Rev. Danny Fisher
Mar 23, 2009
The Best of Inquiring Mind: 25 Years of Dharma, Drama, and Uncommon Insight
Title: “The Best of Inquiring Mind: 25 Years of Dharma, Drama, and Uncommon Insight”
Author: edited by Barbara Gates and Wes Nisker.
Publisher: Wisdom Publications (2009).
Available from: Amazon.com.
As the exceptional, essential new anthology The Best of Inquiring Mind: 25 Years of Dharma, Drama, and Uncommon Insight underscores for us, Inquiring Mind journal has been both a vital and heroic effort in English-language Buddhist media.
At a quarter-century in age, the biannual is one of the longest-standing publications for Dharma practitioners in North America—a survivor, a keeper, and an example. As publisher Alan Novidor so aptly puts it in his preface, the journal is generally regarded as “beautiful, honest, provocative, and simply presented.”
Co-founded and co-edited by Barbara Gates and Wes Nisker (who also put the book together), Inquiring Mind is staffed by six part-timers and a lot of volunteers. A labor of devotion to the Dharma and to others, there is no office or headquarters—it is assembled in the homes of its editors and staffers—and published on recycled newsprint.
Freely offered as dāna, it depends entirely on reader donations; and though it has been popularized at American Vipassana centers, it is neither “affiliated with” nor “subsidized by” any particular community or tradition, opting instead for a nonsectarian, independent approach.
Expressly dedicated to “the creative transmission of Buddhadharma to the West,” contributing authors have included such luminaries as Jack Kornfield, Thich Nhat Hanh, Joanna Macy, Gary Snyder, Sharon Salzberg, Joseph Goldstein, Allen Ginsberg, Rick Fields, Ayya Khema, Mark Epstein, S.N. Goenka, Jon Kabat-Zinn, Robert Thurman, Tsoknyi Rinpoche, Noah Levine, Edward Espe Brown, and many others.
With such an incredibly rich archive to draw upon, the question can be asked: How best to distill Inquiring Mind down into a “Greatest Hits” volume? In the introduction to The Best of Inquiring Mind, Gates and Nisker articulate a sound vision: an anthology arranged into eight sections that best represent the issues and ideas pondered over in the pages of the journal. (Each issue of Inquiring Mind has revolved around one or two themes.) By doing this, the “mix of genres” and “mix of voices” that made the publication so distinctive are very well exhibited without making for an unwieldy book.
The editors are careful to note, however, that their volume nonetheless reflects gender and ethnic “imbalances” in Western Buddhism, as the authors are mostly male and white. Still, it would be difficult to fault the book for not presenting a fairly broad spectrum of genres—in particular, the inclusion of artwork at the beginning of each section highlights some other important ways of teaching dharma that are often neglected.
Inquiring Mind is expressly dedicated to the creative transmission of Buddhadharma to the West
The first section, “Path of the Elders: East Moving West,” seeks to chart and characterize the transmission of Theravāda Buddhism to the West. It includes interviews (with Goldstein, Goenka, Salzberg, Kabat-Zinn, and Ajahn Amaro); reflections on the great Dipa Ma (by Goldstein, Kornfield, Jack Engler, Carol Wilson, and Michele McDonald); and a conversation (between Nisker and Noah Levine). It also features a piece that should be required reading for all Western Buddhists: Jack Kornfield’s “Advice from the Dalai Lama,” which reports on the first historic meeting between His Holiness and a group of twenty-two Western Dharma teacher from various traditions.
The second section, “Living & Dying in a Body,” is a consistently fascinating, powerful, and unique portion of the book—in many ways, this small collection itself exemplifies what has been so special about Inquiring Mind. An exploration of “the flesh and its attendant joys and conflicts,” it immediately grabs a hold on the reader with Rick Kohn’s evocative poem “Mr. Lucky.”
Also brilliant and equally absorbing is Diana Winston’s reflection on being a nun and experiencing the “blessing” of her menstrual cycle, which served as a reminder of her “connection to the Earth and [herself] as a woman.” Former belly-dancer Terry Vandiver’s coming to grips with her age, Caitriona Reed’s meditation on gender identity, and Kate Lila Wheeler’s encouragement of us to include the “loathsome” in our practice are all also outstanding and extremely valuable in that they touch on issues and ideas not often mulled over in contemporary Buddhist writing.
Zen Hospice Project founder Frank Ostaseski’s “Stories of Lives Lived and Now Ending” and the late Rick Fields’ recollection about teaching a fellow cancer patient about the Medicine Buddha offer memorable insights from those looking death squarely in the eye. The section ends with an absolutely unforgettable piece by Ronna Kabatznik, entitled “Tsunami Psychologist,” about tending to survivors among the dead following the Southeast Asian tsunami that was caused by the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake.
