BOOK REVIEW: The Pocket Chögyam Trungpa by Chögyam Trungpa

The Pocket Chogyam TrungpaThe Pocket Chogyam Trungpa by Chögyam Trungpa
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This pocket-sized guide consists of 108 excerpts drawn from the writings of Chögyam Trungpa, a prolific — if controversial — teacher of Tibetan Buddhism. Chögyam Trungpa may have been most famous in the West for coining the English term “Crazy Wisdom,” and for founding Naropa University in Boulder, Colorado. [Note: while he coined the term “Crazy Wisdom,” he didn’t originate the concept, which existed already – arguably in multiple forms — in Vajrayana Buddhism from olden times.] Beyond basic Buddhist philosophy, he wrote extensively on Buddhist Psychology, Tantric Buddhism, and the Buddhist conception of warriorship.

The book is designed to be picked up at any point. There isn’t a formal grouping of concepts, but rather the book meanders around, revisiting ideas such as Enlightenment, Emptiness, emotional intelligence in multiple locations throughout the book. The entries are between a paragraph and a page long in most cases.

I found a great deal of food-for-thought in this book and would highly recommend it for those wishing to dip a toe into the teachings of Chögyam Trungpa.


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Spanish Inquisition Limerick

There once was a Grand Inquisitor --
a most unpopular visitor.
His knock at your door
meant you were done for.
He could paint even a saint sinister.

BOOK REVIEW: Humanism: A Very Short Introduction by Stephen Law

Humanism: A Very Short IntroductionHumanism: A Very Short Introduction by Stephen Law
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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In this guide, Law lays out the basic principles of humanism, discusses the arguments for and against belief in a deity, and examines the humanist conceptions of morality and meaning of life (two constructs that religious people often claim can only exist in a deist world.) Humanism is an ill-understood system, in large part because it isn’t so much a set of ideas ascribed to as a way of approaching ideas in a questioning and secular way. Therefore, defining humanism isn’t as straightforward as listing a set of common beliefs because humanism can cover a wide variety of different worldviews. That makes this a particularly useful book as it clears up a number of false equivalences. Many think that humanism is the same as atheism or agnosticism, and while humanists generally follow one of those two approaches to the question of whether there is a god, humanism isn’t identical to either.

This book does a good job of organizing the debate and laying out arguments and counterarguments. I learned a lot by reading the book and by deliberating over the points of contention. There were points where I think more could have been said. For example, in the chapter on the meaning of life, after systematically dismantling the religious argument that a meaningful life is the sole domain of religion, Law doesn’t offer any guidance as to the humanist approach to pursuing a meaningful life (stating merely that most humanists agree with the religious about what is a meaningful life, even if they disagree about why it is.) I realize this is a brief guide, and the author might have wanted to avoid stepping on the toes of other guides in the series that investigate the question, but it stands as a deficiency. True, there wouldn’t be a list of what makes a meaningful life so much as an outline of how to approach it, but, still, even an overly simplified statement would have been useful.

I learned a lot from this book and would recommend it for anyone wanting to gain insight into the debates around humanism.


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BOOK REVIEW: Singing and Dancing Are the Voice of the Law by Busshō Lahn

Singing and Dancing Are the Voice of the Law: A Commentary on Hakuin's “Song of Zazen”Singing and Dancing Are the Voice of the Law: A Commentary on Hakuin’s “Song of Zazen” by Bussho Lahn
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Release Date: December 20, 2022 [In India, may be out in your area.]

This book consists of a collection of essays inspired by the poem, “Song of Zazen,” written by the 18th century Zen master, Hakuin. Hakuin’s poem is brief (about forty lines,) and the essays composed by a present-day Zen priest (Lahn) offer commentary on a stanza-by-stanza basis. The book is divided into fourteen chapters, though the final chapter isn’t a stanza commentary.

I enjoyed reading this book and learned a great deal from it. The book benefits from the fact that the author is not rigidly sectarian. Therefore, the book is not doctrinaire, which warms the reader to the teachings. It’s also useful because it allowed the author to freely draw examples and quotes from a variety of sources, some of which may be more familiar or relatable to neophyte readers.

The last chapter offers a discussion of the fundamentals of zazen (seated meditation) as well as some other ancillary information that may be useful to readers new to Zen Buddhism, its practices, and its sutras. If you’re interested in Zen Buddhist meditation and philosophy, you may want to give it a look.


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Dragon-slayer or Drunkard? [Common Meter]

I see so many statues of
dragon-slayers mid-kill.
The winged serpents pierced by a lance
conjures up such a thrill.

But there're no dragons, never were.
So, what were they slaying.
Dinos went extinct before our time
is all that I'm saying.

So, were they killing geckos, or
maybe a rock lizard?
Maybe chickens, given the wings?
Struck right through the gizzard!

