Books in Brief Spring 2004

Joan Duncan Oliver

Chögyam Trungpa was a monumental force in establishing Buddhism in the West. Introducing thousands to meditation, the charismatic Tibetan teacher set up more than a hundred centers and Naropa University, and wrote prolifically, including thirteen books during his lifetime. After his death in 1987, thirteen additional books were compiled from his lectures and poetry by Shambhala Publications. Now Shambhala has gathered this material, along with plays, interviews, lectures, seminar transcripts, articles, and calligraphy, into an eight-volume, cloth-bound set, The Collected Works of Chögyam Trungpa ($49.95 per volume; volumes vary in length from 480 to 700-plus pages). Volumes 1 through 4 came out in January 2004; the remaining four are due in late March.

The range of material is astounding—a reminder of Trungpa’s polymathic genius. Editor Carolyn Rose Gimian arranged the series thematically, not chronologically, though Volume 1 covers Trungpa’s early years in England, before he moved to North America in the 1970s. This material, written while he was still learning English, reveals Trungpa’s drive to bridge the culture gap. Soon, of course, he developed a unique rapport with Westerners, especially Americans: they loved his “crazy wisdom”; he clearly “got” them. Volume 2 contains teachings on meditation, mind, and Mahayana, the “great” vehicle for developing compassion and awareness. Volume 3 includes two of Trungpa’s most iconic books: Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism and The Myth of Freedom. Volume 4 introduces his tantric (Vajrayana) teachings. Volume 5 focuses on the lives of great teachers. Volume 6 presents advanced teachings on the nature of mind and tantric experiences. Volume 7 contains poetry and art, and Volume 8 covers the Shambhala teachings—the intensive training Trungpa developed for lay practitioners.

To Mahayanists, the Prajnaparamita, or Perfection of Wisdom, sutras contain the essence of the Buddha’s teachings on liberation. The Heart Sutra (Snow Lion, 2003, $14.95 paper, 128 pp.) is Geshe Sonam Rinchen’s crystalline teaching on the most concise of the Wisdom sutras, translated and edited by his longtime student Ruth Sonam. Highlights include a chapter on the mantra Gate gate paragate parasamgate bodhi svaha (“Go, go, go beyond, go completely beyond, establish the foundation of enlightenment”). Chanted by Mahayana Buddhists worldwide, “it protects the minds of those who practice it from all fears and describes how to make the transition from worldly existence to the supreme state beyond all sorrow,” Geshe Sonam tell us.

Buddhism’s survival has depended, at times, on a delicate balance of integrity and relevance. The ten essays written for Buddhism in the Modern World: Adaptations of an Ancient Tradition (Oxford University Press, 2003, $55.00 cloth, $19.95 paper, 287 pp.) explore the response of traditional Buddhist communities to modernity—science and technology, shifting mores, and secular distractions. Editors Steven Heine and Charles S. Prebish contributed essays along with other leading scholars including Jacqueline Stone, Donald Swearer, and Tara Doyle. Prebish looks at how Theravada communities have stayed vital by embracing creative variations on monastic rules regarding work, food, and dress. Heine considers how the Shushogi—a nineteenth-century revision of Dogen’s Shobogenzo that expunged all mention of meditation—contributed to Soto Zen’s “staying power” when the Japanese sangha became more interested in evil karma than enlightenment. Daniel Cozort focuses on two organizations—the Foundation for the Preservation of the Mahayana Tradition, and the New Kadampa Tradition—that have adapted the traditional Tibetan geshe (scholar) curriculum to Western needs with lama training that includes courses in counseling and “life coaching.”

In another turn on modernism-meets-tradition, Zen priest Steve Hagen sets out to strip away cultural trappings and preconceptions and steer us toward “bare, naked attention.” Buddhism is Not What You Think: Finding Freedom Beyond Beliefs (Harper SanFrancisco, 2003, $22.95 cloth) draws on Zen teaching stories, literary allusions, and contemporary cultural references to “open our eyes to Truth.” Apart from a distracting convention—Hagen capitalizes words that refer to “the Absolute aspect of experience” and italicizes those signifying “objectless awareness” (e.g., seeing, knowing)—the book is a straight-on treatment of broad Buddhist concepts. “A buddha, an awakened person, is someone who just sees . . . who does not confuse conception with perception,” Hagen tells us. Alas, he doesn’t tell us how to “just see.” But if you just sit with that intention, you just might. See, that is.

 

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