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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DAILY PHOTO: Yiga Choeling Old Monastery, Ghoom

Taken in December of 2021 near Darjeeling

Bardo Mind [Free Verse]

lost in a disembodied
Bardo state

fantastical happenings
mainlined into consciousness

with a side of swirling 
phantasm

and all the angry demons

and all the faceless gods

churn around the periphery

DAILY PHOTO: Dubdi Monastery, The First Gompa of Sikkim

Taken in Yuksom in May of 2022

Madman of the Empty Valley [Free Verse]

Thang Tong Gyalpo,

They called him:
Maker of Iron Bridges, 
King of the Empty Plain,
"Excellent Persistence,"
& 
Madman of the Empty Valley

You might not like your bridge-maker
sharing mind & body 
with a madman,
but some of his 15th century bridges
are still in use today.

DAILY PHOTO: Gompa Art, Ravangla

Taken at the Bon Monastery near Ravangla, Sikkim

Taken at the Ravangla Gompa in May of 2022

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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