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Archive for the tag “buddhism”

So what the hell kind of Buddhist are you, anyway?

I recently had some email conversation with a person named Sophia.  Although the issues we discussed were of great intrinsic interest, I cut off the conversation on account of my correspondent’s insistently aggressive snarkiness.  It just got to be a little much.  However, I would like to address some of those issues in more detail and hopefully clarify what I really think about them.  While I can’t say this is for Sophia’s benefit, it may be of interest to some people or, if perhaps anyone else was thinking along the lines she was thinking, may head off future conflict or misunderstanding.

Perhaps the first matter to clarify is whether I am Mahayanist or Theravadan in orientation.  A lot of the challenges and points she was making seemed to assume this dichotomy, and also seemed to assume I was the former over against the latter—this, no doubt, because I’ve been writing a lot recently about the bodhisattva ideal.  I find this confusion puzzling since I’m pretty up front about my position in the “About Me” section of my blog: “Regarding Buddhism: my bias is towards the Pali suttas—no other texts can claim veracity as regards the historical Buddha…”  The only caveat I can add to this is that the Mahayana and Vajrayana teachings and practices have certainly added worthy ideas and technologies to the Buddhist tradition.  This stance should not, I think, be in any way controversial, given modern scholarship regarding the history of Buddhism.

What might be controversial (to some) is my decidedly secular approach to these teachings.  That is to say I do not take a religious, fundamentalist, or absolutist view of anything in Buddhism (or anything else).  I do not see anything “perfect,” “revelatory,” or “final” about the Buddha’s or Buddhist teachings.  I do not accept anything just because “it is written.”  I do not accept anything just because “so it is said” or because “this teacher said so.”  (Think the Kalama Sutta.)  I land where scholarship and actual testing in practice tells me I should land.  Thus: the Jatakas are not the Buddha’s past lives—they are Indian folktales appropriated for didactic purposes by the Buddhist tradition.  The Buddha did not teach the Abhidhamma to devas in Tavatimsa heaven—it is a later scholastic creation, often at odds doctrinally with the Suttas.  And the Buddha was not omniscient—he actually said as much, and there is no doubting that many of his powers and achievements have been exaggerated.  (I could say the same thing of Jesus or any other pre-modern miracle worker or saint.)  It is also silly to say the Buddha was the “most enlightened, most perfect, peerless, ultimate teacher of gods and men to ever walk any world in any galaxy.”  Maybe he was, probably he wasn’t.  There is no way to know, and anyone who says this kind of thing is pretending to knowledge they obviously do not have and is speaking from nothing but faith—blind faith.  (An equivalent assertion is the oft-repeated Christian dogma that Jesus rose from the dead or never sinned, etc.  I find such wild presumptions of knowledge puzzling, not to mention grossly immature.)  This position of mine in no way obviates the worth of the Buddhist tradition or the excellence of the Buddha as a teacher.  I personally think the Buddha is the best teacher of whom we have a reasonably complete and reliable record, but this is just my opinion based upon my limited information; I should be—and am—always willing to change my opinion if I happen upon better evidence.

Getting back to the Theravada/Mahayana dilemma:  I should point out that a lot of the Theravada incorporates beliefs and practices not found in the Suttas.  Remember, the Theravada was and is a school—it is the not the Buddha’s Teaching per se.  What might be the Buddha’s teaching, what holds the clearest claim to be such, is the Pali Canon, specifically the Vinaya and Sutta Pitakas, and then some of the texts in the Sutta Pitaka are clearly later and apocryphal, e.g. the Buddhavamsa, the Cariyapitaka, etc.  One must tread with care determining what is what.  Now, while determining what the Buddha actually taught is a fascinating historical and scholarly endeavor, for a contemplative practitioner it is a waste of time.  The reason is because there are many ways to skin a cat.  The phenomenon of human awakening—“enlightenment”—is not something dependent upon a particular set of practices or a particular tradition.  One personality type will be most helped by this practice, another by that practice.  Whether it is Advaita Vedanta or Vajrayana or Theravada is not important: what works is important. This is really the heart of what I mean by being “secular”—a practical, non-ideological approach is required.  This way opens up the whole human contemplative endeavor to each one of us rather than shutting us off in separate schools, everyone claiming “Mine is best!”

If religious Buddhists find this stance offensive, that’s okay.  They are welcome to their views.  They can practice over there and I will practice over here.  But even if we practice cheek-to-jowl they probably will never know I am “secular” because I have no problem bowing to statues, chanting precepts in Pali, observing Uposathas, etc.  In other words, I do not eschew the forms—in fact, I love the forms.  The forms help us and comfort us, they guide us, but they must not cage us.  You might even say I am Buddhist because I find the forms of Buddhist practice the most comfortable to live and work with, as opposed, say, to Taoist or Hindu forms, not to mention Christian or others.

I hope the above clears up any doubts people might have about where I’m coming from; if it doesn’t, that’s okay too.  I’m really not such an important person that you have to grok my Dharma—or should I say “Dhamma”?

The Hundred Thousand Songs of Milarepa translated by Garma C.C. Chang

The Hundred Thousand Songs of Milarepa translated by Garma C. C. Chang.  Shambhala Publications 1992.  730 pages.

Anyone who knows anything about Tibetan Buddhism has heard the name Milarepa (literally “Mila the Cotton Clad”).  He is Tibet’s Dante, Socrates and Shankara, all rolled into one.  Reading this book you cannot help get the sense he was also one of the most remarkable people to ever walk the earth and I just have to wonder: Why have I never managed to meet someone like this?  My karma, I guess.  But then, it’s also my karma to read and appreciate what has been recorded of him.

I would advise readers tackle first his autobiography, of which there are several translations.  (I will shortly be reviewing Lobsang P. Lhalunpa’s translation, done in 1977 and only the second in English since Evans-Wentz’s in 1928.)  This is critical, because without that background many things referred to in this book won’t make sense.  If the biography gives you the structure or bones of Milarepa’s life, this book fills it out with flesh.

True to the title, much of the book is in verse.  This may bother some people, and if you’re one of those who can’t bear reading verse then perhaps you should pass.  However, this is not poetry in the ordinary sense.  It is, rather, an example of “singing dharma,” of Buddhist teachings via song.  (Sadly, of course, the melodies Milarepa set his verse to are lost.  I suspect they were popular and well known tunes of the day.)  I can only say I wish I’d been there to see Milarepa sing his songs and teach his patrons, antagonists, and disciples.  Apparently he had a lovely singing voice (it is described as “deep” in one verse), and he composed his teaching-songs extemporaneously.  This in itself is a remarkable talent, and even if we didn’t consider his accomplishments as a yogi, it indicates an extremely gifted, quick and sharp-witted person.

