Heal Thy Self
Lessons in Mindfulness in Medicine
Crown: New York, 1999
288 pp.; $23 (paper)
Lotus in the Fire:
The Healing Power of Zen
Shambhala: Boston, 1999
TK pp.; $14.95 (paper)
At least two major surveys over the past two years—one by Gallup and the other by Yankelovich—have shown that those who are dying rate spiritual issues of crucial concern. Further, they have a great desire to pray, which Gallup researchers say translates into either traditional prayer or meditation. Astoundingly, given how secular a society we are touted to be, these patients also want their doctors to pray with them.
Problem is, prayer is usually the last thing on doctors’ minds. And, until recently, medical schools have taught doctors little about care of the dying and focused not at all on spirituality, meditation, or prayer. All this might soon be changing, however.
Just this past year, the American Medical Association embarked on an ambitious program to sensitize doctors to the needs of the dying. Similar initiatives have been launched in hospitals, medical schools, and health-care settings nationwide. Luckily, this all comes at a time when a large body of literature exists to guide doctors and patients, including classic spiritual teachings, early work in visualizations for cancer patients by O. Carl Simonton, M.D., and Bernie Siegel, M.D., and research on the physiological impact of meditation and prayer by Herbert Benson, M.D., director of Harvard’s Mind/Body Institute. There is also the healing work of the soul combining Jungian therapy and art work taught by Rachel Naomi Remen, M.D., and the use of mindfulness meditation in the hospital setting, as pioneered by Jon Kabat-Zinn, Ph.D.
Saki Santorelli comes out of this new movement. He is the current director and a longtime affiliate of the Stress Reduction Clinic at the Center for Mindfulness, Medicine, and Health Care at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center in Worcester, which Kabat-Zinn started some twenty years ago. Santorelli also runs courses for health care professionals on meditation, based on studies done by Kabat-Zinn, Benson, and others that show meditation’s beneficial impact on everything from heart disease to chronic pain, infertility, and PMS.
The core of Heal Thy Self: Lessons on Mindfulness in Medicine is a walk-through of an eight-week class, open to current or former patients with the terrible illnesses that end up killing most of us today: heart disease, cancer, more cancer. While the course begins with sitting meditation, it also incorporates at-home yoga and visualization exercises. These are not explained in his book, but one assumes that Santorelli is referring to the exercises Kabat-Zinn already described briefly in Full-Catastrophe Living. What is clear, though, is the effect the program has on his patients, on the increasing openness and intimacy of the group, and on Santorelli himself through his understanding of his own life and of the universal process of dying.
This is a dance between the healer and those who want to be healed. Santorelli views meditation as helpful not only for patients’ physical and mental well-being, but also for promoting the physician’s own growth and to ward off burnout as well. In one lovely passage after the next, he shares his view of the doctor/patient relationship as one of mutual transformation. The role of the physician, he writes, is “one of being with rather than working on.” In addition to technical skill, that compassionate presence seems to be just what modern patients want.
One vivid description of the patient’s side of this dance is Jim Bedard’s book, Lotus in the Fire: The Healing Power of Zen. This is a journal of his terrible battle with a virulent form of leukemia, and of his own meditation while traveling his rough life journey. A longtime Zen practitioner and a martial arts teacher, Bedard fought harder than many people would have, enduring painful rounds of chemotherapy, culminating in an excruciating bone marrow transplant. He freely admits he would not have continued had it not been for his teacher, Sensei Sunyana Graef, prodding him not to give up and saying repeatedly that death is too easy a choice.
To me, this was surprising advice, running contrary to many recent books on dying that suggest a more accepting view of death. Bedard did not go gently into any good night, make any peace with his dying, nor say any trendy good-byes. Instead, he held on, and he implies that his practice healed him. Equally important to his recovery, it seemed to me, was his amazingly supportive family – an extraordinarily sympathetic wife and young children, his parents, and a large number of siblings who were all willing and anxious not only to lend help but to volunteer to endure the pain of being a bone marrow transplant donor.
For Bedard, the payoff was life. But for readers, the downside of his story is the inadvertent message that if one meditates diligently enough one needn’t die. This is a dark notion I find embedded in much of the current literature on illness, meditation, and healing. Death is not a failure, though; it happens to all of us. It’s bad enough to be dying without feeling that you’ve failed to heal yourself because of weak meditation practice.
Yet the skill with which Bedard chronicles his battle is enthralling. I do wish, as I had with Santorelli, that he had given more specific practice details, but the worthy and timely message from both writers comes through: It’s time for mainstream medicine to acknowledge the enormous benefits of a spiritual life. It’s also time for doctors to be trained in meditative skills (truly for the benefit of themselves and others!), and for patients to make use of meditation as often as they might take their daily pills.
