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Review Essays of Academic, Professional & Technical Books in the Humanities & Sciences



see Zen, Tibetan Buddhism, Yogachara Theravada Buddhism, Visuddhimagga  

The Complete Idiot's Guide to Understanding Buddhism by Gary Gach (Alpha) is for anyone wishing a simple, direct, and idiosyncratic survey of Buddhism in pop-cult America. Told from a pragmatic (tongue-in-cheek) American hipster Buddhist perspective - and with loving speech and frequent globs of humor - emphasis is placed on diverse schools (Vipassana, Zen, Pure Land, Tibetan) within Buddhism as well as on Buddhism within diverse contexts, such as Christianity, Judaism, human relations, work, food, arts, the modern world (war, race, gender, ecology, nihilism, etc.). The volume is sound as far as most basic facts go, and it is a definitely full of zingers and pop culture witticisms on almost every page. Its strengths are in Mahayana, Tibetan and Zen American style; whereas it is just a bit too superficial about varieties of Theravadin teachings (though some nods to vipassana); ethnic Buddhist churches, and the account of esoteric Buddhism is too biased toward tame, for-export Tibetan othropraxis to suggest a fuller and wilder aspects Tantra. Still the book is a great source of curiosities disguised as facts and is a definite read for lovers of irreverent humor and appreciators of Buddhism as discretionary, diversionary popular culture. The Complete Idiot's Guide to Understanding Buddhism is a book I will save to relish the jokes and will give away to particularly cloying persons, once I weary of laughing.

You're no idiot, of course. You know there's more to Buddhism than meditation and mantras, but your attempts to understand this popular philosophy have left you beyond baffled - and you know that can't be good karma ... Don't lose your way on the path to enlightenment! The Complete Idiot's Guide to Understanding Buddhism will keep you on track - and show you easy ways to make Buddhism a part of your life. In this The Complete Idiot's Guide to Understanding Buddhism, you get: a fascinating exploration of who the Buddha was and what he means today.  An enlightening introduction to the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path. Compelling discussion of such major schools as Vipassana, Zen, Pure Land, and Tibetan. Comprehensive coverage of the growth and development of Buddhism in America.

You'll learn how to ... Practice and personalize the precepts.  Discover the power of tranquility and insight meditation. Find a teacher and a sangha. Grasp the basics of Buddhist ecology. Use the principles of deep listening and loving speech to improve your relationships. Be mindful and compassionate toward yourself. Appreciate key films in Buddhist cinema. Determine the best destinations for Buddhist pilgrimages and retreats.

