Filed in Books & Media

Books in Brief Spring 2013

Emma Varvaloucas

Five years after the publication of Breakfast with Buddha, a novel that follows Otto “Mr. Ordinary” Ringling and the Siberian Buddhist master Volya Rinpoche on a cross-country road trip, Roland Merullo returns with Lunch with Buddha (AJAR Contemporaries, 2012, $16.85, 347 pp., paper). Lunch takes Otto and Rinpoche on another road trip, this time from Washington State to North Dakota, where Otto’s sister Cecelia and Rinpoche—now married with a child—run a Buddhist retreat center. Merullo doesn’t shy away from using suffering as the building block of his characters’ growth: in Breakfast, Otto drives West to settle his parents’ affairs after their fatal car accident, while the sequel begins with the death of Otto’s wife, who has asked him to spread her ashes in Washington. Otto, a novice meditator who considers his sister—a past-life regressions guide—and her husband to be living “on the far side of some line that marked the boundary of ordinary American reality,” nonetheless, as in the first book, becomes a receptive party to Rinpoche’s life lessons. Their conversations, ranging over everything from pot smoking and transvestites to swimming and death, are alternately hilarious and poignant. Overall, though, both Otto and Rinpoche are more pensive than funny this time around: while Otto grieves, Rinpoche worries over the welfare of his young daughter, convinced that she is in danger.

Merullo’s detailed descriptions of the American Northwest, drawn from his own family road trip over the route Otto and Rinpoche follow, keep the writing grounded even as its themes turn increasingly spiritual. Merullo doesn’t try too hard to prove any spiritual points, however. As a result, Lunch is a moving yet entertaining and never histrionic account of how an ordinary American family—with a few extraordinary members in its ranks—deals with the overwhelming grief of losing one of their own.

“Two streams are converging,” writes Roshi Pat Enkyo O’Hara in the preface to The Arts of Contemplative Care: Pioneering Voices in Buddhist Chaplaincy and Pastoral Work (Wisdom Publications, 2012, $34.95, 368 pp., cloth), edited by Cheryl A. Giles and Willa B. Miller. “A current of recognition that something is missing in the secular, commercial approaches to caretaking, and at the same time, a wave of realization in Buddhist communities that our practices of contemplation, awareness, and presence render us uniquely suited to fill this gap.” What has arisen to fill this gap is the budding field of contemplative care, a new form of applied Buddhism. Contemplative caretakers—for the most part certified Buddhist chaplains—draw upon their spiritual practice to bring their compassionate presence to those who need it most, namely the sick and the dying. A collection of essays by 36 Buddhist chaplains and contemplative caretakers, The Arts of Contemplative Care is the first book to provide a comprehensive look at this burgeoning field. Part one of the book explains contemplative care in detail and delves into such matters as the education and training of practitioners. Parts two through five explore Buddhist chaplaincy in secular or Judeo-Christian settings, such as hospitals, prisons, universities, and hospices. The final part discusses pastoral care within Buddhist sanghas. Throughout, the contributors, who include Thomas Dyer, the Army’s first Buddhist chaplain; Rev. Sumi Loundon Kim, a Buddhist chaplain at Duke University; and Nealy Zimmerman of the National Prison Hospice Association, bring their essays alive with inspiring and emotional stories from their extensive personal experience.

To many, the quintessential modern-day American Zen master is The Dude, the central character in the 1998 cult classic movie The Big Lebowski. Perhaps it was only a matter of time until Jeff Bridges, who plays the White-Russian-swilling, whale-music-listening, rug-obsessive Dude, would team up with a real-life American Zen master, Bernie Glassman, founder of the Zen Peacemakers. Close friends for the past decade, the two holed up at Bridges’s ranch in Montana—a communal retreat of sorts—and in Bridges’s words “jammed for five days,” jawing about whatever came to mind. They recorded it all, then put it down on paper, gave it a good edit, and bam, The Dude and the Zen Master (Blue Rider Press, 2013, $26.95, 288 pp., paper) was born. Naturally, Buddhism dominated the conversation, so the book reads somewhat like an extended, chilled-out version of dokusan—the traditional Zen encounter between student and teacher—only with more cussing. Themes from The Big Lebowski often serve as jumping-off points for the dialogue, leading to such chapters as “Dude, You’re Being Very Un-Dude” and “Yeah, Well, Ya Know, That’s Just Like, uh, Your Opinion, Man.” The book may not win any awards for eloquence, but the combination of Bridges’s personal anecdotes and Glassman’s extensive Buddhist knowledge keeps it profound despite the relaxed tone. The Dude and the Zen Master is perhaps best described by Bridges’s characterization of his relationship with Glassman: “opening, jamming, digging what it is to be intimate and generous.”

In Dakini Power: Twelve Extraordinary Women Shaping the Transmission of Tibetan Buddhism in the West (Snow Lion, 2013, $16.95, 352 pp., paper), German journalist and Tibetan Buddhist practitioner Michaela Haas brings us mini-biographies of a dozen Buddhist women today. With the exception of Zen Roshi Joan Halifax, all the women, who include the beloved teachers Khandro Rinpoche, Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo, and Pema Chödrön, are Tibetan Buddhists. It’s no secret that Buddhist teachings and stories, Tibetan or otherwise, largely omit accounts of great women practitioners. Where are the female Milarepas or Dalai Lamas? It’s not that examples of enlightened Buddhist women don’t exist, Haas writes. It’s just that they have seldom been acknowledged. Dakini Power, then, is more than a simple celebration of these women’s lives. It’s a testament to their struggles navigating the patriarchy of Tibetan culture, as well as a resounding call for change. Many of the female masters cited here are already change agents, having dedicated their lives to improving the lot of Tibetan Buddhist nuns and female lay practitioners. Nonetheless, it’s striking that of the 12 women in the book, every one, with the exception of Roshi Joan and Tsultrim Allione, is either a nun or the wife of a male Tibetan Buddhist master. The message seems to be that you have to either be ordained or marry a male master to be taken seriously in Tibetan Buddhism. Though Haas has a tendency to border on the cheesy—she uses phrases like “practicing with girl power” with alarming frequency—and to gush about the teachers she finds most inspiring, women practitioners from all Buddhist traditions will likely find echoes of their own dharma journeys in the tales of these 12 trailblazers.

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enver.rahmanov's picture

We use The Arts of Contemplative Care in our class on Buddhist Pastoral Care and Counseling at the Institute of Buddhist Studies / Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, and it is one of the best books I have ever read. Each author is a beautiful bodhisattva of compassion. Each chapter is an extraordinary lesson of life, deeply honest and present. There is always a tear, a smile, a breath of hope, and the possibility of our unconditional embrace of humanity with care that is beyond our religious concepts and borders.