Reviewed by Chris Faatz
Let's face it: not only has Buddhism come to the West, but it's become a growth industry on its journey. There are literally thousands of books on the subject, exploring various schools and approaches, delving into currents and traditions, and trying to make sense of the relationships that make up the life of any community of passionate and devoted people. There is an increasing number of magazines, as well -- Tricycle, Buddhadharma, and Shambhala Sun among them -- and many of these make an imposing splash when tossed into the serene pond of Buddhist literature.
One of the best is Inquiring Mind, a journal published in California to support the vipassana, or insight, meditation community. Vipassana is a direct descendent of Theravada Buddhism, the tradition practiced in Burma, Sri Lanka, and Thailand, and the school that's commonly considered the closest to the original teachings of the Buddha himself. (Theravada Buddhism is sometimes referred to as the tradition of the elders.)
Inquiring Mind, which comes out twice a year, is free of charge, published with the understanding that it will either make it or break it through the generosity and support of its readers. So far, it's made it: it has 25 years under its belt, and shows no signs of flagging. Now, the folks at Wisdom Publications have seen their way clear to publish The Best of Inquiring Mind, an anthology of some of the best contributions to have been printed in it thus far.
I should make it clear that I'm a sucker for anthologies. I like their breadth and depth, and I love the fact that they use different voices to explore their various subjects from the widest number of viewpoints possible. Let me come right out and say that this book -- provocative, lively, thoroughly engaged -- fully fits the bill.
One of the many things that make Inquiring Mind such an interesting publication is that it focuses a lot of its energy on interviews. At least half of the pieces included in this book are interviews, and they touch on any number of subjects, ranging from Buddhist psychology (many in the Vipassana community are psychotherapists) to dialogue between various schools and traditions in Buddhism, to reflections on using mindfulness practice in schools and prisons.
There is much attention given, as well, to engagement with the world, a practice that, in the face of war and environmental degradation, is increasingly on the agenda of many Western Buddhists. "Engagement" here means a mindful and compassionate activity in recognition of the interconnection of all things, and the acceptance of our responsibility in response to that insight. This viewpoint is made explicitly in some of these pieces. Buddhist practice in prison, for example. Others are more subtle. A walk in a park that used to be a garbage dump can be an exercise in mindful awareness and an invitation to live more responsibly in the world.
One of my favorite pieces in this book is an interview with Noah Levine on the intersection of Buddhism with his generation of punk rock rebels. He's edgy and radical, refuses to be pigeonholed, and is completely convincing in his vision of where the Dharma's going. Another fine contribution, albeit of a very different flavor, is Jack Kornfield's account of a meeting the Dalai Lama held with a number of Western Buddhist teachers on the intersection of Buddhism with our culture and society. The aspect of this bit of reportage that really stood out was the sheer humility and compassion, the gentleness, care, and love shown by these people as they tackled difficult, often extremely painful questions together.
It has to be said that, with a few exceptions, most of the authors and subjects of these interviews are probably little known outside of the Buddhist community. But, within that community, they are heavy hitters indeed. Joseph Goldstein, Joanna Macy, Ajahn Amaro, Jack Kornfield, Ayya Khema, and Jon Kabat-Zinn are all here. And, to cap it off, there are great contributions from such luminaries as Gary Snyder, Allen Ginsberg, and Ram Dass.
This is a great book. It's funny, engaging, and entertaining. But, it's also much more than that. It's visionary. As with all great religious or spiritual literature, it offers a very different view of how the world is and how it might be. The real question remains: can we rise to the challenge?
Books mentioned in this post