Short reviews of Mindfulness, Bliss and Beyond, by Ajahn Brahm • Tibet: An Inner Journey, by Matthieu Ricard • Tomorrow’s Moon, a collection of poems • Jataka: Stories and Music of Buddhist India by Margo McLoughlin, music by Doug MacKenzie • the documentary Fearless Mountain by Tony Anthony and Andrew Anthony • Being Prayer by Mary Rees • The Tara Book by Gehlek Rinpoche • The Eighth Promise by William Poy Lee.
Reviewed by Richard Shankman
This clear and accessible book describes meditative absorption states (jhana) and how to attain them. It is written from the perspective of the Visuddhimagga, the most important Theravada commentary on meditation practice. Since there are other perspectives, this book contributes to the historical debate over the nature of jhana and its place in Buddhist meditation. According to Ajahn Brahm, “Once you have experienced that level of mindfulness, then you will know for yourself how ridiculous it is to think you can become Enlightened without jhana.” This book offers an excellent road map to the development of jhana, which, as the title suggests, is beyond bliss.
Reviewed by Brenda Walsh
These photographs magnificently portray wide-open spaces—on plains, above mountains and in the gap-toothed smiles of wizened Tibetan nomads. The pictures are perfectly framed and saturated with colors of rarefied sky, ancient ceremonial clothing and heirloom jewelry. Children are held high, palms opened upward in happiness or folded together in reverence. In these photos, Matthieu Ricard, a Western Buddhist monk living in the Himalayas, has captured the spirituality, purity and courage of the people of Tibet, along with the beauty of their homeland.
Reviewed by Peter Dale Scott
This collection of poems surveys an octet of Buddhist meditators from three continents, balanced between male and female, ordained and lay sangha members. Bhikkhu Abhinando’s introduction speaks rightly of the very different voices in the poems, some written originally in German and Italian. But the poems are also strikingly impersonal in the style of T. S. Eliot. Mostly arising out of meditative experience, they eschew the idiosyncratic, recording precious moments when the boundaries of private self become wobbly and diaphanous—as when the owl, confronted on the walking path, stares “back into my eyes / looking for signs to recognize.” The poems’ perceptions of nature are acute and full of “thisness,” as in Ayya Thaniya’s haiku-like gaze into Hammer Pond: “Here where fish jump through trees / scattering them in waves of leaves / the ripplingness is beautiful.” Meditators will identify these approaches to nonself as also their own.
Reviewed by Andrew Olendzki
The Buddhist oral tradition has been reborn thanks to this new rendition of the Jataka stories. In preliterate India these fables were the primary means of sharing the Buddha’s ethical teachings. What sets this production apart is that Margo McLoughlin, in addition to being a gifted storyteller, has studied the Pali language and translated the original texts herself. Her style is to follow the idiom of the Pali very closely, leaving the occasional phrase untranslated. This offers remarkable access to the textures and nuances of the ancient storytellers. This is no mere retelling of the stories but a skillful performance—complete with restrained and effective musical accompaniment—of these long-lost gems of ancient Buddhist literature. I recently had four tired, grumpy children (ages 4 to 6) in the back of the car, absorbed in rapt, silent attention as they listened to McLoughlin beautifully weave her tales.
Reviewed by Bill Weber
What makes someone want to abandon a conventional life, take on 227 precepts, including celibacy, and live simply in the forest exclusively on the generosity of others? This film answers these questions and provides an intimate glimpse into the life of the monks at Abhayagiri Monastery, located in Redwood Valley, California. Thoughtful interviews with monks draped in fawn-colored robes are interspersed with clips of serene Buddhas, bells and single-room huts on steep wooded hillsides. The film, which has a relaxed pace and is minimally edited, is actually a subtle discourse on the Four Noble Truths—a glimpse into how suffering is created and abandoned. Viewers witness the ordination of the nine-year-old boy struggling with cancer to whom the film is dedicated. The images of monks engaged in the “holy life” are inspiring and an important reminder, as Ajahn Sumedho says, that “we can take responsibility for how we live in society.”
Reviewed by Mary Jo Meadow
“Being prayer”—rather than saying prayers—involves a transformation of consciousness that allows us to see all life as prayer. This book introduces Christians to Buddhism and teaches many practices so that “life can become a dance, a joyful exercise of balance.” Each chapter ends with exercises for developing specific meditative skills. One particularly intriguing practice involves observing the “decomposition of an animal body as it occurs in natural life experience.” Suggested prayers are drawn from various sources, including Mother Teresa, St. Francis and the Dalai Lama. The author succeeds in demonstrating how Buddhism supports the contemplative life and deepens the heart of faith, no matter what tradition one comes from.
Reviewed by Martha Boesing
This delightful little book is devoted to the goddess Tara, swift and courageous, who shakes the highest mountains, makes the three worlds tremble, and promises to end the suffering of all beings. Recognized as the feminine aspect of the Buddha, Tara is said to have emerged from one of many tears wept by the bodhisattva Avalokitesvara, known for his boundless compassion. Gehlek Rinpoche calls Tara “the first Buddhist feminist, a warrior goddess, because when she was asked to be reborn as a man, she refused. Labeling ‘male’ or ‘female’ has no essence, but deceives the evil-minded world.” This book offers various Tara meditations, visualizations, mantras and prayers designed to heal the suffering of the world.
Reviewed by Wes Nisker
At the beginning of his touching memoir, William Poy Lee writes that “it was my mother’s earthbound spirituality, that of the Toisan Chinese people, that kept me safe, sound and sane, especially during those tumultuous American decades of the 1960s and 1970s.”
Lee’s mother came from Suey Wan, a remote peasant village in southeastern China. Through an arranged marriage she landed in San Francisco’s Chinatown, where she attempted to raise her sons with the wisdom of her Toisanese clan culture.
As he grows up, her son William becomes active in the American counterculture and progressive politics, eventually organizing the first Chinese American civil rights march. When burnout sets in, Lee travels to his mother’s ancestral village, where he discovers that the simplicity and beauty of the culture she had told him about is still very much alive. There he finds the beginnings of his own Buddhist path, a place where “tonglen and other well-known Buddhist practices of lovingkindness and forgiveness were implicit in daily village life.” He writes that in Suey Wan, the women still make a series of promises to their mothers, the eighth and last one being to always live with compassion toward others.