Category Archives: Book Review

The Practice of Contemplative Photography

The Practice of Contemplative Photography

by Andy Karr and Michael Wood

Shambhala Publications

As some of you may know, I am a bit of an amateur photographer. I came acrossed this book a year or two ago when I was browsing the Shambhala website, looking at what books they had upcoming. I was sent a digital copy of this book for review, but decided right away to buy it. This is huge. Other than my school books, I haven’t bought a brand new book in years. But this was extraordinary from the first images I saw. Plus, it’s a photography book. You need to hold this thing in your hand.

But it would be wrong to call this just a photography book, or just a book aimed at photographers. All students of Buddhism could appreciate this book. And that’s because contemplative photography isn’t about photography, it’s about seeing. It is a practice that directs our awareness away from conceptual thinking, and focuses it into an art form. From the book:

The practice of contemplative photography connects us with this nonconceptual awareness and strengthens that connection through training. The practice itself has three parts, or states. First we learn to recognize naturally occurring glimpses of seeing and the contemplative state of mind. Next we stabilize that connection through looking further. Finally we take photographs from within that state of mind.

The pictures alone in this book are worthy of any coffee table, certainly. But when a closer look is taken, the images inspire and help you to focus on the ordinary in extraordinary ways. I can’t reccomend this book enough. Again, this book is not just for photographers, but for everyone who wishes to see clearly.

But for the photographers out there, the book offers five different “assignments” to help in this art form. I’ve included some of the photos I’ve taken below for each different assignment.

Light

Color

Texture

Space

Simplicity

If you’re looking for more on contemplative photography, please visit the following sites:

Seeing Fresh – a website set up as sort of an extension of the book. There are discussions happening there, as well as a place where you can upload your own photos for the different assignments. I have a few photos up there too.

Shambhala Archives – Chögyam Trungpa’s photography – a collection of the late master’s work

Measart – a great photographer that has some very vivid contemplative photography

Dharma/Arte – A Brazillian (site is in both Portuguese and English) site that blends art, creativity, and dharma. A wonderful project.

108 Zen Books Tumblr blog – another dharma practitioner’s artful tumblr blog

Video of an Interview with author Andy Karr on Shambhala Sunspace

Seer Seeing Seen – my friend Shane’s tumblr blog with some great photography

Of course, there’s my tumblr blog where I post my photos and other dharma tidbits as well.

And on October 15th, there will be a live broadcast on the web with author Andy Karr. Click here for more information on that. 

Cheers.

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The Flatbed Sutra of Louie Wing

Awakening has nothing to do with outward actions or appearances. It is only achieved by ceasing conceptualization. There is no benefit in shaving your head, taking precepts, or wearing robes. Nor is there any disadvantage if you own a home, work in the secular world, and have a spouse and children. People in the secular world who cease conceptualization awaken. Monks and nuns in monastic communities who do not cease conceptualization remain in delusion.

These are the words of Louie Wing, the fictional character author Ted Biringer brings to life in The Flatbed Sutra of Louie Wing. This is a masterful work that gets right to the heart of Zen. It is inspired by The Platform Sutra of Hui-Neng and provides a very direct and profound explanation of some Zen philosophy. Ted delves deep into prajna, the five ranks of Zen, and some excellent commentary on the Genjokoan. But when I say deep, I don’t mean that the book just drones on and on with complicated metaphysics. Rather, Louie Wing takes on the role of a fierce bodhisattvha, using his wisdom and teachings like Manjushri’s sword, cutting deep but precisely into the real matters of Zen.

The book provides a departure from most books on Zen you might find at Barnes and Nobles or some other such store. Rather than hold your hand while you mindfully wash the dishes, The Flatbed Sutra cuts right to the heart of the matter, revealing the path of compassion and wisdom in the Zen tradition, focusing on prajna and non-conceptualization. That’s not to say that this book is some sort of harsh, ‘hardcore’ approach to Zen either. Rather, it is styled in the fashion of the Chinese and Japanese classics from which the body of wisdom we know as Zen emerged. It is direct, but not in a know-it-all way. It is classic in its approach, yet the context that Biringer gives to Louie Wing makes the Flatbed Sutra accessible to all students of Zen.