The Couch and the Tree
Dialogues in Psychoanalysis and Buddhism
Edited by Anthony Molino
North Point Press: New York, 1988
384 pp., $30 (cloth)
In 1958, while Zen master Shin’ichi Hisamatsu was researching the similarities between Eastern and Western philosophy, he asked psychologist Carl Jung about his thoughts on Zen Buddhism: “To date there have been many interpretations of wu-shin [no mind] . . . . I would like to hear your thoughts on the matter.” Jung responded, “It is the unknown which affects me psychologically, which disturbs or influences, whether positively or negatively. Thus I notice that it exists, but what it is, I don’t know.” This bit of conversation appears in the recent anthology The Couch and the Tree: Dialogues in Psychoanalysis and Buddhism, and at times the two sound like a pair of old monks in The Blue Cliff Record, testing and probing one another’s understanding. But I keep coming back to this exchange, in which they seem tentative and curious, almost cautious. It is as if they know their meeting is part of a dialogue that is ripe for misunderstandings even though it possesses the potential to change each of their perspectives.
In the late fifties, when Jung and Hisamatsu first met, the only comprehensive anthology about the connection between Buddhism and psychotherapy was the now-classic Zen Buddhism and Psychoanalysis. Fifty years later, psychotherapy reflects the West’s evolving awareness of Buddhist teaching and philosophy: for example, a promising new treatment for people with borderline personality disorder makes use of Buddhist mindfulness training. It’s not uncommon now for Buddhist teachers to also be psychotherapists and to use techniques from both disciplines in their teaching as well as in their therapy.
As the editor of this new anthology, Anthony Molino, a psychotherapist, anthropologist, and literary translator with a long interest in Buddhism, brings us up to date on the changes that have occurred between the two disciplines since Zen Buddhism and Psychoanalysis. We hear challenging, articulate, and at times conflicting voices in this account. But rather than trying to integrate the two, Molino wisely seeks to examine and continue the dialogue—a dialogue, he says, that must contain tension, with room for differences and disagreements. The anthology first provides a historical context in which to view the cross-pollination of the two disciplines. Several essayists point out that Buddhism and psychotherapy share an emphasis on the importance of individual transmission and certification in teaching and both embrace within themselves wildly divergent beliefs and approaches. Their aims and methods also often have much in common: both Buddhism and psychotherapy are interested in how people can live meaningfully.
Following the historical overview, in sections with such titles as “Biography,” “In Practice,” “Theoretical Reflections,” and “Meditation,” Molino presents arguements that play in counterpoint to the first section’s amenable tone. Through a gathering of voices from the cloudy boundary between the two disciplines, Molino demonstrates how disagreement can be a source of growth. Essays include critiques of Buddhist teaching in the light of psychoanalytic theory, and explorations of how Buddhist psychological insights can expand Western psychology’s understanding of individuals and the broader world.
Many writers bring a curiosity and open-mindedness to their investigations, providing us with some refreshing insights. In one provocative essay, “The Emperor of Enlightenment May Have No Clothes,” psychotherapist and Buddhist practitioner Jeffrey Rubin asks whether enlightenment is even possible, and if so, whether it is desirable. He suggests that psychotherapy’s concept of the phenomenon of transference between therapist and patient may shed light on the teacher-student dynamic in Buddhism.
Throughout The Couch and the Tree, several contributors caution those who would mix Buddhism and psychotherapy in the hope of coming up with some new alloy of the two. They argue that though the two systems are similar in their approaches, at root their goals are different and indeed incompatible. To attempt a fusion, they say, is to risk diluting the power of Buddhist practice while dislocating therapy from its clinical origins. At the same, time some of the writers believe that psychotherapy’s greatest usefulness in Buddhism may lie in what it can contribute to the evolution of the dharma in the West, much as Taoism was assimilated into the teachings in China.
Some of the essays are ponderous and scholarly; one must read through complicated Buddhist theories on mind or dense explanations of object relations theory. But the effort is ultimately worth it. This rewarding anthology clearly demonstrates how an ongoing dialogue can enrich the two disciplines as well as challenge them to expand their own boundaries.
Claiming the Dark: John Tarrant describes his new book, The Light Inside the Dark: Zen, Soul, and the Spiritual Life
What was your intention in writing this book?
To give voice to the dispossessed moments of the soul, as a novelist would. The personal reason comes from my own mediation training, which was a kind of ascent into the mountains and snow, into peace and wholesomeness. For me the illuminations all came from an embrace of my life rather than a rejection of it. The lofty moments of life—enlightenment, the ecstatic tenderness of being with a lover or a dear child—are bright because they are near the terrible darkness that is in all lives. This darkness, with its descents and sorrows, has its own value and seems to be part of the imagination and wit of the universe. Sometimes it’s good to be foolish, sometimes it’s bad, but humans have to find the beauty in it.
