BOOK REVIEW: Tibetan Buddhism: A Very Short Introduction by Matthew T. Kapstein

Tibetan Buddhism: A Very Short IntroductionTibetan Buddhism: A Very Short Introduction by Matthew T. Kapstein
My rating: 4 of 5 stars Page

This book outlines the philosophy, theology, history, and future prospects of Tibetan Buddhism. It’s a big topic because Tibetan Buddhism is a unique amalgam of Buddhism, indigenous beliefs (e.g. Bön,) and adapted teachings from Yoga and Tantra.

For a concise guide, the discussions of history and philosophy can get deep in the weeds. However, to be fair, Tibetan Buddhism has a long and complicated history, and has produced deep metaphysical ideas, particularly with regards to philosophy of mind. Furthermore, it’s not a unitary religion, having schismed into a number of sub-sects.

Special attention is given to Tibetan Buddhism’s teachings on Enlightenment and death. Even those who aren’t familiar with Tibetan Buddhism may have heard of the “Tibetan Book of the Dead,” and may not be surprised to learn the topic is given its own chapter. I learned that the Bardo (e.g. a lobby between death and rebirth) was in part hypothesized to help reconcile the idea of Anatta (there being no persistent self, or soul) with reincarnation. [i.e. The question arises, what’s reincarnated if there’s no persistent “I” (i.e. atman, soul, etc.?) The book doesn’t really explain how the existence of a Bardo achieves this reconciliation, but achieving accord with the two ideas appears complicated, and -arguably- spurious.]

The book ends with a look at the religion’s prospects for the future, which are darkened by the Chinese government’s desire to subvert the religion’s influence, but may also be brightened by the fact that the current Dalai Lama has been open to dialogues, and – in particular – has made Tibetan Buddhism arguably the religion with the most cordial relationship to the scientific world. (No mean feat for a religion that is as superstitious as any in the modern world.)

If you’re interested in a concise overview of Tibetan Buddhism, give it a read.

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BOOK REVIEW: What Makes You Not a Buddhist by Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse

What Makes You Not a BuddhistWhat Makes You Not a Buddhist by Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse
My rating: 5 of 5 stars Page

This book provides exposition of the Four Seals (not to be confused with the more well-known Four Noble Truths.) As the title suggests, the author believes that accepting the truth of these four propositions is what distinguishes Buddhist from non-Buddhist (rather than many of the more well-known teachings and practices of Buddhism.)

The Four Seals are easily listed, but are challenging to intellectually grasp (hence the need for a book.) 1.) All compounded things are impermanent. 2.) All emotions are pain. 3.) All things have no inherent existence. 4.) Nirvana is beyond concepts. While I came away from the book with largely the same views on the Seals as when they were presented in the Introduction, I did learn a great deal, and had one epiphany (re: an explanation of Samsara and Nirvana.) [My own views remained: 1.) True to the best of my knowledge; 2.) This remains the most controversial teaching of the lot for me, even with elaborations. I think it does just what we should strive not to do, which is attach a value judgment to things; 3.) & 4.) I don’t know enough to have any firm opinion on these.

I found this book to be well-organized, highly readable, and to use humor and examples to good effect. While I remain “not a Buddhist,” the explanations in the book did move the needle on my way of thinking about a couple things. Along with Walpola Rahula’s What the Buddha Taught, I believe this book is an excellent means to gain greater understanding of an oft-misunderstood religion / philosophy. Check it out if you’re curious about whether you’re a Buddhist (whether or not your currently identify that way.)

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DAILY PHOTO: Lamayuru Monastery, Ladakh

Taken in Ladakh in August of 2016

BOOK REVIEW: Crazy Wisdom by Chögyam Trungpa

Crazy WisdomCrazy Wisdom by Chögyam Trungpa
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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This book collects the lessons of two seminars on crazy wisdom taught by Chögyam Trungpa in 1972. “Crazy Wisdom” is an awakened state of mind that was taught by Padmasambhava – the teacher who introduced Buddhism to Tibet from India. The two seminars consist of six and seven lessons, respectively. These thirteen lessons make up the chapters of the book. Each chapter consists mostly of a text discussion of the topic at hand, but with an interview at the end in which the teacher is asked to clarify points mentioned in the text or that are relevant to the topic under discussion.

The book starts with differentiating two approaches: trying to live up to what one would like to be (i.e. spiritual materialism), and trying to live what one is. While the former is a widespread phenomenon across many religions, it’s dismissed as not all that productive. Along the way, the book discusses how being childlike, ruthless, hopeless, fearless, and in touch with death can all have beneficial effects on the mind. Of course, one has to go about such things in a proscribed manner as it’s emphasized that crazy wisdom and being crazy aren’t identical states (even if they may share similar appearances in some instances.)

Like many books on wisdom, this one offers a mix of profound insight and a sort of double speak used to make profound-sounding but ineffable statements, or logically inconsistent statements, seem true and / or thought-provoking. A philosophizing style is employed rather than narrative style, and so it can read a bit blandly.

There are a few notes and several line-drawn artworks in the Tibetan Buddhist style, but otherwise it’s a straightforward text.

I found this book to be intriguing and to offer interesting food-for-thought. It’s a short book, but may be a bit challenging for a reader without a background in Tibetan Buddhism, or in Buddhism in general. If you’re interested in Vajrayana Buddhism, you should give it a read.

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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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Taken on October 30, 2016 at the Buddha Tooth Relic Temple in Singapore

Taken on October 30, 2016 at the Buddha Tooth Relic Temple in Singapore


Fudō-Myōō is the name used by Japanese Vajrayana Buddhists for the wrathful deity otherwise known as Acala [the Wisdom King.]