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Books: The Inheritance of Loss January 30, 2008

Posted by tricycleblog in Books.
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inheritance.jpgHaving worked at Tricycle for over four years, I almost expect writings about Himalayan people to be filled with expeditions for bliss, cavernous and splendid tales of vibrant Buddhist teachings in stark, majestic landscapes, and simple wisdoms that have been frozen on the rooftop of the world. But the motley crew that we discover in the foothills of Mount Kanchenjunga in Kiran Desai’s acclaimed novel The Inheritance of Loss, only has the dharma as a distant neighbor and seems to be a powerless product of—rather than an exception to—the modern conditions of Nationalism, Orientalism, and Globalization.

Set in the mid 1980s, The Inheritance of Loss tells the story of Sai, a teenage Indian girl who lives with her Cambridge-educated grandfather, a retired judge, in a small Anglophiliac community in Kalimpong. Their deluded and groundless existence is uprooted when ethnic Nepalese insurgents thrust the area into a state of emergency. Sai’s Nepalese math tutor and first love becomes seduced by the masculinity of the independence movement and sends Sai spiraling into heartsickness, anger, and resolve.

While Sai’s story is as melancholy as the those of the other characters, at least her youth and intelligence allow her to break away from the culturally confused habits of mind that imprison the other Himalayan residents Desai subjects to our judgment. Perhaps the most impressive, and also the most unpleasant, accomplishment of her novel is Desai’s depiction of bastards of South Asia’s encounter with the West.

The judge “envied the English. He loathed the Indians. He worked at being English with the passion of hatred and for what he would become, he would be despised by absolutely everyone, English and Indians, both.” In a scene when the judge meets with an old colleague who was also trained by the British to be a judge during the colonial occupation, Desai writes:

“the English government and its civil servants had sailed away throwing their topis overboard, leaving behind only those ridiculous Indians who couldn’t rid themselves of what they had broken their souls to learn.

Again they went to court and again they would go to court with their unshakable belief in the system of justice. Again they lost. Again they would lose.

The man with the white curly wig and a dark face covered in powder, bringing down his hammer, always against the native, in a world that was still colonial.”

And the judge recognizes this contradiction in his granddaughter, Sai, who has the “same accent and manners. She is a westernized Indian brought up by English nuns, an estranged Indian in India.”

Lola, one of the sisters the judge appoints to educate Sai, has “suitcases stuffed with Marmite, Oxo bouillon cubes, Knorr soup packets, After Eights, daffodil bulbs, and renewed supplies of Boots cucumber lotion and Marks and Spencer underwear—the essence, quintessence, of Englishness as she understood it.”

But no matter how many British groceries they own, or how similar to the Queen’s their English accent is, the judge, Sai, Lola, and the rest of the main characters in The Inheritance of Loss, are still Indians, and still suffer from the political struggles and confused identities British left behind in South Asia. As Lola’s sister, Noni, explains “Very unskilled at drawing borders, those bloody Brits.”

Even though I expected this story to reveal timeless Himalayan wisdom, I was moved and heartbroken by this tale of the ignorance of these modern times.

- Alexandra Kaloyanides, Senior Editor

A Talking Cat and Kentucky Zen and the Passing of a Roshi January 24, 2008

Posted by Philip Ryan in Books, Zen.
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Do you feel like asking a cat a question? I mean one that will actually be answered. Well, there’s a cool cat who’ll do just that discovered by The Buddha is My DJ. On another note, do lions and tigers, and big cats generally, have whiskers?

A nice little article about the Northern Kentucky Zen Center (the center’s own website is here.) It’s an affiliate of the Cincinnati Zen Center, itself a part of the Furnace Mountain Sangha, headed by Zen Master Dae Gak, who himself spent some years in Kentucky.

Late news, but the Soho Zen Buddhist Society sadly announced the passing of Kyudo Nakagawa Roshi. He passed away on December 29, 2007 at 10:55 A.M. Some readers will remember Roshi, the dharma heir to Soen Nakagawa Roshi, from his memorable depiction in Lawrence Shainberg’s Ambivalent Zen.

Five Favorite Dharma Books January 24, 2008

Posted by Philip Ryan in Books.
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“[G. K.] Chesterton was once asked what books he would most like to have with him if he were stranded on a desert island. ‘Thomas’s Guide to Practical Shipbuilding,’ he replied.”

