In the Temple [Free Verse]

i enter an empty temple. 

it’s not silent.

footfalls resonate
&
floorboards creak.

but flickering flames
&
sleepy-eyed Buddhas
are quiet enough

in an hour,
the monks will filter in
with great punctuality:
monks, young and old.
(i would say, “and ages in-between,”
but they all seem young or old.)

there will be chanting,
and the din of finger cymbals
and deep-toned drums.

and i will leave
for the solace
of the world
outside the temple.

BOOK REVIEW: Buddhist Ethics: A Very Short Introduction by Damien Keown

Buddhist Ethics: A Very Short IntroductionBuddhist Ethics: A Very Short Introduction by Damien Keown
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Most people, if they know anything about Buddhist ethics, have heard of the Eightfold Path (right + view, intention, speech, action, livelihood, effort, mindfulness, and concentration.) However, just knowing that can lead to the impression that Buddhist ethics are blurry and that it’s all a matter of doing as one pleases within one’s personal interpretation of rightness. This concise guide offers an overview of the Buddhist ethics and morality, focusing on issues of global and modern interest (as opposed to those issues only of interest in places where Buddhism is practiced or at the time in which Buddha was teaching – i.e. issues like abortion, vegetarianism, war, suicide, and cloning and not subjects like caste, traditional family roles, etc.)

The first two chapters present a broad overview, and the rest focus on particular ethical issues. I found the second chapter beneficial; it asks how Buddhist ethics fit in the categorization scheme employed by Western Philosophy. I considered it useful even though the answer was that Buddhist ethics aren’t neatly contained by this way of thinking, but rather can be seen as a mix of multiple approaches. (e.g. Buddhism has sets of precepts – ala deontology, has a karmic doctrine that is arguably consequentialist, and, also, has elements similar to the virtue ethics of ancient Greece.)

Chapters three through eight investigate specific issues: animal rights and environmental ethics (ch. 3,) sexuality and gender (ch. 4,) war and violence (ch. 5,) abortion (ch. 6,) suicide / euthanasia (ch. 7,) and upcoming technologies that will change what it means to be alive and conscious (i.e. cloning, artificial intelligence, cryogenics, and CRISPR.) As with chapter two, there’s often no tidy answer. For one thing, the author tries to contend with what is common across various sects, and this is often reflected in the laws of countries, laws which are only partially informed by Buddhist philosophy. Also, it’s not like the Buddha had anything to say on many of these issues, which either weren’t issues (e.g. cloning) or were considered radically differently (e.g. gender.) Still, one does get an idea of how these questions relate to ideas such as karma and dharma, and how contemporary Buddhist thinkers might begin to consider them.

One will note that there are ethical territories that aren’t addressed (e.g. justice / punishment, ethics of governance, business ethics, etc.,) but a brief guide needs filters, and this one chose to focus heavily on modern, individual ethical questions of broad international interest.

If you’re looking to better understand Buddhist ethics, this book is worth reading.


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BOOK REVIEW: Dropping Ashes on the Buddha by Seung Sahn

Dropping Ashes on the Buddha: The Teachings of Zen Master Seung SahnDropping Ashes on the Buddha: The Teachings of Zen Master Seung Sahn by Seung Sahn
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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This book’s one-hundred brief chapters mostly consist of interactions between the Korean Zen Buddhist teacher, Seung Sahn, and students of his. However, there are also some old Zen stories, and a few odds and ends: such as the transcript of a completely unproductive “dialogue” between Seung Sahn and a Hindu yogi. Some of the student-teacher interactions are epistolary, but others are face-to-face “dharma combat” or Q&A sessions (which also, ultimately, became dharma combat — given Seung Sahn’s teaching methods.) Dharma combat is a dialogue that resembles Socratic dialogue except that the goal isn’t to use logic and sound reasoning to persuade another, but rather to demonstrate a lack of attachment and proclivity to overintellectualize. It involves a lot of seemingly nonsensical answers and occasional shouting and slapping / hitting. It sounds unproductive, but the objective is to break established cognitive modes and to induce epiphany, rather than to build a rational argument.

