Sunday, April 22, 2007

Book review: The Best Buddhist Writing 2006 ; Melvin Mcloud, ed

This third volume in The Best Buddhist Writing series is a wonderful book for dipping into and out of, perfect for carrying on your travels and when finished for passing on to the curious of mind.

While this collection of 33 articles from the publishers at Shambhala features writing by some big names in Buddhism - the Dalai Lama, Pema Chodron, the Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche, Thich Nhat Hanh, Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche, Jon Kabat-Zinn - it's the pieces from the lesser knowns that seem most touching and insightful.

George Crane relates the story of Ani Jinpa, a Western Buddhist nun taking care of street children in Mongolia, a pitifully thankless job miraculously infused with warmth and compassion. Psychologist John Welwood reminds us that in the search for perfect love, we begin and end with ourselves: "Bringing absolute love into human form involves learning to hold the impossibility of ourselves and others in the way the sky holds clouds - with gentle spaciousness and equanimity."

In a beautiful remembrance of her mother's painful process of dying, Mariana Caplan relates how both she and her mother learned to let go. In much the same way, Judith Toy finds the courage to live through her pain and to forgive the man who murdered her sister-in-law and two nephews.

Closer to the hearth, Nancy Hathaway describes the Four Noble Truths of Parenthood, while Norma Fisher shows how the practical, such as cutting vegetables and washing dishes, embodies the spiritual.

Order one of these for yourself, and order another for a friend who's interested in Buddhism.


Sunday, April 8, 2007

Book Review: Indestructible Truth, Secrets of the Vajra World; Reginald A Ray, 2002

This two-volume introduction to Tibetan Buddhism was written primarily for the author's students at the University of Colorado and at Naropa University (North America's only accredited Buddhist university). Across both books professor Reginald A Ray provides a thorough modern grounding in the history, philosophy and practice of Tibetan Buddhism.

The first volume, Indestructible Truth, begins with a rather dry recitation of the principle names, dates, and trends in the history of Buddhism as it came from India to Tibet and as it developed in the latter over the past two millennia. A more lively middle section covers assumptions common to all schools of Buddhism, warmly and wittily illustrated with anecdotes from the lives of Buddhist saints as well as the author's personal and professional life. The book closes with a rushed overview of Buddhist philosophy that is often more confusing than enlightening. This is partly made up for in the second volume with more detailed explanations and examples.

Secrets of the Vajra World is much heavier reading than the first, if only because Ray has a wider canvas, including the minutiae of Mahamudra and Dzokchen, the two primary schools of Tibetan meditation. The volume concludes with chapters on the lives of tulkus, the reincarnated Buddhist masters, and a riveting recounting of the miraculous passing of one such master (the 16th Karmapa) in an American hospital.

Despite the title of the second volume, very few "secrets" are revealed. Besides being a well-read scholar, Ray is also a committed Buddhist and meditation instructor unwilling to disclose tantric methods. Unfortunately, he also seems unwilling to challenge assumptions. To his credit, Ray acknowledges the difficulties western practitioners and students have with ideas such as reincarnation, the worship of deities, the guru-student relationship, karma and free will. He often provides alternate conceptualizations, such as the Six Realms of Existence (in the Wheel of Life) as psychological states, but never once makes clear that he accepts anything bu the orthodox teaching.

Read these books to know what has come before. To see where Buddhism is headed, including Tibetan Buddhism in North America, you might like to sample the three volumes of Shambala Sun's series, Best Buddhist Writing, or have a look at Stephen Batchelor's Buddhism Without Beliefs.


Thursday, April 5, 2007

Movie Review: Samsara; Nalin Pan, dir; 2001

The debut feature from Indian director Pan Nalin, Samsara is a lovely, understated meditation on desire as seen through the life of Tashi, a Buddhist monk who leaves his order to explore the world outside the monastery.

