Tag Archives: Books

“A Pilgrimage in Autumn”

autumn cul-de-sac | october 2010

NOTE: An earlier posting of this excerpt contained several misspellings. This one fixes them!

Regular readers of this occasional blog will know of my current infatuation with the book “Longing For Certainty: Reflections on the Buddhist Life,” (Wisdom Publications) by Bhikku Nyanasobhano, excerpted once before here. It may be that this American Buddhist monk’s approach to Buddhist Dhamma accords with my own stumblebum Buddhist path – seeking out the actuality and truth of the Buddha’s teaching in the evidence of daily life, often through the filter of the senses on long peregrinations through the back woods. Yet it is also one of the most beautifully written books you’ll hope to find by an American-born Buddhist, steeped in the teachings of the Buddha and capable of communicating them in vivid, accessible language culled from common experience.

Since we here in West Virginia are now experiencing one of the most glorious Indian summers in many a year, it came as both serendipity and blessing to come to Chapter 13 in the Bhikku’s book this morning, titled “A Pilgrimage in Autumn.” An excerpt follows. But the chapter and book is so rich I encourage those of like-minded sensibilities to buy it for the full flavor of his strolling investigations of Dhamma in daily life.

Or if you attend the weekly 6 p.m. Tuesday gatherings of the Meditation Circle of Charleston, ask me for my copy once I finish or Thad’s when he’s done since he bought the book after I posted the last excerpt. And yes, I realize it’s a form of attachment to be infatuated with a Buddhist book – what’s a stumblebum Buddhist to do but stumble onward, carting along all his contradictions? This chapter also contains a skillful explication of one of the Buddha’s most difficult teachings, that of “no self.” ~ Douglas I.

READINGS | From “Longing For Certainty: Reflections on the Buddhist Life,” by Bhikku Nyanasobhano

… OUT HERE IN THE COUNTRY the world looks different – not necessarily more beautiful or cheerful, but more dignified, at least, more graceful and significant. We had been intending to enjoy some of that autumn beauty, but if we cannot we may as well take meaning instead – or not even meaning if we think of it as chunks of information or succinct conclusions, but perhaps the intuition of splendor that the land inspires in us. For we feel that the land is old, ancient with respect to us and our ancestors. Empty woods all around, windy solitude, antiquity, huge oaks in the distance – these shrink us almost to nothing, yet impart something of richness and freedom. We hurry on through our trivial moment with the intention (frail as it is) of glimpsing certainty in old things, great things not made by man.

The noise, speed, and brilliance of what is called society do not, it seems, satisfactorily answer our longing for certainty; at any rate, from the stimulation of our social life we have turned aside for a while, to get far away from even from ourselves so that we might look around unimpeded and contemplate whatever is noble and true. Out here we walk through the wind that streams and lags and streams again, exploring the cold, vital, primitive land until we feel somewhat less bound to our old preoccupations, more concerned with wind, creeks, and brambly meadows. A day of sunshine and stillness would have given us more pleasure, but by now we are not really sorry about it, for the gray weather smooths a fine wonder over everything, suggesting greater truths than we might have suspected in more conventional beauty. Continue reading “A Pilgrimage in Autumn”

5 Books on Buddhism

TheBrowser.com is one of the sites I check almost daily as it is an excellent compendium of some of the best writing and thinking being published on the Web at the moment (as well as absorbing videos). They also do a regular feature of interviewing a noted figure and asking them to recommend five books on a subject or field they know intimately. I was glad to see today an interview with Elizabeth Harris, a senior lecturer in Religious Studies at Liverpool Hope University where she specializes in Buddhism. Her entire list of five books is worth the read (click here). Here is an excerpt in which she recommends “Come and See for Yourself: The Buddhist Path to Happiness by Ayya Khema”

I met Ayya Khema in the 1980s when I was living in Sri Lanka. She was then a Buddhist nun. She had set up a community on an island in a lake in the South of Sri Lanka. She was born a Jew in Germany. She married and had children but eventually converted to Buddhism and became a nun. She spent the last 18 years of her life teaching in Sri Lanka, Australia and Germany. She published quite a number of books and this is the fullest one. In it we hear a Buddhist teacher explaining the path of meditation in a very accessible way. Ayya Khema was a meditator par excellence.

