Tag Archives: North Atlantic Books

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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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. 

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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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