In the tradition of Mary Oliver and David Whyte, Dick Allen’s Zen Master Poems (Wisdom Publications, August 2016, $14.00, 152 pp., paper) offers spiritual insights in lucid, seemingly effortless verse. Most poems in the collection are a page in length with short, four- or five-word lines, allowing each poem in the collection to function as a koan: an object of meditation purified to its most essential observations. The lines seem to echo the natural inhale and exhale of zazen.
In the preface, Allen (who served as Connecticut’s poet laureate from 2010 to 2015) describes the Zen master speaker of the poems as his “alter-ego,” a voice he was able to hear after studying the koans of the Blue Cliff Record and viewing Asian art at the Yale Art Museum. “At times in a semi-trance, at times in a willed act of identification,” the anonymous Zen master and his poems slowly “found” Allen, and in turn, the poems find us.
Intimate yet expansive, the poetry addresses a range of subjects familiar to us from the canon of Zen poetry. Allen arrests us with the candor of seeing things in their “thusness,” from the rituals of flower arrangement and calligraphy to the still-life images of a teacup, a branch of cherry blossoms, and a lotus. Through the transparency of the poet’s insight, we too come to be “told by every stone and branch and leaf / that the meeting place of Heaven and Earth / has always been the human body.” As a stepping stone from the practice of Zen to the act of truly living it, Zen Master Poems would be well placed beside the zafu or within reach of the living room altar.
In 1977, a small, nonsectarian group of mostly Western students convened in Boudhanath—Buddhism’s great pilgrimage site in Nepal—to receive the teachings and ask questions of Kyabje Thinley Norbu Rinpoche (1931–2011), an eminent scholar and master of the Nyingma tradition of Tibetan Buddhism. Echoes: The Boudhanath Teachings (Shambhala Publications, May 2016, $18.95, 176 pp., paper) is composed of edited transcripts from that series of meetings—a lively dialogue that Rinpoche described as “using the traditional method of question and answer to connect ordinary experience with sublime dharma in a flexible way.”
The text retains the Q&A format following Rinpoche’s teaching, inviting us to participate in the dialogue alongside the recipients of their original transmission. The most commendable feature of this collection of dharma talks, however, is its wide range of inquiry. From more conventional teachings on karma and rebirth, monastic discipline, and the guru-student relationship to cutting-edge debates about the Buddhist response to gender inequality, Thinley Norbu communicates the dharma with directness and accessibility. As he encourages his students in the introductory pages of his teachings, “one must leave awareness alone, naked, without doing anything to it, and without creating anything artificial.”
“To our earth—and the reemergence of the sacred feminine,” Wendy Garling dedicates her book Stars at Dawn: Forgotten Stories of Women in the Buddha’s Life (Shambhala Publications, August 2016, $18.95, 304 pp., paper), a perceptive exploration of the women closest to the historical Buddha. Garling’s accessible new biography of the Buddha is written for a general audience and examines the influence of the feminine on the Buddha’s life, in the spirit of Rita Gross’s pioneering feminist scholarship on Buddhist history.
Garling’s account progresses chronologically, starting with the Buddha’s familial relationships in his life as Prince Siddhartha. Early chapters focus on his mother, Queen Maya; his aunt Maha-prajapati (who later became his stepmother); and his principal wife, Yasodhara. The biography expands to include goddesses and female spirits who arrive at pivotal moments in the Buddha’s life and spiritual development, as well as the communities of nuns and laywomen drawn into his ministry. Throughout, Garling directs sensitive, almost reverent attention to the figures in the Pali canon who are traditionally relegated to the periphery of the Buddha’s story.
“Stories are tools for empowerment,” writes the author, a Tibetan Buddhist practitioner, and her reconstructed stories can empower female practitioners today, allowing them to create a historical link between their journeys and those of the women who came before. Stars at Dawn is bound to be a well-thumbed volume in any Buddhist library, resting on the shelf beside the hymns of nuns in the Therigatha and the stories of awakened women found in The Hidden Lamp.
In What Is Buddhist Enlightenment? (Oxford University Press, October 2016, $29.95, 264 pp.), Dale S. Wright, a professor of Asian religions at Occidental College, takes up the ambitious task of answering his title’s question, seeking to put into words an interpretation of Buddhism’s ultimate goal that recovers its most essential features.
In order to extricate that goal from centuries of Western discourse that have assigned staunch intellectual meaning to the word “enlightenment,” Wright has taken a more creative approach to his subject. Dividing the text into three distinct sections—contemporary images of enlightenment, enlightenment’s ethical characteristics, and the role of language in experiencing awakening—Wright selects living Buddhist settings as his primary source and identifies how
they bring new meanings to traditional ideas in the Pali canon. These settings include a Los Angeles Times opinion piece by Thich Nhat Hanh in response to the police brutality endured by Rodney King; a statement about the secular Buddhism espoused by atheist scholar Stephen Batchelor; and a study of the much-publicized moral failings of the Japanese Zen master Taizan Maezumi Roshi. The text is all the better for these lively contemporary applications.
Although Wright does not state this explicitly, his study tends toward a sectarian examination, focusing perhaps too narrowly on the Zen interpretations of Buddhism’s ultimate goal at the cost of including other traditions of Buddhist thought; and it is hindered at times by the discursive verbosity of scholarship (one that Zen masters and forest meditators alike might view with disdain). Still, What Is Buddhist Enlightenment? offers a relevant and informative supplement to the Western practitioner’s journey of development.
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