BOOK REVIEW: Bring Me the Rhinoceros by John Tarrant

Bring Me the Rhinoceros: And Other Zen Koans That Will Save Your LifeBring Me the Rhinoceros: And Other Zen Koans That Will Save Your Life by John Tarrant
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This book is an examination of fifteen classic Zen koans selected by John Tarrant, founder of the Pacific Zen Institute (PZI.) Koans are statements or stories that are designed to help students of Zen Buddhism escape their usual ways of thinking because the absurdity of koans cannot be meaningfully answered with the usual approach based in logic and reason. Even if the concept isn’t familiar, readers are sure to have heard the famous koan: “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” [Though one may have missed the value as a tool of the mind, and dismissed the koan as a sage’s attempt to be abstruse and esoteric.]

Each chapter addresses one koan in great detail. First, the koan is presented in a simple fashion. It should be pointed out that some of these koans are a single line and others are as long as several paragraphs. Next, there is a sort of introduction to the concept or point being addressed in the koan. Tarrant knows the value of story, and this frequently involves a narrative approach. Next, there is a section describing the koan in more detail than in which it was first introduced. Here the author elaborates and provides background. The final section of each chapter is about “working with the koan” and offers a bit of insight into how to start considering the lesson of each koan.

I enjoyed this book. It’s a good selection of koans that cover a wide range of styles and approaches. As I mentioned the author uses stories and anecdotes – both historical and contemporary – to help get his point across. The titular use of a particularly absurd koan “punchline,” gives one a taste of the author’s willingness to engage in the whimsical.

I’d highly recommend this book for those who are seeking to better understand koans, either as students of Zen or as individuals interested in the workings of the mind more generally.

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BOOK REVIEW: Cave of Tigers by John Daido Loori

Cave of Tigers: The Living Zen Practice of Dharma Combat (Dharma Communications)Cave of Tigers: The Living Zen Practice of Dharma Combat by John Daido Loori
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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This book is a collection of transcripts of what are called dharma encounters, dokusan, or dharma combat. It’s a practice in Zen Buddhism involving a verbal interaction between student and teacher. Each of the twenty chapters takes a teaching of some past master of Zen (mostly Master Dogen), and explores it through these student-teacher interactions. The chapters begin with an introduction to the teaching at hand, conclude with a wrap up paragraph, and in between are an assortment of transcripts.

There’s a clear pro and con. Because information is presented in an unconventional format, there’s potential to gain insights that one might not otherwise. The students are trying to interact with the teacher in an unorthodox and outside-the-box manner. That’s part of the training. So as they relate the teachings to events in their own life or their own unique way of viewing the world, one gains access to those off angles of insight.

On the other hand, reading the transcripts can be repetitive as the teacher is trying to make sure that all students have some common understanding. It’s also not clear whether there was much selectivity in picking the encounters that were presented. Some readers might enjoy that it’s like being there at the monastery, but others might find reading the book a little bit like watching sausage making. While there are clever and insightful students, there are also individuals who seem to just be trying to get there turn over with, who appear to have no interest in the topic at hand, or who think some random action like a war-whoop will be evaluated as a deep and meaningful insight on the subject by the teacher (spoiler alert: it almost never is.) One should also not assume factual correctness in the student’s commentaries (e.g. at one point one of the students incorrectly identifies Vishnu as “the destroyer,” but [in Hindu mythology] Vishnu is the preserver / maintainer and it’s Shiva who is the destroyer. This error is of little consequence to the point being made, but the reader should be aware that the priority was to be faithful in conveying the transcripts rather than to accurately convey information.)

The organization seems sound enough. The book begins with rudimentary topics such as zazen (sitting meditation) and progresses into more philosophical and esoteric topics. As mentioned, there are twenty chapters, each built around a specific teaching and with the same organization. The only ancillary material besides the front matter (a Forward and an “Invitation to Dharma Encounter”) is a glossary (which is a worthy addition given the wide-ranging terminology in English, Japanese, Chinese, and Sanskrit, as well as the many names of individuals and documents that may be unfamiliar to the uninitiated.)

