Short reviews of The Buddhist Path to Simplicity: Spiritual Practice for Everyday Life, by Christina Feldman • Zig Zag Zen: Buddhism and Psychedelics, edited by Allan Hunt Badiner & Alex Grey • Shoes Outside the Door: Desire, Devotion, and Excess at San Francisco Zen Center, by Michael Downing • Buddhism: Introducing the Buddhist Experience, by Donald W. Mitchell • The Issue at Hand: Essays on Buddhist Mindfulness Practice, by Gil Fronsdal • Good Life, Good Death: Tibetan Wisdom on Reincarnation, by Rimpoche Nawang Gehlek • How to Practice: The Way to a Meaningful Life, by His Holiness the Dalai Lama
In this book, simplicity is seen as the core practice and fruit of the Buddhist path. It is found through renunciation, here described as the inner act of letting go. The author coins an apt phrase, “engaged renunciation,” to describe our generation of practitioners who aspire to liberation while living an active lay life. Because simplicity allows us to meet the present moment with immediacy and wisdom, it is the key, says Feldman, to deep happiness and freedom.
From this foundation, Feldman, a senior teacher of vipassana, builds an elegant and authoritative presentation of the Buddhist path in accessible, non-technical language. Yet the book is by no means elementary. Often we sense that we are eavesdropping on her own contemplation of the dharma, steeped in years of practice and teaching. (“In being both a mystic and not a mystic, the Buddha ended the long schism between the sacred and the mundane.”) This book offers the challenging reminder that we need not wait another moment to find the Buddha’s middle way. —GA
Buddhism took a zig and a zag on its way into the minds and hearts of many Westerners, and here is the definitive chronicle of the unique dharma door of drugs. Through essays, personal accounts, interviews and a panel discussion, Zig Zag Zen offers a fascinating and comprehensive look at how drugs have influenced the spiritual path of some leading figures in contemporary Buddhism and Western mysticism. As Ram Dass says in the book, “I don’t see psychedelics as an enlightening vehicle, but I do see them as an awakening vehicle.”
Beginning with excellent essays by editor Allan Hunt Badiner, Stephen Batchelor, Huston Smith, Roger Walsh and Rick Fields (“A High History of Buddhism in America”), the book also includes the voices of Peter Matthiessen, Jack Kornfield, Robert Aitken, Richard Baker, Joan Halifax, Charles Tart and others. The book itself is especially well designed and includes beautiful full-color images of contemporary art, selected by Alex Grey, to accompany the text. Zig Zag Zen is—in many ways—highly recommended. —WN
Michael Downing, non-Buddhist, has adopted a Zen-like strategy for describing the San Francisco Zen Center crisis of 1983. Divergent witnesses speak in their own words about the white BMW, the expensive Raku bowl, etc. All the sources (including Richard Baker), having reflected deeply on their own roles, offer intelligent, open-ended insights. Among the most memorable are Gary Snyder’s: “It goes back to what Suzuki-roshi had said to me, that these Americans take Japanese customs too seriously. . . . In Japan . . . there is always a wink.” This is a well-told, gripping, compassionate book. I couldn’t put it down. The book’s non-closure I find hopeful, proof that the dialogue between Zen and America is still lively. —PDS
Among the academic books on Buddhism that cross my desk, this volume stood out. I usually focus on texts that stress practice, but I was drawn in by Donald Mitchell’s book for its accessible language, clear organization, and smooth interweaving of passages from scriptural texts. Even more inviting, and unique to a textbook, is his inclusion of short reflections from modern-day dharma teachers and practitioners. There are chapters on the teachings of the various Buddhist lineages in Asia, as well as Buddhism’s spread to the West and such facets as socially engaged Buddhism. The author’s thirty years of teaching on the university level has shown him that “students are happy to study the history of Buddhism in its many cultural contexts, but they want the narrative to emphasize the particular ways in which the paths to . . . Awakening are understood in the varieties of Buddhist experience.” A scholarly way of saying so, but my sentiments exactly. —DC
This thin gem of a book is a collection of talks and essays about mindfulness. Written by Buddhist scholar and respected teacher Gil Fronsdal, it captures the essence of over thirty topics—ranging from the Four Noble Truths to the Jewel of Sangha to responding to tragedy—in about three to four pages each. The wisdom on every topic is deep and inspiring, and each chapter begins with a quote from a Buddhist text such as the Dhammapada, Sumyutta Nikaya or Majjhima Nikaya. This book is like a diamond with many facets, inviting us, as William Blake says, to kiss “the joy as it flies.” —RK
(To download a free copy, visit insightmeditationcenter.org)
Despite the hundreds of Buddhist books, very few deal directly with reincarnation; it’s almost like Buddhism’s little secret. Rimpoche Nawang Gehlek doesn’t exactly discuss the details of reincarnation either, but he offers an excellent road map through the dying process, talking, for instance, about the symptoms of internal dissolution and what to expect.
But to have a “good death,” one must have a good life, and vice versa. Rimpoche explains the principles and practices of a good death, and emphasizes that a mind of love and compassion is essential. He explores anger and patience, attachment and pure love, and ego and compassion. Every moment is a really an opportunity to experience both life and death, and to lay the foundation for a good rebirth. —RK
Although there are many books by the Dalai Lama, this one is special. It provides a clear and unambiguous blueprint for enlightenment. In twelve simple chapters, he explains everything from morality to concentration to emptiness. Each chapter ends with a summary for daily practice, and the end of the book provides summaries for practice gathered from throughout the book. While some suggestions are quite standard (e.g., “adopt a positive attitude in the face of adversity”), other suggestions are more advanced, such as, “frequently reflect on how phenomena arise in dependence on causes and conditions.” Reading this book should help keep you practicing. —RK