How has your background in Jungian psychology and world mythology informed your Buddhist practice?
Depth psychology is an interesting dance partner for the Buddhists spiritual methods. I wanted to test what I learned in meditation against the great Western stories that have shaped me, the tales of Psyche and Cupid, Isis and Osiris, the Stations and the Cross. These are stories about the love of the inner work and they map well onto meditation. They also change its direction—away from transcendence and the crystalline world of wise, disembodied old men to an interest in the body and in the insoluble mystery and darkness of life.
Why do you approach Zen practice using the Western spiritual terms soul and spirit?
They are ancient words, and I couldn’t find better ones. I’ve noticed that Buddhists like spirit but often challenge soul. Spirit is that piece of eternal light in every being, including pebbles and stars as well as ants and grass. Spirit is consoling in hard times, but it doesn’t help us when we ask how to live. Our job in life is to have consciousness, to suffer, to love, to know joy. The Western word for what we make out of life issoul. Soul encourages us to err and explore. Soul brings democracy the life of feelings, the capacity to make images; it lets children into the training halls and poetry into the heart—not just nice safe poems about cold water and rocks but stories of AIDS and famine and betrayal.
What do you hope readers will gain from this book?
Two things. First, when we are in the dark times it’s important to have a great deal of compassion for the situation. This means not spending all our time rejecting it. We have to attend to and love all of our lives; some painful things in ourselves and in our world won’t just go away but will be continuing questions. With compassion, the dark times become initiations into the breadth and lights of the soul, an acceptance of life and of who we are. The second thing is that if we bring soul into the work of Buddhism and forget about fantasies of escaping the body and its yearnings, Buddhism will become more joyful, more democratic, and based, like good art or science, on noticing actual experience rather than on receiving beliefs. The inner journey and the creative process are very close to each other—we make a kind of art out of the material of our lives, and find that, in the end, attention is a kind of love.
Excerpt From John Tarrant’s The Light Inside the Dark
To learn how to live means claiming more of the territory of life, even, especially, the darkness. When we begin our inward journey, we think it will be a continuous ascent. But we find that however well we try, we fall into pain, into excruciating awareness that if we are human we love, and if we love we are vulnerable. The darkness presses hard on us—turbulent, autonomous, full of obsessions and loss. It seems greater than we are and has a mule-like resistance to common sense. As Jung remarked, everything unconscious returns as fate.
If at this time we cling to the spirit, we will think that the fall itself is the problem. Spiritual traditions have a strong tendency to see things this way. The classical solution, then, known in monasteries around the world, is to detach and so cease to suffer. But it is more likely that we pay too little attention to our pain, that we are too eager to clamber back to the cool, pure heights and their certainties. Here, in this human life we share, another kind of spirituality might serve us better: One that sees it is our very losses that save us, by bringing and aspiring spirit downwards and initiating us into the soul. This is why the way up—into the true life—begins with the way down.
This revelation of the intimate closeness of beauty and suffering may unbalance our previous understanding of order. It tells us that, like Rilke in front of the archaic torso of Apollo, we must change our lives. We must learn to attend more acutely, to grope through the labyrinth, holding the thin twine of spiritual practice as we head into the dark. Through patient observation, then, we find that it is our thoughts and feelings that make us happy or sad, that the quality of our attention changes the colors of the day. This discovery of the reality and of the consolation of the inner life is our one solution to the problem of suffering, which is also the problem of living up to the underlying, and equally pervading, happiness of life.
Excerpted from The Light Inside the Dark: Zen, Soul, and the Spiritual Life, by John Tarrant, © 1998 John Tarrant. Reprinted with permission from HarperCollins.
Awakening to the Sacred: Lama Surya Das speaks with Tricycle about his new book
How is your new book different from your last book, Awakening the Buddha Within?
My first Awakening book is more about Buddhism for the West, distilling the core teachings of Buddhism and its various schools, as something we can practice in our own time and place. This new book is a little broader than that. It emphasizes not just Buddhism, but the wealth and richness of contemporary spirituality, including practices such as prayer, yoga, creativity, self-inquiry, therapy, gardening, haiku writing, nature walks, lucid dreams, and finding the natural spirituality in our own lives. It’s about awakening to the spiritual magic that is already there and developing that – stressing the recognition of Buddha-like essence at the heart of our multicultural religious experience. There are some prayers here, for instance, that include words like God or spirit that classical Buddhists usually do not use much. My mother, who is Jewish, is a good example of where I’m coming from. When asked if she has become a Buddhist, she says, “Surya takes care of that. I believe in whatever is good.” I tried to bring that attitude to this new book. Overall, I feel that what we need to do today is transform the atmosphere of spirituality with a more inclusive, nonsectarian, post-denominational, and also very personal spiritual approach. In this book, I’m taking the approach of awakening to the sacred rather than awakening to the Buddha within. Then, we can genuinely create a daily spiritual practice from scratch, or renew and deepen our existing spiritual life. I am trying to look at this contemporary spirituality through my own Buddhist dharma eye and to make a new translation for modern times.
