Buddhist Books Blog

Readings and writings on Buddhism, yoga, and contemplative science

Archive for the tag “Mahasi Sayadaw”

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!

Living Dharma: Teachings of Twelve Buddhist Masters by Jack Kornfield

Living Dharma: Teachings of Twelve Buddhist Masters by Jack Kornfield.  Shambhala 1996.  319 pages.

First published in 1983 under the unfortunate title Living Buddhist Masters, the law of impermanence inevitably asserted itself and the masters died.  The title was then of necessity changed to something more “permanent.”  (I’m sorry, I can never miss the grim, yet oddly appropriate humor that applies here!)  Titular changes notwithstanding, the book is still in print, and deservedly so–it should be on every Buddhist practitioner’s list of “must read” books.  Why this is so becomes abundantly clear upon glancing at the table of contents.

What Jack Kornfield has done is allow the Dharma (or, more correctly, “Dhamma”) experts to speak for themselves.  His contribution has merely been to supply an introduction on the Theravadan Buddhist meditation tradition and then brief bios of the individual teachers.  The chapters therefore consist almost entirely of essays or talks from the featured “masters.”  The result is a rich, diverse cornucopia of insights, attitudes, practical instructions and advice matched by few other books in the field.

While Kornfield’s contribution is relatively small, it is not insignificant.  Chapter one, “Essential Buddhism,” covers basic elements of meditation practice–the meditation setting, the three trainings of morality, concentration and insight, the role of mindfulness, an interesting blurb on differing opinions concerning “goals/no goals” in practice, the factors of enlightenment and another interesting blurb on why anyone should even bother reading dharma books.  Chapter two is more specific, looking at these topics as they apply in the traditions of southeast Asian Buddhism (i.e. Thai and Burmese).  Chapter three is a gem–all of half a page, and that mostly empty space.  Kornfield writes: “I have reserved a whole chapter to make a simple statement.  The entire teaching of Buddhism can be summed up in this way: Nothing is worth holding on to” (p. 31).  I think everyone should stand up at this point and applaud, because I’ve yet to come across a more condensed, accurate and well put statement of what the Buddha taught than this.  In other words, if you learn this much–really learn it–you’ve done what had to be done and there is nothing more of this to come.

But, thankfully, there is more to the book!

The profiled teachers include such famous sorts as Achaan Chaa, Mahasi Sayadaw, Sunlun Sayadaw, Achaan Buddhadasa, Achaan Maha Boowa, and U Ba Khin, as well as lesser known teachers like Achaans Jumnien and Dhammadaro, Mogok Sayadaw and Taugpulu Sayadaw.  Notably absent are Webu Sayadaw–a reputed arhant bikkhu–Dipa Ma and Goenka.  It would have been nice if when the book was reissued chapters on these people had been added, but I guess you can’t have everything.  My personal favorite chapters are those on Chaa, Sunlun, Mahasi and Jumnien.

Certain tensions in teaching and practice emerge from these profiles.  There are those who clearly emphasize practice over theory (Chaa, Sunlun, Boowa, and Jumnien, for example), theory as preliminary to practice (e.g. Mogok and Mohnyin) and those that seem somewhere in between (e.g. Mahasi).  Then there is (as noted by Kornfield in his introduction) the tension between a goal directed practice, or a more natural, goal-less “way of living.”  Respective represenatives of these contrasting approaches would be Sunlun and Chaa.  Some teachers work within the contexts of monasteries, others meditation centers.  The impression one comes away with is that there is something here for everyone, no matter their calling in life (monk vs. lay), their personality type (intellectual vs. practical), or their particular needs (long-term living vs. short-term, intensive retreats).  Most importantly, it becomes clear that the Buddha’s teaching, both as it exists now and as it certainly was in the founder’s day, is not so much an ideology as a highly sophisticated technology one uses to cultivate and master the mind.  In other words, the Dhamma is something one does as opposed to believes.

My Amazon rating: 5 stars

 

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