What also stands out is the extraordinary range and depth of Milarepa’s meditative accomplishments.  He seems to have practiced and mastered most of the contemplative systems in Tibet at the time.  The book is replete with descriptions and references to these systems, so there is a fair bit of technical language; the fact that they are related via song and verse in no way means the contents are “dumbed down.”  As a result, while I am very familiar with Mahayana and Theravadan Buddhism but somewhat new to the Vajrayana, I was sometimes at a loss.  So, one should be familiar not only with the general worldview of Tibetan Buddhism, but specifically with tantrism and the terms of subtle physiology.  While the translator has provided a great many explanatory footnotes of various terms, a general education in the Vajrayana is really prerequisite.

Now to the contents specifically.  Milarepa’s songs are interspersed amid a welter of biographical incidents that while seemingly random do in fact follow a roughly chronological order.  (It seems a lot of them occurred later in his life as Milarepa is always referring to himself as an “old man.”)  There are stories about how demons were subdued, how disciples were met and converted, how various antagonists confront Milarepa and then are disarmed, enchanted or just plain bowled over by his spiritual and magical acumen.  (Scholars come in for a hard whacking!)  The verses themselves have a variety of functions, chiefly instructive and inspirational.  They also serve to boast of Milarepa’s accomplishments—not, I should note, for the purpose of self-aggrandizement, but for letting people know why he does what he does, what they can achieve through practice, and to exhort those who seem intent on remaining mired in their particular habits of thinking.  I feel that the book is at its best in this regard.  Some might take it as a meditation instruction manual, but there is clearly a lot of explanatory material missing, so I’m doubtful just how far one would get trying to practice as Milarepa describes.  If you educated yourself in Tibetan Buddhism and language, got a lama, and then went at it in the original language, the book might indeed be very helpful as a “how-to” manual.  But without all that I think inspiration and exhortation are its best uses.

All of which makes me wonder: Why hasn’t someone with the noted credentials done an in depth study of Milarepa’s life and habits and really tried to figure out what exactly his practices were?  It seems like an obvious task for a motivated scholar-practitioner.  Using the Songs and the Life, existing tradition and the rich folklore connected with Milarepa, someone ought to create a scholarly biography that could, I think, go even further in inspiring and instructing us.  I would love to see such a book.  Please, someone, do this!

My Amazon rating: 5 stars

The Yoga Tradition by Georg Feuerstein

The Yoga Tradition: Its History, Literature, Philosophy and Practice by Georg Feuerstein.  Hohm Press 2008 (third edition), 510 pages.

Georg Feuerstein’s magnum opus is easily the richest outpouring of yogic knowledge and insight I have ever encountered between two covers.  It is an intimidating work.  Intimidating because of its length, its size (like a textbook), and the sheer mass of terminology, topics and texts it covers (and even translates–a few for the first time!).  At times I felt like I was swallowing a pill that just wouldn’t fit down my gullet–though I knew the pill was good for me, so I kept gulping until I got it down.

There is no easy way to review this book, so I’m going to simply flip open the contents and talk here and there about pieces that particularly intrigued, puzzled, offended or delighted me.  (Actually, very little offended me–I’m just being theatrical….)  The first chapter, “Building Blocks,” is perhaps not so aptly named.  It reads like something written for those who already have a bit of the yogic worldview under their belt and subscribe to its way of thinking.  For this reason I would recommend newcomers read Feuerstein’s other, more introductory books before this one.  I have already reviewed two–The Deeper Dimension of Yoga and The Path of Yoga.  I think the other thing that comes to light from reading these opening pages (this includes the introduction proper) is that Feuerstein is definitely a “believer,” and to an extent that is probably not kosher in scholarly circles, writes as one too.  There is of course nothing wrong with this, except people who want more “objective” texts may be put off by it. 

Feuerstein is without doubt one of the most knowledgeable people on the planet as regards the yoga tradition, but still I have to wonder about some of the ideas he ascribes to.  For example, his timeline of India in chapters 3 and 4 is certainly not orthodox as regards most contemporary reckonings of Indian history.  He grants an age to the Vedic civilization (4500-2500 BC) considerably in excess of ancient Egypt (3500-500 BC) and this based on pretty slim facts I think.  (It seems to me his enthusiasm sometimes get the better of him.)  That said, it should be admitted that early Indian history is a messy and muddled subject, with few (if any) points of certainty.  To give you an idea, the most important Indian of them all, the Buddha, was for a long time considered to have lived from 563-483 BC, but recently has been “relocated” to something more like 490-410.  Imagine scholars suddenly announcing that Pericles really lived a hundred years later and you get my drift.  So if Feuerstein is speculating, or even wrong in his speculations (and how will we ever know for sure?), he can at least be forgiven.

From chapter four on the text follows a pretty historically linear timeline.  The Vedas are discussed and then the Upanishads, with translations of several texts sprinkled throughout.  In every case the relation of the texts to yoga, its ideas and practices, is elaborated upon.  What is clear is that yoga has definitely progressed through stages of development, beginning with earlier “shamanic” practices focusing on tapas (austerities), magic and visions, and this eventually gave way to the more self-transcending orientation of the Upanishads and later texts.  Chapters six and seven generously treat of yoga’s place in the heterodox traditions of Jainism and Buddhism, though readers particularly interested in these fields should consult the extensive bibliography at the back of the book if they wish to follow further these lines of inquiry.  I, for one, was sad to learn that there is very little surviving of Jainism’s early textual corpus.  Though Mahavira, the religion’s founder, gets a bad rap in the early Buddhist texts, my suspicion has always been that he was certainly an extraordinary man, in some ways perhaps the equal of the Buddha.  I just wish we knew more about what he really taught.  (This is not to say I think he was the equal of the Buddha.  It’s pretty clear to me that while his attainment must indeed have been great, he was in no way comparable to Siddhartha as an intellectual or communicator.  Greatness of insight is not always accompanied by equal development of all other parts of the personality.  The Buddha was a rarity–perhaps unsurpassed–on account of his high development in so many aspects.  IMHO, of course…)

Chapter eight plunges back into Hindu yoga, specifically the Epics and, of course, the Bhagavad Gita.  (I have just finished up Feuerstein’s translation of this seminal text, and let me tell you, it is a doozy!)  Again, there are generous passages from important texts included here; you can certainly get a sense for what this kind of literature is like.  Chapters nine and ten exhaustively treat classical yoga (i.e. Patanjali’s), and even include a complete translation of the Yoga Sutras!  The historical and intellectual place of this little book within the edifice of yoga is made clear–it has proven more an inspiration to practice than to philosophy. 

The philosophy of yoga, or what began in the Upanishads, finds its consummation in the nondualist schools, which Feuerstein treats in the next four chapters.  Nondualism is, of course, the philosophical heart of Hinduism, though it is clearly overlaid with an exuberant wealth of gods and goddesses, rituals and esoterica.  These Feuerstein treats extensively, even delving into obscure little groups like the Aghoris (who still exist, btw!).  By chapter fifteen we’re getting into my favorite stuff–the yoga upanishads, wherein the subject of kundalini comes up.  Sikh yoga is briefly touched on, and then it’s full steam into tantra and hatha yoga.  The book ends in the late medieval/early modern period, looking at the extensive literature of hatha yoga.

