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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BOOK REVIEW: Stoicism: A Very Short Introduction by Brad Inwood

Stoicism: A Very Short IntroductionStoicism: A Very Short Introduction by Brad Inwood
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Inwood provides an overview Stoic philosophy as it’s discussed in a scholarly context. To distinguish Stoicism as scholars see it from how it’s viewed by those who practice it as a lifestyle, the author differentiates “large Stoicism” from “minimal stoicism.” The vast majority of books today deal only with minimal stoicism – in other words; they exclusively explore how to lead a good and virtuous life, i.e. ethics-centric Stoicism. Scholars, however, are also interested in the physics (/ metaphysics) and the logic of Stoicism.


There are several reasons for this difference in scope. First, Stoic ethics has aged much better than its other philosophical branches. Much of Stoic logic has been improved upon or superseded, and Stoic physics is [arguably] obsolete. This means that scholars studying Stoic physics and logic are more interested in those subjects as a stage of development or a piece of philosophical history than they are as contenders for understanding those subjects. Second, prominent Stoic philosophers with surviving writings (i.e. Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius, and Seneca) have inspired many people by discussing Stoicism as a way of life – not so much as a navel-gazing endeavor.


After discussing the origins of Stoicism, the major Stoic authors, and how Stoicism relates to other philosophical schools of the ancient world, the book presents a chapter each on physics, ethics, and logic. The last chapter investigates how Stoicism is viewed today and how it might maintain relevance despite challenges to some of its metaphysical and logical underpinnings.


Having read a number of books on Stoicism, I didn’t know whether this concise book would be of much benefit. However, by describing Stoicism’s broader context and how the deterioration of much of that context influences the philosophy’s relevance, the book offered plenty of food-for-thought. If you’re interested in this broader context, you may want to give this book a look.


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Purposeful Pauper [Free Verse]

a discard pile of lifelines
- money & pseudo-money
- technologies & redundancies

some donated,
some burnt,
&
some left 
to be found 
by the
willing & the grateful

he walked with
a cloak,
a staff,
a satchel,
& a bowl

he walked
until 
it hurt
&
kept walking 
until
his prided died

then took
what was given
&
lived without
what wasn't

everything beyond
food,
water,
&
air
became a burden

while finding
food,
water,
space,
&
the means of
cleanliness
became the sum
of all endeavors

the terror-bliss barrier
took time to break down,
but when it did...

how free he was 

BOOK REVIEW: Symposium by Plato

SymposiumSymposium by Plato
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Project Gutenberg (FREE)

Symposium is a collection of speeches in praise of Love (the Greek god and the emotional experience) given at a banquet in Ancient Greece. The participants are men of renown, including: a playwright, a physician, a philosopher, a statesman, etc. The narrative is delivered as a secondhand telling after the fact, and isn’t intended as a verbatim transcript of all the speeches.

There are seven speeches, each unique and most playing off the others. Phaedrus starts by emphasizing the underrecognized importance of the unsung god, Eros. Next, Pausanias stresses that there isn’t one kind of love, but two. Eryximachus focuses on the all-pervasive nature of love and, as a physician, mentions the bodily dimension of love. Aristophanes’s speech seems largely in jest, but stresses the fact that people don’t comprehend the power of love. Agathon rebukes the others for emphasizing love as a gift to humans, and, instead, suggests one should focus on praise of the deity. Socrates’s encomium is a departure, as one might expect given his love of questioning and hatred of speechmaking. First, he questions Agathon about whether love is really synonymous with beauty or good, as the youth’s speech had suggested. Second, he recounts his instruction on the subject from Diotima, which is mostly a recounted dialogue between her and he.

The last speech is afield. A drunken Alcibiades wanders in late. [The others decided not to drink because most drank too much the previous day.] Alcibiades gives a speech in praise of Socrates, his once lover, with whom he’s on the outs. From Alcibiades we learn not just about his relationship with Socrates, but also some interesting biographical facts about the philosopher, such as his proclivity to get lost in thought for extended periods and his bravery in combat.

This is an interesting work, and well worth reading.


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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: Anecdotes of the Cynics by Various

Anecdotes of the CynicsAnecdotes of the Cynics by Robert F. Dobbin
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This is a collection of brief stories and sayings from famous Cynic philosophers – notably, Diogenes of Sinope, Crates of Thebes, Hipparchia, and Bion. It opens with the longest piece, a dialogue [allegedly] by Lucian the Cynic advocating the Cynic’s minimalist approach to life. [Cynics were ascetics who shunned customs and cultural conventions and thus often ran afoul of the conservative societal base / rubbed people the wrong way.] The dialogue uses Socratic method, but also contains prolonged exposition. [Not like the Platonic dialogues in which Socrates tends to ask brief questions and attempts to demand brief answers – granted not always successfully.] However, most of the pieces are just a paragraph or two brief excerpts.