I can’t recommend this book enough. Every student of Zen should read this book at least once;  it is one I will likely keep on my shelf and come back to again and again for years to come.

Cheers.

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Jataka Tales, Zen Practice, and Daily Life

 

 

Once long ago, when Brahmadatta still reigned in Benares, the bodhisattva was born as a crow. In time he became the leader of a great, raucous troop of crows, nearly a thousand strong, that lived in the cemetery…

So starts The Wise Crow Jataka, presented in Chapter 6 of Endless Path. The Jataka tales are a collection of stories that supposedly tell the tales of Shakyamuni Buddha’s many previous lives. The Buddha appears in many forms, from God to crow, and from King to beggar. An obvious moral teaching can be at the heart of each tale, similar in some respects to Aesop’s fables. From my experience, in Western convert communities, the Jataka tales are generally seen as children’s stories, rather than important moral lessons for all practitioners. Enter Rafe Martin.

Rafe Martin is the author of several books, including The Banyan Deer, Straight to the Heart of Zen, and One Hand Clapping: Zen Stories for All Ages. With Endless Path, Martin has found 10 Jataka tales that relate directly to the 10 paramitas (also known as the 10 perfections). In so doing, he brings them off the children’s shelf and into the lives of every modern-day Buddhist, young and old.

The he uses is almost like that of a koan. First he presents the Jataka, each one given fresh new life as an original telling, all with a dash of Zen. Then he spends a few pages extolling commentary on each one. Martin’s commentary stays with the contemporary theme in order to reach a modern audience as diverse as the characters we find in the Jatakas. This is definitely the first Buddhist book that I’ve ever read with references to President Obama, iPods, and 9/11. His commentary roams from personal narrative to a bit of Buddhist history, and covers the morals, ethics, and finer details of each tale wonderfully.

Rafe Martin breathes fresh new life into these wonderful old tales, and in doing so, provides us with a much-needed perspective into our individual lives and practice. He doesn’t really touch on whether or not these stories actually took place. Certainly there are those out there that believe they did, and there are many out there that see them as nothing more than folklore and stories left over from a far-away culture. Instead, Martin prefers taking up the task of telling each story, and bringing out its full potential to a modern audience. It doesn’t really seem to matter here if the tales are true or not, because they are reflections on our own lives, here and now. In his commentary, Martin shows that each Jataka stands on its own, fiction or non, because the lessons we take from them can affect us deeply, here and now.

Something we fail to realize is that this life, right here, now, is a Jataka in the making. We might not be a talking crow or a monkey king, but we do each have our own stories of struggle developing these 10 perfections, developing the life of a Buddha. Something that I appreciated while reading these tales was how much the Buddha struggled through his previous lives! It wasn’t always so easy for him, and sometimes he failed miserably. It should give us hope then, that the struggles we work through here in this life are not just the mud of life, but they have the potential to become the very thing that drives us on this difficult path we walk.

I wholeheartedly recommended Endless Path to any practitioner out there. There are lessons we can all take away from these Jatakas and Martin’s commentary on them. As I said, these tales are for people of all ages. So those of you out there with children have the added bonus of being able to read these tales to them, and maybe create your own commentary, something that touches you and your family.

 

Cheers.

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The Eight Gates of Zen and Invoking Reality

 

John Daido Loori, Roshi

Recently I read both the Eight Gates of Zen and Invoking Reality; both titles by the late John Daido Loori, Roshi. For awhile now I’ve been looking for a presentation of Buddhist practice tailored to a Western convert such as myself that didn’t also strip the dharma of all of the culture that it has inherited over its many centuries of evolution. Well, these books are it.

The Eight Gates of Zen is a manual written to explain the path being taken by a student at Loori’s Zen Mountain Monastery in New York State. The path takes up the Eight Gates (zazen, study with a teacher, academic study, liturgy, right action, art practice, body practice and work practice) and combines them with the 10 ox herding pictures to form a disciplined and formative way of practice. For the home practitioner such as myself, this book serves as a reminder that practice happens “in the mud of life”, and shouldn’t be put away with your meditation cushion after your daily zazen.