Contents:  I. THE BUDDHA, SHOWING YOU THE WAY. 1. Why Is This Man Smiling?: The Buddha.
Are You Ready?: Waking Up to Yourself, Waking Up to Buddha. The Birth of a Quest. Setting Forth. After Enlightenment: Teach! Aspects of the Buddha. 2. One Taste, Different Flavors: The Teachings Adapt to Different Lands The First Disciples: India. Wisdom of the Elders. Before the Internet: The Spice and Silk Routes. Leaving Home, Bound for the Center of the World. Smaller Gardens. At the Roof of the World. Modern Times. 3. What Might an American Buddha Look Like? Preparing the Ground: Mulching the Cultural Soil. Seasons and Lunar Phases. Conducive for Growth. Gardeners in the Fields of the Buddha. Hot Buttons and Cool Breezes. 4. Different Travel Agents, Same Destination?: Interfaith. Beyond Ideology: Buddhism Isn't Exclusive. Roots: Bringing It All Back Home. China's Version 1.0: Buddhism + Taoism. Conversions: Zen Judaists and Catholic. Buddhists. Make Room for Rumi: Other Creeds.
II. AWAKENING: BASIC TEACHINGS. 5. The Handshake: Buddhism's Basic Beliefs. The Three Jewels. Safe Harbor: Taking Refuge. The Four Noble Truths. Theme and Variations. 6. Taking Steps: The Eightfold Path. The Path. 7. The Art of Living: Cardinal Precepts. To Not Kill: Reverence for Life. To Not Steal: Trustworthiness and Generosity. Sexual Respect: Respect, Intimacy, Trust, and Responsibility. To Not Lie: Deep Listening and Loving Speech. Mindful Consumption. Practicing the Precepts. 8. The Fine Print: Touching Deeper. What Goes Around, Comes Around: Karma. This Is, Because That Is: Interbeing. It Was, but It Isn't Anymore: Impermanence. It Is and Isn't: Sunyata (Openness). You're You and You Aren't: Self and Nonself. You're IT: Nirvana NOW. Living It: Meditations in a Floating World.
III. SEEING CLEARLY AND DEEPLY: MEDIATIONAND ITS PATHS. 9. Taking the Plunge: Beginning and Cultivating Your Practice. Getting Started-and Keeping at It. There's No Time Like the Right Time. Buddha's in the House. Clean Socks and What Else?: Optional Gear. What's Missing?: Formal Practice. Big Flashing Road Sign: Right View. 10. Base Camp: Meditation Basics. Here's Where It Sat: Posture. Why Not Breathe? You're Alive! Turning Off the Radio: Quieting the Mind. Each Step You Take on This Green Earth Brings Peace. First-Aid Kit for Beginners' Problems. 11. Look Within and Know: Insight Meditation (Vipassana). Stopping and Seeing. Take Note! Material Meditations. Here Today, Gone Tomorrow: Impermanence Meditation. Medicine for a Healthy Heart: Friendliness (Metta). 12. See? Words Cannot Express: Zen. Look, Where's Buddha? A Few Drops of Zen. Just Do It! Lineage: From the Buddha to You, with Love. Now Why Not You? Universal Participation: The Bodhisattva Vow. Tracks Along an Untrod Trail. Expressing the Inexpressible: Mondo and Koans. 13. Paths of Devotion and Transformation: Pure Land and Vajrayana Buddhism. Say His Name and You'll Be Free. Do You Believe in Magic? The Rite Stuff. Open Secrets. The End of the Road.
IV. THE PEDAL HITS THE METAL: BUDDHISM APPLIED TO THE WORLD AT LARGE. 14. Alone, Together: Buddhist Relationships. But Would You Want Your Daughter Marrying Buddha?: Family Matters. If Emily Post Met the Buddha: Ethical Codes. Relations East and West. Marriage: How Would a Buddhist Wedding Cake Taste? Happily Ever After? How About Happily Ever Here ? (Buddhist Romance). Disrobing: Buddhism and Sex. Meet the Buddhas: Mama Buddha, Papa Buddha, and Baby Buddha. Welcome to the Club: Rites of Passage. Learning to Learn: Buddhist Education. Good Life: Good Death. 15. No Work, No Eat: Work to Eat or Eat to Work? Do You Hunger and Thirst?: Food Issues. Balancing Spirituality and Materiality: Awakened Work. 16. Everybody's Doing It: Buddhism and Popular Culture. Mind Mirror: Buddha at the Movies. Play It Again, Samadhi!-Musical Meditation. A Gift from a Flower to a Garden. Physical Culture Is Culture. 17. New Ways of Seeing and Being: Buddhism and Fine Arts. ButIs It Buddhist? Words for the Wordless: Buddhist Literature. The Eye in the Heart of the Heart. Art as Life: Life Is Art. 18. The World Within and Without: Buddhism and the Sciences. The World Around Us: The New Physics and Ancient Buddhist Thought. Fuzzy Wuzzy Was a Bear: Chaos and Complexity. Infinite Healing: Healing the Whole Person. No Matter, Never Mind: Mind/Body Connections. Imagine: Mind/Mind Connections. Listening to the Heart of the Heart: Buddhist Psychology. 19. Happiness Is Not an Individual Matter:Engaging the World. One Big Circle of Giving. Living Each Other's Dying: Service in Hospices. Have You Hugged a Tree Today? Whatever Happened to Buddha's Mother?: Equality for Women. Making the Invisible Visible: Healing Wounds of Racism. Making Peace. 20. Times and Places to Celebrate. To Every Thing, There Is a Season: Buddhist Events. Destinations for Journeys Inward: Pilgrimages. Standing on the Rock Where the Buddha Stood: The Indian. Subcontinent. Northeast Asia. Lands of the Elders: Southeast Asia. Further East. West as Well as East. Appendix. The Vocabulary of Silence: A Glossary. Index.

