Another year passes and it’s time for another issue of The Best Buddhist Writing, 2011, from Shambhala Publications. This is the seventh edition of what has become an annual treat of good writing for those who do not — or cannot — subscribe to the many Buddhist magazines or buy the many Buddhist books published each year.
The editor of the series, Melvin Mcleod, who is also the editor of The Shambhala Sun, does his typically nice job, with the assistance of his fellow editors at the Sun, of selecting a representative sampling of writing from many well-known and lesser-known writers and teachers. The usual names are here, the names that sell each year’s edition, such as His Holiness the Dalai Lama, Thich Nhat Hanh, Jack Kornfield, Lin Jensen (an editor at Tricycle), Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche, Matthieu Ricard, and Pico Iyer, to name only a few.
Interestingly, there is nothing from Pema Chodron this year, nor is there anything from Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche (leader of the Shambhala lineage) — two figures closely associated with Shambhala Sun. There also is nothing from B. Alan Wallace or Robert Thurman, two prolific authors who bring a more academic flavor to these collections.
As a reader, the absence of some of the big names makes room for newer writers — such as Susan Piver, Joanna Macy, and others — who are a pleasure to read and who bring a distinctly Western flavor to this year’s edition.
Many of the pieces in this volume are about real life, about finding the lessons in the mundane and the unexpected. The first article, “Hand Wash Cold” by Karen Maezen Miller, recounts her meeting of her future husband in a restaurant in Florence, Italy. But the piece is really about dishes, a dishwasher, and how a couple learns that “marriage is a lot like a silent meditation retreat.” Both marriage and the retreat can bring us “face-to-face with the most unlovable aspects” of ourselves, all the ways we are unpleasant, selfish, and want to run when things get tough.
Near the end of the volume, a piece called, “This Is Getting Old,” by Susan Moon, deals with the mother-daughter relationship, when the daughter is already sixty-three years of age. Even while the elder woman introduces the author to her friends as “my Buddhist daughter from California,” the author still is learning from her mother about being in the present, “because that’s important in old age.”
I am drawn to these teachings more than the traditional dharma teachings—probably because much of my practice is in being mindful in the moment, whatever moment that is. But there are some good articles in the traditional teaching model as well.
Kathleen McDonald’s “Awakening the Kind Heart” is an excellent introduction to loving-kindness meditations, from a nun in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition. Likewise, “Taming the Mind,” by Khenchen Palden Sherab Rinpoche and Khenpo Tsewang Dongyal Rinpoche, offers a clear, short teaching on how we might tame the mind, but for this reader it feels like a view from 30,000 feet, not as down in the muck of everyday life as the first two articles I mentioned.
Another example may be Thich Nhat Hanh’s “The Child Within,” which is an excellent article (especially for a new psychotherapist such as myself), because it presents a Buddhist slant on a topic that is central to a lot of trauma work: that we have wounded child parts who need love and attention. Still, as important as this article is, the feeling one gets is that it is more removed from everyday living, more abstract.
On the other hand, the article that precedes it, Susan Piver’s “The Wisdom of a Broken Heart,” starts with the immediacy of loss, triggered by a basket of jalapeño cheddar-cheese cornbread. The ex-boyfriend loved that food, and the author is immediately plunged back into the grief that follows a break-up, crying in a bathroom stall and trying not to be heard, which only “leads to a bulbous nose and Mount Rushmore-sized headache.” She learns not to fight the loss, but to befriend it (much as Pema Chodron might teach). More importantly, however, she speaks directly to the reader about the embodied experience of loss, how it feels in the right-now.
Reading the volume, there is a sense that Western Buddhism, whatever that may or may not be, is developing a different set of teachings than the traditional Eastern teachers, and even different from those first pioneers who brought Buddhist teachings to West in the 1950s and 1960s.
The current generation of authors who are writing about Buddhism do so from the lived experience of daily life, raising a family, navigating relationships, earning a living, and so on. Theirs is not a Buddhism acquired in monastic life, in pilgrimage to study with Tibetan lamas, or from some other context removed from what was once known as being a householder. This emerging Western Buddhism feels like an embodied Buddhism, a way to live the teachings in the context of a postmodern technological society.