Books In Brief Summer 2001

© Weiser BooksBuddhist Symbolism in Tibetan Thangkas:
The Story of Siddhartha and Other Buddhas Interpreted in Modern Nepalese Painting
by Ben Meulenbeld
Weiser Books: Maine, 2001
112 pp.; $19.95 (paper)

This book is an introduction to the art of the Tibetan scroll painting, or thangka—literally, “something that can be rolled up.” The author comments on thirty-seven thangkas, reproduced here in full color, which take us through the life of the Buddha. He also explains how to understand the symbolism that identifies the many figures of veneration of the Vajrayana tradition—from Padmasambhava and Naropa, through various dakinis and yoginis, to the Kalachakra Mandala.

© Wisdom PublicationsEight Mindful Steps to Happiness:
Walking the Buddha’s Path
by Bhante Henepola Gunaratana
Wisdom Publications: Boston, 2001
268 pp.; $16.95 (paper)

Bhante Gunaratana’s earlier book Mindfulness in Plain English was first published in 1993; even though a spate of books for beginners has glutted the market since that time, it has retained its status for being among the very best. His new book on the Buddha’s Eightfold Path is the much-awaited sequel and serves the reader just as well. Bhante Gunaratana’s forte is his presentation of clear, intelligent insight into the most basic teaching in a voice that is well acquainted with the West. The instructions, honed for contemporary Western ways, make this book another exceptional example of how profound a simple and accessible book can be.

© Alfred A. KnopfUltimate Journey:
Retracing the Path of an Ancient Buddhist Monk Who Crossed Asia in Search of Enlightenment
by Richard Bernstein
Alfred A. Knopf: New York, 2001
352 pp.; $26 (cloth)

In the early seventh century, a Chinese Buddhist monk named Hsuan Tsang left his home in Ch’ang-an, China, and set out across Asia, all the way to India, where the Buddha had lived and taught more than a thousand years before. He traversed harsh desert and tall mountains “on camel-back, elephant-back, or on foot,” ultimately crossing nearly five thousand miles in search of the Law, “the original classics of Buddhist thought,” and to settle what he called “the perplexities of my mind.” He returned safely, a mere sixteen years later.

Ultimate Journey is the story of a twentieth-century reenactment of this ancient quest. Richard Bernstein, a writer on leave from the New York Times, undertook to retrace the steps of Hsuan Tsang, juxtaposing his experiences with those of his fabled predecessor, reconstructing the marvels of this ancient route.

He travels by jeep and by motorcycle-rickshaw, meeting cranky Maharajas, Pakistani soldiers, and numerous traveling monks. Everywhere, the past infiltrates the present. In Bodhgaya, site of the Buddha’s enlightenment, he sees a banner announcing “Coca-Cola welcomes His Holiness the Dalai Lama.”

Although this book is notable for both its historical depth and its tales of adventure, Bernstein does not neglect to honor Hsuan Tsang’s power of spirit, his search for illumination. The author finds himself reflecting deeply on the nature of truth as Hsuan Tsang sought it, making of this journey his own pilgrimage.

© HarperCollinsJane Hirschfield
from Given Sugar, Given Salt
HarperCollins: New York, 2001,
88pp.; $24 (cloth)


Some stories last many centuries,
others only a moment.
All alter over that lifetime like beach-glass,
grow distant and more beautiful with salt.

Yet even today, to look at a tree
and ask the story Who are you? is to be transformed.

There is a stage in us where each being, each thing, is a mirror.

Then the bees of self pour from the hive-door,
ravenous to enter the sweetness of flowering nettles and thistle.

Next comes the ringing a stone or violin or empty bucket
gives off—
the immeasurable's continuous singing,
before it goes back into story and feeling.

In Borneo, there are palm trees that walk on their high roots.
Slowly, with effort, they lift one leg then another.

I would like to join that stilted transmigration,
to feel my own skin vertical as theirs:
an ant road, a highway for beetles.

I would like not minding, whatever travels my heart,
To follow it all the way into leaf-form, bark-furl, root-touch,
and then keep walking, unimaginably further.


© Snow Lion PublicationsBuddhism for Beginners
by Thubten Chodron
Snow Lion Publications: Ithaca, N.Y., 2001
160 pp.; $12.95 (paper)

Ven. Thubten Chodron, an American-born nun in the Tibetan tradition, wrote Buddhism for Beginners to explain the fundamentals of Buddhism to students who had requested to hear about the teachings “in everyday English . . . without a lot of Pali and Sanksrit terms.” She answers basic questions—Who is the Buddha? What is meditation? What is karma?—directly, with examples from daily life. Aside from a chapter on the Vajrayana tradition, the teachings presented are nonsectarian. Although the book consists of questions and answers, Ven. Chodron reminds readers to continue to reflect on these questions, to “hold” them, even when an answer has been given, so that the teachings may be better integrated into their lives and practice.


© Tuttle PublishingThe Iron Flute:
100 Zen Koans
by Nyogen Senzaki and Ruth Strout McCandless
Tuttle Publishing: Boston, 2001
153 pp.; $14.95 (paper)

The Iron Flute is a collection of 100 koans, or teaching stories, that were used by the great Zen patriarchs of T’ang and Sung China. The original version of this presentation was compiled by Genro, an eighteenth-century Japanese Zen master. The English translation is by Ruth Strout McCandless and Nyogen Senzaki, the first Zen master to take up residence in the West. Originally published by Tuttle in 1964, The Iron Flute held an iconic allure for the first wave of Zen enthusiasts. Enhancing this new edition are some short essays by and about Nyogen Senzaki and an instructive introduction by Steve Hagen. Nyogen said of himself that he was like a mushroom, with no roots, no flowers, and no seeds, and wished, at the end, to blow away like dust. Fortunately for us, and with Tuttle’s help, this has not happened.

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