Dangerous Friend: The Teacher-Student Relationship in Vajrayana Buddhism by Rig'Dzin Dorje (Shambhala) The primary goal of Tantric practice is to experience the relationship between form and emptiness as non‑duality. This is called ro‑chig, "the one taste." The vajra master embodies that realization in person. But this experience, because it is non‑dual, neither belongs nor does not belong to the teacher as an individual: it was neither born with anyone nor does it ever die with anyone. Whenever this state is experienced by one being, it can also be experienced by others, mutually and simultaneously, without having to be conceptualized as something that travels between one party and another, like spooky vibes wobbling through the twilight zone. It is called transmission; realization as an outlook shared by individuals. If one could experience the mind of the lama oneself, enter that unconditioned condition, then that would constitute one's own experience of the realized state. This "unifying with the mind of the lama" is the fruit of the practice of guru yoga, which is the essential practice of Vajrayana. All the traditional stipulations about the teacher‑student relationship in Vajrayana are founded on this prospect, even though to Buddhists of other persuasions it might sound incomprehensible.

The coming together of lama and student at this level is called vajra relationship or vajra commitment. This Tantric expression refers to the relationship with a root teacher or tsa‑wa'i lama (Mula Guru) which is beyond the possibility of being broken by either party. The root teacher is the lama whose realization enables one to experience the nature of Mind. The symbolism of a root is that if the root is cut, the tree dies. One would never wish to be cut off from one's root teacher. One aspires to remain in a state of continuous transmission, just as the life of a tree is sustained by its roots' capacity to draw up water. The life of the tree and the life of one's practice depend upon the root. Without the root there is no water and no life. Without the root teacher there is no transmission, and no enlightenment.

The method of the root teacher or vajra master is traditionally compared to a mirror. Much has been written in Buddhist literature about the mirror‑like qualities of realization. Using the mirror as a traditional metaphor for the mind, the mirror reflects anything that appears, in the same way as the senses perceive whatever arises. But the reflections in the mirror neither define the mirror nor disturb it in the slightest. An image from the Dzogchen teachings has the mirror facing both ways: Mind (emptiness) reflects phenomena (form) while phenomena are also a mirror that reflects Mind. The sky of the nature of Mind and the space of phenomena have the same quality‑the one taste.

The contrasting view, which we try to maintain in ordinary mind, is that the world and ourselves are separate containers with their contents. This is how we try to preserve our sense of limited identity, without ever asking ourselves why it is that restricted identity should seem more valuable than the unpartitioned mind‑space of realization. Tantra brings the functioning of all the senses, in both their penetrating accuracy and their absorbing enthusiasm, into the path of practice. Tantra empowers every style of creativity to be a carrier of symbolism.

RADIANT MIND: Essential Buddhist Teachings and Texts edited by Jean Smith ($14.00, paperback, 368 pages, Riverhead Books; ISBN: 157322717X)

Smith blends a anthology of snippets from classic Buddhist Sutras with commentaries by present-day Buddhist teachers. Her focus is to provide a sense of continuity between the authoritative tradition and modern practice. Her selection attempt to give the basics of Buddhist teaching and commentary upon meditation practice. Across the spectrum of sects and schools, Smith draws on the collective wisdom of such respected contemporaries as Thich Nhat Hanh, Charlotte Joko Beck, Henepola Gunaratana, the Dalai Lama, and Joseph Goldstein. Buddhist teachings stress that true understanding arises by approaching single topics from a variety of perspectives, and RADIANT MIND is a good guide to the fundamentals of Buddhist thought and practice.