I would certainly not recommend this as a first book on the subject.  That said, if someone has gotten their feet wet and finds they want to get the Big Picture, this then is the book I would recommend.  The immense service it provides is to give the reader a morsel, a taste, of so many of the exquisite delights of the yogic tradition that he (or she) may then meaningfully pursue further any of them as he pleases.  It is a book meant to lead on, to invite, to incite curiosity.  I hope it does this and more for you, and thereby leads you to greener, broader pastures of knowledge and awakening…

My Amazon rating: 5 stars

A Path With Heart by Jack Kornfield

A Path With Heart: A Guide Through the Perils and Promises of Spiritual Life by Jack Kornfield.  Bantam Books 1993.  366 pages.

I can sincerely say this is an excellent book but that it is not the correct book for me at this time.   Books tend to be time sensitive documents, meaning if you read one at the “right” time, it can light fireworks under your butt, while if you had read the same book at an earlier or later time of your life, you might toss it aside and pick up instead the latest copy of Time (pun intended).  My experience with what is probably Kornfield’s most widely read book is somewhere in between, but again, this may be on account of personality or timing.  Anyway, having read the book and announced this caveat, I’ll plunge in to my review.

First let’s nail down what the book is about, because it’s not immediately clear by looking at the table of contents.  The title comes from an oft-quoted passage from Carlos Castaneda’s first book, The Teachings of Don Juan: A Yaqui Way of Knowledge:

For me there is only the traveling on paths that have heart, on any path that may have heart.  There I travel, and the only worthwhile challenge is to traverse its full length.  And there I travel looking, looking, breathlessly…

The spiritual life is not just a path, but a forest, with infinite numbers of highways and byways and small trails, and if you’re not careful, or don’t have a good guide, it is easy to end up at a dead-end or some bad place you never intended.  This book is meant as a guide or map to this terrain.

Its range is necessarily vast, covering everything from the important questions of one’s life (“Did I love well?”) to making peace with oneself (“dealing with our stuff” as Daniel Ingram would say), and initial attempts to train the wayward mind (the “puppy” as Kornfield puts it).  Salient topics such as the stages of insight and the perennial debate of True Self versus No-Self are considered from Kornfield’s typically ecumenical and gracious standpoint.  The particular issues of Westerners dealing with abuse, codependence, and self-loathing are tackled, and the positive role psychotherapy can play in unwinding these issues is also discussed.  Karma is defined and the necessary role of compassionate, helpful work as “meditation-in-action” advocated. 

Kornfield is one of the godfathers of the American meditation scene, and his vast experience, sensitive expression and insight are abundantly on display.  It is not surprising then that while I would heartily recommend it as an introduction or preliminary text to one’s sadhana, it also bears reviewing at later stages of development.  In other words, this is neither a book for beginners, intermediates, or advanced students of the Way; it’s for everyone, since everyone at all times is running into at least one or two issues discussed in the book.

Quality-wise Kornfield’s insights, suggestions and clarifications are impeccable.  He is a very human and down-to-earth guide, one who sees beyond the starry-eyed ideals of perfection many traditions advocate (cf. Ingram’s Mastering the Core Teachings of the Buddha for more on this), and while the Theravada is his “home base” so to speak, his vision is all-embracing as regards the varieties of approaches one can take to the contemplative path.  I would recommend this book even to dyed-in-the-wool Christians—maybe an evangelical or two… (but maybe not)—without hesitation.  I don’t see how it could fail to inform or advise someone, regardless of where they are.  In the end, sincerity and a desire to learn are what count.

Despite all these good points, I found myself constantly irritated by Kornfield’s writing.  It is, to say the least, a little on the saccharine side; nay, sometimes it went down like seven packs of Splenda in my coffee.  There’s a little too much “wisdom and compassion,” “heart,” and “joy,” “being” and Buddha-nature here, and in Kornfield’s world everyone is a “master”: a Zen Master (with both words capitalized no less, like it’s a job title or something), a meditation master, a spiritual master, or just plain master.  I’m sorry, but not everyone can be a master.  If you’ve been on retreat for ten or more years or you’re a natural-born genius, you might qualify, but these sorts are rare; the word is overused.  (Besides, I don’t want a master; I want a teacher or guide or good friend, but I digress…)  To make a long story short: Kornfield is heavy on the “fufu jargon,” and for a spiritual curmudgeon like me it just doesn’t fly.

This kind of writing is unabashedly “popular,” politically correct, and “nice.”  The above is symptomatic of this, but his willingness to water down passages quoted from other (especially traditional) sources, to massage them into accordance with his way of presentation, also points to this tendency.  (Not to mention irritates the hell out of me!)  I groaned at one point (page 74) where, when quoting don Juan (from Castaneda) Kornfield felt it necessary to stick the word “spiritual” in front of the word “warrior,” as if without we might all think he was advocating something he clearly wasn’t.  Two pages later an even worse example of this sort of heavy-handed editorializing reared its ugly head.  In Kornfield’s words, the Buddha said:

Just as the great oceans have but one taste, the taste of salt, so too there is but one taste fundamental to all true teachings of the Way, and this is the taste of freedom (76). 

The source is Udana 5:6, where in the original Pali it says “Just as the great ocean has one taste, the taste of salt, so too this Dhamma and Discipline have one taste: the taste of freedom.”  Clearly, the Buddha was describing his teaching, not anyone else’s, but Kornfield, liking the passage, “adjusted” it to fit his message.  I think you can see why this sort of thing, indulged in on a regular basis, would rub some people the wrong way.

So, the brilliant and witty, the philosophically profound and the airy-fairy—it’s all here and much more.  I will leave you with some sage advice on this book from Daniel Ingram, who called A Path With Heart a “masterwork”:

Only major problem is that is it so nicely written and gentle you might not realize how hard hitting it is. Assume it is very hard hitting and technical despite its friendly tone and you will get more out of it.            

 My Amazon rating: 4 stars

Mastering the Core Teachings of the Buddha by Daniel M. Ingram

Mastering the Core Teachings of the Buddha: An Unusually Hardcore Dharma Book by Daniel M. Ingram.  Aeon Books 2008.  406 pages.

This is not your daddy’s Dharma book!  (Your mommy’s neither.)

The differences start with the cover, and no, I’m not talking about the flaming dude with a chakra wheel for his heart.  I’m talking about the author’s title: Arahat.  Now, Ingram does have a regular title–he’s a medical doctor (M.D.) specializing in emergency medicine–“Everything from hangnails to heart attacks” he told me in a phone conversation.  As you ought to know by now (if you read this blog regularly), an arhat (there are variant spellings) is one who has completed the Buddhist path as laid out in the Pali Suttas.  “Done is what had to be done and there is no more of this to come!” goes the standard refrain by those who have attained such.  Clearly Ingram is, as the suttas say, ready to “roar his lion’s roar” in the spiritual marketplace.  He spells the differences out further in the “Forward and Warning,” wherein he puts you on notice he does not intend to write a “nice and friendly dharma book”; you know you’re in for it when an author tells you he hails from a lineage of “dharma cowboys, mavericks, rogues and outsiders” (16).