From Lama Surya Das’s Awakening to the Sacred: Building a Spiritual Life from Scratch
Perhaps the first principle of spirituality the world over is nonviolence. The First Commandment is Thou Shalt Not Kill. The Buddha said that his entire forty-five-year teaching career could be summed up in four lines:
To do no harm,
to cultivate the good and wholesome
to purify the heart and mind
This is the teaching of the Enlightened One.
In Sanskrit, the word “ahimsa” means nonviolence, a radical turning away from harming others in any way. This was the first principle of Mahatma Gandhi. It was Gandhi who said that he did not hate the British, he only condemned what they did in ruling his country.
When we talk about cherishing life, we have to also talk about doing everything we can to create a more just, fair, and equitable world. Gandhi once said that the greatest violence was poverty. So it’s not enough to pay lip service to spiritual values and ignore the real human issues of our time. We cherish life by cultivating a giving and generous spirit; we cherish life by doing whatever we can to save the planet and the beings on it.
In Buddhism as we try to cherish life, we recognize that there are many kinds of creatures and all kinds of beings, seen and unseen. We start with ourselves by cherishing our own lives and appreciating and valuing the wonderful opportunities we each have. We then extend this to the people we love most, recognizing that of course we cherish these lives. Then we reach out so that the circle becomes larger, and we begin to think about what it means to cherish the lives of strangers, and even those we don’t like. Over time, we are able to extend our love so far that we include beings that we think of as insignificant: bugs, ants, mice, snakes, and yes, even, cockroaches. Can we cherish these lives – can we cherish all life? For all forms of life are sacred, sacrosanct, and inviolable. Just like us, no one wants to die, suffer, or be ill, or lose loved ones.
It’s so easy to say, “I don’t kill. I’m a good person. I’m a pacifist.” But what about the subtle killings? The times we’ve squashed bugs without thinking? Or even the times we’ve squashed another person’s spirit? When I was in the first grade, I remember taking a shortcut home from school through a parking lot behind a supermarket. There were some boxes and crates and there was a wounded and dying baby bird under the crates. Well, I’m ashamed to say that I finished the job. Part of me was really thinking of putting it out of its misery. But what was the rest of me thinking? I ended up feeling so ashamed. I am still ashamed. I was acting out something that had been imprinted in me—by war movies, perhaps.
I felt such intense remorse and shame about what I did that I never told anybody until many years later. Thinking about that event eventually made me vow to never do anything like that again. I can no longer kill mosquitoes, for example.
Mother Teresa is a role model because she was able to love and care for the forgotten, the sick, and the diseased. When she walked through the streets of India, to her compassionate loving gaze, no one was insignificant. She was able to extend her love to people whom others might think of as repulsive.
We cherish life whenever we put our energies into furthering harmony, peace, and reconciliation among all beings. The monks in Asia are very careful about where they walk so as not to step on insects. They do what they can to keep from killing any form of life, especially when traveling or digging in the earth. When I first witnessed this behavior I thought it was charming, but at first I didn’t quite get it.
Last year I was visiting friends in the New England countryside and walking along a road after a rainstorm. Many little snails were crawling across the road where they could get smashed by cars, and I spontaneously found myself moving little snails across the road in the direction in which they were heading. As I thought about what I was doing, I realized that I had certainly come a long way. But I also began to think about why saving small creatures whenever possible is a practice. It helps us cultivate a mind of love—an awareness that all life is precious. It was the most beautiful part of my day.
Adapted from Awakening to the Sacred: Building a Spiritual Life from Scratch, by Lama Surya Das, © 1999 Lama Surya Das. Reprinted with permission from Broadway Books.
Books in Brief: An annotated selection of new and noteworthy guidebooks, teachings, and scholarly texts
What is Meditation?
Buddhism for Everyone
Shambhala Publications, $16
Mr. Nairn, a Buddhist teacher from Africa, lays out the bare bones of meditation practice, aiming to coax a non-Buddhist audience into taking up the practice without fear. People looking for profound Buddhist teachings or points of doctrine should look elsewhere—Nairn states flat-out that he doesn’t consider karma or reincarnation particularly relevant to beginning meditation practice, and his entire teaching of eating habits consists of: “Don’t go on a trip about diet. Just eat a healthy balanced diet and avoid extremes.” Instead, he focuses on reassuring the reader that dogmas and doctrines are secondary to the vital act of actually planting yourself on the cushion and getting on with it.