MIND IN BUDDHIST PSYCHOLOGY (Tibetan Translation Series) by Ye-Shes Rgyal-Mtshan, Yeshe Gyaltshan, translated by Leslie S. Kawamura and Herbert V. Guenther ($12.95, paperback, 133 pages, Dharma Publishing; ISBN: 0913546062

What is the mind? And how does it function? Of what does personality consist? And what gives personality its direction and character? From the seclusion of Tibet comes this penetrating insight into the nature of man. MIND IN BUDDHIST PSYCHOLOGY investigates in clear, simple terms the recurring patterns of human experience, both those which lead to emotional imbalance and those which lead to peace and calm In striking contrast with contemporary Western theories of consciousness and motivation, MIND IN BUDDHIST PSYCHOLOGY presents a practical guide to the functioning of the mind in daily life situations. It is a near classic presentation of some of the fundamental aspects of traditional Buddhist psychology. It is especially useful in approaching meditation experience.

BODDHISATTVA ARCHETYPES: Classic Buddhist Guides to Awakening and Their Modern Expression by Taigen Daniel Leighton ($14.95, Penguin Arkana Paperback Original, paperback, 320 pages, Penguin USA, ISBN: 0140195564)

Vigorous and inspiring, BODDHISATTVA ARCHETYPES guides us into the clean-flavors of the awakening life within both Buddhist tradition and our broad contemporary world. Buddhist Zen priest Taigen Daniel Leighton's presents Buddhist ideas and ideals embodied in flesh-and-blood people, examples whom we can love, admire, emulate: a stroke of genius. This is an informative, useful, and exhilarating work of deeply grounded scholarship and insight.
With Americans looking increasingly for a sense of direction and spiritual guidance, there has been a rise in demand for alternative sources of inspiration and support. Not everyone's needs can be met through evangelistic religions or forums such as the Promise Keepers. For those oriented toward helping others meet these needs as a way of finding their own spiritual fulfillment, this book provides an original and practical guide.
BODDHISATTVA ARCHETYPES demonstrates how everyone has the capacity to become a bodhisattva, (literally an "awakened one" who has deliberately chosen not to pass into nirvana until he/she has helped all other beings become enlightened). This book offers an introduction to the psychology of bodhisattva practice, imagery, and imagination that contemporary Westerners in search of spiritual direction will find invaluable. Surveying the major bodhisattva figures of Mahayana Buddhism, the 'Greater Vehicle' of Buddhist practices throughout Asia, Leighton shows us how a bodhisattva can be anyone, anywhere, at any time. BODDHISATTVA ARCHETYPES is a concise, clear introduction to Buddhist thought as well as a powerful spiritual antidote for those ready to reach out and help others as a means of helping themselves.
First, Leighton outlines the bodhisattva ideal, and then goes on to explain how each of the historical bodhisattvas is archetypal and represents a specific aspect of enlightening activity. The reader will see how aspects of the bodhisattva ideal can be actualized in his/her own life, not necessarily through extraordinary feats, but through ordinary and everyday acts of kindness. Leighton describes the lives of the seven major figures of the Mahayana tradition and the folklore of each one: Manjushri, the bodhisattva of wisdom and insight, Avalokiteshvara, bodhisattva of compassion, and Maitreya, future Buddha (familiar to many as the fat, laughing Chinese Buddha often depicted in statuettes), Leighton ends the discussion with a chapter describing how to go beyond the archetypal, enabling us to choose our own myths and, having awakened, act as a guide to lead others on the path of enlightenment.