Could it be St. George liked to drink
or was tripping ergot?
To earn so many statues, he'd
a publicist, I bet.

"The dragons were metaphorical!"
OK, that's really swell,
but shouldn't George's heroism
be figurative as well?

BOOK REVIEW: Social and Cultural Anthropology [VSI] by John Monaghan & Peter Just

Social and Cultural Anthropology: A Very Short IntroductionSocial and Cultural Anthropology: A Very Short Introduction by John Monaghan
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This was one of the most interesting “Very Short Introduction” books — of the many titles in the series that I’ve read. The authors use stories and examples to convey the basics of the subject in way that’s not mind-numbingly dry (i.e. the scholarly norm) – in fact, there’s a fair amount of humor laced throughout the book.

Most of the examples come from the two tribes that these two authors study – i.e. one in Mexico and the other in Indonesia. However, those two groups provide a rich arena of interesting anecdotes, and the authors do use social groups outside their research focus when necessary.

In addition to learning about the nature of ethnographic fieldwork and what anthropologists do, there’s an exploration of culture, the various ways in which people are socially organized (i.e. kinship, castes, societies, etc.,) and how different societies view religious belief, economic activity, and selfhood.

If you’re starting from zero and are seeking an introduction to anthropology, I’d highly recommend this one.

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BOOK REVIEW: By Water by Jason Landsel & Richard Mommsen

By Water: The Felix Manz StoryBy Water: The Felix Manz Story by Jason Landsel
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Release Date: March 21, 2023

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This is a graphic novel-style biography of Felix Manz, a Protestant (Anabaptist) reformer from Zurich during the sixteenth century. Manz and his compatriots had a few beefs with the Catholic church, broadly classified. The first (and most religious / doctrinal) grievance was with respect to how the Church handled baptisms; specifically, infant baptism prevented baptism from being a free choice for the baptized. The second set of grievances involved the priesthood and how priests were moved around at the convenience of the Church and how much money they cost the citizenry. (i.e. They wanted local priests and not to be forced to pay a lot of overhead.) The third complaint was more an entire slate of complaints about resources. In that era, Swiss commoners couldn’t just go hunting in the woods or chop firewood as they needed because the land was under the ownership of the powers that be.

The story of Manz and his followers is intriguing, if one is interested in history. It’s kind of a strange topic to read in comic book form, but as history can be tedious in historical / biographic tomes, this makes for a quick and painless way to take in the story. There are a couple points where the book seems to shift into hagiographic territory (i.e. being difficult to swallow for the non-believer.)

The art is clear and neatly rendered, but I wondered how time-accurate it is. Maybe it is, but the inside of the houses looked pretty much like today (e.g. curtains and furnishings) and I found myself wondering whether its anachronistic or not. Ultimately, I have to give the artist the benefit of the doubt as I know virtually nothing about how Swiss commoners lived in the 1500’s. At the end of the book, there are some appendices that provide more information in prose text.

If you’re interested in European and / or Religious History, you may want to read this book.


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BOOK REVIEW: Myth: A Very Short Introduction by Robert A. Segal

Myth: A Very Short IntroductionMyth: A Very Short Introduction by Robert A. Segal
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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This book situates myth amid the broader body of scholarship by examining what role myth plays within – or in opposition to – various academic disciplines, including: science, philosophy, religion, the study of ritual, literature, psychology, structuralism, and social studies. The book is organized so as to compare competing ideas of various major scholars in each of the aforementioned domains. So, as the blurb is upfront about, the book doesn’t spend much time talking about what myths are, and the discussion of how myths are structured is only made as relevant to distinguishing various hypotheses.

One does obtain some food-for-thought about what myths are as one learns how different scholars have approached myth. Questions of how narrowly myth should be defined (e.g. only creation stories v. all god and supernatural tales,) and how myths compare to folktales, national literatures, and the like are touched upon. One also learns that some scholars took myths literally (and, therefore, saw them as obsolete in the face of science and modern scholarship,) but other scholars viewed myths more symbolically.

If you’re looking for an introductory book to position myth in the larger scholarly domain and to examine competing hypotheses about myths, this is a great book for you. However, those who want a book that elucidates what myths are (and aren’t) and how they are structured and to what ends, may find this book inadequate for those objectives. Just be aware of the book you’re getting.


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Temple on a Hill [Free Verse]

granite bubbled out of the jungle,
and - upon it - they built a temple

its walls were anchored into stone
until its walls were the hill,
and the hill was its walls

and no one could find one true point
at which one ended & the other began

was it built to be 
closer to the heavens,
or further from hell?

not by people for whom
heaven & hell
reside in the mind --
unattainable by velocity,
inescapable by distance --
constant traveling companions
only confronted head-on

maybe they wanted it to feel
permanent,
knowing even that granite
would crumble in due time