To me, it seemed as if the entire purpose of this book was to speak directly to the Western convert, espousing the dharma in a way that held on to its traditional roots while at the same time being an expression of our current time and culture here in North America. If you are looking for an introduction to Zen or Buddhism, I don’t think this book is the right one. Loori assumes you already know something about the basic terms being used and have a general knowledge base to work with. Terms like teisho, satoori, Mu; these are all used freely and if someone has no experience with these, they’d have to spend a decent amount of time making notes and referencing the vocabulary used. Thankfully I have enough experience with the language being used here, and this book seemed aimed at someone at right about my level (though it will be something to work with for years to come).

Loori makes it a point to establish two different paths for monastics and the laity, something which makes sense to me. I have no desire to take up the path of a monk; I have a family that I love very much and want to spend as much time with as possible. But this isn’t an obstacle as far as Loori sees it. Here he has laid out a path for the lay person that is just as involved, engaged, and intimate as the path for the monastic. However at the same time he brings us back to the heart of it by explaining that the two paths really are one, and that we both “leave home” in some sense.

I found the content in the book extremely well presented, it was clear (as much as Zen can be of course ;)) and the material was laid out so well that one could use this book as a study point for many years (which is something I know I will do). Additionally, in the end of the book Dogen’s Mountains and Rivers Sutta appears, the sutra that Loori drew much of his inspiration from. Upon first reading I really love this sutra, and plan to study it more intensely in the future. Following that, there is a Zazen checklist (wonderful for a beginner like me), an “Introduction to the Zendo”, Jukai, and a section of Daily Liturgy. For me the Daily Liturgy will definitely come in handy (anyone know of an audio version of the Heart Sutra being chanted in English?) as it will give me something new to recite and chant if I so choose. Also, at the end there is an extensive “recommended reading” list that I plan on working my way through over the coming years (decades?). Seriously if you haven’t read this book, go get it. So far this has been the best book on Buddhism I’ve read yet. It was engaging, poetic, and concise.

There were many “a-ha!” moments throughout the book, but none for me as powerful as the following paragraph in the chapter “The  Still Point: Zazen:

The very first sitting of the rank beginner, whether properly or improperly executed, is at once the complete and perfect manifestation of the zazen of countless Buddhas and ancestors of past, present, and future. From the zazen of countless Buddhas and ancestors, our own zazen emerges. From our own zazen, the zazen of countless Buddhas and ancestors is realized. As a result, we all live the life of Buddha, transcend Buddha, have the mind of Buddha and become Buddha.

I don’t know what it was about reading this, but all of a sudden there was this moment where the teachings of the Lotus Sutra were put into perspective, and it was as if for the first time I was really getting the Lotus Sutra. I don’t know if that makes any sense or not, but reading this really helped. I think it was just his style, and delivery to a Western audience that seemed to put much of the Lotus Sutra into a perspective that I could understand.

 

 

In Invoking Reality, Loori presents for us the moral and ethical teachings of Zen in the context of the Three Treasures, the Three Pure Precepts, and the Ten Grave precepts. From the beginning Loori states:

Enlightenment and morality are one. Enlightenment without morality is not true enlightenment. Morality without enlightenment is not complete morality. Zen is not beyond morality, but a practice that takes place within the world, based on moral and ethical teachings.

Living the precepts is living the life of a Buddha. Nothing could be clearer having read this book. It is quite a short read (only 97 pages) and in that sense did leave a little to be desired. I think he did a fantastic job of describing the precepts, how they function, and their role in our daily lives and practice. In Invoking Reality Loori assures us that the precepts are not some stagnant set of rules to follow, but they are a living, breathing dynamic system to follow in order to live this life as a Buddha. The whole phenomenal universe is co-dependant, constantly originating, coming and going. The 16 precepts are a response to this transitory nature of the universe we live, work, and breathe in.

Overall I really enjoyed this book, though I felt at times Loori got lost in his poetry. I love his style of writing but when presenting the 10 grave precepts, more specifics would have helped since this book seemed to be geared toward and introduction to Buddhist (Zen) ethics and morality.

This book is an excellent reminder that Buddhism is a moral and ethical system, and to divorce our practice from this realization is to divorce ourselves from the Buddha and what he taught. I plan on reading some more of John Daido Loori’s works in the future. Truly his was an original voice in Western Buddhism, one that has spoken to me directly. I appreciate his appeal to traditions of old while crafting something original and meaningful to a new audience in the West; all while focusing on the “mud” of life and dharma.