That said, the books proceeds normally enough through part one.  Ingram begins his discussion of dharma in terms of the traditional “three trainings”: morality (sila), concentration (samadhi) and wisdom (paññā).  I especially found his discussion of morality illuminating.  Going considerably beyond the standard list of things we shouldn’t do (the five precepts etc), he says

Training in morality has as its domain all of the ordinary ways that we live in the world.  When we are trying to live the good life in a conventional sense, we are working on training in morality.  When we are trying to work on our emotional, psychological and physical health, we are working at the level of training morality…  Whatever we do in the ordinary world that we think will be of some benefit to others or ourselves is an aspect of working on this first training (24-5).

He goes on to point out that while absolute mastery of concentration and wisdom (insight) is possible, total mastery in the worldly sphere of ethics is not.  And so he calls it, rightly, the “first and last training.”

Chapter 4 (oddly, the chapters are not numbered, only the parts) lays significant emphasis on seeing the three characteristics (tilakkhana) of phenomena–impermanence (anicca), suffering (dukkha) and not-self (anatta); indeed, this is a fundamental tenet of Ingram’s approach to meditation, derivable in part from his experiences in the Mahasi tradition which has a similar emphasis.  His discussion of anatta is clarifying: it means, simply, that when phenomena are investigated closely (as in vipassana), no agent, controller, or subject can be discovered; the things of the world are, in effect, ownerless.  This, too, is a significant part of Ingram’s dharma discussion, and comes up repeatedly later in the book.   Ingram also discusses the spiritual faculties, the factors of enlightenment, and the four truths.

Most of the above can be found in other dharma books.  Where things really start to get interesting is in the section entitled “Practical Meditation Considerations.”  Here Ingram’s wealth of experience in formal retreat centers comes to the fore and makes for extremely informative, even entertaining, reading.  For example, he lists the things retreatants tend to get neurotic about, such as wake-up bells (“too quiet, too loud, someone forgets to ring it at all”), roommates (“those that snore, smell, are noisy or messy, etc.”), as well as “issues of corruption, romances, cults of personality, affairs, crushes, miscommunications, vendettas, scandals, drug use, money issues, and all the other things that can sometimes show up anywhere there are people” (94)–meaning everything and anything!

Daniel Ingram

This is a section that demands multiple readings.  Not because it’s in any way difficult, just because the nuts and bolts of doing a retreat, of daily practice, are often the very things that defeat us.  I repeatedly found Ingram’s advice to be forthright, informed, and practical.  Many people, for example, get obsessed over posture, but Ingram says simply “we can meditate in just about any position we find ourselves” (96).   He notes, for example, how “Many traditions make a big deal about exactly how you should sit, with some getting paricularly macho or picky about such things” (97)–making me recall my experience in a Zen monastery in Japan.  He writes how the four postures of sitting, standing, walking, reclining each have plusses and minuses, the principle differences being in the energy level and effects on concentration.  He further discusses issues such as meditation objects, the critical role of resolve, and offers some very illuminating remarks on teachers.  One clearly gets the sense Ingram knows what he says from firsthand experience.

The fireworks start in Part II, “Light and Shadows.”  Little lightning bolts–the sign of something controversial ahead–adorn several chapters.  This is where Ingram gets up on his soapbox.  Usually, I would say that in a bad way, meaning someone was just spouting.  But here, I think, what Ingram does, even if you want to call it spouting, is all to a very good point, and that is to draw attention to some of the unconstructive shadow sides of Buddhist spirituality in America.  For example, in the section entitled “Buddhism vs. the Buddha,” he criticizes the religious trappings the Buddha’s teaching–in its original form an applied psychology–has been buried under, and how Americans have contributed to rendering the master’s technology of awakening into dogma or comfort food.

However, Ingram’s purpose here is not controversy.  He speaks also about having a clear goal, and encourages asking oneself questions like “Why would I want to sit cross-legged for hours with my eyes closed, anyway?”  It’s important you know what you’re seeking, after all, and Ingram hammers this point throughout the book.  (It was also one of the first questions he asked me in our phone conversation!)  This section also describes the critical difference between dealing with one’s “stuff”–i.e. the content of your life–and seeing the true nature of the phenomena that constitute that stuff.  For example, if you’re depressed because your significant other dumped you, trying to figure out why he/she did that to you is reflection on your “stuff,” but patiently observing the emotions of anger or depression as they arise and pass away–i.e. trying to see the fundamental characteristics of those experiences–is insight.  The difference here, as Ingram makes clear, is night and day.

Part III, “Mastery,” forms the heart of the book, and this is where Ingram’s starkly non-dogmatic, critical, and pragmatic intellect shows its best.  This is also the part most likely to offend and where it becomes clear that if you’re after spiritual pabulum, you’ve come to the wrong man.  Ingram is all about “states and stages,” about achieving exactly what the old dead masters achieved.  We each have our purposes in our spiritual lives–and he acknowledges this–but he is not looking to comfort or console anyone, or make things seem easier than they are.  Ingram’s vision of the Dhamma is, rather, very goal oriented and effort driven.  It is a path of achievement, of distinct and discernible attainments.  If your mentality does not incline toward this way of thinking and acting, now is the time to bail out!

This section reviews in great, perhaps unprecedented detail, three distinct subjects: the concentration jhanas (1-8), the progress of insight, and the multiplicity of models and definitions of enlightenment.  There is plenty here to make for argument, but also to educate, warn, coax and cajole.  In short, this is some of the most stimulating, revealing and educational dharma reading I’ve ever done.  You could read a hundred dharma books and still not come up with this stuff.  And while Ingram is not a particularly great (or even good) writer (more on this below), he is at times eminently quotable.  I can’t resist offering a few snippets here.  These give you a good idea of what you’re getting into with this book.

You may have heard, for example, about those teachers who say “there is nothing to attain, nowhere to go, no one to get enlightened, your seeking is the problem.”  Or, even more intriguingly, that “you are already enlightened.”  You find these teachings in some Buddhist schools, J. Krishnamurti, Adi Da, and others.  Here’s Ingram’s take on this take on enlightenment:

[It’s] like saying: you are already a concert pianist, you just have to realize it, or you already are a nuclear physicist, you just have to realize it…  [It’s] like saying to a severe paranoid schizophrenic: you already are as sane as anyone and do not need to take your medicines and should just follow the voices that tell you to kill people, or to a person with heart disease: just keep smoking and eating fried pork skins and you will be healthy…or saying to a greedy, corrupt, corporate-raiding, white-collar criminal, Fascist, alcoholic wife-beater: hey, Dude, you are a like, beautiful perfect flower of the Now Moment, already enlightened (insert toke here), you are doing and not-doing just fine, like wow, so keep up the good work, Man (360).