I enjoyed this book. As I say, it has its positives and negatives, but—on the whole—it was insightful and interesting. I’d recommend it for anyone interested in Zen, particularly anyone who intends to spend time at a monastery or meditation center.

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DAILY PHOTO: Acala in Buddha Tooth Relic Temple of Singapore

Taken in October of 2016 in the Buddha Tooth Relic Temple of Singapore

BOOK REVIEW: The Way of the Bodhisattva by Shantideva

The Way of the Bodhisattva: A Translation of the BodhicharyavataraThe Way of the Bodhisattva: A Translation of the Bodhicharyavatara by Śāntideva
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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A bodhisattva is one who achieves enlightenment but sticks around to help others pursue the path. Shantideva was a Buddhist monk who lived [mostly] in the 8th century in the part of India that is today in the state of Bihar. Shantideva’s lesson on how to be a good bodhisattva is delivered via 10 chapters of verse, mostly in four-line stanzas. This instructional poem makes up almost 240 pages of the edition of the book put out by Shambhala as translated by the Padmakara Translation Group, and the rest is front matter, appendices, notes, and a bibliography.

The chapters of Shantideva’s poem are: 1.) The Excellence of Bodhichitta (lit. “enlightened mind”); 2.) Confession (fear is a major theme in this statement of modesty); 3.) Taking Hold of Bodhichitta; 4.) Carefulness (discussion of what to avoid.); 5.) Vigilant Introspection (on the need to keep one’s attention concentrated, and to not let the mind roam.); 6.) Patience (on not being focused on self, but on all those suffering.); 7.) Diligence (on avoiding hedonism and being industrious.); 8.) Meditative Concentration (avoidance of getting caught up in the material / physical world.); 9.) Wisdom (karma, illusion, and, particularly, the illusion of self.); 10.) Dedication.

As mentioned, there’s a lot of ancillary matter in this edition of the book. There’s a forward by the Dalai Lama, an extensive introduction (which is helpful as even a modern translation requires background), three appendices (a brief biography, a discussion of equalizing self and other, and a meditation on exchanging self and other), notes (which are also necessary give the nature of a 21st century global reader spoken to by an 8th century Indian monk), and a bibliography. There are no graphics (except a single line-drawn panel) but none are needed.

I had mixed feelings about this work. There was a great bit of wisdom, and the meditation described in the final appendix (based on Shantideva’s discussion) seems to be tremendously valuable. One the other hand, there was a lot of degradation and abasement of the physical body. Granted, I know that Shantideva is talking to an audience of primarily monks and he’s trying to keep them from being horn-dogs or otherwise being distracted by physicality. However, I’m always turned off by those who fail to recognize the tremendous awesomeness and beauty of the human body. There’s also the pessimism. Buddhists are often accused of being pessimistic. Starting with an opening statement of “life is suffering,” this might not be a surprise. Of course, Buddhists counter by saying that they aren’t pessimistic because they are offering a solution to the fact that life is misery, to which non-Buddhists tend to say, “Yes, but the defining characteristic of life need not be agony in the first place.” I won’t weight in on that debate, but the reader should be prepared for a certain dismal tone here and there.

I found this book to be loaded with food for thought. The introduction and notes are extremely beneficial, and this is one of those few cases in which they don’t just feel like padding to hit a desired page count. The verse is readable, and can be understood by a general audience.

I’d recommend this for those interested in Buddhist philosophy.

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BOOK REVIEW: Modern Buddhism: Vol. 1 (Sutra) by Geshe Kelsang Gyatso

Modern Buddhism: The Path of Compassion and Wisdom - Volume 1 SutraModern Buddhism: The Path of Compassion and Wisdom – Volume 1 Sutra by Geshe Kelsang Gyatso
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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This is the first book in a three-volume overview of Buddhism that is available for free (or for the minimum Kindle book price on Amazon.) The book is written by a Tibetan Buddhist scholar-monk, and, therefore, emphasizes the Mahayana approach and specifically that of the Gelug school. (I’m a neophyte, but I don’t think this book goes into so much detail as to be controversial among Tibetan Mahayana Buddhists, but if you are thinking you’ll learn about, say, Zen or Theravadan Vipassana, not so much.) The theme of this volume is an overview of the Limram, which is a sutra describing the path to enlightenment.