Only a Great Rain
A Guide to Buddhist Meditation
Translated by Tom Graham
Wisdom Publications, $14.95
Master Hsing Yun is one of the most prominent Buddhist teachers in modern China, and he brings considerable scholarship and experiential knowledge to this slim volume. The most immediately apparent quality of Chinese Mahayana is its nonsectarian approach to all aspects of teaching and practice—Master Hsing Yun constantly shifts between references to the classical schools of Hua-yen, T’ien-t’ai, Ch’an, and Pure Land, which unlike their Japanese counterparts, were never codified into rigid sects. He is thus comfortable advocating many different types of meditation as potential roads to enlightenment, explaining the practices of koan meditation, the eight samadhis, contemplation of the Buddha’s body, and others. There is useful stuff in this book for all who are interested in cultivating their meditation practice.
The Practice of Tranquillity and Insight
A Guide to Tibetan Buddhist Meditation
Snow Lion, $14.95
Although this introduction to tran- quility (shamatha) and insight (vipashyana) meditation is called a guide to “Tibetan” Buddhist meditation, that may be a bit misleading. On the one hand, these two methods form the foundation of most of the traditional schools, Tibetan and otherwise; and on the other hand, Tibetan Buddhism also includes hundreds of other types of meditation. That said, this is an excellent, clear, and thorough guide to tranquility and insight meditation as the Tibetans understand them. Building largely on the instructions given by the nineteenth-century teacher Jamgon Kongtrul in The Treasury of Knowledge, Khenchen Thrangu, an internationally known Kagyu geshe, patiently explains why these two methods are so important and how to go about properly developing them, stage by stage.
The Light of Wisdom, Vol. 2
Translated by Erik Pema Kunsang
Rangjung Yeshe Publications, $20
The Teacher Student-Relationship
Translated by Ron Garry
Snow Lion, $14.95
Jamgon Kongtrul was a major figure in nineteenth-century Tibetan Buddhism. The Light of Wisdom, Vol. 2, contains his commentary on a hidden teaching of Padmasambhava. The text is primarily concerned with the nature of empowerment and tantric commitments, with discussion of the systematic approach to the Bodhisattva path. The Teacher-Student Relationship is a translation of the tenth chapter of Jamgon Kongtrul’s monumental encyclopedia of Buddhism, The Treasury of Knowledge. It offers clear instructions for students and teachers alike on the proper way to conduct spiritual relationships. This is a critical teaching especially suited for our confusing times, as students in the West continue to adapt to the Buddhist conceptions of devotion, submission, trust, and acceptance. The book includes a brief but useful introduction by Gyanul Rinpoche that deals specifically with how Western students should view teachers and the problems of authority . and transgression that sometimes arise.
Living in the Face of Death
The Tibetan Tradition
Glenn H. Mullin
Snow Lion, $16.95
Mullin translates and introduces nine Tibetan texts on the matter of death and dying, including the works of three Dalai Lamas and the author of The Tibetan Book of the Dead. Together, they offer a range of healthy spiritual engagements with the issue of death, in contrast to the taboo nature of this subject in modern Western discourse.
Be an Island
The Buddhist Practice of Inner Peace
Wisdom Publications, $14.95
The late Ayya Khema was a woman often praised for her adventuresome spirit, a quality she brought to her eventual career as a Theravadin nun. In Be an Island, she writes of taking refuge in the Three Jewels as “a kind of love affair,” recommends “stretching the mind to the impossible,” and points out the path to achieving liberation in the present moment. There is sage advice in this book for beginners and advanced practitioners alike.
Zen Shin Talks
Zen Shin Buddhist Publications, $14.95
“You are matured enough, educated enough, experienced enough, spent enough money and aged enough. Instead of using the concepts of sin and being positive to guide your behavior, can you be truly yourself listening to your own true mind and heart?” Shin Pure Land often serves as a warm antidote to certain elitist tendencies in Zen practice, while Zen offers an injection of rigor and profound understanding of emptiness to the everyday ordinariness of basic Shin life. Sensei Ogui demonstrates in simple, commonplace examples how these two great traditions naturally buttress each other and offer much to the harried Western practitioner.