I read this while on the train to work and enjoyed an unrestrained guffaw–several times!

However…to double back to my criticism of Ingram’s writing: he’s badly in need of an editor, and the people at Aeon Books let him down.  Ingram grossly overuses the word “that”–it’s one of the most overused words in the language, so he is not alone in the bad habit of thatting this and thatting that–and after a while it started grating on my sensitive literary nerves.  He also does not seem to know the difference between “phenomena” and “phenomenon,” and, on a different note,  sometimes comes off sounding rather immature.  There were occasions, too, where he went on unnecessarily about whatever, and a little more self-control would have helped the text out a lot.  Again…where were his editors?

But this is minor stuff, mere bitching on my part.  Ingram is actually a pretty fun read, and the book is outstanding and unique in so many ways, I/we can and should forgive him.  He has much wisdom to offer and we should be grateful for all the hard work he’s done on and off the cushion.  I leave you with one nugget of insight that stood out for me:

      When I think about what it would take to achieve freedom from all psychological stuff, the response that comes is this: life is about stuff.  Stuff is part of being alive.  There is no way out of this while you are still living.  There will be confusion, pain, miscommunication, misinterpretation, maladaptive patterns of behavior, unhelpful emotional reactions, weird personality traits, neurosis and possibly much worse.  There will be power plays, twisted psychological games, people with major personality disorders (which may include you), and craziness.  The injuries continue right along with the healing and eventually the injuries win and we die.  This is a fundamental teaching of the Buddha.  I wish the whole Western Buddhist World would just get over this notion that these practices are all about getting to our Happy Place where nothing can ever hurt us or make us neurotic and move on to actually mastering real Buddhist practice rather than chasing some ideal that will never appear (330).

You have your marching orders.

My Amazon rating: 5 stars

P.S. I highly recommend the following three videos of Daniel Ingram speaking at Brown University’s “Cheetah House”

Food of Bodhisattvas by Shabkar Tsogdruk Rangdrol

Food of Bodhisattvas: Buddhist Teachings on Abstaining from Meat by Shabkar Tsogdruk Rangdrol (translated by the Padmakara Translation Group).  Shambhala 2004.  144 pages.

I confess I was less than rousingly impressed by this book.  While the author, Shabkar, was one of Tibet’s greatest yogi’s since Milarepa, very little of the text is actually from his hand.

The book has three parts.  The first, the introduction, is the lengthiest at 46 pages.  It discusses something of the history and place of vegetarianism in traditional Tibet, contrasting the situation with Tibetans in exile and Buddhists in the West.  The main section of the introduction paints a portrait of Shakar himself.  I can only say he must have been an extraordinary character, living homeless much like the Buddha’s early disciples, but instead of hanging out in jungles he lived amid the cold and treeless mountain crags of Tibet.

The intro then discusses the place of meat-eating in Buddhism.  The traditions drawn from here–as in Shabkar’s writings–are from the three major “turnings of the wheel,” i.e. shravakayana (Hinayana), Mahayana, and Mantrayana (i.e. Vajrayana, the Buddhism of the tantras).  Underpinning everything is the notion that, as diverse and often contradictory as they often are, the Buddha taught all these doctrines as part of a gradual, or graded, dispensation.  And so, according to the introduction…

…there exists a hierarchy of teaching, a scale of validity, according to which basic instruction is regarded as provisional, set forth according to need and superseded by higher, more demanding instruction to be expounded when the disciple is ready.  For Shabkar, as for all teacher of Tibetan Buddhism the instructions set forth on the Hinayana level are of vital importance in laying the foundations for correct understanding and practice.  But they are not final.  They are surpassed by the teachings of the Mahayana, just as, within the Mahayana itself, the sutra teachings prepare the way for, and are surpassed by, the tantra.  It is thus that the entire sweep of the Buddha’s teaching fits together in a harmonious ad coherent system, in which teachings that seem incomplete from the standpoint of a higher view are assigned an appropriate, preparatory position lower down the scale (16).

This view has prevailed throughout much of the Buddhist world for a long time, and is the result of various cultures (China, Tibet, etc) receiving diverse canons and texts, many of which originated in different periods of Buddhist history, while believing them all to represent the Buddha’s words.  Given the discrepancies and outright contradictions of outlooks and practices between the many texts, the approach above is hardly surprising if one assumes they all sprang from one man.  Shabkar certainly believed this, and no one can blame him.  It irks me, however, that contemporary scholars and practitioners persist in perpetuating this nonsense, given what we now know about the history of Buddhist texts.   For example, the Lankavatara Sutra, a widely quoted work that harshly condemns meat-eating, is assumed to be the Buddha’s own words, yet it is clearly a composite work, first translated into Chinese in 443 CE, though probably originating several hundred years earlier.  While its dating is tricky, not even its seed ideas can in any way be attributed to Shakyamuni or any of his disciples.  (See E.J. Thomas, The History of Buddhist Thought, pp. 230ff.)  Similar remarks can be made about every other Mahyanist sutra, not to mention the various, still later tantras.

Following the above, the introduction discusses the notion of “three-fold purity” in the Hinayana (meaning, the Buddha’s teachings in the Pali Suttas), where the Buddha enjoins monks not to eat any meat offering if they have “seen, heard or suspected” it to have been killed specifically for them.  This ordinance, totally understandable as applied to mendicant monks, becomes problematic, however, when applied to laity, and this really is the source of the confusion and debate about meat-eating among Buddhists.  The Mahayana and Mantrayana (tantric) perspectives on vegetarianism are also discussed.

What bothered me most about the introduction–its moralising and lecturing quality, especially toward the end–got even worse in the second section of the book, entitled “The Faults of Eating Meat.”  This is a kind of compendium of Buddhist textual sources on the subject selected and arranged by Shabkar.  If one’s goal is simply to learn what Buddhists have said about meat-eating over the years, this section serves admirably.  If you are looking for well-reasoned, cogent arguments, look elsewhere.  Much of it is hellfire-and-brimstone preaching; apparently the Christians haven’t got anything on the Buddhists in this regard, sad to say.  Here’s an inspiring snippet:

It is written in the Sutra Describing Karmic Cause and Effect:

If you eat meat and chew on bones, you will lose your teeth!  If you eat intestines and the meat of dogs and swine, you will be reborn in an infernal state that is filled with filth.  If you eat fish after scraping off their scales, you will be born in the hell of sword-forests (77).

Very little of this section comes from Shabkar; he simply scoured sutras, tantras and commentaries and took whatever he could find to support his beliefs–a kind of eighteenth century Tibetan cut-and-paste creation. The third part of the book, however, is all Shabkar, though regrettably brief–only 28 pages out of the book’s 144!

