Posts by Bodhipaksa

“The Life and Letters of Tofu Roshi,” by Susan Moon

This book is hilarious. It’s a very gentle parody of the Zen tradition, mostly following a “problem page” (advice column) format, but also including Susan Moon’s encounters with her alter ego, the eccentric Zen Teacher, Tofu Roshi.

Tofu Roshi is Abbot of the No Way Zen Center in Berkeley, California. For his day job he manages the Next to Godliness Laundromat across the street. Susan Moon has worked as his assistant for many years.

Here’s an extract:

Dear Tofu Roshi:
I am easily distracted by noises while I am sitting meditation. The other morning, somebody was trying to start a car just outside the meditation hall window.

Sixty-three times they tried! The few times the engine actually turned over, it seemed as though the whole hall held its collective breath, until the engine would die again. I came out of there a nervous wreck, and arrived at work grinding my teeth and cracking my knuckles. My boss said “You seem a little tense. Why don’t you take up meditation?” How can I achieve inner peace?
– Distractible

Dear Distractible:
It has been said that the birdsong outside the meditation hall window will not disturb us when we understand that we are the bird and the bird is us. We face, admittedly, a greater challenge in becoming one with the car that will not start.

Think of your arms and legs and wheel, your eyes as headlamps, your belly as a carburettor. The cushion on which you sit should extend two inches beyond the rim of the rear tires. Rest the left front hubcap gently on the right front hubcap.

Tofu Roshi is the only master who has attained true ignorance and offers profound and funny wisdom on topics that range from how to get a cat to sit on a zafu to what to do when your mind suddenly goes quiet and you can’t plan your shopping trips during meditation.

Anyone in danger of taking their meditation practice too seriously must read this book.

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“The Seven Stages of Money Maturity : Understanding the Spirit and Value of Money in Your Life,” by George Kinder

This isn’t exactly a book review since I’m just in the early stages of reading this title. Kinder’s book came highly recommended to me by a Buddhist friend, and then another Buddhist friend told me she’d been been on one of Kinder’s workshops. Sometimes you can’t ignore the messages!

George D. Kinder is a nationally known financial planner and Buddhist teacher. His investment strategies have been featured in The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, Fortune, and Newsweek. As both a committed Buddhist and a high-powered figure in the world of financial planning I just had to read this book. So far it’s been fascinating, although I’m only a couple of chapters in.

So far I’ve been reading about the stage of Childhood, in which Kinder details our finanncial Innocence (the assumptions and habits we have in relation to money that we cling to no matter how much the universe keep reminding us that they’re not true), and Pain, which Kinder describes as “the bell of awakening”. I really like that metaphor, which struck a chord with me. I’ve often found myself saying that pain is life’s way of telling you to have a closer look at how you’re living.

If you’re interested in meditation or Buddhism and want to explore your attitudes to money with a view to learning some better habits, this book is well worth looking into.

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“Sitting Inside: Buddhist Practice in America’s Prisons,” by Kobai Scott Whitney

Kobai Scott Whitney is a Zen Buddhist practitioner who is employed as Buddhist Chaplain for the state of Washington and who has also done time himself. He is therefore ideally placed to write a book on Buddhist practice in America’s prisons. The subtitle is potentially misleading, however. Rather than being a survey of Buddhist practice in American penal institutions, Sitting Inside is a practice handbook for inmates and prison volunteers alike.

For inmates, Kobai offers an overview of key Buddhist teachings such as the Eightfold Path and the Four Noble Truths, introduces the practice of ethics (with specific reference to situations that inmates are likely to encounter in prison) and teaches 14 meditations that range from simple calming exercises to more existential reflections on, for example, “Who Is Sitting?” These teachings are likely to be helpful for anyone interested in Buddhist meditation.

For prison volunteers, Sitting Inside offers insights into the unique pressures facing those in prison, as well as the difficulties that may arise in conducting meetings in the face of resistance by Christian chaplains, and potential pitfalls in relations with inmates. As a prison volunteer myself I am grateful to Kobai for hastening my learning.

Additionally, Kobai does an excellent job of highlighting the cruelties and shortsightedness of America’s dysfunctional penal system, which has been accurately descibed as the “Prison-Industrial Complex” because of the way it has eveolved as a collaboration between politicians and business in order on the one hand to win votes by boosting incarceration rates and on the other to provide a cheap source of labor.

One oversight in the book is the lack of any guidance from prisoners and volunteers on the complex and difficult area of making the transition between prison life and the outside world. What can spiritual communities do to provide support for inmates after release? What are the difficulties that inmates typically face in trying to gain acceptance in a practice community? How does a spiritual group deal, for example, with accommodating a convicted sex offender, providing spiritual support for the parolee while protecting the group? Kobai’s insights on these matters would have been most welcome.

Despite this reservation I would highly recommend Sitting Inside to all who are interested in meditation. Our own problems tend to shrink in significance when we encounter those less fortunate than ourselves, and our self-confidence can be increased by seeing others making positive changes in their lives in circumstances that are considerable less advantageous than our own.

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