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”