March 1998

Everyday cosmic religion

By Palden Gyatso
By Nelson Foster
By Edward Conze
By Mary Craig
By Lenore Friedman
By Seung Sahn
By Lama Surya Das
By Sherab Chodzin Kohn
By Dinty W. Moore
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"The religion of the future, Albert Einstein once wrote, "will be a cosmic religion. It should transcend personal God and avoid dogma and theology. . . . If there is any religion that could cope with modern scientific needs it would be Buddhism." Of course, not all of Buddhism transcends the personal and the dogmatic, but much of it strives to. And although it isn't possible to reconcile all its claims with modern science, the religion or some of the many aspects of it is growing in popularity in this country. "America," according to Newsweek, "may be on the verge of Buddhadarma." Naturally this new interest in an Eastern religion manifests itself in all sorts of ways, ranging from the sublime to the ridiculous greater awareness of Tibet's plight, classes on breathing and meditation techniques, a guru lecture circuit, an "Ask the Lama" column on the Internet, some questionable faith-healing practices, and a movie starring Brad Pitt.

And, of course, a spectrum of books to address all these issues. One new book that deals as much with the headlines of the 20th century as with timeless aphorisms is Palden Gyatso's The Autobiography of a Tibetan Monk. Captured by Mao's oppressive regime and imprisoned for 33 years, until 1992, Palden Gyatso suffered torture and persecution simply because he exemplified a Tibetan way of life that the Chinese had vowed to destroy. His is a story of quiet heroism that demonstrates beliefs better than any lecture could describe them.

A good place to begin filling in the background of all this recent history is The Roaring Stream: A New Zen Reader. Out of more than a thousand years of writings about Zen and its predecessor Ch'an, editors Nelson Foster and Jack Shoemaker have mined 350 pages of both classic and lesser-known commentators, from Bodhidharma to the poet Po Chu-i. The selections by each author are introduced with extremely helpful historical and biographical comments. With a deliberate emphasis on writings about women and lay people, The Roaring Stream reveals aspects of a tradition sometimes overlooked today.

An anthology of classic writings is Buddhist Texts Through the Ages, edited by Edward Conze and others. Chinese, Indian, Japanese, Tibetan texts have all contributed to the growth of Buddhism over the centuries. This book offers 214 excerpts from them.

Mary Craig tells a story that falls into the realm of general nonfiction more than that of Eastern thought. Kundun: A Biography of the Dalai Lama focuses on the parents and siblings of the child who, at his birth in 1933, was chosen as the latest incarnation of the Dalai Lama. The story of the family seems to be the story of the nation hardship, struggle, occasional triumph, and the usual tangle of emotions and loyalties that make families so . . . interesting.

For quite a different take on the whole subject of Buddhism, read a lively new anthology entitled Being Bodies: Buddhist Women on the Paradox of Embodiment, edited by Lenore Friedman and Susan Moon. Our very urge to transcend the body demonstrates deep ambivalence about our mortal coil. That "embodiment" could be seen as a paradox at all is one of the questions this challenging book addresses, through essays, poems, and interviews.

An entertaining and even amusing survey of the varied flavors of Buddhism appears in The Compass of Zen, by Seung Sahn. Based upon his talks, this book presents the basic questions in many short, accessible chapters woven around anecdotes and dialogues. From the Four Noble Truths to the Five Human Desires, this book seems to cover the whole mathematics of insight.

If you'd like to apply classic Buddhist writings to your own life, a handy guidebook might be a new book by Lama Surya Das, Awakening the Buddha Within: Eight Steps to Enlightenment. Although the title sounds like a pocket field guide, this book actually consists of 400 pages of explanation, anecdote, and a quietly developing demonstration of a philosophy of life that, even a skeptic must admit, would change the world.

Here's something for the budding Buddhist or the merely curious youngster. Sherab Chodzin and Alexandra Kohn offer a charming book (tainted by the publisher with the old line "for children of all ages," but that's not the book's fault) entitled The Wisdom of the Crows and Other Buddhist Tales. From half a page to several pages long, the fables herein read like a cross between the Brothers Grimm and the Bhagavad Gita. The illustrations are lovely and capture the Eastern flavor while remaining friendly and even humorous. It's difficult to imagine a more entertaining introduction to a different culture.

One recent book answers a question you probably never thought to ask: Can a seeker named after a beef stew find true enlightenment while really just looking around? "I never intended to find a new religion," Dinty W. Moore admits in The Accidental Buddhist: Mindfulness, Enlightenment, and Sitting Still. "I was just passing curious." But his exploration of Buddhism as a cultural phenomenon led him to embrace it as a philosophy of life. Very much a personal, anecdotal account, the book can be refreshingly irreverent while demonstrating the puzzled response of Moore's acquaintances to his new-found faith.

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