Polishing the Diamond, Enlightening the Mind
Reflections of a Korean Buddhist Master
Jae Woong Kim
Wisdom Publications, $18.95
This book is a significant advance for the growing awareness of Korean Buddhism in the English-speaking world. In shirt, compact sections, Master Jae Woong Kim offers the reader instructions, delightful allegorical tales, and moving stories about his own master. Based on his understanding of the Diamond Sutra, Master Kim uses these stories to point to the profundity of ultimate wisdom and compassion.
The Sutra of Perfect Enlightenment
Korean Buddhism’s Guide to Meditation
With Commentary by the Son Monk Kihwa
Translated by A Charles Muller
SUNY Press, $24.95
The Sutra of Perfect Enlightenment was composed by Ch’an scholars in China around the eighth century, but had its greatest influence in Korea, where it became a core text of the dominant Chogye school of Buddhism. Charles Muller’s translation of the scripture is accompanied by a traditional commentary by Kihwa, an important fourteenth- to fifteenth-century Son (Korean Ch’an) monk. The sutra and its commentary focus on the nature of enlightenment and the various Ch’an/Son meditation techniques designed to realize it.
The Tibetan Yogas of Dream and Sleep
Tenzin Wangyal Rinpoche
Snow Lion, $16.95
If you’re having trouble counting your breaths to ten, you may br somewhat intimidated by this book. Tenzin Wangyal Rinpoche, a holder of both Buddhist and Bon lineages, leads us into the esoteric Tibetan practices of dream and sleep yoga. The idea is to use self induced lucid dreams to train the mind in realizing the nndual nature of awareness and to apply that training in dealing with the dangerous confusions that arise at the moment of death. Thankfully, Wangyal Rinpoche’s instructions are extremely clear and detailed, mitigating some of the inherent difficulty in pursuing this advanced practice.
Religions of Japan in Practice
Edited by George J. Tanabe, Jr.
Princeton, University Press, $19.95
This wide-ranging collection includes step-by-step instructions on conducting Buddhist ceremonies for aborted fetuses, essays on postmodern Pure Land teology, and the revelatory dreams of Zen Master Keizan as well as a polemic against married clergy. Large, eclectic, and solidly grounded in strong scholarship and research, this book contains a waelth of information that is not easily available elsewhere about Japanese approaches to religion, both ancient and modern.
Honen and Japanese Pure Land Buddhism
University of California Press, $40
Honen was one of the most innovative and courageous figures in the history of Buddhism, and the Pure Land movement he founded in the 13th century spawned the largest Buddhist sect in Japan. In Machida’s Renegade Monk, Honen is revealed as a radical Buddhist teacher and revolutionary social thinker who rised his life to create a Buddhism that could save everyone without exception—laypeople, women, laborers, even criminals.
Right Reading: Summer reading recommendations from teachers, writers, and professionals
Robert Aitken Roshi
Zen teacher and author of Original Dwelling Place
For the Islands I Sing
George Mackay Brown
John Murray: London, 1989
A memoir by a poet, playwright, and novelist, born and rooted in the Orkney Islands, off the northeast tip of Scotland. This is an endearing story that restores my faith in the creative spirit. His perceptive ruminations about Gerald Manley Hopkins are high points of the book.
Against the Pollution of I
Posthumously collected essays by the brilliant author of And There Was Light, an extraordinary Frenchman who was blinded at the age of seven and learned to see by his sensitivity to “pressures” of people and things about him, and by his experience that he, like all other beings, included everyone and everything. He became truly blind, as the old teachers would say.
Editorial Director of Bell Tower, an imprint of Random House, Inc.
Pantheon: New York, 1997
This short, powerful, haunting love story is unlike most novels and movies, which aim for some measure of resolution. Its unanswered questions about rights and responsibilities, guilt and innocence, and betrayal and relationships will reverberate in my mind for the rest of my life.
The House of Belonging
Many River Press, 1997
Davis Whyte’s startlingly honest and wondrously lyrical poems are etchings of moments of consciousness before they slip away again into the mist.
Director of Studies at Sharpham College for Buddhist Studies and Contemporary Enquiry, author ofBuddhism Without Beliefs
The Dragon in the Land of Snows
A History of Modern Tibet Since 1947
Columbia University Press, 1999
Written with remarkable detachment by a Tibetan historian living in London, this is the first detailed account of what has happened in Tibet itself since the Chinese occupation.
Coleridge: Early Visions
Volume One, Early Visions
Hodder & Stoughton, 1989
Volume Two, Darker Reflections
This two-volume biography of the dark genius of English Romanticism reveals Coleridge as a prophetic embodiment of the complexities, longings, and contradictions of contemporary existence.
