BOOK REVIEW: Three Japanese Buddhist Monks by Saigyō, Chōmei, and Kenkō

Three Japanese Buddhist MonksThree Japanese Buddhist Monks by Saigyō
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This book collects three essays composed between the twelfth and fourteenth centuries. They are in chronological order, but also in order of increasing length, i.e. Saigyō’s piece is a short excerpt, while Kenkō’s essay makes up the bulk of the book.


An excerpt from Saigyō’s Senjūshō tells the story of the monk’s meeting with a wise reclusive meditator on Mt. Utsu. Saigyō tries to talk his way into living / meditating with the hermit, but the sage convinces him that that wouldn’t be good for either of them. The monk goes away, planning on visiting the hermit on his return, but he wistfully tells us that he took another route.


“The Ten-Foot Hut” is about the benefits of a simple, minimalist existence. It discusses Impermanence, and takes the view that having more just means one has more to lose. A quote that offers insight into the monk’s thoughts is, “If you live in a cramped city area, you cannot escape disaster when a fire springs up nearby. If you live in some remote place, commuting to and fro is filled with problems, and you are in constant danger from thieves.” The author’s solution? Build a tiny cabin in the woods and – in the unlikely event it burns or gets robbed while one is away – what has one really lost?


The Kenkō essay makes up about eighty percent of the book. Its rambling discussion of life’s impermanence delves into morality, aesthetics, and Buddhist psychology. There are many profound bits of wisdom in this piece. Though it’s also a bit of a mixed bag in that some of the advice feels relevant and insightful, while some of it hasn’t aged / traveled well.


I enjoyed this book and found it thought-provoking. Some may be disappointed by finding how little of Saigyō’s writing is included (he being the author of greatest renown,) but I found each author had something valuable to offer.


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The Emotional Beast [Free Verse]

We laud our rational side

- The Thinking Man -

But we're emotional beasts
to the core.

To use that old
[and disparately applied]
chestnut:

Of emotions, 
better master
than servant.

Poetry is a conduit
to emotional savvy.

That's part of the reason
Plato urged poetic restraint;

he found the emotional
inferior to the rational,
and thought most youngsters 
couldn't behave responsibly
in the face of poetry's 
emotional power.

It's also where Aristotle
found virtue in poetry,
its ability to induce 
catharsis.

Could they both 
be right?

BOOK REVIEW: Zen Buddhism by Christmas Humphreys

Zen BuddhismZen Buddhism by Christmas Humphreys
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This overview of Zen Buddhism isn’t so much an instructional guide as a reflection upon Zen as a life philosophy and an artistic influence. While it does have a chapter on technique, it’s mostly a mile-high overview of koan (paradoxes and riddles) and mondo (a Q & A-based practice,) and doesn’t enter into the fundamentals of meditation. If you’re looking for an introduction to Zen practice, this probably isn’t your book. Even the book’s conclusion, which is meant to address pragmatic matters, does so in an abstract and philosophical way. But this isn’t meant to denigrate the book. There are plenty of books that fill that role, and this book has a couple of specialties that set it apart and make it well worth reading.

There are three areas into which this book delves that are sparsely covered in other books. First, there’s a chapter devoted to Zen in English Literature, and throughout the book there’s much discussion of how Zen influences art, more broadly. The Zen in English Literature chapter draws heavily on a work by R.H. Blyth that is hard to find these days. Second, there’s an attempt to relate how ideas of Zen Buddhism can be conveyed to a Western mind. Third, while it’s acknowledged as being futile, the author discusses Satori in great depth.

I found a great deal of food-for-thought in this book. The author draws from many and varied sources to convey his message. Though that can also be a bit problematic. For example, Humphreys sometimes launches into ideas that come from yogic or other Eastern philosophies without a great deal of elaboration. There’s a certain pretentiousness that’s not unexpected from a mid-twentieth century British writer, but the book is by no means a dense read.

If you’re looking for a philosophical look at Zen, or one which discusses Zen as an artistic influence, check out this book.

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BOOK REVIEW: MonsterMind by Alfonso Casas

MonsterMind: Dealing with Anxiety & Self-DoubtMonsterMind: Dealing with Anxiety & Self-Doubt by Alfonso Casas
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Out: October 12, 2021

This comic offers a clever and insightful look at the voices inside one’s head. The use of cute graphic depictions of fears, doubts, and past traumas – along with lighthearted narrative analogies – allows the reader to explore the subject matter in a manner that is neither dry nor anxiety-inducing, in and of itself. This apparently autobiographical book shows how a comic artist, beleaguered by the monstrous occupants of his own mind, goes from being overwhelmed to learning to manage his mind.

