Buddhist Books Blog

Readings and writings on Buddhism, yoga, and contemplative science

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On reading Buddhist books

I’m now on to my second book about the paramis (Skt paramitas) and I’ve come to a conclusion: what people read, what sells, and what has lasting value can be divided into four types of literature or writing.  These are…

Wait!  First, I want to preface my pending revelation with a rather obvious statement: This is just my opinion.  Nobody should get offended or think I’m talking down to them.  I am a certain type of person and as such have certain preferences and standards.  What works for me is not what’s going to work for everyone–if I have gained one iota of wisdom in my nearly half century of living, this much at least I can be sure of.  Now, back to the revelation.

Taichung_Baojue_Buddhist_Temple3

Read my books!

The four types of Buddhist literature are:

Popular: This type of book sells surprisingly well and is always twice as long as it needs to be.  For better or worse, a lot of people who aren’t even Buddhist read this stuff and feel good about themselves on account of reading it.  As a result, you definitely know who the authors of these books are so I won’t bother telling you their names.

Now, here’s how you can tell a Buddhist book is a “popular” book.

  1. If you do an Amazon search for “Buddhism” it probably comes up near the top of the list.
  2. The author was once a monk or nun but realized at some point that writing books was a more lucrative endeavor.
  3. The author is now a media personality and has founded one or more organizations.
  4. The author quotes indiscriminately from all the different Buddhist schools–as well as from Christian, Jewish, Hindu, Taoist, secular, and scientific writers, maybe even popular songs.
  5. The word “being” is used at least once every other page of every book the author writes.
  6. Quotes from other people and books are never given more attribution than the fact they were said/written by so-and-so.  In other words, the source text is rarely cited, and chapter and verse are never offered.
  7. Quotes from the Buddha, especially, sound like someone talking at your office–with an amazingly modern diction and vocabulary for a guy who died two and a half millennia ago.  Again, chapter and verse are nowhere to be seen.
  8. The historical veracity of the Mahayana and Vajrayana accounts of the Buddha’s words and biography are never doubted.
  9. The ultimate truth and unity of all religions is not questioned.
  10. Mother Theresa and/or Martin Luther King will be mentioned at least once and their sublime virtues discussed in passing
  11. Everyone is naturally, originally, uniquely, perfectly Good–if only they knew it.
  12. The writer’s grandmother was invariably the wisest and most awesome of hidden sages.
  13. There are no footnotes, endnotes or bibliography, and indexes are optional.
  14. The titles of these books are often derived from well known sayings, songs, or folksy expressions, etc.

Scholarly/practical: The authors of these sorts of books often have significant contemplative experience under their belts, with academic training to boot, though some are purely academic in their background and just happened to have broken into the public consciousness.  While not usually as popular or well known as the writers of “popular” books, their work can sell well.  Authors I would put in this category include Walpola Rahula (What the Buddha Taught), Gil Fronsdal (translator of the Dhammapada), Bhikkhu Bodhi, Daniel Goleman, and Henepola Gunaratna (Mindfulness In Plain English).  Their works are typically characterized by the following:

Gil Fronsdal

  1. 80-90% less fluff language than is found in the works of popular writers; instead, their language is typically crisp and intelligent though not dry or opaque.
  2. Uncommon and unique insights–no garden variety “wisdom” here.
  3. Almost always include indexes, as well as–frequently–bibliographies and endnotes.
  4. They actually provide citations for quotes and don’t rephrase the quotes to make them sound like 21st century utterances.
  5. Fewer stories from regular life, though these are still included.  Instead, many more stories and examples from original sources.
  6. You probably won’t learn anything about their grandmother, cat, or best friend.
  7. They are mindful of the differences between Buddhist schools and, except on rare occasions, don’t feel the need to invite comparisons with other religions and philosophies.
  8. You are more likely to remember one of these books a year later than you are a popular book.
  9. You are more likely to keep one of these books with the intention of rereading or consulting it in the future than you are a popular work, which will probably turn yellow on your shelf, assuming you don’t first charitably donate it to your local library or regift it to a wayward relative.
  10. You will probably want to underline, highlight or otherwise mark up one of these books.
  11. The authors of these books are less prolific than popular writers.  So the book in your hand will probably be one of only two or three (max) widely known works by him or her.  Popular writers, on the other hand, are constantly coming out with new and improved versions of the Dharma they wrote about last year.

Scholarly: These books are easily spotted.  They usually come from university presses and you have to dig for them on Amazon.  Their authors are invariably professors, scholars, and other learned sorts–or were: maybe now they are living out a hermit-like retirement.  While some of these authors are good writers, they don’t hesitate knocking you over the head with Pali, Sanskrit, Tibetan, Chinese, Japanese and/or Korean technical terms, and their sentences can take on a cerebral knottiness that requires multiple reads.  (Note: Tibetan terms in these books are invariably rendered in English via the unpronounceable Wylie system.)  Furthermore:

The_art_scholar_by_amartinsdebarros

Too short a life and too many books!