Oops, the Tricycle Blog’s been tagged (a while ago, actually — sorry!) Here goes:

1. Chan Insights and Oversights by Bernard Faure. Haven’t even opened this one but I’ve stared at the spine on my bookshelf for years. One of these days…

2. The Mind Like Fire Unbound by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. This book not only contains great poetry but does an excellent job explaining a lot of deep metaphors that otherwise would be lost in translation.

3. The Faith to Doubt, by Stephen Batchelor. “It is most uncanny that we are able to ask questions; for to question means to acknowledge that we do not know something. But it is more than an acknowledgment: it includes a yearning to confront an unknown and illuminate it through understanding.”

4. Breath by Breath by Larry Rosenberg. A beautiful book, funny, moving, and deep. I plowed through this book like my hair was on fire.

5. Quintessential Dzogchen: Confusion Dawns as Wisdom by Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche. Reading this book me feel smart and stupid in equal measure. But at least I looked smart reading it.

Books: Never Turn Away by Rigdzin Shikpo January 17, 2008

Posted by Sarah Todd in Books.
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15084-2t.pngRigdzin Shikpo, a student of Shambhala-founder Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, has been practicing Buddhism since the 1950s. An heir to Trungpa’s lineage but independent of the Shambhala community, his book Never Turn Away: The Buddhist Path Beyond Hope and Fear (Wisdom Publications, 2007, $14.95 paper, 192 pp.) is an inspired look at the relationship between meditation and everyday life. Rigdzin Shikpo encourages the reader to turn toward experience rather than shirk from life’s possibilities, admitting in the opening chapter that such an approach might well be called “the path of embarrassment.” His clear, practical writing makes this book the perfect guide to the compassionate practice of bodhicitta, which allows us to discover “our awe-inspiring nature, which is hidden beneath the surface, like precious ore concealed in mountains.”

Book Review: Haiku Haven January 16, 2008

Posted by Sarah Todd in Books, Who Are We Reading?.
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51yqvbn-1jl_aa240_.jpgFor northern city-dwellers, the grey months of January and February can feel like a kind of apocalyptic-aftermath, but duller: dirty slush on the subway steps and reality television. When seasonal melancholy threatens, it’s best to turn to poetry, which makes ennui seem more bearable—or, at the very least, more important. The most premium of all poetic medicines may be the haiku, being formally required to address time and loss, as well as beautiful enough to make up for the indignity of damp socks.

Turning the pages of Haiku Master Buson, you feel can feel your commonplace Seasonal Affective Disorder being transformed into something unique and delicate, more along the lines of

With the soundlessness of winter rain
on mosses, vanished days
are remembered

than the tax season blues. Yosa Buson, an eighteenth-century poet and painter, ranks as one of the three Japanese haiku masters, along with Issa and Basho. However, due to a dearth of English translations, his work is largely unknown in the United States. With any luck, this new collection, translated by Yuki Sawa and Edith Marcombe Shiffert, will bring the poet the recognition he deserves.

Divided into four main sections—Spring, Summer, Fall, and Winter—and accompanied by longer poems, a brief biography, and selected letters and essays, this little companion brings a fresh perspective to the turning of the seasons. Buson knows how to swoon:

Hazy moonlight!
Someone is standing
Among the pear trees

Thus, Buson sums up the lush promise of youth and season in three lines: a blossoming tree, a paramour waiting in the evening, made mysterious by fog. What winter chill? But it’s Buson’s job as a poet to keep one ear cocked toward a certain winged chariot, and so all joy is mixed with the knowledge that the moment will pass, and all sorrow leavened by that same awareness. Though it’s clear Buson has a soft spot for spring, he doesn’t discriminate, finding things to love in the austerity of winter, too: “snow snapping off twigs,” “a charcoal peddler all alone/in a small ferry boat.”

Buson’s greatest asset is his gift for paying attention; his poems show the reader a more concentrated way to see the world. Haikus are often compared to photography, but Buson’s woebegone, radiant poems are better than a snapshot: they’re meticulous dioramas, each cormorant and chrysanthemum recorded and polished to a shine. Talking about the weather never sounded so good.

BOOKS: Why is There Something Rather Than Nothing? December 10, 2007

Posted by Philip Ryan in Books.
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kolakowski.jpgPolish philosopher Leszek Kolakowski’s Why is There Something Rather Than Nothing?: 23 Questions From Great Philosophers was supposed to be longer. Or rather, it is longer in the original Polish: the English-language version (or at least the American version) drops seven philosophers, leaving twenty-three thinkers and their questions. The questions span the whole range of philosophical concern: What is the human spirit? How is knowledge possible? What is evil? What is the source of truth? Many questions are variations on what we can know and how we can be certain of anything (i.e. epistemology.)

