What is Buddhism? While the diversity of Buddhist schools of thought make it all but impossible to encapsulate the tradition in one book, the new collectionBUDDHIST PHILOSOPHY: ESSENTIAL READINGS (Oxford University Press, 2009, $24.95 paper, 480 pp.) is as comprehensive an attempt as any. Editors William Edelglass and Jay L. Garfield, both philosophy professors, have selected a wide range of academic contributions, with commentary on the Pali canon, Nagarjuna, and Dogen, among many others. This is a dense volume, but its coherent presentation of Buddhist philosophy in all its variety makes diving in worth the effort. For those interested in stepping beyond the realm of ideas into the world of practice, the latest book from Tibetan master Lama Zopa Rinpoche is a helpful guide to one important aspect of the spiritual path.
THE HEART OF THE PATH: SEEING THE GURU AS BUDDHA(Lama Yeshe Wisdom Archive, 2009, $20.00 paper, 502 pp.) explains the importance of guru devotion and Zopa’s view of the proper way to develop a student-teacher bond. Lama Zopa has had many teachers, but his unwavering devotion to Lama Thubten Yeshe shines through on each page. Drawing on this experience and the Buddha’s teachings, Zopa effectively conveys the value of relationships based on Buddhist ideals.
Sometimes, unfortunately, devotion is misdirected. John Powers, an Australian professor of Asian studies, is the author of an important new book about the history of masculine imagery and idolatry in early Buddhism, from the time of the Buddha through the eighth century C.E. A BULL OF A MAN: IMAGES OF MASCULINITY, SEX, AND THE BODY IN INDIAN BUDDHISM (Harvard University Press, 2009, $45.00 hardcover, 334 pp.) addresses the history of women’s exclusion from Buddhist practice and hierarchies but examines first and foremost the conceptions of manhood that support this double standard. Although the Buddha was celibate for much of his life, among Buddhists on the subcontinent he was said to possess a physically exceptional body assumed to be irresistible to women. Powers notes that this attribute distinguished the Buddha from Christ and Muhammad, who, despite their divine personas, were conceived of as physically average human beings.
Many Americans and Europeans have been drawn to Buddhism not only as a religious practice but also as a part of popular culture. In his new book SHOTS IN THE DARK: JAPAN, ZEN, AND THE WEST (University of Chicago Press, 2009, $35.00 hardcover, 304 pp.), Shoji Yamada, a professor at the International Research Center for Japanese Studies in Kyoto, writes about two enduring car riers of Zen in Western culture: Eugen Herrigel’s Zen in the Art of Archery and the Ryoanji dry-landscape rock garden. The many distortions and permutations of these two icons, he suggests in this fascinating study, act as a doublesided mirror—on one side, Westerners fashion a sense of self around a partly imaginary Japanese culture, and on the other, Japanese see an adaptable notion of “Japaneseness.”
Huston Smith, widely recognized as the West’s preeminent teacher of world religions, has made a career of building cross-cultural bridges. For decades he has taught his readers about Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, and many other traditions. Now, with the release of his autobiography, TALES OF WONDER: ADVENTURES CHASING THE DIVINE (HarperOne, 2009, $25.99 harcover, 240 pp.), we can learn something about this beloved teacher. From his upbringing in a remote Chinese village as the child of missionaries to his encounters with Martin Luther King, Jr., Eleanor Roosevelt, and Thomas Merton, Smith has no shortage of material to work with. Weaving these stories together with intimate anecdotes from his family life, he tells a marvelous tale of adventure—one that could almost pass for fiction.
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