“Science of Mind,” the third section, considers the “new synthesis” of Eastern and Western ideas about the human mind. It includes interviews with scientists Paul Ekman and Francisco Varela, psychotherapist Epstein, and dharma teacher Kornfield. Additionally, Susan Moon contributes a fiercely honest reflection on her experience with depression as a devoted Buddhist practitioner.
…deserves to find a home on every practitioner’s bookshelf…
The fourth section on “The Dharma & The Drama” includes pieces about “the dramas of life…seen through the lens of Buddhist teachings.” Working from the story of Prince Siddhartha’s renunciation of his family, Norman Fischer provides a striking teaching on “the sacred and the lost.” Nina Wise vividly recalls a dinner with Carlos Castaneda that included an important lesson: “You’re perfect just the way you are.”
Gates, recognizing that “nothing can be thrown away” in meditation, composes a terrific love letter to garbage. In a very powerful teaching on facing fear, African-American teacher Charles Johnson confronts the memory of a near-lynching during a long retreat. Zen cook Brown’s funny story involving strawberry rhubarb tart cake makes for a fitting wrap-up.
The fifth section, “Complementary Paths,” delves into the issue of practicing in multiple traditions, borrowing from others, and creating new hybrid communities—distinctive trends in Western Buddhism. A typically incisive and provocative interview with Stephen Batchelor (who has practiced in the Tibetan, Korean Zen, and Theravāda Buddhist traditions) on the subject is the first of several interviews in this chunk of the book.
Also featured are interviews with Ram Dass, Tsoknyi Rinpoche, and Hari Lal Poonja. Last is a wonderful conversation between Ani Tenzin Palmo, Ajahn Sundara, Ajahn Jitindriya, and Yvonne Rand about their harmonious experiences as nuns in various traditions.
“Practices,” the sixth section, showcases several riffs on specific practices and aspects of practice. Nisker reveals his rationale to practice in poetic, sometimes lighthearted form. Santikaro articulates mindfulness of breathing in technological language. Ayya Khema, Miranda Shaw, and Goldstein are interviewed about jhana practice, tantric practice, and “the undiluted Dhamma,” respectively.
Rev. Heng Sure memorably ponders humor as he recounts a three-year pilgrimage doing full prostrations for 800 miles along the California Coast Highway. This portion of the book concludes with one of Thurman’s classically quick-witted, razor-sharp teachings—this one on the importance of recognizing impermanence in practice.
“Artists & Jesters of the Dharma,” the seventh section of the book, looks at how the arts and humor are being used as “teaching tools and expressions of realization” here in the West. Judith Stronach, for example, finds koans in Pablo Neruda’s poetry, and an infectiously adulatory Patrick McMahon makes a case for Jack Kerouac as a Dharma ancestor.
There is also Anne Waldman’s astounding poem-cum-elegy about sitting with the corpse of her friend Allen Ginsberg, and Gates’ piece about all that “laundry-line images” evoke for her.
Movie buffs are sure to appreciate Andrew Cooper’s hilarious and imaginative film noir spin on the sutras as well. There are also three stimulating interviews in this section on Buddhist tricksters (Steven Goodman), the “music of sound” (John Cage), and teaching Beat poetry in China (Ginsberg, of course).
The last section, “Tending to the World,” brings forwards pieces that offer a sampling of the various ways socially engaged Buddhist practitioners have articulated what it is that they are doing. There are fabulous interviews with Joanna Macy, Gary Snyder, China Galland, and prison administrators Kiran Bedi and Lucia Meijer, as well as excellent conversation pieces on environmentalism (Julia Butterfly Hill and Ajahn Pasanno) and indigenous voices (Eduardo Duran, Lorain Fox Davis, and Tsultrim Allione). In addition, gardener Wendy Johnson, prisoner Jarvis Jay Masters, and public school teacher Naomi Baer offer colorful glimpses into their lives and work.
The Best of Inquiring Mind is a completely engrossing read and a significant record of a magnificent journal’s work. It’s rare to be able to say that a book deserves to find a home on every practitioner’s bookshelf, where it can continue to motivate and otherwise benefit the reader…and I can say that without hesitation about this book. I’ll be revisiting and drawing inspiration from it for a long, long time. Let’s hope we don’t have to wait another twenty-five years for Volume II.
Rev. Danny Fisher, M.Div., D.B.S. (Cand.), has written for Tricycle: The Buddhist Review; The Journal of Buddhist Ethics (forthcoming); The Journal of Religion & Film; Eastern Horizon; Dharma Life; New York Spirit; elephant journal; and many other publications. He was ordained as a lay Buddhist minister by the ecumenical Buddhist Sangha Council of Southern California in 2008, and is certified as a mindfulness meditation instructor by Naropa University in association with Shambhala International. Visit him online at http://chaplaindanny.blogspot.com. [Photo by Pierre Rene Bouchard.]