Cheers.

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Welcome!

Thank you for checking out my new blog, Fly Like a Crow.

First, what’s up with the name?

Check out the ‘About’ page at the top for more info on that. And take a moment to explore the other pages as well. They’re short and sweet, I promise.

So what is this blog about?

Beyond what you read on the about page, it will be a place to write and blog on a myriad of topics. Primarily, I’ll be focusing on Buddhism, and my family/being a father. I actually see these two things as being parallel lines on the same track of “me”. They are both an evolving practice where I work towards perfection. Every day brings a new challenge, struggle, and usually some success.

I might just try my hand at some more poetry here. It’s something I’ve only dabbled in before, and has been a long time since I’ve really written any.

I’m going to toss in some politics from time to time. Nothing hateful, no right vs. left narratives. There are plenty of those to go around.

I’ll continue to review books here, whether they get sent to me by authors or publishers, or ones that I just happen to purchase myself.

And there’s a slight possibility that I might get philosophical from time to time. I also might throw in some sutra study that I’ve been working on.

And sometimes, I’ll just throw up a picture or two. I’m also going to try to include a picture with more of my posts in general, and I’m going to try to only use ones that I’ve taken.

Whatever happens, it will flow naturally. Like my previous blogging endeavours, I have no ambitions to blog daily. Once, twice a week is about all I can muster given work and family responsibilities (and enjoying time with my family).

So, take a look around. You’ll notice all of my old posts from the past, minus a few I wasn’t proud of at all. Feel free to subscribe via RSS or email (head to the footer) and feel free to add this blog to your blog roll if you feel so inclined. Thank you for stopping by.

Cheers.

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Stripped down Buddhsim, and study…

Taken at River Meadows Park, WA

So I was going to review a book I just read, but really couldn’t come up with much. After reading Steve Hagan’s Buddhism Plain and Simple, all I had to say was…. “meh”. It didn’t have much substance, and seemed to go too far in stripping down Buddhism.

A book I reviewed awhile back Buddha Takes No Prisoners… was a great book that presented Buddhist practice in a secular-ish, practical way, but didn’t seek to strip down Buddhism to simply “awareness”. Hagan kind of glossed over some stuff in his book, and really it seemed fairly empty to me. Now, I’m all about presenting Buddhism in a way that is accessible to the masses, and maybe this book would serve as a simple intro for someone who had never really looked into the dharma before. Or maybe it’s so stripped down, that it would be a bad first place to start. Anyway, it didn’t really speak to me. I understand that for some, stripped down Buddhism and Buddhism without Beliefs speaks to them, and is the direction they would like to go. But I don’t think that’s for me.

And that’s okay. Reading Hagen’s book gave me the motivation to pick up The Wings to Awakening and dive into that. If you haven’t read it, I highly recommend it. It contains some of the essential teachings from the Pali canon with excellent commentary and analysis by Thanissaro Bikkhu. If you’ve never read it, you need to. Also, it’s free to download/view, so you really have no excuse not to! I think I’ll be working with The Wings for a while.

This is sort of where my practice really resides now, in study, in absorbing the dharma. I think that’s just how my mind works. I need that basis of (sutra) study before I can really formalize any sort of practice. I spend some time with the breath here and there, but nothing regular, and haven’t chanted in months. But I think that’s okay for now. I view my practice as a process, and I’m in the beginning of mine. This will give me a solid foundation for whatever form my practice takes in the future, so I’m putting as much effort and time into it as I can for the moment. Skillful means, right? Cheers.

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Conscious Breathing

Conscious Breathing: How Shamanic Breathwork Can Transform Your Life

Sufficient unhappiness pushes us to action. I had sufficient unhappiness and that led me to Vipassana meditation and then to rebirthing. There are times when sufficient unhappiness is a positive blessing. 

Okay, I know what you’re thinking. Shamanic Breathwork? Really? But I requested this book almost for that exact reason. In the description it talked about how the author had used Vipassana and Zen meditation along with rebirthing and Holotropic Breathwork™ so I figured there would be at least some good information on meditation in general and how to incorporate it into my daily life. 