At the end of the book there are a few pages of tips, both for dealing with one’s own anxieties but also for interacting with others who have intense embattled minds. It’s a book that may even be more beneficial for individuals without crippling issues themselves, but who know or love such individuals. The use of graphic depictions and adroit portrayals of anxiety may help individuals who haven’t faced severe issues to gain a better understanding of what goes on in the minds of those who do. Having said that, these “monsters” will be familiar to everyone on some level, though for many that that level doesn’t necessarily interfere with living their lives.

I’d highly recommend this book for anyone looking for a gentle and amusing introduction to the topic of the runaway mind. It’s delightfully drawn and amusingly told.


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That Last Lost Generation [Free Verse]

Only too eager to have the machine
installed in their brains,
they did what they could, 
and, instead, installed
their brains into the machine.

Data sparkled in the mind void,
bouncing about and careening 
into other bytes and clusters.

But the crash cascades always came,
a cannibalistic consumption 
of fact,
transmogrifying it into
a shabby soup of 
quasi-reality.

Brain-pans paining,
densely packed with
alternate realities
that could never 
be rectified.

By the time they realized
the virtue of going out 
to play,
they were no longer sure what
"outside" 
meant --
Outside of what?
Where's the exit?
Where is there something else?
-something simple?
How's one get off this speeding bus? 

It became the pain
that ruled that
last lost generation.

Flame Mind [Common Meter]

His eyes take in the dancing flame
until his mind is flame.
He anticipates its flutter,
its flareups, just the same.

There's nothing in his mind or eye
that is not set ablaze.
He knows not whether it's been like
this for hours, weeks, or days.

Others think it will devour him,
leaving a pile of ash,
taking him from this world at once,
in one big, blinding flash.

BOOK REVIEW: Laches by Plato

LachesLaches by Plato
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Project Gutenberg

This early Socratic dialogue asks, “what is courage?” Two older gentlemen, Lysimachus and Melesias, regret that they never had their mettle tested. The seniors ask two younger men who’ve served in battle, Nicias and Laches, whether the elder men should have their sons learn the art of fighting in armor to build courage in the young men. Nicias and Laches suggest that Socrates, who showed great valor in battle, should be asked the question.

Lysimachus believes this to be a good idea because then they have a tie-breaker if the two disagree. However, Socrates leads Lysimachus to understand the folly of this approach. What if the dissenter is the only one who truly knows what courage is and how it can be pursued? Socrates admits he has no great expertise in the matter, but is willing to help determine whether Nicias or Laches is more qualified to answer the question.

Laches goes first and defines courageousness as standing one’s ground in battle. However, under Socrates’ interrogation, Laches has to admit that a man who stays in place foolishly can’t be thought more courageous than one who fights in strategic retreat.

Nicias presents a definition that is more nuanced. Nicias says that courage is knowledge of what is fearful and what is hopeful. One might expect this to please Socrates because the philosopher famously believed that ethical behavior sprang from knowing – i.e. if a man knew what was right, he would act virtuously. However, as Socrates questions Nicias a couple issues become apparent. First, Nicias admits that the courageous person must know what is fearful and hopeful in the future as well as present (and who knows that?) Second, Nicias can’t really differentiate courage from virtue as a whole.

This brief dialogue is short, focused, and well worth reading.

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BOOK REVIEW: Shamans, Mystics and Doctors by Sudhir Kakar

Shamans, Mystics and Doctors: A Psychological Inquiry into India and its Healing TraditionsShamans, Mystics and Doctors: A Psychological Inquiry into India and its Healing Traditions by Sudhir Kakar
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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In this book, Freudian psychoanalyst Sudhir Kakar examines a range of alternatives to mainstream psychiatry / psychotherapy that are pursued across India. They are largely traditions that predate psychiatry, and which weren’t developed primarily as a path to mental health, but rather as methods to develop mind and spirit – but which came to fill a void. Included in this exploration are a Sufi Muslim Pir, a Balaji Temple exorcist, an Oraon bhagat, Tibetan Buddhist / Bon healers, cultists, tantrics, and Ayurvedic doctors. The chapters are organized by the type of healer, and the ten chapters are split between shamans (Pt. I,) mystics (Pt. II,) and Ayurvedic healers (Pt. III.)

This book is at its best and most interesting when it’s describing the author’s visits to various temples, shaman huts, and other places where healers reside. He tells what he learned and experienced at these places, which ranges from reassuring (shamans and healers getting at least as good a result as their mainstream psychotherapeutic counterparts) to mildly horrifying (people chained to cots, or being blamed for their condition — i.e. being told their faith is inadequate.) I found many of the cases under discussion to be fascinating, and learned a lot about how mental illness is perceived by different religious and spiritual traditions.

While Kakar is trained in a Western therapeutic system, he maintains a diplomatic tone about these indigenous forms of therapy – some of which are quite pragmatic but others of which are elaborately pseudo-scientific. I found this book to be insightful about various modes of treating the mind that are practiced in India

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