Buddhist teacher, psychotherapist, and author of That’s Funny, You Don’t Look Buddhist
King Leopold’s Ghost
The Plunder of the Congo and the 20th Century’s First Great Human Rights Movement
Houghton Mifflin Co., 1998
We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will be Killed With Our Families
Stories from Rwanda
Farrar Straus & Giroux, 1998
We often say that the nature of mind, unconfused by greed, hatred, and delusion, responds naturally with lovingkindness and compassion. I sometimes wonder if this is true. I am bewildered by the incredible spectrum of human responses to other human beings, from extreme cruelty to amazing altruism. I am dismayed that at the end of the twentieth century, with current instances of ethnic cleansing widely publicized, the whole world has not risen up as a body in moral protest.
Poet and author of How the Swans Came to the Lake
Let’s Eat Stars
The most recent collection of poems by a contemporary Zen poet master.
The Middle Length Discourses of the Buddha
Translated by Bhikkhu Nanamoli and Bhikkhu Bodhi
Wisdom Publications, 1995
This is a new translation of the Majjhima Nikaya–as close as we’ll get to the original teachings and account of the life of the Buddha.
Writer and psychotherapist, author of Meetings with Remarkable Women (currently being updated for publication in 2000)
Questions about Angels
University of Pittsburgh Press, 1999
A poet new to me, whose tender, wry delight in all the tastes of this shifting human life, most especially the intimate joy of fiction-reading (from Dick and Jane to Madame Bovary), contrives somehow to make you love him and thus simultaneously the whole catastrophe.
Vintage International, 1996
A haunting novel (or is it a poem?) set in post-World War II Europe, forever changed by the Nazi Holocaust—though I wouldn’t call this a Holocaust novel. There are five or six gorgeously (in some cases sparingly) realized characters, all of whom engage us in explorations of language, art, memory, music, and mostly love. I will never forget this book, and am about to read it again.
Children’s Summer Reading: Recommended for children of all ages
The Cat That Lived a Million Times
Translated by Judith Carol Huffman
University of Hawai’i Press, $16.95
This poignant and whimsical jataka-like fable of a cat with more than nine lives is a poetic Buddhist allegory of the adventure of death and rebirth. “One day the alley cat spun around and around—three whole times—in front of the white cat and said, “I was once a circus cat!”
Buddha and His Friends and Anathapindika and Other Stories
S. Dhammika & Susan Harmer
Times Books International, $9.95/p>
These two illustrated volumes from the Great Buddhist Stories series relate in colorful detail the life of Siddhartha Gautama and of his experiences with the people whose lives he touched so dramatically.
The Tibetan Art Coloring Book
A Joyful Path to Right Brain Enlightenment
Thangka artwork by J. Jamyang Singe Abrams, $14.95
These twelve original Tibetan Buddhist thangkas will keep the creative mind at play all day with line drawings by a contemporary thangka painter. Spending time with this highly specialized art form, children can come to understand the deities and symbolic objects that appear in these delightful Buddhist picture stories.
The Mandala in the Matrix: A Buddhist Analysis of an Action Movie
Directed by the Wachowski Brothers
2 hrs., 16 mins.
Unless you live in a cave, you probably already know that The Matrix is a high-concept action movie that broke box office records for Warner Bros. when it opened on Easter weekend. What you may not know is that the movie is also a blockbuster advertisement for Buddhist ideals disguised as a high-tech kung fu flick. In the movie, Keanu Reeves plays Neo, an ordinary guy who suddenly finds out that his ordinary reality is anything but. (Unlike Reeves’s role as Shakyamuni in Bernardo Bertolucci’s Little Buddha, his character’s experience in The Matrix might not qualify as complete enlightenment, but it should at least register as a minor satori.) While the movie deftly appropriates elements of Judeo-Christian mythology (Neo is discovered to be a messiah of sorts), The Matrix has several themes that bear a striking resemblance to specific tenets of Buddhism, from bardo-like rebirths to shunyata-style teachings on relativity.
The movie’s plot centers around a renegade computer hacker named Morpheus (played to regal, gritty effect by Laurence Fishburne) who has discovered that so-called reality as the world knows it is an elaborate hoax. What happened is this: By the end of the twenty-first century, humans had nearly perfected the use of artificial intelligence and had devised a vast spectrum of computerized machines to serve every imaginable need. Unfortunately, the machines became a little too intelligent and they rose up in a war against humanity. (None of this is depicted in the movie, but Morpheus briefly explains it to Neo in one quick scene.) In a desperate last-ditch effort, humans darken the skies, blocking the sun’s light in a bid to destroy the machines, which are all solar-powered. (No word on how human beings expected to live without the sun, but in a movie like this, you leave your skepticism at the popcorn counter.)