What makes BODDHISATTVA ARCHETYPES truly original is Leighton's discussion of contemporary Western figures as exemplars of the bodhisattva ideal, or guides in the modern world. The author profiles such familiar personages as Einstein, Schweitzer, Dr. King, Gandhi, Mother Teresa, Bob Dylan, Gloria Steinem, Muhammad Ali, Elie Weisel, Toni Morrison, Rachel Carson, George Lucas, Van Gogh, Gary Snyder, Carl Jung, Roberto Clemente, Pete Seeger, Thomas Jefferson, John Coltrane, Helen Keller, Thomas Edison, and Clint Eastwood, demonstrating how Buddhism's virtuous teachings can actually be practiced, and have been for centuries, in a non-Buddhist society. BODDHISATTVA ARCHETYPES is a provocative, insightful and timely guide on how to live a more fruitful and compassionate life in today's world.

About the author: Taigen Daniel Leighton is a Zen priest, teacher and translator. He has practiced and studied with a number of Zen teachers, both American and Japanese. He is the co-translator and editor of Cultivating the Empty Field : The Silent Illumination
of Zen Master Hongzhi
(North Point Press) PAPERBACK This work introduces a Japanese style of objectless mindfulness very similar to mahamudra and dzogchen. The Wholehearted Way: A Translation of Ehihei
Dogen's Bendowa
(Charles E Tuttle Co.) Zen Master Dogen's "Bendowa" is one of the primary texts on Zen practice. Transcending any particular school of Buddhism or religious belief, Dogen's profound and poetic writings are respected as a pinnacle of world spiritual literature. "Bendowa" was written in 1231 and expresses Dogen's teaching of the essential meaning of seated meditation and its actual practice. This is Zen Master Dogen's primary writing on the inner workings and ecology of meditation. Included in the book is an extensive, down-to-earth, and entertaining commentary by Uchiyama Roshi, an important modern Japanese Soto Zen master. See also our other reviews of Dogen translations and studies and our reviews of other works on Zen.

OPENING THE LOTUS: A Woman’s Guide to Buddhism by Sandy Boucher ($20.00, hardcover, 194 pages, resources, bibliography, index, Beacon Press, ISBN: 0-8070-7308-3)

This volume is especially designed for feminist women who are considering Buddhist practice. Boucher reflects upon her experience as a Buddhist nun and especially upon the practice of meditation. OPENING THE LOTUS is about the practice of Buddhism for American Women.. Practice, says Boucher, includes not only meditating or chanting, but "walking, eating, doing household chores, communicating with one’s office-mates." Practice means "making the effort to be fully aware."

The first guide to Buddhism written particularly for Western women, Opening the Lotus explores the philosophy behind tools like mindfulness and meditation, and how women can use them to enhance their everyday lives. Sandy Boucher makes what can be an intimidating tradition approachable by providing descriptions of Buddhism’s different schools and teachings, as well as practical advice on going to a meditation hall and finding a teacher. She also explores questions of particular concern to women: How have women fared in Buddhist history? Can women be Buddhist leaders? Is letting go of the self a realistic goal for women? What are the feminist issues in contemporary Buddhism?

Throughout the book, Sandy Boucher draws on her own experiences of growing up in a Methodist household; discovering and learning Buddhist meditation; sojourning in Sri Lanka as a Buddhist nun; and finding sustenance in Buddhist practice through her recent battle with cancer.

Sandy Boucher is the author of Turning the Wheel: American Women Creating the New Buddhism, a history of women in American Buddhism, also published by Beacon Press. She lives in Oakland, California.