The book is divided into four sections. The first offers a broad overview of Buddhism with particular discussion of the Kadam Lamrim (the specific sutra discussed) and Kadampas (which is the name for an individual who pursues practice of the Kadam Lamrim.) The other three sections describe the information needed by an initiate, middling practitioners, and advanced practitioners, respectively.

The section on persons of initial scope (i.e. initiates) emphasizes the need to recognize the limited scope of a human life, to reflect upon one’s imminent death, and to consider the importance of avoiding lower rebirth.

The section on persons of middling scope echoes the four noble truths. They are discussed by way of the four questions: 1.) What one should know? 2.) What one should abandon? 3.) What one should practice? And 4.) What one should attain? In essence, it suggests one understand suffering, the path to is cessation, and that one follow that path.

The largest section, by far, is the portion on individuals of great scope. It is divided into four parts. The first part describes the need to revise one’s approach to love by taking oneself out of the center and practicing loving-compassion for those that one doesn’t know. The second subsection outlines the six perfections (giving, moral discipline, patience, effort, concentration, and wisdom) and the importance of each. The third section is about emptiness and truth. The final section is a brief description of the Lamrim practice.

There are a small number of line drawn illustrations of important figures in the tradition. There are no notations, citations, or ancillary material.

I found this book to offer a concise overview of the subject of Buddhism—specifically from the perspective of the Gelug tradition of Tibetan Buddhism. While there are some historical stories, such as those drawn from the life of Milarepa, the book is not designed to be entertaining reading. It’s a straightforward transmission of knowledge. In that regard it does a fine job, it’s clear and concise.

I’d recommend this book for one who’s interested Tibetan Buddhism, but one should be aware that it’s not a nonsectarian overview of Buddhism as the title might suggest to a reader.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Life of Milarepa ed. by Lobzang Jivaka

The Life of Milarepa: A New Translation from the TibetanThe Life of Milarepa: A New Translation from the Tibetan by Lobsang P. Lhalungpa
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Superhero stories can be surprisingly hard to make interesting. The hero’s vast powers make it hard to build obstacles that seriously challenge him. Make no mistake; while this book may be the biography of a Tibetan Buddhist yogi who was born in the eleventh century, it’s a superhero story as well. At various points, the titular character can control the weather, fly, read minds, predict the future, and cover a distance that would take a mere mortal months in just days. Milarepa is basically the entire cast of the X-Men rolled into one monk. [Note: the introduction of 1962 Lobzang Jivaka edition features a series of rants against Westerners that put a bad taste in my mouth early in the reading–basically suggesting the reality of these magic powers should be taken as a given even though the deficient Western mind has trouble wrapping its head around difficult concepts. It made me think I’d probably not like the book, but I’d forgotten it by the time I got around to the end of the book.]

“The Life of Milarepa” is essentially a hero’s journey, which begins with his widowed mother, his sister, and he being taken advantage of by a mean Uncle and Aunt. Milarepa takes up Black Magic to influence the weather so that he can exact revenge. Doing so makes him feel great shame, and puts him on the path of a religious ascetic. After his initial training, he is put through a great series of trials by Marpa, the man who will eventually his guru. Were it not for the encouragement and support from Marpa’s wife, Milarepa would never have made it through the training, and at one point—in fact—he goes away to learn from one of Marpa’s most advanced students because it seems Marpa unwilling to teach him.

Eventually, Milarepa ends up returning to his home and, thereafter, meditating on his own. Here he runs into the aunt and uncle (now separated) who made his family’s life hell after his father died. These elders aren’t the only ones who think Milarepa is a ne’er-do-well. However, most people are too scared of his superpowers to create problems for him, at first. He eventually wanders off and becomes the poorest of ascetics—with not so much as covering for his naked body as he live off nettles.

