Books in Brief Summer 2003

Joan Duncan Oliver

Alan Clements’s Instinct for Freedom: Finding Liberation Through Living (New World Library, 2002, $22.95, cloth) offers another inside look at monastic life in Asia; Clements was the first American to become a Buddhist monk in Burma. From his notes and prodigious memory, Clements reconstructs an interview-by-interview account of five years’ study with the Vipassana teachers Mahasi Sayadaw and Sayadaw U Pandita. Alongside the dharma discourse, Clements relates his Indiana Jones-like adventures with forces opposing Burma’s repressive regime. (In all, he spent nearly a decade in Burma, toward the end of his stay co-authoring The Voice of Hope with Aung San Suu Kyi, the 1991 Nobel laureate and leader of Burma’s nonviolent resistance.) Less clearly defined is Clements’s manifesto for a “world dharma” centered on “liberation through living” that makes social and political activism integral to spiritual awakening. With the world in such a mess, the impetus for a dharma of interrelatedness is strong, but how to realize it isn’t made clear.

For that, readers can turn to The New Social Face of Buddhism: A Social Call to Action (Wisdom Publications, May, $16.95, paper), an expanded and updated edition of Ken Jones’s 1989 handbook of socially engaged Buddhism. Starting from the foundational idea that inner liberation and social liberation must proceed as one, Jones, a longtime social activist and Zen practitioner, elaborates on Buddhist social theory and on practices for inner transformation. Then, envisioning a “broadly inclusive . . . culture of awakening,” he outlines requisite action for “mainstreaming the dharma,” in order to address the world’s pressing problems: war, poverty, environmental degradation, and social injustice.

Tricycle contributing editor Charles Johnson, an English professor at the University of Washington, often writes about the dharma and social justice. In one essay from his new collection, Turning the Wheel: Essays on Buddhism and Writing (Scribner, June, $23.00, cloth), he uses the occasion of Toro Nagashi, a traditional Japanese lantern-lighting ceremony honoring the dead, to ponder what life would be like if we followed the Four Right Procedures, Pure Land teachings on nonviolence and good deeds.

Buddhism’s roots go back 2,500 years, but its history as we know it surfaced relatively recently, in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The Search for the Buddha: The Men Who Discovered India’s Lost Religion (Carroll & Graf, April, $26.00, cloth) tells the stories of the small, eccentric band of civil servants, adventurers, amateur archaeologists and linguists who crisscrossed southern Asia, unearthing Buddhist relics and long-lost stupas, and deciphering Sanskrit and Pali inscriptions and texts, to extricate the “secret religion of the sub-continent” from the overlay of Hindu and Islamic culture. The author, historian Charles Allen—descended from a long line of Anglos who served under the Raj—takes the view that without these passionate “Orientalist sahibs,” Buddhism would never have resurfaced or made it to the West. An interesting companion read to The Cult of Nothingness.

For a short history of Buddhism as it traveled from Asia to America, as well as an overview of the current practice scene, see Buddhism: A Concise Introduction (HarperSanFrancisco, March, $19.95, cloth) by the noted religion scholar Huston Smith and his former student Philip Novak, now a professor of philosophy and religion. The first part of the book expands on material from Smith’s masterwork, The World’s Religions. The section on Theravada Buddhism—given short shrift in the original—has been fleshed out, and the Theravada-Mahayana “great divide” is unpacked with a helpful chart comparing the two branches. Novak traces Buddhism’s growth in the West, particularly the new forms evolving in America, while Smith contributes a new afterword on the Pure Land tradition’s rising popularity in the U.S.

Buddhism A to Z (Buddhist Text Translation Society, March, $21.95, paper) provides an overview in dictionary format. From abbot to Zhiyi (the Third Chinese Patriarch), there are definitions, with textual citations, of basic Buddhist terms, along with fascinating arcana, such as seven ways to bow and the history of the lotus position. Compiled by Ronald B. Epstein, a professor at the University of California, San Francisco, and director of the Institute for World Religions in Berkeley, this is probably the first Buddhist dictionary to declare itself a “work in progress” and to solicit suggestions and corrections from readers.

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