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Shambhala Sun | September 2014

Books in Brief

A True Account of an Imaginative Life

By Tom Robbins
Ecco 2014; 384 pp., $27.99 (cloth)

As the celebrated author of the novels Skinny Legs and All and Even Cowgirls Get the Blues, Tom Robbins is known for his extravagant, humorous metaphors and for juxtaposing the absurd and the lyrical, the sacred and the profane. But these are not just tricks he saves for his fiction. Tibetan Peach Pie, Robbins’s meandering life story, delivers the same punchy style. I particularly enjoyed the chapter “Now Showing: Satori,” in which Robbins recounts a fleeting but powerful experience of sudden enlightenment. It was in 1966 when he was driving through a blizzard. He could see virtually nothing except swirling snowflakes and then suddenly he caught sight of a huge painted golf ball outlined in white neon, announcing the presence of a driving range. For some reason that glowing white circle made him, for the next twelve seconds or so, “a free spirit in the oneness of the whole enchilada, seeing the world—material and immaterial—for the all-inclusive miracle it is.” Of course, he continues, “I’m all too aware of how woo-woo this sounds, but it was as real as a stubbed toe and as lucid as a page in Hemingway.”


By Peter Matthiessen
Riverhead Books 2014; 246 pp., $27.95 (cloth)

Peter Matthiessen was the acclaimed author of The Snow Leopard and Shadow Country, as well as a Zen priest in the White Plum Asanga. In April, he passed away while awaiting the publication of In Paradise, his final novel. The inspiration for In Paradise was Matthiessen’s own experience at Roshi Bernie Glassman’s “bearing witness” meditation retreats in Auschwitz. The main character of the novel is Olin, a Polish-American historian who ambivalently joins a bearing witness retreat because he’s researching the suicide of a Holocaust survivor. Over time, however, he comes to realize that his motives for attending are both layered and deeply personal. In Paradise does not flinch in tackling painful questions: What is at the root of our seemingly endless fascination with the Holocaust? If we bear witness, what exactly are we bearing witness to? And what can a non-Jew with no personal connection to the Holocaust contribute to the understanding of such a horrific legacy?


By Alan Spence
Canongate 2014; 454 pp., $15.95 (paper)

This is one of the most enduring stories about Hakuin Ekaku: There was a beautiful young woman who got pregnant and when her parents insisted she reveal the father, she named Hakuin. Irate, the parents showed up at his door with their accusations, yet all he said was, “Is that so?” After the birth, Hakuin accepted the baby and took good care of him, despite the fact that this cost him his reputation. A year passed and finally the young mother confessed to her parents that Hakuin wasn’t really the father but rather it was a man who worked at the fish market. Now, full of apologies, her parents returned to Hakuin’s door, claiming they knew the truth. “Is that so?” Hakuin said again and freely handed the child back. Today Hakuin is celebrated as the reviver of the Rinzai Zen tradition and is recognized as one of the most influential Zen masters of all time. Night Boat is a superbly written novelization of his life. Alan Spence, an award-winning Scottish poet and playwright, is also the author of The Pure Land.


Interviews and Encounters

Edited by Jeff Burger
Chicago Review Press 2014; 604 pp., $29.95 (cloth)

This hefty volume is a fascinating collection of more than fifty interviews with poet, singer, novelist, and longtime Buddhist practitioner Leonard Cohen. Conducted between 1966 and 2012, these interviews delve into everything from Cohen’s loves and lyrics to his personal financial crisis. But Buddhist readers will be particularly interested in the material that relates to his Zen practice. In one television interview from 1997, Cohen shows journalist Stina Lundberg Dabrowski a slice of his life at Mount Baldy Zen Center in California. He offers her a nip of whiskey, shows her the correct posture for meditation, and explains why he sees his monastic residence as a “kind of hospital up here in the mountains.” He’d always felt a chronic dissatisfaction, even anguish, and nothing really helped. Finally, he was driven to the cure of Zen. “You learn how to sit,” he says, “you learn how to walk, you learn how to eat, you learn how to be quiet… And you have the opportunity for self-reform.” Besides, he adds, without this discipline “I’d be lying in bed watching television, scratching myself.”


A Biography

By David Gordon White
Princeton University Press 2014; 288 pp., $24.95 (cloth)

With roughly seventeen million people regularly attending yoga classes in the United States, yoga studios are cranking out teachers. The required reading in almost all of the teacher training programs is the same ancient text: the Yoga Sutra of Patanjali. This is curious, because the lion’s share of today’s yoga classes are almost exclusively focused on postures, stretching, and breathing, yet the Yoga Sutra’s 195 abstruse aphorisms say next to nothing about these practices. The Yoga Sutra of Patanjali: A Biography is a lively account of this sutra’s unlikely history and how it has variously been interpreted, reinterpreted, ignored, and hailed. The colorful characters on these pages include Vivekananda and Krishnamacharya, two giants in modern yoga, as well as literary figures such as T.S. Eliot. There is also Alberuni, a Muslim scientist and scholar who translated a commentary on the Yoga Sutra a thousand years ago, and the outrageous Madame Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, who fused the principles of the Yoga Sutra with Western ideas of the occult.