The story opens with a dirt-smeared, matted-haired monk being carried out of a cave at the end of a three-year mediation retreat and afterwards being rewarded the rank of kenpo. Despite his elevation of the rank of teacher, Tashi remains afflicted by dreams of the erotic, dreams that cause him to question his vows, vows that he has kept since entering the monastery as a child of five. He wonders how the rest of the world lives, how the Buddha himself once lived before giving up his princely life to search for enlightenment. Sometimes, Tashi reasons, we must own something in order to renounce it.

Driven by an encounter with a beautiful village girl, he leaves the monastery to find her, figuratively and literally crossing a river, leaving his monk's robes on the bank and entering completely and wholly the world of samsara, our ordinary, work-a-day world known to the Buddhists as the realm of illusion, desire, hatred, and suffering.

There Tashi finds Pema, the village girl of his dreams, and a life of happiness and fulfillment as a husband, father, and farmer. In this life he encounters also much suffering in jealousy, deceit, anger, rage, physical violence, and most deeply in his own sexual desire, which leads to betrayal, infidelity and loss of self-esteem.

Unlike in many films in which these subjects would be weighted down with cloying dialog, director Nalin Pan cuts talk to a minimum, communicating with the viewer through the actors' expressions, the movement of camera, and through Cyril Mornin's music (as performed by Bulgarian Symphony Orchestra). With a handsome cast and the stunning vistas of the Himalayan foothills of Ladakh, India to fill out the camera, Samsara is a beautiful film for the eye and ear.

It also offers something for the mind, including an ambiguous ending that will leave you wondering which road Tashi chooses. Just as he is to head over the bridge leading to his monastery, where he has decided to return after his infidelity, he comes across his wife Pema, who ends the film with a series of penetrating questions on the relationship between the sexes and the role of women in Buddhism.

The question of Tashi's final direction is in the end put to the viewer - what are your desires? Where do they lead you? How can you make a meaningful life?


Sunday, April 1, 2007

Perhaps my best side

Some of you may remember my post and pictures about a funeral procession while I was in Kathmandu. I've just found a video of that event at YouTube and if you look closely - and quickly! - you can see me to the right of the truck carrying the body at the 1:47-1:50 mark. I'm wearing blue jeans, a grey jacket with a green backpack, and a tan hat.


Japan again

While I was still in Kathmandu both sets of parents were urging me to see the doctor just as soon as I got home to check for unwanted visitors from Nepal, parasitic stowaways hitching a ride to Japan. I’m happy to report that after leaving stool and blood samples with my doctor that I have been certified parasite free.

But I’m not, unfortunately, entirely well. The day before I left Nepal I picked up a small head cold, the last bit of which I’ve been honking into a box of tissues. What’s worse, though, is that my stomach seems to have become accustomed to Nepali food. I’ve not been able to properly digest much of what I’ve eaten since I returned.

Not all the news has been bad. Instead of losing 3 kilos, as I reported previously, the doctor reported that I have in fact lost 5 kilos. I seem to have lost something else, as well, something that seems a bit more difficult to define or to replace.

Being back with Mutsumi is wonderful. And living in a place where I don’t always have to worry about the water and the food, where power is always is available, where the streets are properly paved and where the drivers stay in designated lanes and use their horns only in emergencies is of course something a relief. But Japan lacks the vibrancy of Boudha, the monks in red robes, the sound of chanting, the blowing of horns and ringing of gongs, the Buddhist paintings and imagery, the vibrant temples on every corner, the people carrying prayer beads and prayer wheels, the prayer flags fluttering overhead.

I miss these things. I also miss the sense of – for lack of a better word – the spiritual. Buddhists don’t subscribe to the concept of a spirit, and properly speaking Buddhism is not a religion. But I don’t know what else to call this inquiry into mind, this search for meaning beyond the five senses, this respect for the potential that a different reality is within ourselves - if only we look for it, and the reverence for those who have and stand by to point the way.

Here it just seems to be business as usual, nine-to-five, thanks for the paycheck, let’s go shopping and spend our time in pleasant diversion.

Something is missing. And it’s not my 5 kilos of body fat.