The author is a senior research fellow at All Souls College, Oxford and an eminent philosopher and historian who has written extensively on Marxism, among other things. Knowing the American market well, he warns that the book is not an encyclopedia or primer of any kind: “If a student attempted to sit an exam on the basis of these essays, he would be disappointed: he would fail.” The Descartes chapter, for example, is not a summary of Descartes’ thinking, but rather an examination of one of the questions with which Descartes dealt: “How can we achieve certainty?”

Far from a dry exegesis on ponderous philosophical arguments, Kolakowski’s book is full of wit and whimsy and is eminently readable. Kolakowki’s prose is peppery and funny. Although his book is clearly the result of deep and broad learning, it is easy to understand — Kolakowski must be a good professor.

St. Anselm (1033-1109) came up with the so-called Ontological Argument for the existence of God. Kolakowski writes:

The argument itself, though a thick layer of commentary has grown up around it, is not difficult to understand. Briefly summarized, it goes as follows. Let us imagine a being such that no greater being can be conceived. Anyone hearing this description, Anselm says, will understand it; one needn’t be particularly clever to grasp it. Now it is not hard to demonstrate that a being so conceived — and we can all conceive of it — cannot just be conceived, but must actually exist. For if it is conceived, and thus exists in our minds, we can imagine that it really exists; but a being that really exists is greater than one that is merely conceived by us and exists only in our minds. In other words, a being than which nothing greater can be conceived would, if it did not really exist, be a being than which something greater could be conceived (namely something really existing; it would therefore be self-contradictory, an impossibility. In order to avoid self-contradiction, we are compelled to admit that such a being must exist: that it exists necessarily.

Whatever you think of Anselm’s argument, this is an admirable description of it. Kolakowski then goes on to detail the main criticisms of the argument with the same admirable concision. Of Schopenhauer (1788-1860), author of The World as Will and Representation, he writes:

… ‘the world as will’? What can it possibly mean? The word ‘will’, as we habitually use it, does not refer to any independent entity; we understand it to be an attribute or an activity of some entity, some subject, human or divine. Moreover, when we say things like, ‘this is my will’, or ‘that is God’s will’, we assume that this will contains some intention, some aim.

For Schopenhauer, however, ‘the world as will’ is not a metaphorical phrase or a spurt of extravagant language. He would have us believe that the world really is will. But not divine or human will; it is not the will of anyone or anything at all. Nor is it something with an intention, a direction, an aim or a plan. It is just a blind, aimless, impersonal, all-powerful force on which everything depends but which itself depends on nothing an no one; it just is. For Schopenhauer this truth — discoverable through acts of self-consciousness — seems utterly obvious, and he thinks it very odd that it should never have occurred to anyone before.

Kolakowski’s compact little book (a mere 222 pages and about 4 inches by 6 inches, the size of a photograph) makes great reading for anyone looking to brush up on the big issues of Western thought. If you know very little about philosophy you will learn a great deal. If you already know a lot, you will be delighted and refreshed and learn more. Those interested in possible intersections between Buddhism and western thought should particularly check out the sections on Schopenhauer and Heraclitus (c. 540-480 BCE), who spoke of the ‘constant change’ of the cosmos. Kolakowski’s book is no Sophie’s World, but it will do.

Another new book on philosophy is What Would Socrates Say? Philosophers Tackle Questions About Love, Nothingness, and Everything Else, edited by Alexander George. This book takes some of the many exchanges from AskPhilosophers.org (between the questioner and the professional philosophers answering them) and puts them in book. Obviously the question and answer exchange has a long and distinguished history in philosophy going back to Plato and Aristotle. The questions in the book range from the banal to the erudite and all the answers are entertaining and interesting. All proceeds from the sale of this book after taxes will be donated to educational charities through the Ask Philosophers Fund at AskPhilosophers.org.

One last bit of philosophy: a funny movie in the style of our present enlightened political discourse (i.e. attack ads) vs. Immanuel Kant.

- Philip Ryan, Web Editor

Compassionate Gift-Giving and Dharma Combat December 6, 2007

Posted by Philip Ryan in Books, Dalai Lama, Environment, Tibet.
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Joan Duncan Oliver wrote a piece for Tricycle about compassionate gift-giving that might help with some tricky decisions this holiday season.

Singapore – City – Zen links to an amazing article on alternet.org, Dress for Excess: The Cost of Our Clothing Addiction. (S-C-Z often has great environmental links.) Here’s some brief passages from the Alternet article:

The numbers are astonishing. Apparel is easily the second-biggest consumer sector after food. We’re spending $282 billion on new clothes annually, up from $162 billion in 1992, based on U.S. Census figures.

