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Anyone who knows Huston Smith from his classic work, The World’s Religions, is in for a surprise with And Live Rejoicing: Chapters from a Charmed Life—Personal Encounters with Spiritual Mavericks, Remarkable Seekers, and the World’s Great Religious Leaders (New World Library, 2012, $15.95, 248 pp. paper). While Smith’s first memoir, Tales of Wonder, outlined the renowned religion scholar’s remarkable life, the new book fills in the details. And what a “life of joy, even in the vale of sorrow” it is. Smith lays it all out in pithy anecdotes, many of them about family, or friends like the Dalai Lama. (They met on what Smith calls “the most astonishing morning of his life,” during which His Holiness grilled him about DNA and the Big Bang.) Raised in China, the son of Christian missionaries, Smith has had a long and illustrious career as an academic, TV interviewer, and author, along the way dropping acid with Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert (Ram Dass) and hobnobbing with a Who’s Who of 20th-century truth-seekers, from Thomas Merton, to Joseph Campbell, to Martin Luther King, Jr., to Noam Chomsky and Saul Bellow to assorted clairvoyants, swamis, and Native American healers. The thread through it all is Smith’s openhearted spiritual quest—“whoring after the Infinite,” as his friends once put it. “One could ask if there is any better whoring,” Smith suggests puckishly. He recounts signal moments in an ecumenical journey that ranges from Zen koan training in Japan to joining 10 million devotees at the Maha Kumbh Mela, a Hindu festival held once every 144 years. Evident throughout is that Smith, now 93, has truly lived by his book title. As his longtime friend and collaborator Phil Cousineau writes in the introduction, Smith’s life is a continual affirmation of his “infinite gratitude” and deep belief that “we are in good hands.”
The workmanlike title of scholar-artist Stephen Addiss’s newest book, The Art of Haiku: Its History through Poems and Paintings by Japanese Masters (Shambhala Publications, 2012, $24.95, 352 pp. cloth), doesn’t begin to suggest the riches that lie inside. Addiss opens with an examination of tanka, a 31-syllable precursor to haiku, then traces the evolution of the 17-syllable haiku form, with its characteristic 5-7-5 format and cryptic, nature-based imagery. He delves deep into the ancient poetry’s history, style, and composition to create a work that is both informative and beautiful, with 32 color plates of haiku calligraphy and haiga, painting. For a scholar writing about a topic that is notoriously elusive, Addiss is remarkably clear: “The purpose of haiku was to use the mundane while exceeding the mundane, to discover a moment of oneness in the diverse or to discern multiplicity in the singular.” If the writing occasionally tilts toward the academic, Addiss more than makes up for it with page after page of poems from the foremost masters of the form, including Basho (who “stands alone”), Buson, Issa (the “most beloved” haiku poet), and Shiki. Addiss indulges haiku fans liberally: at least half the book is taken up with these three-line wonders, including an offering from Den Sute-jo, a woman poet— a rarity in haiku—who became a nun:
But a woman’s skin’s
Though he was a reincarnated master born in the 17th century, Chöying Dorje, the Tenth Karmapa, was much like other artists throughout time: unconventional but talented, troubled but proud. “Regarding poetry and painting,” he was recorded as saying, “there is none greater than me in Tibet.” Part coffee table book, part serious art scholarship, The Black Hat Eccentric: Artistic Visions of the Tenth Karmapa (Rubin Museum of Art, 2012, $75.00, 320 pp. cloth), by RMA curator Karl Debreczeny, is a deep exploration of Chöying Dorje’s life and art. His reign as Karmapa coincided with a tumultuous period in Tibetan politics that nearly resulted in the eradication of the Karma Kagyu lineage. But even in the midst of chaos, Chöying Dorje was a standout figure. Unlike most Tibetan artists he had an individualized and recognizable painting and sculpting style. He was also unconventional as a Tibetan Buddhist leader, having a wife and children, wearing his hair long, and favoring the gray monastic robes of the Chinese, which he adopted during his 25 years of exile. The Black Hat Eccentric includes so many lush full-page images of the Karmapa’s work that even those with minimal knowledge of Tibetan art or Buddhism will enjoy looking through the book. Readers who delve into the text, however, will find that it assumes some familiarity with Tibetan Buddhist history and culture.
“If you are only concerned about feeling good, you are far better off having a full-body massage or listening to some uplifting or life-affirming music than receiving dharma teachings,” warns Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse Rinpoche in Not for Happiness: A Guide to the So-Called Preliminary Practices (Shambhala Publications, 2012, $17.95, 240 pp. paper). Bliss-seekers can go elsewhere. The Bhutanese lama and filmmaker tells readers, “The dharma was devised specifically to expose your failings and make you feel awful.” Assuming you can handle some harsh truths, however, you’ll find Not for Happiness just as accessible as the Rinpoche’s first book, the Buddhist-crowd favorite What Makes You Not a Buddhist. Here, too, he delivers traditional dharma teachings and texts in a modern voice. “Take the example of a precious cow,” he writes in a section on making offerings. “How useful would a cow be to someone living in the middle of New York?” Despite the breezy tone—and cover art featuring a martini glass and pills—Not for Happiness is not for Buddhist newbies. Rather, it’s a thorough explication of ngöndro, the preliminary practices for Vajrayana students, based on the Longchen Nyingtik Ngöndro of the Nyingma school.
Artwork by Hayashi Bunto in The Art of Haiku.