  1. Diacritic marks and the italicization of technical terms are inevitable.
  2. Endnotes can run for dozens of pages.
  3. There is often a bibliography of works from the original language (Sanskrit, Chinese, etc).
  4. You have never heard of the author apart from the book in your hands.
  5. He or she may or may not be Buddhist.  If the author is Buddhist, he or she has not informed any professional colleagues about this fact.
  6. The author probably doesn’t meditate because that would (allegedly) impair his or her objectivity.
  7. The book may never break out of hardback and will be three times more expensive than a regular book of the same size and make.
  8. The topic of the book will be about a particular doctrine of a particular school in a particular century that ended long before you or anyone you know ever breathed.
  9. You will feel very intelligent while reading the book, but afterwards you will wonder what you should do with all that knowledge.
  10. You will probably keep the book, but will be afraid to open it again.
  11. No more than one–maybe two–people will have reviewed the book on Amazon.
  12. The reviewers’ comments will indicate they are much smarter and better read than you are.
daniel-ingram

The laughing arahat

Hardcore: These are the polar opposite of “popular” works, though they can, in fact, actually be popular.  Their authors are not typically interested in scholarship or “good works,” rather in the practice and achievement of exalted states of mind—jhanas, nyanas, nirvana, even siddhis.  Writers of this genre are typically very self-assured, speak with the confidence of “direct knowledge,” and are not generally terribly concerned with philosophical subtleties.  While they are sometimes quite orthodox in their thinking (simply accepting whatever theory is at hand), there is a tendency for some of them to challenge orthodox notions if tradition conflicts with their experience.  Moreover, these works:

  • Are long on practice and short on theory
  • Disdain fluff
  • Are grounded in meditative achievement
  • Are rarely published by big houses, but can yet attain “underground” or “cult” status
  • Don’t care how flowery or literary their prose is
  • Don’t tell lots of stories
  • Are often psychologically technical
  • Don’t quote original sources much but if they do are as likely to cite commentaries as suttas/sutras
  • Will make you feel like you’ve not done enough
  • Will inspire you to get up earlier, sit longer, and eat less

Examples of these books are some of Goenka’s material, Jack Kornfield’s Living Dharma (originally Living Buddhist Masters, a book that had a significant impact on me when I first read it–the rest of Kornfield’s material is decidedly popular), books by some Burmese teachers (e.g. Webu SayadawMahasi Sayadaw and U Pandita) and Thai forest masters (e.g. Ajahn Chah) and, last but not least, that icon of the “hardcore dharma” movement,  Daniel Ingram (pictured above), author of Mastering the Core Teachings of the Buddha.

I have read many examples of all four.  Popular books occasionally contain gems scattered among the endless deserts of vapid prose.  This, and the inevitable language of optimistic self-improvement they employ (hence the fluffy verbiage), is what keeps you reading them–they tell you you’re extraordinary, that you possess Buddha-nature (if only you could see it!), and you want to believe, so you read and read and read and read.  If you’re a beginner, these are naturally the sorts of books you’ll start with, but if you don’t get beyond them you’re probably doomed to never learn anything you couldn’t have gleaned from the pages of Reader’s Digest.

Most of the best reading you’ll do will be by scholar-practitioners and hardcore dharma nuts.  People in both these groups really have something to say.  They are not looking for the next big seller; they know what meditation is about; they don’t have an organization to run (or if they do its supported by donors); and the scholar-practitioners especially are familiar with the original texts and the histories and can discuss them intelligently and practically.  Read as many of these (scholar-practitioner and hardcore) books as you can, but when particular issues become problematic for you or whet your interest, don’t be afraid of good scholars and their tomes, however weighty.  Some examples of excellent scholars and their work would be Steve Collins’ Selfless Persons, books by Richard Gombrich and Paul Williams, David Loy (Nonduality and others) and Sue Hamilton-Blyth’s Early Buddhism: A New Approach among others.

Happy reading!

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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

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

Quick Guide To Reviews

I just wanted to quickly point out that I’ve added a tab for quick access to data on all the books I’ve reviewed.  Once there, you can download a spreadsheet showing the specs.  Over time this will grow to considerable size, with authors, titles, page numbers, my ratings, plus categorizations of whether books are core, secondary or tertiary in importance, and also what level–beginner, intermediate and advanced.  There is also information there about the subject matter.  This way you’ll be able to sort the spreadsheet and get where you need to go.

Quick Guide to Reviews

(I’m not sure what relevance the picture below has, but I like it….)

 

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