Most of the entries report on what various Cynics said or did, though there are a few that are biased commentaries of non-Cynics about these “dog philosophers” – e.g. there is a Catholic tract denouncing the Cynics while talking up Paul. [It reads as though the early Christian church (which was teaching Jesus’s ideas, including: in part, the virtues of poverty, of simplicity, and of a lack of deference to the world of men) might have been concerned about being outcompeted.]

There’s not a tremendous amount that remains of direct Cynic teachings, and so a book like this is a way to get a taste of the highlights. Just as Buddha found that extreme forms of ascetism didn’t yield the optimal result, Cynicism lost ground to the upstart school Stoicism, which borrowed some Cynic ideas while jettisoning the most extreme aspects of the philosophy.

One can find these stories in old public domain sources such as Diogenes Laertius’ (no relation) “Lives of the Eminent Philosophers,” but this is a good way to get the condensed version without too much extraneous information.

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In Praise of Diogenes the Cynic [Free Verse]

Owning only a cloak, 
staff, and satchel,

he broke his bowl
after seeing a child
drink from cupped hands,

feeling the dunce 
for being out-simplified
by a mere child.

When pirates,
eager to sell him off,
asked what skill he had,

he said, "Governing men.

"If you find someone 
interested in buying 
a master,
I'm your man."

He couldn't be driven
away with a stick,
much as the downright-dog,
Antisthenes, tried.

He was expert
at adulterating the currency -
literally and figuratively.

When Alexander the Great
offered him whatever he wished,
A sunbathing Diogenes replied,
"Stand out of my sunlight."

I fear
they don't make 'em like
that anymore.

BOOK REVIEW: Introducing Political Philosophy: A Graphic Guide by Dave Robinson

Introducing Political Philosophy: A Graphic Guide (Introducing...)Introducing Political Philosophy: A Graphic Guide by Dave Robinson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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This book offers a concise overview of the philosophy of governance and political affairs. After a few pages that describe the domain of political philosophy and the questions that guide it, the book takes a chronological approach to exploring the shifting landscape of political philosophy from Ancient Greece through the Postmodernist schools of thought. Along the way, it presents the ideas that have undergirded a range of forms of governance from anarchy to authoritarianism.

Political philosophy hinges on a number of key questions, such as: Is man fundamentally good or evil? [the Hobbes – Locke debate] What rights do individuals have? What makes a government legitimate? There is widespread agreement that societies need some form of governance to avoid devolving into Mad Maxian wastelands. However, any power that a leader or government has to govern inherently restricts the freedom of other entities (i.e. individuals, businesses, organizations, etc.) Attempts to think through how this dilemma can best be managed have resulted in a huge and longstanding body of philosophical thinking.

Furthermore, there is no indication that these questions will resolve themselves in a consensus agreement about what kind of governance (or lack thereof,) is best. While democracy, rule of law, protection of minority rights, and a strict limitation of the State’s monopoly on use of force have gained widespread following across an increasing number of nations, those ideas haven’t ended the debate altogether.

I found this to be a fine overview of the subject. As with other books in the series, it uses short sections and cartoon graphics to make the material readily digestible. It’s highly readable and well-organized.


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BOOK REVIEW: Socrates: A Very Short Introduction by C.C.W. Taylor

Socrates: A Very Short IntroductionSocrates: A Very Short Introduction by C.C.W. Taylor
My rating: 5 of 5 Stars

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In Plato’s Socratic dialogues, Socrates is forever challenging sophists and others who propose to know what virtues are while they are demonstrably unable to define or delineate them. I wonder how he would have felt about being one of the foremost examples of a person that people firmly believe they know, when there is good reason to believe that much of what we know is false. Socrates is described in comedic plays like Clouds by Aristophanes, but those descriptions are written for comedic effect. There is a large body of works by Plato describing Socrates’ philosophical jousts, but it seems clear that some of these writings reflect Plato’s views which may or may not have been shared by Socrates. There are a few matters of official records, and numerous isolated mentions from people who either loved or loathed Socrates (loving and loathing not being states conducive to accurate reporting.)

This book attempts to concisely review what is known about Socrates and his philosophy, what is myth, and what can, at best, be regarded as the features of a fictional Socrates. The book starts with a chapter on Socrates’ life and what is widely believed true about his biography. Then the book outlines the body of writings that discuss and describe Socrates, particularly those of Plato, Xenophon, and Aristotle. Next there is a chapter that explores the philosophy Plato’s Socrates, a fictional construct partially based on the man and partly shaped by his student’s views. The last two chapters discuss the legacy of Socrates (real and mythical) in philosophy and culture.

There is a Further Reading section at the end to give the reader some sources to continue their investigations. I found this to be a fine overview, well-organized, and readable. It will be more useful to those who read Plato, and relevant works of Xenophon.

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