Archive

Posts Tagged ‘buddhist’

Book Review: Through Forests of Every Color: Awakening with Koans by Joan Sutherland

December 26, 2022 Leave a comment
Image of a digital book cover. A blue swipe of paint is topped with the outlines of pine trees. The title of the book is written in white against this background.

Learn about Zen Buddhist koans – both their history and how to use them in your practice – in this approachable introduction from a nearly lifelong Zen practitioner.

Summary:
Renowned Zen teacher Joan Sutherland reimagines the koan tradition with allegiance to the root spirit of the koans and to their profound potential for vivifying, subverting, and sanctifying our lives. Her decades of practicing with koans and of translating them from classical Chinese imbues this text with a warm familiarity, an ease still suffused with awe.

Interlinked essays on “koans as art,” “keeping company with koans,” and “walking the koan way” intersperse with beautifully translated renditions of dozens of traditional Zen koans. Sutherland also shares innovative koans culled from Western literature, as well as teachings on how to create idiosyncratic koans or turning words from the circumstances of one’s own life.

Review:
I came into this book with some trepidation. My previous experiences with koans were frustrating, and not in a way that I felt lent itself to enlightenment. I hoped this introductory guide to koans would hep me to engage with them better. This book certainly met that goal. I now have a desire to work with koans in my own practice. Although, I won’t be jumping right into The Gateless Gate. I plan to pick up another book that moves slowly and with guidance.

Indeed, learning the history of how koans have traditionally been engaged with helped me. You wouldn’t enter koan study alone but rather with a teacher who helps you learn how to engage with them. The author does not feel this can be entirely replicated with books and encourages finding a teacher. I will carry on with books for now as finding a teacher seems an insurmountable task at the moment to me. Sutherland also discusses how traditionally there was a “right” answer to koans but in modern times there’s more consideration for alternative interpretations – as long as they hold meaning to the practitioner. So you might not make a student wrestle with a koan until they come upon “the” answer but rather until they come upon an answer that leads them further down the path toward enlightenment.

Sutherland also discusses the reputation of Zen for being rude. She points out how in the culture rudeness was basically unheard of. So the point wasn’t the rudeness. The point was startling the student out of their cultural expectations. She suggests that other methods might be best depending upon the culture you’re currently working in. This was a real “aha” moment for me. Startling as the goal is something I can understand as being an impetus to break out of your current mindset.

I also appreciated coming to understand that the goal isn’t to solve a koan immediately. Rather, the goal is to live with the koan, day in and day out. In this way your own life helps you understand the koan, and the koan helps you understand your own life. This reminded me of how I was encouraged to engage with Scripture as a child. To memorize a verse and consider it for a full week or a month to see what else may be revealed.

One thing that disappointed me in this book was the discussion of writing your own koans was sparse. It was the aspect I was looking forward to the most. In all honesty, I can’t remember any part of the book directly discussing it. I don’t believe the blurb would mention it if it wasn’t there, though, so I’m assuming it’s very fleeting. I was expecting an entire chapter, perhaps with suggested exercises.

I want to leave you with my favorite koan from the book.

Someone asked Yunmen, “What is reaching the light?
Yunmen replied, “Forget the light, First give me the reaching.”

loc 185

Overall, this is a nice introduction to koans, both how to use them in practice and their history. Recommended to anyone looking to learn more about koan.

If you found this review helpful, please consider tipping me on ko-fi, checking out my digital items available in my ko-fi shop, buying one of my publications, or using one of my referral/coupon codes. Thank you for your support!

4 out of 5 stars

Length: 192 pages – average but on the shorter side

Source: NetGalley

Buy It (Amazon or Bookshop.org)

Book Review: The Trauma of Caste: A Dalit Feminist Meditation on Survivorship, Healing, and Abolition by Thenmozhi Soundararajan

December 19, 2022 Leave a comment
Image of a digital book cover. A purple background with green decoration. the title of the book and author's name are in yellow. It notes a foreword by Tarana Burke in white.

Indian people are born into a specific, unchangeable caste. People of the lowest caste – Dalits – suffer discrimination and injustice. Here a Dalit feminist Buddhist author explores how Dalits can survive and heal from this trauma and allies can work toward justice.

Summary:
“Dalit” is the name that we chose for ourselves when Brahminism declared us “untouchable.” Dalit means broken. Broken by suffering. Broken by caste: the world’s oldest, longest-running dominator system…yet although “Dalit” means broken, it also means resilient.

Despite its ban more than 70 years ago, caste is thriving. Every 15 minutes, a crime is perpetrated against a Dalit person. The average age of death for Dalit women is just 39. And the wreckages of caste are replicated here in the U.S., too—erupting online with rape and death threats, showing up at work, and forcing countless Dalits to live in fear of being outed.