The book isn’t quite what I expected. It’s basically a textbook on all things related to breathwork, complete with case histories and over 30 pages of notes/bibliography/resources. Did you know there is an International Breathwork Foundation? As well as a Breathwork magazine? Me neither (yes, I just answered for you. Suck it!). I really had no idea this whole area of expertise existed in any sort of organized fashion. There are plenty more resources found in the book as well, so read it! 

On to the book. Author Joy Manné describes some of her personal experiences with breathwork at the beginning of the book, as well as her struggles with Vipassana. The rest of the book deals mostly with the different approaches to breathwork, how to ground one’s self before/after a breathwork session (as well as some safety precautions), and the different levels of breathwork. Just about every type of breathwork is described in detail along with what it’s application is. There are a ton of “case histories” using real-life examples of people who have used breathwork to discover something about themselves and alleviate their suffering. They are detailed and specific, and whether dealing with past lives or past trauma, the breathwork sessions described here seem to stir up a lot of hidden emotions and feelings. People walk away from these sessions with a better understanding of what it is that is making them tick. I hear people talk about removing layers of “themselves” during meditation, and this seems to be a direct approach to that. If you have even a passing interest in breathwork (how to do it, facilitate it, what to expect) then you should definitely grab this book. She also introduces Vipassana meditation as “advanced” breathwork, and that the other forms mentioned earlier in the book would help one to practice Vipassana more easily. 

The inner skeptic in me had some reservations about some of the content in this book at first glance. First is in her dealing with the Buddha: 

Shamans have psychic and magical powers and so does the Buddha. …This includes shamanic elements such as levitation, clair-audience, and thought-reading….He sees past lives. 

Okay, so, this stuff does appear in some sutras, but personally I have a very hard time taking this literally. I also feel that it devalues Buddhism as a religion when you make the Buddha into something other than an awakened man. One of the things that drew me to Buddhism was the fact that the historical Buddha wasn’t a god, and didn’t have magic powers. He was an (extra)ordinary man who was able to awaken to the true nature of reality. If he was anything but, nibbana wouldn’t be possible for anyone else. He led by example so that others could (and have) followed in his path. 

Then from the Womb Trauma Case History 1: Elaine 

I feel as if I have been it on the head with a stick. Why? I don’t know where I am. I feel and see a phallus. I get the impression I am a fetus. I am in my mother’s belly. I am frightened. … Someone is forcing my mother to make love. It is my father. She was nine months pregnant with me… 

There isn’t much in the way of science provided in this book as to the specific effects of what this type of breathwork does to the brain, and I feel that it detracts from the academic-ish nature of this book. There was a brief mention of peptides, but this book and approach would benefit greatly from some scientific evidence backing up some of the claims made here. Reading through some of the histories, I wondered if what was going on was more neurological than spiritual (or having to do with the ‘mind’). But who knows? These people seemed to be accessing some very deep, intense emotions and memories. Maybe through the breathwork they were tapping into some hidden memories that their brains had attached to these powerful emotions? I think it would be interesting to see some studies done like the ones we’ve seen regarding meditation in Buddhism and the brain. 

I’m not one to disparage another’s attempt to alleviate their suffering. If it’s Judaism, breathwork, Buddhism, Yoga, whatever; I have no issues with it (as long as you don’t force it on others or use it to harm another). Manné does also talk a little about the dangers of spiritual materialism, which is something you might not expect to find in a book like this. I absolutely don’t believe the author is just trying to sell us something here. Shamanic Breathwork has clearly worked for her, and she has had success facilitating sessions with many people, all of whom have been able to deal with some troubling issues in their life. She also cautions about making sure you are ready for a breathwork session, as well as recommending that you seek out an experienced breathworker. I’m not sure it’s an approach that speaks to me, but I would be willing to give it a shot. 

All in all, this was a very interesting take on just how powerful the breath truly is. Breathing is so simple, yet it is something we tend to spend very little time with! This book was yet another reminder of how little ridiculous that we have to actually go out of our way just to touch our breath because we are so conditioned. And for that, I am quite thankful. 

.

Cheers. 

Conscious Breathing: How Shamanic Breathwork Can Transform Your Life
Author: Joy Manné
Published by North Atlantic Books
This book was provided at no cost from North Atlantic Books for review

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Present Fresh Wakefulness – a review and contest

Present Fresh Wakefulness: A Meditation Manual on Nonconceptual Wisdom

By repeating the recognition of innate suchness, totally free of mental constructs, we lay the basis for accomplishing the mind of the buddhas.

