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Lions Roar : May 2006
SHAMBHALA SUN MAY 2006 91 THERE WAS A TIME when trolling in a bookstore for Buddhist books in English was a pretty easy—and unrewarding—proposi- tion. In most bookstores outside Berkeley, Greenwich Village, or Harvard Square, you would find literally a handful, either hidden in an obscure section or sprinkled amongst a variety of sections. Things have certainly changed. When I venture into the Bud- dhism section these days (and the fact that Buddhism has its own section says something in itself ), I can look forward to seeing a hundred worthwhile titles and spending considerable time read- ing jackets, skimming, and thumbing. If I am on the Internet, of course, I am flooded by interesting titles. Building a Buddhist library is a costly investment, so I take care to figure out which books I might want to buy and which I am happy just to com- mune with for a few minutes. The Buddhist world is diverse, to say the least. Theravadans adhere to the teachings found in the sutras in the ancient Pali language, which have been practiced and preserved for several thousand years by monastic communities in Sri Lanka, Burma, Thailand, and other parts of South Asia, and are now practiced by laypeople and monastics the world over. A further body of sutras and commentaries that present the Mahayana path, such as the Heart Sutra and the Diamond Sutra, are pivotal for the Buddhist traditions of Tibet, China, and Japan. Chan and Zen add to this a tradition of koans and other forms of practice and commentary reflecting the unique development of Buddhism in that region. Tibet became the repository of the tantric branch of Buddhism that developed in northern India, where mantra, visualization, and other forms of ritual provide supports for the path of meditation. All this presents a pretty daunting array of choices, so to help organize my thinking as I scan the shelves, I have developed my own map of the Buddhist book world to make sense of all the offerings the publishers are churning out and to organize the books once they end up on my shelves. Also, if someone asks me for a good book on Buddhism, I begin by asking them, “What are you interested in?” Then, I can steer them to the topic area that seems to provide the best point of entry for them: meditation, compassionate action, doctrine, or scholarship. If they take an interest, they’ll end up reading something from every category eventually. MEDITATION While the many types of Buddhism make for a complicated lit- erature, the similarities between the various Buddhist streams far outweigh the differences, and all traditions speak of medita- tion practice in much the same way. Therefore, the type of book that is the common denominator for almost all Buddhists is a guide to meditation practice. A book on mindfulness by Bhante Gunaratana or one on insight meditation (vipassana) by Joseph Goldstein will offer the simplicity and precision that is the hall- mark of the Theravadan tradition. A book on zazen by Suzuki Roshi or silent illumination by the Chan master Sheng-yen will reflect a feeling unique to Zen that is hard to describe—quite possibly by design. Teachers from the Tibetan tradition, such as Chokyi Nyima Rinpoche or Sogyal Rinpoche, teaching about “wakefulness” or Dzogchen, may rely on the metaphors and similes common to the yogic tradition of poetry and song. Readers interested in meditation practice will find books on meditation from all of these traditions rewarding, because med- itation is the place where doctrine and tradition dissolve into straightforward personal experience. There will continue to be excellent new books on meditation practice, since an experience as basic as mindfulness–awareness can be discussed in a fresh way from hundreds of perspectives. No one has the last word on meditation. COMPASSIONATE ACTION The next most sought-after kind of Buddhist book has to do with attitudes and actions. Starting with the basic Buddhist teaching of ahimsa, non-harming, countless teachings expound on the importance of loving-kindness and compassion, and once again, all traditions have something to say about it. While the meditation books tend to focus on our moment- to-moment experience of our own minds, these books focus on our day-to-day life. Built around some basic principles—such as equanimity, patience, peace, generosity, and so forth—they most often make their points through stories, and go on to offer advice about how to counteract tendencies that emerge the moment we run up against other people. A book like Who Ordered This Truckload of Dung by Ajahn Brahm from the Thai Forest tradi- tion makes its points through folk tales and modern stories. Jack Kornfield’s After the Ecstasy, the Laundry and other books of its kind help Westerners deal with the contrasts between their high aspirations and the reality of daily life. Many of the Dalai Lama’s and Thich Nhat Hanh’s books offer practical advice about how to become a genuinely loving person. Pema Chödrön struck a chord with many readers in a series of books that take the tenets and instructions of traditional bodhisattva texts and render them in plain language. A number of books, such as Sharon Salzberg’s Lovingkindness, expound on the metta (loving-kindness) teach- ings from the Theravadan tradition. All of the books in this genre make clear that being a good meditator does not nearly cover the essential message of the Buddha. The Rough Guide to Buddhist Books BARRY BOYCE helps us sort out the Buddhism section at the bookstore.