Dalit American activist Thenmozhi Soundararajan puts forth a call to awaken and act, not just for readers in South Asia, but all around the world. She ties Dalit oppression to fights for liberation among Black, Indigenous, Latinx, femme, and Queer communities, examining caste from a feminist, abolitionist, and Dalit Buddhist perspective—and laying bare the grief, trauma, rage, and stolen futures enacted by Brahminical social structures on the caste-oppressed.

Review:
I read and enjoyed Radical Dharma. It is a Black Buddhist exploration of systemic racial injustice against Black folks. It also uses Buddhist thought to progress toward liberation. The publisher recommended this book to readers of Radical Dharma, and I could tell from the title alone the parallels. Indian society oppresses Dalit peoples in very similar ways to how US American society oppresses Black folks. For example, they were both the source of enslaved labor in the 1800s. The author, a Dalit American woman, offers a very personal exploration of what it is to be a part of the Dalit diaspora. She also explores how her Buddhist belief system helps her navigate her trauma and advocate for societal change.

The author divides the book into four sections she calls mediations – The Existence of Caste, The Source of Caste, From Wounds to Liberation, and The End of Caste. There are also two appendixes that I found so meaningful I think they’re better thought of as part of the main book. The first explores Dalit social justice activists throughout time like B.R. Ambedkar and Phoolan Devi. The second is healing meditations for those truamatized by caste.

If you have ever heard of an “untouchable” caste this book makes it clear that this is not the name that members of this caste chooses for themselves. Many choose the name “Dalit” instead. Some choose other names, but Dalit is the most common.

Dalit means broken. Broken by suffering. Broken by caste.

loc 268

Another way of referring to those traumatized by caste is casteoppressed.

There is some controversy on exactly where caste came from. The author makes it clear she believes it came from the traditional faith of Hinduism. Caste was then weaponized by British colonizers to further divide those they colonized and make it easier to maintain dominance over them. However, the author acknowledges some people believe otherwise. I myself am not a scholar in this area. But however it began, caste is intermingled with Hinduism and Indian society across the diaspora. A person born into a lower caste is told they deserve to be at the lowest level of society because of sins they committed in a past life. That all of their suffering is their own fault, and they don’t deserve to rise out of it. The message also is that those in higher castes deserve to be there. Any suffering they put on those of lower castes is simply what those of the lower caste “deserve.” If you are at all familiar with the history of racism in the US, then it is immediately quite clear how damaging these societal beliefs are. It is also clear why they need to be overcome.

The pain and suffering for Dalit peoples is not of the past – it is now. The author offers sobering statistics (with references). They include:

  • 54% of Dalit children are undernourished (loc 500)
  • 83 of every 1,000 Dalit children die before their first birthday (loc 500)
  • more than 67% of Dalit women have experienced sexual violence (loc 509)
  • the average age of death for a Dalit woman is 39 (loc 509)
  • 45% of Dalits do not know how to read and write (loc 3327)
  • 48% of villages deny Dalits access to water (loc 3330)

The author explores how we can all begin to fight for freedom, justice, and equality. She talks about how important it is for oppressed people to be able to begin to imagine being free as the first step. She also speaks to allies about being aware that a move toward equality might feel like discomfort to us. She also speaks about the importance of supporting the experiences of the oppressed. Being cautious and mindful in our words and deeds is a message we all can benefit from.

An area that could have been improved on is where the author speaks about other religions in India and Dalit participation in them. While the section on Islam is well-written, making it clear how caste is not a part of Islam but can end up being enacted upon Dalit Muslims anyway, the same clarity is not brought to the section on Christianity. It makes it sound like social justice is a focus of only specifically Dalit led Christian sects. The section ignores other sects that follow similar mores and even the Bible verse Galatians 3:28 “…ye are all one in Christ Jesus.” Similarly, Judaism is skipped over, but Dalit Jewish people do exist. I wished these had been explored more. I appreciate that the author is careful to encourage and support Dalits in whatever faith they choose – including remaining Hindu. But I would have liked either a more even-handed representation of other faiths or a purely Buddhist perspective.

I empathize very much with the author’s concerns about modern-day genocides. It is absolutely correct that society at large is not taking these atrocities seriously the way we should. But the author mentions that we went to war in WWII over the Holocaust. That’s inaccurate. Nations went to war to protect their own nations. While the Holocaust was taken seriously after the fact, it’s not why nations went to war. Indeed, most nations turned away Jewish refugees at the time. What we are seeing with the general ignoring of current genocidal atrocities is sadly a repeat of how nations reacted in the past. We haven’t learned what we should have from the horrors of the Holocaust.

Overall, this is an eye-opening book about caste-based oppression throughout the South Asian diaspora. It offers healing for the casteoppressed and asks us all to become allies in the work to liberate these people. It is a meaningful introduction to this liberating labor for both casteoppressed people and allies.

