21 December, 2019

Thirteen (Mostly Buddhist) Books I Spent My Fall Reading

My mother attended a reading by literary fantasist Salman Rushdie and afterward sent me an autographed copy of his latest novel, Quichotte. I've read almost all of Rushdie's work and, as a fan, would've loved to say that this book blew me away. Unfortunately, familiarity is exactly what limited my enjoyment of it. Quichotte is a twenty-first-century Don Quixote remix. His previous novels — particularly The Ground Beneath Her Feet, which played on the Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, and The Satanic Verses, which infamously riffed on Islam — both rejiggered old legends to greater effect.

Among the many books that @Free_Byron_Case follower Punker Bee surprised me with this year, Vladimir Nabokov's Pale Fire: A Novel was the best so far. A 999-line poem and accompanying "notes" are the form taken by this very quirky story of political intrigue that builds to a very satisfying surprise ending.

Somewhat less satisfying was the dystopian science fiction novel Pure, by Julianna Baggott. Its protagonist is a girl with a doll's head for a hand, who lives with her aging uncle and a tiny mechanical bug in the post-apocalyptic wastes and crafts delicate butterflies out of scrap metal. I should've known, by this description alone, that this was not he novel for me. Worse yet, it's final words were "The End of Part One" — a cliffhanger. I just let go.

The Wings to Awakening is Thanissaro Bhikkhu's translation of various Buddhist texts dealing with the Buddha's core teachings. All are taken from the Pali Canon, the oldest known texts of Buddhist thought still in existence. Like everything from the Pali Canon, it makes for seriously dry, repetitive reading. I have no designs on becoming a monk, which would require me to take a vow to live by a truly epic set of precepts, but my friend Luke is a Theravada Buddhism practitioner and therefore believes that exhaustive study is just as important as — if not more important than — meditation, so this is the kind of book he'll be shoving my direction pretty frequently as we travel along the path of dharma practice.

The Thai dharma teacher Dr. Thynn Thynn wrote Living Meditation, Living Insight to be much more accessible. It's conversational in style because this book is made up of essays responding to questions from the members of Dr. Thynn's dharma group. Accordingly, it dispenses with the theoretical and helpfully deals in practical day-to-day concerns from a general Buddhist perspective.

Similarly, the former Buddhist monk Stephen Batchelor's excellent Buddhism without Belief uses only straightforward language. Batchelor shows the reader Buddhism through the eyes of what might be called an originalist, arguing that the historical Buddha wasn't some superpowered divinity but just a man, whose enlightenment experience resulted in the codification of what we now call the dharma, and that those teachings have value irrespective of a practitioner's belief in supernatural phenomena like reincarnation and prayer. Batchelor's suggestion is that Buddhists embrace a stance of studious agnosticism in order to better live in open-mindedness, practicing nondualistic thought. I can dig it.

For my birthday, my mother got me a couple of books from my Amazon wish list. (Thank you so much, Mum!) The first was Italo Calvino's Invisible Cities, an experimental fantasy of Kublai Kahn being regaled with Marco Polo's tales of far-off lands — cities with skyscrapers, cities on stilts, cities with dirigibles drifting overhead, cities of the dead.... It's a gorgeous little book, the stuff of dreams.

The other book I received from Mum was Writing in Flow, by Susan K. Perry, PhD. It's an expansion of a study that Perry did for her doctoral dissertation on so-called flow experiences — mental states in which the person experiencing them undergoes a voluntary shift into a state of intense concentration, trying to accomplish something difficult or worthwhile. Writers, athletes, painters, gamers, adept conversationalists — people from all walks of life experience flow at least once in a while. This book analyzes seventy-odd writers' unique descriptions of flow, then offers suggestions for how a reader might engineer conditions to more reliably enter flow whenever they sat down to write. True, Writing in Flow probably sounds like it's of much less interest to you than it was to me, but you're perusing the reading list of an atypically literate prisoner, so I'm not quite sure what you expected.

D.T. Suzuki wrote the essays that comprise Zen Buddhism in the 1950s, just when Buddhism was first making inroads into America. Some of them feel sixty years old. Nevertheless, this collection offered a lot of fascinating (probably true) history, so I don't regret checking it out from ERDCC's chapel library. Ditto for The Other Shore: A New Translation of the Heart Sutra, by noted Vietnamese Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh, a short, beautiful little book containing not just a twenty-first-century translation of the Heart Sutra, Buddhism's most cherished, most oft-repeated text, but also the master's wonderful commentaries on it.

Another anthology of texts from the Pali Canon, The Spirit of Buddhist Meditation, by Sarah Shaw , was next, followed by Acharya Buddharakkhita's translation The Dhammapada: The Buddha's Path of Wisdom. The former offers a glimpse into the sutras that address meditation practice in its manifold forms. It reads like a new car manual. The latter is more friendly, which is undoubtedly why tens of thousands of practitioners around the globe meditate on the simple truths contained in its 423 verses. Consider Verse 51: "Like a beautiful flower full of color but without fragrance, even so, fruitless are the fair words of one who does not practice them." Or Verse 125: "Like fine dust thrown against the wind, evil falls back upon that fool who offends an inoffensive, pure and guiltless man." Or Verse 228: "There never was, there never will be, nor is there now, a person who is wholly blamed nor wholly praised." Surely you can see the Dhammapada's appeal.

My autumn reading ended with another Thanissaro Bhikku translation, Poems of the Elders: An Anthology from the Theragatha and Therigatha. The ancient texts known as the Theragatha and Therigatha are collections of enlightenment poems attributed to the earliest orders of Buddhist monks and nuns, respectively. Personal, vivid, and grounded, these poems express the profound joy of enlightenment, in hundreds of different ways, in poems by matriarchs and misanthropes, servants and shopkeepers, harlots and the high-born, robbers and rice farmers — a small sample of the myriad faces of early Buddhism, touchingly illustrating the dharma's unique accessibility to one and all. I found it inspiring.

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