The Buddha’s Way of Mindfulness

By Nyanaponika Thera
Weiser Books 2014; 288 pp., $18.95 (paper)

The late Nyanaponika Thera was a German-born Theravada monk who cofounded the Buddhist Publication Society. He was the teacher of Bhikkhu Bodhi and other contemporary Western Buddhist leaders, and his book The Heart of Buddhist Meditation, first published in 1954, was instrumental in introducing Vipassana and mindfulness to the West. As Sylvia Boorstein remarks in the foreword of this reprint: “Apart from the meticulous yet accessible writing style with which the venerable Nyanaponika builds every point, I feel a warmth and friendliness in his tone that makes me feel as if he is talking to me.” The Heart of Buddhist Meditation includes the highly influential Maha-Satipatthana-Sutta and the Greater Discourse on the Foundations of Mindfulness, as well as an anthology of other texts on right mindfulness, which have been translated from Pali and Sanskrit with notes.


Gentle Yoga for Meditators and Everyone Else

By Jean Erlbaum
Wisdom Publications 2014; 200 pp., $19.95 (paper)

For over three decades, Jean Erlbaum has been teaching yoga at meditation retreats, and the feedback she has gotten year in and year out is that a body free of pain and tension helps the mind become quiet. To address this concern, her new book presents poses and self-massage techniques that can be practiced before or after sitting practice. At the heart of this book is the idea that yoga does not have to be separate from meditation, as it is itself meditative. “When we pay full attention during a forward bend,” says Erlbaum, “we can drop all memories of how our back has been, judgment of how it should be, worries about how it may get worse, or fantasies of how to make it better. All there is in that moment is the stretch, the breath, and any physical changes or insights as they occur.” In short, Erlbaum posits, “Yoga can bring us into the authentic embodiment of each moment.”


A Zen Cautionary Tale

By Edward Brown; illustrations by Margot Koch
Missing Links Press 2014; 112 pp., $19.95 (paper)

From Edward Espe Brown, the author of The Complete Tassajara Cookbook, comes By All Means, a quirky tale dedicated to “grown-ups of all ages.” It is about the real-life adventures of a pig puppet named Ponce as he develops a touching friendship with Edward. Edward rescues Ponce from the jaws of a cat, then gives him a place in the world when he brings him into a family of stuffed toys and collaborates with him to teach Zen to children. For anyone who has ever looked into the sad eyes of a stuffed animal and had their heartstrings pulled, Edward’s words will hit home. “Ponce’s little piggy pain was really my own gaping wound that hurt so much that sharing it with anyone was problematic. Still Ponce was willing to let me share my big pain with him, while I pretended that it was his—and as long as I was pretending I really believed that it was Ponce’s pain. Ponce was a real friend in that regard.”


A Mindful Guide for Thriving in a Complex World

By Joel & Michelle Levey
Divine Arts 2014; 330 pp., $18.95 (paper)

From family matters and health concerns to making a living, human life has always been stressful, and now we have the added stress that comes with ubiquitous technology. To help us find balance in such challenging times, Joel and Michelle Levey synthesize the wisdom of myriad spiritual traditions with cutting-edge science. A wide variety of principles and practices are presented in Living in Balance, so there is something here for everyone. And the authors encourage experimentation: if we’re mindful of what resonates with us, we can each find our own unique mix or “playlist” of insights and tools, which can most effectively help us find harmony and deeper connections. “This book will be of use to anyone interested in exploring and transforming the mind,” His Holiness the Dalai Lama writes in the book’s introduction. “As more people achieve some degree of mental calm, insight, or the ability to transform negative emotions into positive ones, there will be a natural reinforcement of basic human values and consequently a greater chance for peace and happiness for all.”


By Rie Imai and Yuji Ueno; photography by Noboru Murata
Tuttle 2014; 144 pp., $24.95 (cloth)

It is believed that ikebana, or Japanese flower arranging, first came into being in the sixth century as flower offerings to the Buddha. For a contemporary taste of this art form, check out Japanese Ikebana for Every Season. This book explains basic ikebana techniques such as how to trim, bend, and shape plant material and how to boil, pound, or burn stems in order to aid water absorption. Then the book goes on to showcase fifty-three evocative arrangements, with tips for recreating them at home. According to Rie Imai and Yuji Ueno, observing and mimicking nature is at the heart of ikebana. Yet “ikebana is not simply nature transplanted into a vase.” It is, rather, flowers and branches plucked from nature, then restructured, combined with a container, and presented in a new (indoor) environment. In effect, it is an interpretation of nature infused with the arranger’s sensibilities.

From the September 2014 Shambhala Sun magazine. To see what else is in this issue, click here.

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