Entitled “The Nectar of Immortality,” I found it a well reasoned, impassioned polemic against meat-eating.  The principal–and most persuasive–argument here can be summed up as “If there is no meat-eater, there will be no animal killer…” (101).  He discusses this idea at length, giving examples of how local monasteries, though themselves not involved in the act of butchery or animal killing, by their plentiful purchases of meat help to sustain the local meat industry.

Which cuts quick to the bone, if you don’t mind the pun.  I once had a discussion with a friend on this subject, and he pointed out that I was hardly less guilty of the deaths of animals than the butcher himself since I basically employed the butcher to do the dirty work.  Indeed, I couldn’t escape the logic of it then, and readers will be hard pressed to miss Shabkar’s points.  This section of the book was easily the most rewarding and satisfactory, worth the rest combined.  While the book as whole was something of a disappointment, it gave me a bit of a sense of Shabkar the man and I look forward to reading his autobiography.  Perhaps I’ve found my patron saint.

My Amazon rating: 2 stars

The Heart of Buddhist Meditation by Nyanaponika Thera

The Heart of Buddhist Meditation: A Handbook of Mental Training Based On the Buddha’s Way of Mindfulness by Nyanaponika Thera.  Buddhist Publication Society 1954/1996.  223 pages.

If Walpola Rahula’s What the Buddha Taught introduced me to the thought of the early texts, this one introduced me to their practice.  Unfortunately, I didn’t get to it until I was already in Asia and losing some of my attraction for Zen.  Since I’d been reared on Sanskrit terminology, the existence of this other language (Pali) and its corpus remained somewhat hidden from me, despite my earlier exposure.  I remember the weird feeling just reading the world “satipatthana” gave me…

Many of the compliments I paid to Rahula’s work I can pay to this one as well.  In fact, the two are even structured in a similar fashion–a dense yet lucid, non-sectarian exposition followed by an expertly translated and arranged set of selections from the suttas.  The chief difference lies in the more focused and practical thrust of this book.  If Rahula’s is for orientation, a gazeteer or general map, as it were, Nyanaponika’s is like the car you get in to travel to your destination.

The book’s focus is the Satipatthana Sutta (Majjhima Nikaya 10), which is the same discourse as the Mahasatipatthana Sutta (Digha Nikaya 22) only minus the exposition of the four noble truths.  In effect, Nyanaponika’s little book is a commentary upon this great teaching.  The first chapter, “The Way of Mindfulness,” discusses the centrality of mental culture in the Buddha’s teaching, and places mindfulness (sati) at the heart of the practice of mental culture.

Chapter two, “Mindfulness and Clear Comprehension,” is the critical part.  Here the notion of “bare attention” is defined, and for those who are entirely new to meditation, this may be a difficult concept to wrap the head around precisely because it is not a concept.  The teaching of Right Mindfulness is described within the context of bare attention.  Clear comprehension (sampajañña), the second aspect of Right Mindfulness, is discussed in various ways per the sutta commentaries, such as awareness of what one is doing, the suitability of one’s actions, etc.

Chapter three, “The Four Objects of Mindfulness,” dives into the discourse proper, examining the various bases or foundations of practice, the body (breath, postures, contemplation of disgust for the body, etc), feelings (i.e. what is felt or sensed internally and externally), mental states (sleepy, clear, distracted, etc) and mental objects (thoughts and emotions that arise and pass away).

Chapter four attempts to counter charges that these practices are “coldly intellectual,” “dry,” or “indifferent,” charges that have at times been leveled at Theravadin teachings in general (though to be exact, these teachings are pre-Theravadin).  I have to confess I’ve always found such objections to the Pali teachings rather hard to understand.  They clearly derive from people armed and ready with preconceived ideological agendas who are eager to avoid any evidence to the contrary.

The last two chapters of Nyanaponika’s exposition cover the Burmese satipatthana method (the Mahasi style of practice) and anapanasati, which is mindfulness of the breath, traditionally as it passes through the nasal passages.  Here you get detailed instructions for how to put everything you’ve learned into practice.  It must be noted that these are simply instructions on “how to”–they are not equivalent to having an actual teacher who will tell you what to expect, or what you should do if–god forbid–you actually get enlightened!

Part II of the text is a translation with extensive notes of the Satipatthana Sutta.  I have only one bone to pick here, and that is with the translation of ekayano maggo in the first sentence of the third paragraph as “sole way,” as if satipatthana was the only way to nibbana.  Numerous translators have done this, but it has been pointed out by many others that a better translation of this phrase is “a road that goes one way” or has “one direction”–meaning that satipatthana is a path that leads inevitably toward a single goal.  Maurice Walshe, in his note to the passage (from The Long Discourses of the Buddha, p. 589, n. 626), points out even the commentary is confused about how exactly to interpret it.  Part III, “Flowers of Deliverance,” collects other passages from the suttas and even the Mahayana sutras that concern mental culture, with particular attention to satipatthana and its related concepts.

While the book can at times perhaps be faulted for a somewhat dated prose style, this is in no way to say its contents are dated.  It is throughout a clear and intellectually rigorous work, quite complete as regards its subject matter, and represents an excellent starting point for anyone interested in Buddhist meditation practice.

My Amazon rating: 5 stars

What the Buddha Taught by Walpola Rahula

What the Buddha Taught by Walpola Rahula.  Grove Press 1959/1974.  151 pages.

I suspect more people have been introduced to Buddhism through this book than any other—and that is a very good thing.  If any single volume can be called “core,” “fundamental,” “indispensable,” it’s this one.  Why?  I think it is Rahula’s uncommon combination of simplicity, clarity, directness, and accuracy that makes him such a good writer and this book so reliable and accessible.  Basically, if you’ve not read this book—regardless of whatever else you may have read—you are assuredly missing something.

Over the past twenty years the number of introductory works on Buddhism has exploded.  While not as mainstream as yoga, Buddhism is now “out there”—i.e. out and about, in plain view—and “in here”—meaning affecting peoples’ lives and thoughts, even if they don’t know it.  The need for a work that is at once timeless and contemporary, personally affecting and objectively critical, is more pressing than ever, and What the Buddha Taught (1959) has fulfilled and continues to fulfill these needs.

The author Walpola Rahula (1907-1997) was a Sri Lankan monk in the Theravadan tradition.  Among his other books are History of Buddhism In Ceylon and Zen and the Taming of the Bull; in his capacity as Professor of History and Religions at Northwestern University in Chicago, he became the first Buddhist monk to hold a professorial chair in the Western world.  On a more personal note: in 1990 I had an opportunity to meet Venerable Rahula but at the time, having only recently arrived in Sri Lanka, I was suffering from a bad case of diarrhea and general disorientation and so passed on the chance—something I’ve always regretted.

