Short reviews of Who is Myself? A Guide to Buddhist Meditation, by Ayya Khema • The Book of Tibetan Elders: The Life Stories and Wisdom of the Great Spiritual Masters of Tibet, by Sandy Johnson • Chuang Tzu: The Inner Chapters, translated by David Hinton • Opening the Lotus: A Woman’s Guide to Buddhism, by Sandy Boucher • The Knitting Sutra: Craft as Spiritual Practice, by Susan Gordon Lydon • Sleeping, Dreaming, and Dying: An Exploration of Consciousness with The Dalai Lama, edited by Francesco J. Varela
Potthapada was a wanderer who is known for having questioned the Buddha about states of consciousness. The Potthapada sutta, subtitled “States of Consciousness,” is the subject of Who Is Myself? This book is based on talks Ayya Khema gave on the sutta at Land of Medicine Buddha in Soquel, California, in May and June of 1994.
Before the Buddha would answer any of Potthapada’s questions, he advocated proper moral conduct as the foundation of spiritual development. He explained the importance of following the precepts, of guarding the sense doors, and of abandoning the hindrances. These practices lead to concentrated meditation.
The Buddha once again reminded us that the mind is a magician, that it creates much that has nothing to do with our true deathless nature.
What happiness it is to know that transcendence is possible, even while we remain in this body and mind. Who Is Myself? gives us the recipe and the motivation to practice what is accessible to all yet accomplished by few.—R.K.
Good journalists get answers to questions their audiences want to ask. Sandy Johnson does a superb job of getting answers from elders who have spent years in caves. Here she shares their stories and her own adventures and awe with us. We learn what it’s like to spend fourteen years alone, why someone chooses to carve rocks as a prayer for those in the six realms of samsara, and what the best age range is for remembering past-life experiences. Stories of oracles and doctors, tulkus and nuns, give new meaning to the expression “truth is stranger than fiction.” The stories are unique, but the basic message of the elders is that human birth is an opportunity to open our hearts and be kind. Self-centeredness may be part of the human condition, but then again so is liberation. This spiritual travelogue is a rare and beautiful gem.—R.K.
For those who find A.C. Graham’s or Burton Watson’s translations of Chuang Tzu too intricate, the stripped-down version of the original Inner Chapters by David Hinton may be the ideal entry to this major Taoist text. Assuming the reader’s knowledge of Ch’an (Zen) meditation practice, Hinton’s preface focuses on Chuang Tzu’s advice to “stop listening with your mind and listen with your primal spirit.”
Some translations are like ladders: Once they have helped you up, you look down on them as inelegant and too simple. One can say this about Stephen Mitchell’s Tao Te Ching or Hinton’s Tu Fu. So it is with Hinton’s Chuang Tzu. I read it breathlessly but then started to nitpick details, such as his translation of “wu wei” (nonaction) as “selfless action.” (This seems brutally oversimplified.) Nevertheless, I came away from this complex text with a clearer picture of it than I ever had enjoyed before.—P.D.S.
Sandy Boucher’s latest book pulls together the defining issues of women’s spirituality. It contains a fine blend of practical information, including a directory of women teachers, feminist issues (is compassion a trap for women?) and inspiring descriptions of the Bodhisattva figures Kwan Yin and Tara (reminding us that much of the militaristic imagery in Buddhism is balanced by Tara’s ability to conquer evil beings nonviolently).
Boucher discusses her Methodist upbringing as well as her experiences in Sri Lanka as a Buddhist nun. Her descriptions of the challenges of learning difficult lessons give this book an authentic feeling. Boucher’s commitment makes Opening the Lotus an inspirational primer for both new and long-time practitioners.—R.K.
The premise is simple: knitting can be a door to the dharma. Like meditation, it quiets the mind and creates space for healing. A fractured bone in her right arm triggered the author’s journey into the knitting cosmos. Lydon says, “The very rhythms of the knitting needles can become as incantatory as a drumbeat or a Gregorian chant.” Lydon knows something about needles—she’s a recovered heroine addict. Much of the wisdom she gained while recovering is evidenced in the joy and creativity she experiences in knitting. Lydon’s insights on creativity reinforce what we know but so easily forget: We are one.—R.K.
Everyone sleeps and dreams and at some point dies. Neuroscientist Francesco Varela says that these experiences take place within the “ego’s shadow zones,” and he created a conference to explore them with the Dalai Lama and several western scientists. According to the Dalai Lama, a person well trained in meditation can recognize a strict order to the stages of falling asleep that are analogous to the stages of dying. He calls this subtle perception “the clear light of sleep.” However, his Holiness was skeptical of current research on near-death experiences (NDEs). Many people who have had NDEs have reported seeing relatives and friends. Yet according to the Dalai Lama, these people have already been reborn, which would make contact with them virtually impossible.
There’s a lot of juicy information in this book, including discussions of epilepsy, Tibetan medicine and lucid dreaming. It is very valuable for meditators interested in how science and Buddhism intersect.—R.K.