Shan-Tao's commentary on the Kuan Wu-Liang-Shou-fo ching

Julian Pas


$24.95, paper; 452 pages; illustrations, notes, bibliography, index



Ching-Ying Hui-Yuan's Commentary on the Visualization Sutra

Kenneth K. Tanaka


$21.95, tradepaper; 304 pages. notes, bibliography, index


Pure Land Buddhism has several unique schools in Japan, but is a general feature of all Mahayana Buddhists, even if not differentiated into a recognizable sect as in Japan. Much of what we know about Pure Land has been colored by its unique Japanese context. Both these titles attempt to recover its now extinct Chinese Buddhist context, particularly the influence of Ching-ying Hui-yuan (523-592 CE) and through him, Shan-tao (613-681 CE), the most influencial Chinese Pure Land Buddhist in Japan. The theory of rebirth played important role in the development of Pure Land cult, basically assuring good rebirth through the power to enlighten all beings of the Bodhisatva Amita. The primary focus was on gaining access to this place through mediation and visualizations. Later these practices were simplified to verbal recitation. Tanaka's study brings out the earliest textual evidence we have for Pure Land practice in North China. Tanaka's translation and commentary are important for laying the background for understanding the work and views of Shan-tao, which is considered the most sustained and original formation of Pure Land doctrines outside of Japan. Pas takes pains to present a critical and full historical account of the views of this monk. His views have often been misrepresented in Japan as a means of down playing the sectarian innovations of Shinran and others. Recommended.


Meditations on the Prajnaparamita Sutra

by Lex Hixon

Quest Books

$16.00 paper; 266 pages, notes


The late Lex Hixon had a genius for extracting the mystical essence from the religious texts he studied. He has produced fine anthologies and commentaries on the Qur'an and Hindu works in the past. The Prajnaparamita Sutra in 8,000 Lines--the basic scripture of all schools of Mahayana Buddhism--sets forth the Bodhisattva path to enlightenment in conversations between the Buddha and three of his disciples. Lex Hixon's "contemplative expansion" of 40 passages from the original Sutra yields a text of devotional beauty that is at once dramatic and uplifting. In this selection he has made accessible the important Wisdom tradition of the Buddhism, again with deft selection and pertinent commentary that reaches to the universal core of this tradition.


Liberation through Understanding in the Between

translated with commentary by Robert A.F. Thurman

Bantam Books

$13.95, paper; 278 pages, notes, biblography, index


This is a major contribution to understanding the Tibetan Buddhist approach to death and rebirth which should find a wide audience. Thurman is a major interpreter of Tibetan Buddhism. It is a major work of the Tibetan Buddhist tradition but also has a standing as one of the great esoteric classics in world literature. Its vision of death offers a profound understanding to this transition. It also offers ways to understand ordinary states of consciousness.


The Buddhist Cave Temples at Ellora

by Geri H. Malandra


$89.95, hardcover; 348 pages, illustrations, notes, bibliography, index



Though written in the exacting descriptive prose of the art historian archeologist, this study of the three dimensional cave art at Ellora is important for Buddhists and religious studies majors because it offers evidence of the development of non-monastic Buddhism and Mahayana and Tantric symbolism.


Writings on Socially Engaged Buddhism

edited by Fred Eppsteiner

Parallax Press

$14.00, tradepaper; 219 pages


A collections of essays by Asian and American practicing Buddhists which belie the perception that serious meditation is asocial and nonpolitical. Rather these essays provide serious ethical and eclogical reflections upon our human enterprize. This book's been inprint for some time but it remains a momentous assemblage.


An Expositionof the Words of Shinran, Founder of the Shin Sect, the Largest Buddhiat School in Japan

by Tannisho Kenkyukai

translated by Shinji Takuwa

The Hokuseido Press

$15.95, sewn paper; 183 pages, notes, bibliography

This popular commentary on the Tannisho, a basic text of Jodo Shin Buddhism gives the essenials of spiritual development are discussed. Considered a minor spiritual classic, this work will appeal to all who take interreligious understanding to heart.


An Investigation of One's Self

by Shei And

The Hokuseido Press

$17.95, sewn paper; 218 pages, notes, bibliography, index

This is a minor classic, composed along the lines of H. R. Blythe's studies of haiku poetics, is about the spirit of Zen and American transcendentalism. It will inform and amuse those who have not studied this literary correspondance before. And was the first Japanese to elaborate the comparison. It's poetics are several generations out of date but the rich citations of poetry and zen koans make this a little gem for any who enjoy creative comparative religion.


by H. R. Blythe

The Hokuseido Press

$27.95, sewn paper; 218 pages, notes, index

This is the classic study of Zen and the haiku poetic tradition. It helped create this form of seventeen syllable expression in English and American poetry. It is dated but well worth close study.

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