For instance, she speaks in one chapter about four fundamental principles of Buddhism: freedom from greed, freedom from hatred, right mindfulness and right concentration. Greed and hatred are the poisons which create suffering according to Buddhism. And right mindfulness and right concentration lie at the heart of Buddhist meditation.

She also speaks about such things as loving kindness. One of the things that impressed me when I met her was the way she led meditations on loving kindness and I have used some of her meditations myself when I have taught. It is a practice whereby one radiates loving kindness to those one likes  to our family and friends – but also to those we don’t like, to the oppressors and the people who have hurt us. Such practices are at the heart of Buddhism and she speaks movingly about them.

BOOKS: “Longing for Certainty: Reflections on the Buddhist Life”

During a retreat at the Bhavana Society Buddhist Forest Monastery in Hampshire County, W.Va., the prodigious library there is closed to the retreatant. This, I suppose, is to concentrate one on the lived experience of a silent Buddhist retreat instead of the often second-hand intellectual experience of the Dharma via books. But when I’m there off-retreat, the library is a jewel of a place. I’ve taken to reaching randomly off the shelves, then reading as much of the book that my reach produces during the hours or days of the visit. (You can sign the books out and take them overnight to your dormitory or kuti – the dozens of cabins sprinkled across the 50 acres of woodland property.) In this way, I’ve nabbed, out of the air, as it were, Buddhist books that have become a part of my life, often purchased off the Web upon returning home, like “A Still Forest Pool,” a collection of simply put, yet profoundly helpful talks and remarks by the wonderful Thai teacher Achaan Chah.

This last May while attending Vesak at Bhavana, my hand pulled down “Longing for Certainty: Reflections on the Buddhist Life” by Bhikkhu Nyanasobhano. A former actor and playwright, this American Buddhist monk melds walks in Nature and the back woods with reflections on the challenges and insights of the Buddha’s teachings on impermanence, craving and dukka. He has been described by esteemed Buddhist scholar and monk Bhikku Bodhi as “American Buddhism’s Thoreau.” As someone for whom regular walks in the deep woods are utterly essential to his mental hygiene, “Longing for Certainty,” written in lyrical, yet unsentimental, straightforward prose, came as a gift from the blue. Below is an excerpt that captures the monk’s style. This book is a follow-up to an earlier one titled “Available Truth: Excursions into Buddhist Wisdom and the Natural World,” both of which you can investigate further at Wisdom Books. (though I do like Amazon.com’s feature that allows you to read several pages of a book you’re interested in).

P.S.: Suggest Buddhist books that have become essential to you in comments to this post or write up a review and send it to douglas [at] hundredmountain.com.

EXCERPT (from pages 16 to 19) from “Longing for Certainty: Reflections on the Buddhist Life”” by Bhikkhu Nyanasobhano. As this reflection commences, he has been talking a walk off trail along a creek on a sunny winter’s day:

ALL CRAVING IS STRUGGLING ON A HILL OF SAND, which produces more weariness and suffering, not an ascent to peace; but we persist in spite of experience, because unexplained impulse drives us and because we simply do not see what else to do. Though we might even concede that the world is impermanent and liable to suffering, we wish to believe that, amid the boiling and subsiding of all phenomena, we at least have an indubitable stability, that we possess a self or ego which is superior to the surrounding flux and which we must exert all our strength to mollify, protect and entertain. In Buddhist teaching, however, this self is nothing but a baseless concept, a mere device of language. A human being, like other creatures, is a dynamic pattern of mental and physical events shifting through time, without any unchanging part. It follows then, that the ignorant compulsion to serve an imagined self can only deepen delusion and worsen error.

Now our hands and feet are getting cold. We hear no music in the waterfall and find no more beauty in the fantastic ice. Down here deep in the hollow, we see the sun vanishing behind the highest fringe of woods, and with it our rare sense of freedom is vanishing too. There is change happening and we do not like it. Shivering a little, rubbing our fingers, we look around at the way we have come with a sudden pang. Oh, let us turn back to home and warmth. Philosophy cannot stand the snow! But having come so far, having once made it to this strange place, we hold on for a minute, for the remembered, lovely smile on a statue yet haunts us. How could he, the Buddha, seeing impermanence and suffering and the emptiness of the idea of self, still smile? How could he walk, unhurried and fearless, through a hopeless world? But maybe the world is not hopeless. And maybe he had found the cure for these dire conditions that assail us. Continue reading BOOKS: “Longing for Certainty: Reflections on the Buddhist Life”