It’s a thought provoking and informative book, if a bit repetitive. Most of the conversation revolves around less than a dozen ko-an [kong-an in Korean,] which are questions or statements that’re intended to provoke a kind of realization rather than to produce a straightforward / rational answer. It’s not a problem that there’s repetition, as these aren’t straightforward ways of thinking, and oftentimes it takes many varied looks at a ko-an to grasp what’s being conveyed. That said, I felt this book could’ve used some editing to streamline the dialogue a bit to make it feel a bit less punitively redundant.

If you’re interested in ko-an and dharma combat, this is a great book to look into. However, if you’re familiar with many of the popular ko-an and Zen stories, it may feel a bit redundant.


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BOOK REVIEW: Awakening the Sleeping Buddha by The 12th Tai Situpa [Pema Donyo Nyinche]

Awakening the Sleeping BuddhaAwakening the Sleeping Buddha by Pema Donyo Nyinche
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This is a concise overview of Buddhism from the Kagyu Vajrayana [Tibetan] Buddhist perspective. It’s a straightforward, just-the-facts look at the fundamental teachings of Buddhism, and doesn’t plumb the depths of the subject, but rather offers a readable broad-brush view. And yet the author managed to state ideas in such a way as to provoke thought and offer insight.

The book is divided into eight chapters, each of which takes on a major concept from Mahayana Buddhism: Buddha nature, bodhichitta (compassion,) reincarnation / karma, emptiness, Tantric science, transformation, Enlightenment, and Mahamudra (the core meditation of the Kagyu lineage.) The organization is informed by what concepts one needs to learn to move through greater levels of refinement towards Enlightenment, with the final chapter examining Buddhist teachings as presented in the Kagyu line.

I value books on Buddhist philosophy and psychology that keep things simple and don’t overly religify the topic. This book does a good job of it, and that says something when considering the great complexity and esoteric nature of Tibetan schools of Buddhism. If you’re looking for an introductory text on Buddhism from the Vajrayana perspective, this is an excellent book to read.


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BOOK REVIEW: A Stranger in Tibet by Scott Berry

A Stranger In Tibet: The Adventures Of A Wandering Zen MonkA Stranger In Tibet: The Adventures Of A Wandering Zen Monk by Scott Berry
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This book tells the story of a Japanese Zen Buddhist monk, Kawaguchi Ekai, who traveled to India, Nepal, Lo (now Upper Mustang,) Sikkim, and Tibet in the early years of the twentieth century in search of Buddhist scriptures and teachings. His ultimate goal was Tibet, which he’d heard had the complete Buddhist canon in Tibetan. However, at that time, Tibet (like some of the other nations he traveled through) was xenophobic and strictly controlled / prohibited movements of foreigners, sometimes under penalty of death. This necessitated Kawaguchi first spending a year-and-a-half in Darjeeling to become fluent in Tibetan, and then using a range of disguises to facilitate travel. There was a book published after Kawaguchi’s trip entitled, “Three Years in Tibet,” but there are reasons why one might prefer Berry’s work, reasons that will be addressed below.

Kawaguchi was an interesting figure, a skilled polyglot, a fast thinker, and an iron-willed pursuer of truth. He was also bigoted and held uncompromising moral beliefs upto which few could live. The travelogue is sometimes comic, sometimes tragic, but always interesting. Sometimes Kawaguchi comes across as a Buddhist Don Quixote, but other times he’s a valiant scholar / adventurer.

As for why one might enjoy reading Berry’s account better: first, “Three Years in Tibet” is rather bloated and wasn’t written directly by Kawaguchi but rather by way of journalists. Second, Berry explores the truth behind some of the intolerant and sectarian views of Kawaguchi. Third, Berry offers broader context into the intrigues and geopolitics of the times that led to the shunning of foreigners in the first place.

This book delves into a fascinating time in a little-known part of the world, and it’s a compelling read throughout. I’d highly recommend it for those interested in learning more about the region and its past.


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