Ocean, September, $15.00, paper), former monk Donald Altman offers up the ten Paramitas, or “perfections,” as a recipe for creating a more compassionate world by transforming it from the inside out. This modern iteration of the Paramitas holds, for example, that practicing generosity is the way to ensure we’ll have ample material resources, and that patience will assure us good health and supportive companions.

Patience is what we need most for facing loss, Lama Surya Das suggests in Letting Go of the Person You Used to Be: Buddhist Lessons on Change, Loss, and Spiritual Transformation (Broadway Books, August, $25.00, cloth), a compendium of teachings and practices for dealing with life’s biggest challenges (see excerpt, page 82).

First-time author Khandro Rinpoche is one of the new generation of Tibetan Buddhist teachers equally versed in traditional teachings (in her case, the Kagyu and Nyingma schools) and contemporary culture. In This Precious Life: Tibetan Buddhist Teachings on the Path to Enlightenment (Shambhala, August, $21.95, cloth), Khandro uses the framework of the Four Reminders—the preciousness of human existence, impermanence, suffering, and karma—to show how we can create true happiness for ourselves and others. Teachings like the Eight Freedoms, the Ten Endowments, and The Seven Benefits of Taking Refuge come to life in her lucid prose. Contemplative exercises allow us to relate the teachings to our own experience. Basic meditation instructions and a glossary of terms help make this an invaluable introduction to Buddhist practice.

A good book to slip into your teenager’s backpack is Wide Awake: A Buddhist Guide for Teens (Perigee, August, $13.95, paper). Author Diana Winston, a peace activist and meditation teacher who was a Buddhist nun in Burma, is close enough to her own teen years to empathize, but this intelligent, meaty handbook would be welcome at any age. Who wouldn’t want to learn how Buddhist practice helps us address issues like belonging, purpose, and meaning - not to mention sex, drugs, gossip, and doing something useful in the world? Noah Levine (see “Shouts and Whispers,”) writes in the introduction, “This book shines the light of wisdom into the sometimes dark experience of being young.”

Then there’s Brad Warner. Ex-bass player in the punk rock bands Zero Defex, and Dimentia 13, and now a star of Japanese monster flicks, he’s also an ordained Zen priest who teaches and leads retreats in Tokyo. Hardcore Zen: Punk Rock, Monster Movies, and the Truth About Reality (Wisdom, September, $14.95, paper) is Zen for the South Park set: subversive, shit-stick dharma liberally laced with scenes from Warner’s life. Despite his assertion that “autobiographies suck,” Warner’s path from inner anarchy to the Heart Sutra (“profoundly rocked my mental world”) and a Japanese Zen master who moonlights for a cosmetics firm will no doubt resonate with many twenty- and thirty-somethings. Chapter headings hint at Warner’s spin on the teachings: “No Sex with Cantaloupes” deals with the precepts; “Revenge of the Pod People” with sangha; “Pass Me the Ecstasy” with why drugs aren’t the Way. Hardcore Zen is Be Here Now for now. We hear echoes of those who went East a generation—or two—ago in Warner’s words: “I knew there had to be some way to see the truth which didn’t involve following all the other cattle to the slaughterhouse.”

Zen has a legacy of mavericks. Sokei-an Sasaki, the first Zen master to put down roots in America, is all but forgotten today—a pity, since his story is such a rich one. Holding the Lotus to the Rock: The Autobiography of Sokei-an, America’s first Zen Master (Four Walls Eight Windows, 2002, $24.95, cloth) finally gives us a look at this erudite, charming teacher (“a dazzling storyteller,” the book’s editor, Ed Hotz, tells us), through his own writings and the recollections of poet Gary Snyder and students like Mary Farkas and writer Ruth Fuller Sasaki, who married Sokei-an shortly before his death in 1945.

Arriving in America in 1906 with his teacher (who soon returned to Japan), Sokei-an wandered the West, working odd jobs and meditating on the Five Skandhas, or “aggregates” (form, sensation, perception, thought, consciousness), a practice he continued for twelve years. “I understood Zen through contemplation of the Five Skandhas,” he later said. Moving to New York in 1916, he settled in Greenwich Village, and over the next thirty years wrote poetry, painted, sculpted, and worked as a journalist, all the while translating texts and teaching zazen and koan study. Interned on Ellis Island during World War II, Sokei-an lamented, “My heart is bruised.”

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