. . .
And to clear out closet space for the new purchases, the average American discards 68 pounds of clothing and other textiles each year, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

And apparently it takes a lot of pesticides to grow cotton. Obviously people need clothes, but it seems like it’s time for a discussion of what kind (and how much!)

Trouble making friends? Try meditation.

The Dalai Lama is everyone’s favorite thorn in China’s side. He’s recently irked Hu Jintao and company by saying he might be reincarnated outside Tibet (i.e. outside Chinese control) and now he’s said the next Dalai Lama might be a woman. Other than Jiang Qing, women play a very small part in Chinese politics (and American politics, of course.) The DL is visiting Italy, but his proposed meeting with Benedict XVI (what a photo op!) was cancelled. (If you’re interested in following the DL throughout cyberspace, as opposed to throughout Italy, you can follow him to The Canadian, where Horace R. Carby-Samuels outlines his small quarrel with HH. (It’s a little hard to read because of all the bold and italics used for emphasis. But that’s better than ALL CAPS!)

Tsering Chungtak, Miss Tibet 2006, refused to participate in a beauty pageant in Malaysia because the Chinese government ordered her to wear a sash saying “Miss Tibet-China”:

“I did not go to Malaysia with a political agenda. I was there to spread friendship,” the 22-year-old New Delhi sociology student told a news conference.

Chungtak was crowned Miss Tibet in 2006 in the northern Indian hilltop town of Dharamsala, home of the Tibetan government-in-exile and residence of 1989 Nobel peace laureate the Dalai Lama.

In 2005, Miss Tibet Tashi Yangchen too was barred from the Malaysian pageant after Chinese officials complained that a woman who lives in India cannot represent a part of China.

Zen Housewife has a very cool post called “Being Good Friends” inspired by Ed Brown’s Tassajara Cooking. And Brad Warner takes another shot at Genpo’s Roshi’s Big Mind. What a dharma combat that would be. . . Brad would transform into King Ghidorah and knock down buildings. I think Genpo Roshi would just grow big and stately like Apache Chief.

What’s the new Buddhist hot spot in the U.S.? Why, it’s Western Pennsylvania, of course (where the Pittsburgh Steelers might just need some dharmic mojo to defeat the unbeaten New England Patriots this weekend.)

And from a while back, here’s a post on Maitreya (the coming Buddha) from the cool series Who’s Who in Buddhism from the Level 8th Buddhist.

- Philip Ryan, Web Editor

Sharon Salzberg and Burma December 5, 2007

Posted by Philip Ryan in Books, General.
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This morning, insight meditation teacher and author Sharon Salzberg appeared with Tricycle editor James Shaheen on a show called “Be Happy, Dammit!” on Sirius radio at Lime 114 in a conversation with host Karen Salmansohn, bestselling author many books on happiness. For more on Karen, see notsalmon.com. Here’s a programming schedule for the channel — Be Happy, Dammit! airs weekdays at 8 AM East Coast time. Sharon is of course well known in the Buddhist community. Here are some of her recent contributions to Tricycle.

Burma, China, and Slovakia top the list of housing violators, according to the Geneva-based Center on Housing Rights and Evictions. And everyone’s down on Burma for excluding Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy party from the talks about the new constitution. The junta might have gained some international respect and credibility from this, but it wold also be sowing the seeds of its destruction, so it’s not hard to see why things happened this way. U.N. diplomat Charles Petrie is also being forced out of the country for daring to criticize the junta on its dismal human rights record.

And while we’re at it, here’s what Sharon Salzberg had to say about Burma back in August.

Oh yeah, and if you’re concerned about climate change, and you’d better be, Danny Fisher reminds us to join the virtual march on Bali.

- Philip Ryan Web Editor

BOOKS: Nonviolence by Mark Kurlansky, and Gandhi on Nonviolence edited by Thomas Merton December 3, 2007

Posted by tricycleblog in Books.
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nonviolence.jpgNONVIOLENCE is published by the Modern Library/Random House; GANDHI ON NONVIOLENCE, edited by Thomas Merton, is soon to be reissued by New Directions Press.

Nonviolence as a strategy to end social injustice—or bring about the resolution of armed conflict—doesn’t get much play in our media or political discourse; most of us seem to stand by what we like to call Realpolitik, although its most recent application has led our country into a war without victory or apparent end.

