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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DAILY PHOTO: Dali Monastery

Taken in December of 2021 in Dali (between Ghoom & Darjeeling)

BOOK REVIEW: The Divine Madman by Keith Dowman

The Divine Madman: The Sublime Life and Songs of Drukpa KunleyThe Divine Madman: The Sublime Life and Songs of Drukpa Kunley by Keith Dowman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This book offers stories from the life of Drukpa Kunley, along with some interspersed poetry. Kunley was a “mad sage” (a Nyönpa, as Tibetan Buddhists call such individuals) / tantric yogi of the Vajrayana Buddhist tradition who lived during the 15th and 16th centuries in Tibet and Bhutan. Today, his most well-known legacy is the phallic graffiti that is common in Bhutan (encouraging it, not drawing it all himself.) Kunley’s approach was definitely tantric and ran counter to the mainstream. By “tantric” I mean that he did not eschew those activities that mainstream religion seeks to prohibit, but rather saw them as a means to master the mind through mindful practice. So, as the Bhutanese phalluses might suggest, he often comes across as sex-obsessed as well as being a drunkard, but the whole idea of this crazy form of wisdom is to rise above the programming of societal convention, and to be free of all the little niggling value judgements that culture and religion impose on the world in order to see life through a less distorted lens.

I’m not qualified to speak to how well concepts are translated, but the book is readable and thought-provoking, and that’s enough for me. There’s humor throughout, as when Kunley tells the monks of the monastery he’s visiting that he has a friend who is an excellent singer, and then proceeds to bring a goat in to bleat for them. That said, those who are attached to the mainstream religious approach and who place a high value on societal conventions are likely to find much to be offended by in the carefree discussions of sex and the wild statements designed to shock people out of their stupors.

I enjoyed reading this book, found it full of interesting ideas, and would recommend it for anyone interested in the person or philosophy of Drukpa Kunley.

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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

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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

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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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