The book is built around the Four Noble Truths, which are the subject of chapters two through five.  The first chapter, entitled “The Buddhist Attitude of Mind,” starts off rather provocatively with the assertion “man is supreme.”  Right off the bat, the Buddha’s non-theistic (note: not atheistic) thought is emphasized, its difference from Western forms of religion made plain.  Remember: Rahula grew up under British colonial rule, and as a Sinhalese Buddhist would no doubt have confronted the imperial assertion of Christian supremacy many times.  (Clearly, he was unimpressed.)  As Rahula puts it:

Among the founders of religions the Buddha…was the only teacher who did not claim to be other than a human being, pure and simple.  Other teachers were either God, or his incarnations in different forms, or inspired by him.  The Buddha was not only a human being; he claimed no inspiration from any god or external power either.  He attributed all his realization, attainments and achievements to human endeavor and human intelligence (1).

Granted the previous four hundred years of Western (read Christian) cultural ascendancy, this is a heady and defiant statement.  And I know from observation and experience that humanity can fairly well be divided into two groups: either they are offended, appalled and repulsed by such a thought, or they are intrigued, inspired and encouraged.  Upon my very first reading of this book, I knew to which camp I belonged.

In this first chapter Rahula deftly lays out basic attitudes of Buddhist culture: the requirement of responsibility for one’s actions (karma), freedom and openness of thought, the necessity of critical inquiry (cf. the Kalama Sutta), tolerance, non-violence, the distinction of faith not as belief but as intelligent devotion and trust.  Here too we encounter the vital principle of empirical verification and the Buddha’s disdain for metaphysical speculation unconnected to the problem of suffering and its cessation.  Rahula is somehow able to touch upon and clarify all these themes in a mere fourteen pages, and to do so while quoting liberally from the suttas (in easy to read, modern English translations, no less!).  Talk about economy!  That is why this book easily bears multiple re-readings so well—there is so much compacted into so little space, and yet never does one feel like drowning.  (Quite the contrast from the Paul Williams book I just read!)

I’ll briefly outline topics dealt with in the four core chapters:

  • Chapter two—first noble truth: definition of dukkha, the five aggregates, question of origins, charges of pessimism;
  • Chapter three—second noble truth: definition of tanha, four nutriments, karma, question of Self/soul;
  • Chapter four—third noble truth: definition of nibbana (nirvana), what happens to a Buddha after death?, who realizes nirvana?;
  • Chapter five—fourth noble truth: definitions of the eight limbs of the path.  If I have any significant criticism of the book, it falls on this section, which, considering its importance is given rather short shrift.

Chapter six discusses anatta.  Rahula notes the idea’s uniqueness and relates it to the teachings of the five aggregates and conditioned genesis.  Regarding the latter, he achieves the remarkable feat of actually getting what he says right (easier said than done when it comes to paticcasamuppada, which not only is the core of the Buddha’s Teaching but also notoriously difficult to grasp) and by not diluting his discussion with the later commentarial muck of the “three lives” interpretation.  He notes also the perennial effort of various people, even noted scholars (e.g. Caroline Rhys-Davids, Ananda K. Coomaraswamy, and George Grimm), to insert a higher metaphysical Self into the Buddha’s teaching.  Rahula offers some excellent advice to such folks:

It is better to say frankly that one believes in an Atman or Self.  Or one may even say that the Buddha was totally wrong in denying the existence of an Atman.  But certainly it will not do for any one to try to introduce into Buddhism an idea which the Buddha never accepted, as far as we can see from the extant original texts (56).

He proceeds to supply an abundance of textual support for anatta and to point out that its naysayers typically defend their position by mistranslating common instances of atta (as in “myself” or “yourself”) as Self (with a capital S, of course).

Chapter seven concerns bhavana, or “mental culture.” Rahula describes the differences between concentration and insight meditations, and offers simple guidance for the practice of anapanasati—mindfulness of breathing.  This chapter (specifically the instructions on pp. 69-70) had an especial effect on me in my first year in college, when by simply following the text I was able to cure myself of a prolonged bout of insomnia. Rahula concludes his text proper with a chapter on the relevance of the Buddha’s teaching for people today.

The remaining one third of the book consists of very readable and reliable translations of selections from the Pali canon.  Included here are the Buddha’s first sermon (the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta), the so-called Fire Sermon, the Metta Sutta (“Discourse on Loving Kindness”), the Discourse on the Foundations of Mindfulness, the Sigalovada Sutta, and selections from the Dhammapada.  All of these are foundational texts and excellent examples of Buddhist thought, offering just enough so the reader will have a sense of what he or she is getting into.  Venerable Rahula has, in effect, opened a door for would-be seekers of truth.  After reading this marvelous book, it is then their choice whether they walk through it or not.

My Amazon rating: 5 stars


Buddhist Thought by Paul Williams et al

Buddhist Thought: A Complete Introduction to the Indian Tradition by Paul Williams et al.  Routledge 2000, 323 pages.

This is one of the better (I hesitate to say “best”) surveys of Buddhist intellectual history I’ve read.  As such I’d say it’s good for relative—i.e. not total—beginners.  The author, Paul Williams, is a British academic with many publications under his belt, but is perhaps best known for his Mahayana Buddhism: The Doctrinal Foundations, often used as a textbook in Buddhist studies.  (A second edition of the 1989 original is imminent.)  The writing, while intelligent and at times demanding, is not so academic as to be stultifying.  Williams even displays a bit of English wit now and then.

I always appreciate illuminating passages, no matter what the sort of book I’m reading happens to be.  I mean the sort that make you snatch out a pen and scribble something next to it, or underline a sentence or paragraph.  There are quite a few in this book, particularly, I’d say, in the first two chapters, which make up 40% of the book’s text proper.

Chapter one, entitled “The doctrinal position of the Buddha in context,” offers an excellent starting point.  Indeed, some things said here need to be remembered by everyone venturing into the world of Buddhism.  Consider the following from pages 2-3:

Buddhism is thus…concerned first and foremost with the mind, or, to be more precise, with mental transformation, for there are no experiences that are not in some sense reliant on the mind.  This mental transformation is almost invariably held to depend upon, and to brought about finally by, oneself for there can also be no transformation of one’s own mind without on some level one’s own active involvement or participation.

How different the history of the world would be if every religion and philosophy understood and acted upon this seemingly simple and self-evident truth!

This section discusses the historical background of Brahmanism and shramanism, smartly noting that any characterization of the Buddha as a “Hindu reformer” is anachronistic at best (8).  Williams points out that the story of the Buddha’s life demonstrates what is most important in his teachings.  For starters, unlike in Christianity, the message (Dharma/Dhamma) is preeminent over the messenger (the Buddha).  The Buddha was just a man who found Dharma; it is Dharma that really counts.  You can have Dharma without the Buddha, but you cannot have the Buddha without Dharma.  Williams’ discussion of elements in the Buddha’s hagiography and how it exemplifies and illuminates the Teaching is one of the most insightful and satisfying I’ve read on this subject.

