Books in Brief Fall 2003

Joan Duncan Oliver

Meanwhile, in Japan, the Buddhist establishment was more gung-ho on the war. In Zen War Stories (RoutledgeCurzon, 2003, $27.95, paper), Brian Daizen Victoria expands on his acclaimed—and controversial—1997 book, Zen at War, which revealed the militant spirit of certain Japanese Zen masters during World War II. In the current book, Victoria broadens his inquiry to show how institutional Buddhism “was used to legitimate Japanese militarism.” From his observations, we see how basic Buddhist principles—nonjudgment, self-forgetting, one mind—can be subverted for patriotic ends.

Buddhism in wartime is also the subject of The Lotus Unleashed: The Buddhist Peace Movement in South Vietnam, 1964-1966 (University Press of Kentucky, 2002, $35.00, cloth). Historian Robert J. Topmiller explores Buddhist-led agitation to replace the pro-American regime with a civilian government, and halt the war. The author sums up the tenor of those years with a quote from veteran journalist Henry Kamm: “Vietnam was not a land for pacifists.”

Zen monk Thich Nhat Hanh, a leader of the pro-peace “Third Force” at that time, fled Vietnam in 1966 after an attempt on his life, and has remained a tireless peacemaker ever since. Creating True Peace: Ending Violence in Yourself, Your Family, Your Community, and the World (Free Press, August, $23.00, cloth) is his latest manual for practicing nonviolence. Thấy (“teacher” in Vietnamese) encourages us to draft “a personal peace treaty” demonstrating our commitment to “protect ourselves from negative thinking and to nourish lovingkindness.” The book includes meditations for cultivating compassion and fostering peace and reconciliation on a personal and global level.

“In my true home I have no fear, no anxiety. I have peace and liberation,” Thich Nhat Hahn writes in I Have Arrived, I Am Home: Celebrating Twenty Years of Plum Village Life (Parallax Press, 2003, $25.00, paper). Charmingly described as a “tea table book,” this is a family album of sorts, put together by Thấy “and the Global Plum Village Family” to mark the anniversary of his retreat center in southern France. Illustrated with dozens of snapshots, the book packs in stories, songs, poems, and reflections on mindfulness and communal living, contributed by Thấy and assorted war veterans, prisoners, social workers, monks, nuns, and other sangha members. Coming home is, of course, a classic metaphor for awakening to what—and where—we already are. “I have stopped wandering,” Thấy writes. “I have arrived. This is the teaching and practice of Plum Village.”

The desire to “stop wandering” brings many people to meditation. Tricycle contributing editor Mark Magill’s graceful book, Why is the Buddha Smiling? Mindfulness as a Means of Bringing Calm and Insight to Your Life (Fair Winds Press, August, $18.95, cloth), sets out teachings and practices that lead to inner freedom—and an answer to the question posed in the title.

There is an underlying question in Sogyal Rinpoche’s The Spirit of Buddhism: The Future of Dharma in the West (HarperSanFrancisco, 2003, $15.95, cloth), and the answer seems to be yes. Sogyal draws a parallel between the state of the dharma in the West today and the spiritual renaissance fostered by the nonsectarian Rimé movement in nineteenth-century Tibet. As he sees it, the future of Buddhist practice in the West is rosy, provided there is a commitment to fostering openness between traditions, deepening the teachings, “maintaining the purity of the lineage,” and strengthening the dharma community.

Dzogchen (“the Great Perfection”), a form of Tibetan Buddhist practice seen as the pinnacle of realization, was long considered too advanced for Westerners. Now it is widely taught in the West, and fast becoming fashionable. In Beyond Words: Dzogchen Made Simple (Element, 2003, $22.95, cloth), Judith Allan and Julia Lawless, longtime students of Tibetan master Chögyal Namkhai Norbu, undertake the not-so-simple task of making this ancient hidden teaching accessible.

Dzogchen, in one sense, refers to the realization of one’s basic nature, the nondual perfected state, so even talking about it puts us at risk of dumbing down what words can’t explain. On the other hand, Namkhai Norbu’s foreword is, in itself, a demonstration of a clear mind at work. The authors go on to give us an overview of the teachings and the role of the teacher; introduce us to early Dzogchen masters; and explain fundamental practices (pointing-out; sky meditation) as well as more advanced forms, like dream yoga and attaining the “rainbow body.”

Tricycle contributing editor Carole Tonkinson edited the book, which tackles the issue of what will happen to Dzogchen as interest spreads. The authors stress the need to preserve the integrity of the teachings and the purity of their transmission, but they are no more successful than the next person at predicting the future of Dzogchen in the maw of the all-consuming West.

Roaring Silence: Discovering the Mind of Dzogchen (Shambhala, 2002, $16.95, paper) offers another perspective on Dzogchen teachings, this from Ngakpa Chögyam and Khandro Dechen, Western-born lamas in the Nyingma tradition. Aimed at a more experienced practitioner, the text contains meditations, visualizations, and vajra postures. The authors perform an invaluable service by including questions-and-answers with various Tibetan Buddhist teachers, who supply guidance on the subtleties of Dzogchen practice.

Finally, don’t miss this addition to the research shelf: Oxford’s Dictionary of Buddhism (Oxford University Press, 2003, $35.00, cloth). The 2,000-plus entries include interesting surprises: Check out the full-page entry on “stem cell research,” considered in light of Buddhist ethics.

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