Present Fresh Wakefulness is  straight-forward advice from Chökyi Nyima Rinpoche on how to do away with dualistic thought and awaken. It is a very practical approach to meditation and non-dualism which actually surprised me given the little experience I’ve had with Vajrayana Buddhism. I don’t have much of a knowledge base when it comes to the Vajrayana vehicle, and that was a small hurdle at times with this book. But Chökyi Nyima Rinpoche cuts through the “trappings” that might shy a novice away and delivers a message that is clear to all, regardless of tradition.

The book is written from a series of talks that Chökyi Nyima Rinpoche has given, and as such the dialogue can be informal at times, as one would expect when talking face-to-face with one another. He is very clear that committing yourself to nibbana is not a weekend retreat, hobby, or something to be done in your spare time. Awakening is a process that is inclusive of our every action and pattern of thought. The first part of the book dives into this deep, emphasizing time and again that there is “no samsara apart from thoughts”; and that it is dualistic, conceptual thinking that binds us to samsara. He then goes on to tell about the how of awakening in the Vajrayana vehicle. About this he says

Vajrayana is a very swift path, and to make it real, to actualize it, we need to use all sorts of methods. The Vajrayana approach has great advantages, but it is also very risky.

Anyone that can be this upfront and honest about their path earns a few gold stars in my book. He explains the methods used in Vajrayana without putting them on a pedestal above other schools/methods, which is something I greatly admire. Let your practice speak for itself, without disparaging others.

One thing about this book that I found difficult was that it was transcribed from talks that Chökyi Nyima Rinpoche gave, and in the transcription, something gets lost. When you write a book or blog post or article, it is true that you attempt to write using your own voice. But there was something choppy and slightly disconnected about it. It was as if the talk was happening in the next room, and you could only hear it through the wall. As a result, you’d miss out on his presence, eye contact, and all those other non-verbal modes of communication that accompany speech. So the “voice” of the book seems to stumble at times, and I think this leads to a little dryness as well.

But it is still well worth the read. I think a newbie Buddhist such as myself would be able to learn from it, but someone with a little bit more of a base understanding around Vajrayana would find it even more valuable. And as such, I’m going to give this book away to one of my readers.

All you have to do to win this book is to leave a comment on this post naming one book that has both challenged you and helped you on your path. I’ll use random.org on Sunday June 27th to pick a winner, so be sure to comment before then!

Cheers.

Present Fresh Wakefulness: A Meditation Manual on Nonconceptual Wisdom
Author: Chökyi Nyima Rinpoche/
Translated from the Tibetan by Erik Pema Kunsang
Compiled by Marcia Binder Schmidt
This book was provided at no cost via North Atlantic Books for review.

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Buddha takes no Prisoners!

Buddha Takes No Prisoners

Buddha Takes No Prisoners: A Meditator’s Survival Guide

Author: Patrick Ophuls

North Atlantic Books

Once again, I’ve been tricked by the title. “A meditator’s survival guide” led me to believe this book would have to do with meditation practice of some sort, but alas, it really doesn’t. It doesn’t cover meditation in and of itself. It’s more of an “okay, I can meditate, now what do I do with that” book. Okay, no big deal.

Although reading is one of my favorite hobbies/pastimes, it is becoming increasingly difficult to spend a dedicated amount of time reading the books I want to read. I have a small “to read” stack that is growing faster than I can keep up. What was nice about this book, is that it fit right into that lifestyle. It is split up into 24 small chapters, that each read like a well written blog post. The chapters are short enough and self-sufficient enough that you can read one, and come back to the book a few days later without having to back track to regain the train of thought. When I say well written, I mean it. Patrick Ophuls’ style is straight-forward and engaging. He doesn’t cut any corners, and he doesn’t fluff up his writing with too much… “wordiness”. And you can tell this guy has studied the Buddhist texts quite a bit, as he includes more metaphors than you can handle (really, it does get a little bit old).