Rather than shriveling up and disappearing without the sun to power them, the machines discover a new source of electricity: the human body. Before long, the entire planet is one darkened, post-nuclear holocaust hell zone in which sprawling fields of humans are “harvested” for their BTUs. But these human batteries have no idea of their grim enslavement. Through the marvels of advanced computer mind-control (known as the Matrix), the machines are able to trick almost every human being into having a completely delusional experience: Although actually it’s the twenty-second century and the entire human population is stuck in gelatinous pods where they serve as energy for malignant, metallic, squid-like monsters, the humans believe they’re working and living a mundane yuppie lifestyle in a North American city that looks very much like end-of-the-millennium Manhattan.
Against this complex (not to mention extremely paranoid) conceptual backdrop, the movie unfolds with state-of-the-art special effects and dazzling cinematography. The basic idea is that the good guys—comprised of Morpheus and his crew of freedom fighters—need to infiltrate the world of utterly deluded slaves (which we might call samsara) and awaken them to the reality of the Matrix.
In one sense, the plot line of The Matrix is about waking up from delusion. In Sanskrit, the word Buddha means “awake,” or “one who has understood the true nature of reality.” And one of the fundamental goals of Buddhism is for practitioners to transcend ordinary perception and conception. The concept in The Matrix, as in tantric practice, is that by perceiving reality in a delusional way we thereby construct a delusional reality. This Buddhist analysis of the way wrong view can become a self-fulfilling prophecy could be summed up as “What you see is what you get,” a notion that fits nicely with the underlying premise of The Matrix, where seeing isn’t only believing—it’s actually creating reality.
Of course, The Matrix is far from just a Buddhist parable dressed up as an action flick, and there are many elements of the movie that do not jibe well with the dharma (such as the pervasive depiction of gratuitous carnage). But even the considerable violence of The Matrix could be construed as conveying a dharmic message. After all, the first thing the Buddha said upon awakening is that life is suffering. From that point of view, almost every action movie could be said to express a Buddhist message.
Dmitri Ehrlich is a songwriter whose most recent album, As Nervous as You (Tainted Records), explores Buddhist themes. He is also the author of Inside the Music: Conversations with Musicians about Spirituality, Creativity, and Consciousness (Shambhala).
World of the Mystic Circle
55 minutes; VHS $24.95
From Buddhist Tibet to Gothic Europe to Aztec Mexico, circles have always been important in religious iconography. Mandala presents a great diversity of sacred images from around the world, while various narrators provide explanations about why people find circles so compelling and how they can be vehicles for spiritual awakening.
The focus of the film is the step-by-step construction of a Kalachakra Mandala by a group of Tibetan Buddhist monks in New York. Viewers are treated to a rare spectacle as the monks painstakingly map out the mandala and build it out of colored sand, grain by grain. Professor Robert Thurman comments on the significance of the mandala’s designs and describes how the mandala is used to create a sacred space in which self-transformation can occur.
Unfortunately, not all of the speakers are as effective as Professor Thurman, and some offer contradictory historical information about who originated them, when, and where. Shot on video, the film’s sound and picture quality is sometimes below par; however, the end of the tape contains a comprehensive resource guide for those interested in learning more about mandalas, Tibetan Buddhism, and sacred geometry. Copies can be ordered by calling (716) 876-6340.
A Handful of Leaves
Readings in Theravada Buddhism
Published by Access to Insight
Once the Buddha showed a handful of leaves to some monks, saying, “Which is greater: the leaves in my hand or those overhead in the trees?” The monks replied, “Surely, those overhead in the forest.” “Likewise,” the Buddha continued, “the things that I have taught are only a fraction of those that I have discovered. But what I teach is that which is conducive to spiritual progress, while that which I leave out is not.”
While the material included on the CD-ROM A Handful of Leaves may represent only a portion of the Buddhist teachings, the analogy is perhaps a bit too modest. This disk includes more than 500 sutta translations from the Pali Canon, resource guides for learning Pali, a glossary of Pali and Buddhist terms, close to 200 books and essays by such respected teachers as Thanissaro Bhikkhu, Ayya Khema, Bhante Gunaratana, and Ajahn Chah, a calendar of holy dates, pointers to many kinds of Buddhist resources, and even an introductory tour of the Buddha’s teachings.
The information on the disk is essentially a minimally reworked edition of Access to Insight (http://world.std.com/~metta), a website privately operated by John Bullitt and easily one of the greatest electronic resources for Buddhist materials available. As such, the CD-ROM requires a web browser program, though no Internet connection is necessary. The disk is compatible with either Macs or PCs. Best of all, A Handful of Leaves is free; copies may be requested by sending a postcard to: Access to Insight, P.O. Box 153, Lincoln, MA 01773.
Jeff Wilson, editorial assistant to Tricycle: The Buddhist Review, reviewed both A Handful of Leaves andMandala.
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