There are oddities in the book. The Buddhist teachers he studies under both use him as weapon (i.e. his hailstorm magic) as a requirement to taking him on as a student, despite the fact that this will pile onto his Karmic debt (and ostensibly theirs), and it leaves him feeling horrible—as well, it seems, these black magic powers make Marpa hostile to the young man and not take him seriously as a student until the guru receives an omen.

So why does this story turn out to be so satisfying? For one thing, for all his powers, Milarepa is constantly confronting challenges that keep the story tight. (I should again emphasize that this is nominally a work of biography. It just doesn’t read like one because of all the magic and the classic story elements. Few people have such a novel-shaped life. A hagiography is a more apt descriptor but instead of only displaying Milarepa’s good side (boring), this book presumably dances around facts to make a more engrossing product.) While Milarepa could concoct all manner of magic, he mostly doesn’t with the exception of some ESP. After Marpa has taught him, Milarepa deals with people with calm and compassion. (His return home is a little like Alex’s from “A Clockwork Orange” in that people have ill feelings about him because of his past, but at first they are afraid of him. When they discover he can’t defend himself, they start to lay into him.) For another, we can see Milarepa’s growth and we come to respect his intense devotion tremendously as he becomes quite virtuous of the course of the book. While he is a superhero, he’s also an ascetic who denies himself with the utmost of discipline in pursuit of liberation.

I’d highly recommend this book for those who like biographies—especially if you like to learn about Buddhism in the process. In the latter half of the book there are some lessons transmitted through the text as Milarepa interacts with students and other people. Eventually, even his loathsome aunt becomes a student.

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BOOK REVIEW: An Introduction to Indian Philosophy Chatterjee & Datta

An Introduction to Indian PhilosophyAn Introduction to Indian Philosophy by Satischandra Chatterjee
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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India has spawned a number of philosophical systems over the centuries. Chatterjee and Datta provide an overview of Indian philosophy by comparing and contrasting nine major schools of Indian philosophy—the six orthodox schools plus three well-known heterodox schools. The dividing line between orthodox and unorthodox hinges upon whether a philosophy accepts the Vedas as sources of authority.

After an introductory chapter that lays out the concepts that will be needed throughout the remainder of the book as well as providing brief sketches of nine philosophical schools, the remainder of the book is a one chapter per school examination of metaphysics, ethics, theology, epistemology, etc. The authors first consider the heterodox schools: i.e. Carvaka (a materialist /atheist approach), Jain (one of the major Indian religions), and Buddhist. After examining the heterodox approaches, Chatterjee and Datta take on the orthodox schools in the following order: Nyaya, Vaisesika, Sankhya, Yoga (which you may not have realized was a philosophical system), Mimamsa, and Vedanta.

There are a number of questions that recur as the authors compare these schools to each other. A major point of consideration is presence or absence of belief in a god, and—for those systems that believe in a God or gods—what is the role of said deity. It might seem that all the orthodox systems would be theistic, but this isn’t the case (e.g. Sankhya.) Another key question is how one can know something, i.e. what is acceptable authority—can one only trust one’s own senses or can one trust everything but one’s own senses? Then there is the matter of ethics and how each system regards ethical behavior. Of course, there are some elements that are unique to a given system, and so it’s not entirely a matter of comparison and contrast.

There are no graphics in the book and the ancillary material is limited to footnotes, a select bibliography, and prefaces to the various editions of the book. Note: I read the 2007 / 7th Edition of the book.

I won’t say this book isn’t dry. It’s a philosophy textbook, after all. However, it does provide a solid overview of the topic and seems to take great efforts to be unbiased (to the extent of sometimes not challenging philosophical ideas that are patently unsound in favor of reporting what advocates of the tradition propose.)

I’d recommend this book for anyone who’s looking for an overview of Indian philosophy.

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