I really enjoyed this book. It was Buddhism without beliefs without Buddhism without beliefs. He makes his point to an obviously Western audience, but he doesn’t advocate stripping the Dharma of anything. His approach is practical but not anti-establishment. He’s targeting the average Western lay practitioner, and really hits the mark. It’s approachable yet elevating. Some of the parts that I found to be of great interest:

About choosing a Buddhist path:

It’s not true that all roads lead to Rome; quite a few lead to hell instead. But of the many paths that go to the holy city, we need to choose one in particular for our journey.

On a new definition of metta:

So perhaps the single best word to convey the essential spirit of metta is not….kindness. Rather, it is kindheartedness, because the latter more strongly suggests an inner predisposition or habitual tendency to be friendly and kind no matter what, which is precisely what metta is.

On Buddhist practice as a means for “healing”:

…if healing becomes the goal of practice, then a watered-down, feel-good, lowest-common-denominator Buddhism reflecting the cultural values of a secularized, politically correct, therapeutic society may take root and become the norm. To put it another way, the danger is that Freud’s heroic resignation will replace Gautama’s heroic affirmation so that students learn how to live with their suffering instead of how to overcome it.

Ophuls covers many topics in his blog-like chapters; fixing problems that arise with your meditation practice, choosing a path, choosing a teacher, emphasizing that we need worldly wisdom while living in a worldly world (go figure, hu?). The book is like a FAQ for your Buddhist practice. I definitely recommend it, especially for any Dharma-noob out there. There are some great essays in the appendix as well that I think I’ll save for a future blog post.

Cheers.

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Practicing The Jhanas: A book review

Practicing the Jhanas

Practicing The Jhanas: Traditional Concentration Meditation as presented by the Venerable Pa Auk Sayadaw

Authors: Stephen Snyder & Tina Rasmussen

Publisher: Shambhala Publications Inc., 2009

Well, I first wanted to check this book out because I wanted to know more about the Jhanas (I’m reading up on different approaches to meditation, as it’s something I will be incorporating into my practice soon). Unfortunately, I should have picked up Knowing and Seeing by the Ven. Pa Auk Sayadaw if that’s what I wanted. Practicing the Jhanas serves as sort of a companion to that book. Even though I hit a road bump before I even started reading the book, I soon found that I was in for a real treat. The book is the authors direct experience of practicing the jhanas (they studied with Ven. Pa Auk Sayadaw – sort of the world’s current expert on the jhanas), and doesn’t delve into the back story or more substance about what the jhanas are. This is a good thing though. The book remains focused on one thing, providing you with a practical guide and companion while practicing jhana meditation. Would I recommend this book? Absolutely. Not only is it filled with constructive and useful information, it is also written well. The authors have used a tone that is warm, soft, and relaxing. It’s like they are there in the room with you, guiding you with their practical experience in a tone reminiscent of a mother soothing their child.

This book lays out nearly everything you would need to know when practicing the Jhanas, and makes for a great companion. But that’s why it isn’t especially useful to me at this point in my practice, as I’m not currently meditating( though that will be changing sometime in the next year). Also, the authors do stress the importance of using extended meditation retreats (nearly impossible in my financial and life state) to be able to master the jhanas. At first my reactionary mind cried out “elitists!”, but then I realized how correct they are. I can’t imagine even attempting to master the jhanas while meditating at home for an hour or so a day. In fact, they pretty much say that would be fairly impossible, and they’re right. Mastering the jhanas means being able to enter the jhanas in order quickly and thoroughly, something that may take a few hours to complete. They also emphasise that while on retreat, there really shouldn’t be any break in concentration. Even in between the sittings, while eating, showering or whatever, one should continually try to focus on the Anapana spot (this is central to samatha practice). In short, it takes a lot of work and skillful effort.

As a “Dharma Noob”, I thought it would be helpful to share an “ah-ha!” moment I had from each book I review. For this book, it came in the 2nd chapter when the authors write “Common knowledge of absorptions in the Buddha’s day may have minimized the need for him to give detailed instructions on jhanas, as people of his time were likely to be quite familiar with the instructions.”

I never really considered this before, but it makes total sense. This led to all kinds of questions in my mind. How much information was never written down or transmitted simply because it was common knowledge to the audience at hand? How much have we lost over time?

Anyway, I recommend this book to anyone that wants to practice samatha meditation and work with jhana absorption. However, if you’re just looking for information on samatha meditation or the jhanas, this book isn’t for you.

Cheers.

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