The second chapter also considers “mainstream Buddhism” (i.e. non-Mahayana) and is entitled “A Buddha’s basic thought.”  Williams does a good job here, except a few stumbles (more on this below); in fact, his approach is unique in ways.  On 60ff he does a wonderful job debunking the notion the Buddha posited a Self outside the five aggregates:

On the basis of [the Buddha’s discussion of the aggregates] there are those who consider that all the Buddha has done here is to show what is not the Self.  I confess I cannot quite understand this.  If the Buddha considered that he had shown only what is not the Self, and the Buddha actually accepted a Self beyond his negations, a Self other than and behind the five aggregates, fitting the paradigmatic description for a Self, then he would surely have said so.  And we can be quite sure he would have said so very clearly indeed.  He does not (60).

This passage illustrates another aspect of Williams’ writing I find admirable—a sort of humble, commonsensical honesty that is rarely displayed in writing by scholars.  I think many would be sympathetic, for example, when he says (on page 68) “…it is not at all obvious in detail what the twelvefold formula for dependent origination actually means.”  And I liked it even better when he wrote “This twelvefold formula for dependent origination as it stands is strange” (71).  Rather than pretending scholarly omniscience and superiority in regards to the texts (I’m thinking of E.J. Thomas at his worst), Williams expresses understandable puzzlement as, no doubt, most people do when encountering the Buddha’s thought for the first (or even hundredth) time.

Chapter two is really a core piece of Buddhist writing in that it hits every significant point (the four truths, anatta, cosmology, nirvana, etc) and does so in an intelligible and intelligent fashion.  This is not an easy feat to pull off, as anyone who has read a good many dharma books can tell you.  In fact, I might even say that Williams goes about as far in his understanding as a scholar qua scholar can.  But while surveying so much and dealing with so many difficult concepts, he (perhaps inevitably) takes a few pratfalls.

I won’t go into detail about what I think he does wrong; a brief list and comments should be enough:

  • When referring to atta (“self”) he consistently capitalizes the S, inferring that the Buddha was discussing only the transpersonal Atman or True Self.  This is not the case; the Buddha was referring especially to the experience of a subjective controller, doer, or identity (sakkaya), the self of everyday experience.  The Self as an ontological construct follows upon this.
  • He fails to thresh out the distinction between “intention,” “desire” and “wanting” as these pertain to the liberated person (an arhat or Buddha) (44).  This may seem like nit-picking, but it is in fact an essential issue that spells the difference between insight and its lack.
  • He states (67) that Ananda was unenlightened at the time of the Buddha’s death—in fact Ananda was a sotapanna.
  • On 69 he perpetuates the thesis that the being reborn is “neither the same nor another” than the one who died.  This teaching comes from the Milindhapanha and has infected Buddhism everywhere ever since.  It is a view entirely at odds with the Suttas, falling into attavada.  This is perhaps Williams’ biggest stumble from a doctrinal point of view.  (The correct answer, when asked “who is reborn?” is to reject the question as meaningless on account of its presupposition of self in some form or another.)
  • He continues the old saw that dependent origination is “causality.”  Causality (as a descriptive concept) certainly applies to karma (“intentional action”) but it has nothing to do with paticcasamuppada.  I have discussed this at length in other reviews.  Part of the problem may arise from the 12-factor formulation, wherein the first ten elements are certainly structural as opposed to temporal, and then the last two are cause-effects.  Williams gets it right (I think) when he suggests the list may well be “a compilation from originally different sources” (71).  In other words, I suspect the 12-factored formula is a later intellectual (though still pre-scholastic) description of the original assertion: “When there is this, that is…” etc.
  • Description of satipatthana as the “sole way” (83).  This is a frequent mistranslation.  The word here is ekayana, meaning a course that goes one way or one direction.
  • His discussion of meditation (83ff) is palpably second-hand.  Once again I must lament the unnecessary divorce of scholarship from practice.

The rest of the book discusses Mahayana—its early formulation, development, key concepts and texts.  This area is Williams’ forte, and for the most part I think his discussions are quite good, though he does sometimes confusingly mix the names of schools, terms, and people together into a less than lucid jumble.  Neophytes are likely to get lost or frustrated at times; I did myself (though I was once again, quite viscerally, reminded why I so dislike Nagarjuna’s thought!).

A special note on the last chapter, written not by Paul Williams but Anthony Tribe.  This is an excellent introduction to and overview of tantric Buddhism, an area often inadequately covered in texts like this.  (E.J. Thomas’ survey not only neglected but maligned it.)  Tribe’s writing is clear and organized and he offers an invitation to everyone to better get to know this unique phase of Buddhist thought.  I confess that while I am not convinced that tantra has added substantively to Shakyamuni’s philosophical thinking, I am now totally in the camp that affirms it possesses a host of valuable and powerful practices/techniques that can facilitate one’s spiritual journey.  Lastly, the book has a lengthy bibliography tacked on at the end to enable further exploration of texts the authors drew upon during the course of their survey.

My Amazon rating: 4 stars


Anguttara Nikaya Anthology by Nyanaponika Thera & Bhikkhu Bodhi

Anguttara Nikaya Anthology: An anthology of discourses from the Anguttara Nikaya selected & translated by Nyanaponika Thera & Bhikkhu Bodhi.  Buddhist Publication Society 2007.  245 pages.

I thoroughly enjoyed and heartily recommend this short, punchy and eminently readable selection of passages and suttas from the Anguttara Nikaya, one of the five main “baskets” of texts making up the Pali Sutta Pitaka of the Theravadan school.  The translation by Nyanaponika Thera (BB’s mentor) was originally published in the BPS Wheel Series in three volumes.  Bhikkhu Bodhi has cleaned up this translation, as well as added extensive (and quite helpful) endnotes.  The result is the most accessible Anguttara Nikaya available for non-Pali readers.

Readers should be aware that this is in no way an attempt at a complete translation.  In many cases, only a paragraph or two has been kept from any given sutta, and from the final “Chapter of the Elevens” only one text (a snippet of a sutta) was included.  Obviously then, there will be many passages that people might hope to have found that will not be here, as the choice of what to put in and what to leave out has been entirely a matter of personal inclination (specifically Nyanaponika’s).

What I perhaps most appreciated about this book was its high number of practice oriented texts.  Too often Buddhist philosophy can seem remote or technical, and for those that find philosophy in the abstract too…well…abstract, this should be a welcome addition to the personal library.  There are lots of passages here one can easily write down and stick in the wallet, or pin next to the computer, to remind and encourage oneself.  And ultimately, this of course is what it is all about–how to make ourselves better, more conscientious and conscious human beings.


Wisdom Publications has received Bhikkhu Bodhi’s new translation of the Anguttara Nikaya, which is currently being reviewed by our editor. Any available information or updates on this project will be announced in the Wisdom Reader e-Newsletter (from the Wisdom Publications website).

My Amazon rating: 4 stars

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