While some of us may express our support of nonviolence in theory, we find it difficult to imagine a world without military conflict. Aside from passing and affectionate schoolroom references to the Quakers or Mennonites, we actually learn very little of their more serious efforts, and the practical application of nonviolent resistance and its proponents; Gandhi and King may have been inspiring examples but their legacy is usually relegated to discussions of spirituality and humanism, not discussions of political options.

gandhinonviolence.jpgWith Nonviolence: Twenty-five Lessons from the History of a Dangerous Idea, Mark Kurlansky gives us something to work with. Nonviolence follows the pattern of his earlier bestselling books, Cod: A Biography of the Fish that Changed the World, and Salt: A World History. But this time, instead of taking fish or a tabletop condiment to illustrate sweeping movements in human history (both great reads), he takes an idea—nonviolence as political and social strategy—and traces its history from early religious movements up to the present day.

I’d recommend the book not to those who support radical nonviolence as a viable option—although they will certainly enjoy it—but to those who don’t. It may not change any minds, but it will contextualize a movement as misunderstood as it has been marginalized. Whether you agree with Kurlansky or not, you’ll find yourself considering whether what worked for Gandhi and King would work for the military powers themselves. Problem is, as Kurlansky and others have pointed out, we use what we’ve got—and in our case, we’ve got plenty of arrows in our quiver and a history of militarism to draw from.

George Orwell reasoned that Gandhi’s movement succeeded because the British were civilized (although, Kurlansky points out, they had no compunction about firing into crowds of women and children at the time). No such strategy, he argued, could work with Soviet-style communism. The Velvet Revolution—and even the Solidarity movement in Poland–put the lie to this idea, but once again, it’s much more comfortable—although far less defensible—to argue that Ronald Reagan brought down the Soviet empire. Any thoughtful person knows that it collapsed from within—as most military giants eventually do.

Kulansky’s Nonviolence is a wonderful read whether you’re typically interested in the idea or not. I could never have imagined wanting to read books about salt or cod but upon a friend’s recommendation I read Kurlansky’s books on both—like Nonviolence, I couldn’t put them down. But what this book may do—along with Kurlansky’s insightful introduction to a reissue of Thomas Merton’s Gandhi on Nonviolence—is reintroduce nonviolence as a discussable—and viable—option.

- James Shaheen, Editor & Publisher

Einstein and Buddha, together again November 21, 2007

Posted by Philip Ryan in Books, Burma, News, Reincarnation.
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Steven Seagal is back on the Buddhist scene, visiting what is said to be Europe’s largest Buddhist temple in the Russian Federation republic of Kalmykia. Most readers will remember that Seagal was recognized as a tulku by His Holiness Penor Rinpoche about ten years ago. Kalmykia itself is notable for being the only region in Europe where Buddhism is the dominant religion. Seagal is also visiting a boxing tournament in Elista, Kalmykia’s capital.

BURMA: Along with all its other problems, Burma is being deforested at a frightening pace. This is in contrast to China and other Asian countries, which are working to plant forests. Astoundingly this will result in a net gain of woodland for the continent next year. But China’s not exactly in the clear:

But according to Global Witness, a London-based, non-governmental organization that exposes the corrupt exploitation of natural resources and international trading systems, Burma illegally exports some 95 percent of its timber—more than 1 million cubic meters of wood— from northern Burma to Yunnan Province in China every year.

GERMANS LOVE BUDDHISM PART IX: A study in Germany shows that Zen meditation makes psychotherapists better at their job.

einsteinandbuddha.jpgYou may remember our recent post about bogus Einstein quotes about Buddhism discovered floating around the web. I recently came across this book, Einstein and Buddha, The Parallel Sayings, from 2002. So far as I can tell it doesn’t address the bogus Einstein quotes (nor does it use them) but I think it is exploiting the same urge: Einstein was a genius and knew a lot about science in our modern world. The Buddha said similar things. Therefore the Buddha also addresses issues about science in our modern world in a meaningful way. The book is probably very interesting and entertaining but I think the desire to make the dharma relevant by comparing it to such accepted wisdom as Einstein’s is ultimately going to leave us disappointed. Science is science. Religion is religion. They are separate endeavors and have been separate since, I don’t know, the Enlightenment, no matter how much people wish them together with intelligent design or whatever. They are parallel endeavors, both addressing big topics in wholly different realms — and parallel lines never touch. (Side note: I don’t know much about this newer book Jesus and Buddha: The Parallel Sayings. Maybe that can be addressed at a later date!)

- Philip Ryan, Editor

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