If you found this review helpful, please consider tipping me on ko-fi, checking out my digital items available in my ko-fi shop, buying one of my publications, or using one of my referral/coupon codesThank you for your support!

4 out of 5 stars

Length: 256 pages – average but on the shorter side

Source: NetGalley

Buy It (Amazon or Bookshop.org)

Book Review: Natural Brilliance: A Buddhist System for Uncovering Your Strengths and Letting Them Shine by Irini Rockwell

March 12, 2012 5 comments

White cover with a slowly assembled flower on it.Summary:
Utilizing the traditional Buddhist five wisdoms–presence, clarity, richness, passion, and action, Rockwell seeks to show readers their own personal strengths and possible weaknesses.  Rockwell then seeks to demonstrate how to bring out the other three to four wisdoms within your personality to achieve more balance.

Review:
Before I had a book blog, I read quite a bit of Buddhist literature.  My minor was Religious Studies, and I also had an interest in it from a psychiatric and personal perspective.  Certain aspects of Buddhism are used in modern psychiatric treatments, for instance.  In any case, this is not my first Buddhist read.  I am familiar with a lot of the terminology and ideas.  This book though was nearly impossible to follow.  Quite possibly the worst book on Buddhism I’ve ever come across.

First, there’s how Rockwell talks about the five wisdoms.  Instead of consistently calling them by either their English name, Sanskrit name, or a hyphenated version of the two like most Buddhist works do, Rockwell bafflingly switches back and forth between English and Sanskrit without any rhyme or reason.  Particularly in an ebook where it’s difficult to flip back to the earlier pages where the wisdoms were introduced, this makes it really hard to follow the author’s thought-process.

Similarly, random information is inserted but then not fully explained.  I wonder if in the print version these are set apart in boxes?  Not sure.  For instance, the section introducing the five wisdoms has a completely random blip about the colors Tibetan Buddhism associates with them inserted in the text between the fourth and fifth wisdoms.  It’s just jarring and odd.

Finally, I didn’t really learn anything of value from the book.  Rockwell talks at length about what a person who is mostly possessing the wisdom of passion might look, behave, and even dress like, but not much is discussed about how to put this knowledge to good use.  It’s almost as if Rockwell got so caught up in describing the wisdoms that he forgot to talk to us about how to put this knowledge to much use.  Besides, does it really help to know to label the person who is passionate as exhibiting the passion wisdom?  We already know instinctively what they are like and how to deal with them.  Labeling it doesn’t really help, does it?

Overall, I found this book to offer very little in a way of self-improvement or aid in dealing with people.  It is confusingly organized without much valuable information within it.  Although it is a readable book that is not at all offensive, it just doesn’t seem like reading it is worth the time.

2 out of 5 stars

Source: NetGalley

Buy It

Book Review: Buddha Volume 1 Kapilavastu by Osamu Tezuka (Graphic Novel) (series, #1)

November 9, 2011 1 comment

Man holding rabbit up to the sky.Summary:
The tale of the Buddha’s life is told peripherally to those of fictional, central characters.  There is Tatta, an untouchable who can inhabit the bodies of animals.  He is joined by Chapra, a slave who wants to become a warrior.  Also there is Chapra’s mother and a young monk.  Their lives are impacted by the birth of the Buddha.

Review:
I picked this up randomly from the shelf in the library, and I must say I was expecting a bit more focus on the Buddha than is present in the story.  Instead this is one of those tales about fictional people living in the shadow of a world-changing person.  I honestly was really excited about the idea of the story of the Buddha told in the graphic novel style, so that was a bit of a disappointment to me.

The art style is interesting.  Somewhere between manga and more western-style animation.  The characters are really easy to tell apart, though, which was a nice change from some manga.

Although the Buddha is mostly gestating and being born during the course of the book, Buddhist ideas are still present periodically in the storyline. One of my favorites is when a saint chastises the monk for how he orders Tatta to use his talents:

To save just one human, you mindlessly harnessed numerous beasts to an impossible task…and killed them one by one! The beasts you bent to your purpose all suffered greatly and died cruelly! You believe that human lives are sacrosanct while animal lives are worthless?!?! You saved [the human], but the beasts that you sacrificed for his sake are now beyond saving. Life is sacred whether or not it is human! (page 350-1)

It was fun to see these sorts of ideals in the context of a story, and I do always enjoy reading a graphic novel.  The main story itself fell flat for me though.  It mostly focuses in on Chapra attempting to become a great warrior and save his mother from being a slave, which I fail to see how that relates to the Buddha.  As I said, though, this book was not what I was expecting, and I don’t tend to really go for warrior/mother tales.  Except Oedipus.

Overall, the art is an interesting style and some of the ideas contained within the book are fun to see in fiction, but the main storyline separate from Buddha’s life simply did not resonate with me.  Perhaps it will with you.

3 out of 5 stars

Source: Public Library

Buy It