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Zenju Earthlyn Manuel’s Tell Me Something about Buddhism: Questions and Answers for the Curious Beginner (Hampton Roads Publishing, 2011, $16.95, paper, 128 pp.) is a simple yet uncommon introduction to the Buddha’s teachings. Manuel, an African- American Zen priest, takes a direct and personal approach to the dharma. “What does Buddhism have to do with black people?” she recalls her youngest sister once asking her. Manuel goes on to reflect on the ways in which being black has informed and enriched her understanding of Buddhism. “The practice is to make companions of difference and harmony, see them both as oneness itself,” she writes. “We cannot take the teaching of harmony to serve the desire for sameness and comfort.” Tell Me Something about Buddhism is organized in an accessible Q&A format, and much of it consists of the sort of material that one would expect from a book for beginners (Can you tell me more about the Four Noble Truths of Suffering?). But the book asks some nontraditional questions as well: Would you say Buddha experienced a vision quest? How do we practice oneness in the presence of harmful discrimination? and How does entering the Buddha way affect our understanding of race, gender, or sexual orientation as the form of our lives? Even with the unanswerable questions, Manuel’s responses are crisp. “Understanding Buddhism is like groping in the dark,” she tells us. “Know that I have made an attempt to concretize a teaching that cannot be solidified because wisdom comes from your own life.” Tell Me Something about Buddhism also includes artistic offerings from Manuel: 20 charcoal and pencil illustrations (see above) and 3 poems. Thich Nhat Hanh wrote the book’s foreword.
Whether or not you believe in reincarnation, the Tibetan tulku system of reincarnate lamas is fascinating. For centuries, Tibetan Buddhists have been engaged in the tradition of finding, recognizing, enthroning, training, and venerating these perpetually reborn spiritual masters. Incarnation: The History and Mysticism of the Tulku Tradition of Tibet (Shambhala Publications, 2011, $18.95, paper, 176 pp.) is the first book to take a comprehensive look at how this system works. A tulku himself, author Tulku Thondup Rinpoche has long been a scholar of the tradition he belongs to. Just as his Hidden Teachings of Tibet made the Tibetan terma tradition comprehensible to laypeople, Incarnation is a concise and thorough explanation of an esoteric subject. Thondup covers the history of the tulku tradition and reveals its intricacies, such as the three different types of tulkus and the four foundations of the tulku principle. Still, there’s the nagging question of how to relate to tulkus if you don’t adopt the Tibetan belief in rebirth. “According to Buddhism, death is not the end of life,” Thondup writes. “Your physical body will dissolve into the elements at the time of death. But your mind or consciousness— your true identity—will take rebirth according to what your past karma will ordain for you.” This last part, about karma, doesn’t apply to buddhas or highly accomplished adepts—two of the three tulku types—who have transcended the karmic cycle of cause and effect. Some tulkus, however, do obtain rebirths through karma that allow them to be of maximum benefit to others. Incarnation is a wonderful book for anyone who wants to learn more about a complex system from the inside.
“This isn’t your grandmother’s book on meditation,” writes Lodro Rinzler in the introduction to his first book, The Buddha Walks into a Bar: A Guide to Life for a New Generation (Shambhala Publications, 2012, $14.95, paper, 208 pp.). Whether you find this opening remark endearing or corny will likely predict what you will think of The Buddha Walks into a Bar. Rinzler, a 28-year-old “dharma brat” (second generation Western Buddhist) and meditation teacher in the Shambhala tradition, certainly has a target audience. “It’s for you,” he writes. “That is, assuming you like to have a beer once in a while, enjoy sex, have figured out that your parents are crazy, or get frustrated at work.” Don’t let Rinzler’s youthful exuberance fool you, though. The kid knows his stuff. The book’s fourpart structure is based on the four dignities of Shambhala training—the tiger, lion, garuda, and dragon—which are used to explore the three yanas, or vehicles, schematic of traditional Tibetan Buddhism. All the while, Rinzler earnestly takes on subjects like money, one-night stands, and how to be gentle with your “Incredible Hulk Syndrome” (afflictive emotional states). While Rinzler’s efforts to appeal to “Generation O” can be distracting, it is this blend of serious and silly that makes The Buddha Walked into a Bar stand out among Buddhist books.
Across Many Mountains: A Tibetan Family’s Epic Journey from Oppression to Freedom (St. Martin’s Press, 2011, $26.99, 320 pp.) is the memoir of three generations of Tibetan women. Written by the youngest, Yangzom Brauen, the story begins with her grandmother, Kunsang Wangmo, and her days as a Buddhist nun in old Tibet. Kunsang falls in love with a monk (don’t worry, it’s allowed); they marry and have a daughter, Sonam. Then the Chinese invade Tibet. The consequences of this invasion are horrifying, but they are what give this story its wings. Kunsang and Sonam escape over the Himalayas and into India. As refugees, they survive by breaking rocks into gravel, knitting sweaters, and working in an orphanage. When Sonam becomes a young woman, a Swiss graduate student pursues her and eventually the two marry. Kunsang and Sonam then move once again, this time to Switzerland, where the author is born. Yangzom grows up to become active in the Tibetan cause, as well as becoming an actress, model, and storyteller. While the writing in Across Many Mountains can be a little choppy, it’s worth reading for the incredible story. Yangzom shows readers the personal side of the Chinese invasion of Tibet, revealing the strength and grace of an uprooted people.