Books In Brief Summer 2004

Joan Duncan Oliver

Mahamudra—direct examination of the mind—has a growing following in the West. Though an advanced teaching, it is well suited to Westerners, suggests Khenchen Thrangu Rinpoche, one of the foremost mahamudra teachers, and tutor to the 17th Karmapa. “It is peaceful and gentle, and there isn’t much danger of making terrible mistakes or creating a practice situation that can harm us,” he writes in Essentials of Mahamudra: Looking Directly at the Mind (Wisdom Publications, 2004, 177 pp.; $16.95 cloth). The book is based on Tashi Namgyal’s Moonlight of Mahamudra, a 16th-century text that lays out the rationale behind the mahamudra practices, along with detailed instructions, including how to continue practicing off the cushion, in daily life. Edited from Thrangu Rinpoche’s teachings at a retreat, Essentials contains answers to students’ questions—helpful to practitioners at any level.

Two other recent books of Thrangu Rinpoche’s teachings cover similar ground. In both, the foundational texts are by the 9th Karmapa, Wangchuk Dorje, the great 16th-century mahamudra master. In The Ninth Karmpa's Ocean of Definitive Meaning (Snow Lion, 2003, 170pp.; $16.95 paper) Thrangu Rinpoche distills the essence of the 9th Karmapa’s most comprehensive text, containing instructions on shamatha(calm abiding or tranquility) and vipashyana (insight meditation), as applied to mahamudra. A companion volume, Pointing Out the Dharmakaya (Snow Lion, 2003, 170 pp.; $16.95 paper), deepens the instructions on insight. Studying these classics can help refine meditation practice, Thrangu Rinpoche suggests: past masters called dharma texts “the teacher who never gets mad at you,” because reading lets you set your own pace.

Zen practitioners traditionally favor direct experience over texts. Beyond Thinking: A Guide to Zen Meditation (Shambhala, 2004, 160 pp.; $14.95 paper) is a collection of teachings by the great Zen master Dogen (1200—1253), whose advice on practice has lost none of its lustre. Edited by writerartist Kazuaki Tanahashi, this volume contains Dogen’s classic instructions on zazen (sitting meditation), along with talks on the Zen experience and guidelines for communal practice. An instruction like “Do not read books in the [meditation] hall, even Zen texts, and do not bring in personal correspondence” may seem self-evident, even amusing, until you consider zendo protocol in a larger context. Norman Fischer provides an introduction; the distinguished lineup of translators includes Zen teachers Reb Anderson, Edward Brown, and Blanche Hartman, and the poet Philip Whalen. The third Dogen book project of the San Francisco Zen Center, this deserves a central spot on the practice shelf.

Thich Nhat Hanh is one of the most popular Buddhist teachers in the West—his books have outsold even the Dalai Lama’s. Touching the Earth: Intimate Conversations with the Buddha (Parallax Press, 2004, 160 pp.; $10.00 paper) contains forty guided meditations by the beloved Vietnamese Zen monk, aimed at developing a personal relationship with the Buddha and generating compassion. The practices are based on a traditional Vietnamese ceremony, “Beginning Anew,” that allows us to express regret for past wrongdoing, then move on without guilt.

Continuing the venerable tradition of Zen arts is John Daido Loori, abbot of Zen Mountain Monastery in Mount Tremper, New York. A master photographer who studied with Minor White (see Tricycle, Spring 2003), Daido Roshi brings his graceful teaching and forty years’ experience as an artist to The Zen of Creativity: Cultivating Your Artistic Life (Ballantine, June 2004, 272 pp.; illustrated, $25.95 cloth). Here we see the creative process as spiritual practice that “points us toward our essential nature” and, conversely, zazen as the way back to our creative core. Zen tales and practical exercises guide us in exploring “Dancing Brush,” “Mystery,” “Expressing the Inexpressible,” and more.

Whether rendered in the spare brushstrokes of Zen sumi-e painting or cast in bronze, a Buddha image can stir devotion. But however beautiful, the image is said to have no spiritual meaning until it is consecrated—imbued with the power and essence of the living Buddha in an “eye opening” ceremony. Becoming the Buddha: The Ritual of Image Consecration in Thailand (Princeton University Press, 2004, 336 pp.; illustrated, $35.00 cloth), by eminent scholar Donald K. Swearer, Charles & Harriet Cox McDowell Professor of Religion and Philosophy at Swarthmore, is the first book-length examination of this ancient tradition. We learn about beliefs and practices surrounding Buddha fabrication, their purpose summed up in The Manual for Making a Buddha Image: “When one constructs a Buddha image, and chants as written in this text, it will be as though the Buddha himself is present.”

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