Reviewed by Chris Faatz
There are a lot of good books on Buddhism out there. In fact, there are some real hum-dingers: Stephen Batchelor's Buddhism without Beliefs, Thich Nhat Hanh's Being Peace, Charlotte Joko Beck's Everyday Zen, and Rick Fields's How the Swans Came to the Lake, among others. Well, let's add another to the list: Buddhism through American Women's Eyes, edited by Karma Lekshe Tsomo, originally published in 1995 and recently reprinted by Snow Lion Publications.
Buddhism through American Women's Eyes gathers essays from several Buddhist women representing traditions ranging from Tibetan to Zen to Shingon in a full-on attempt to show how Buddhism is applicable right now, in the present moment, to everything we do, to all the choices we make, and in all the relationships into which we enter.
With essays that include "Forging a Kind Heart in an Age of Alienation," "Everyday Dharma," "Mothering and Meditation," and "Dealing with Stress" (the latter by Ayya Khema, who was born in Germany but later became a U.S. resident), the book has many high points and is calibrated to have something that will speak to most readers. And, it doesn't draw back from difficult issues: there are excellent pieces both on abortion and on alcoholism and the 12 steps. To cap it all off, there's a fascinating round-table discussion of monasticism, which includes women from many traditions.
As the title may suggest, women are the intended audience. Take, for instance, this passage from "Mothering and Meditation":
The Dharma needs to be adaptable and inclusive. If it is only for monasteries, childless women, women with grown children, women who can afford child care, or women with supportive husbands, we are in trouble. We have a fringe religion. No matter how many women have become enlightened before us, no matter how many enlightened women are mentioned in the scriptures, no matter how many enlightened women are revered, unless it translates into society, it is useless.
However, the essays speak with equal eloquence to any reader, male and female alike. It's a treasure chest of inspiration and experience offered up as a gift by practitioners who really know their stuff. The following quote, from "Karma: Creative Responsibility," captures, in many ways, the whole vision out of which Buddhism through American Women's Eyes arises.
In the Buddhist system there is no one sitting in judgment, no punishing God, and no one dictating right and wrong. Instead, there is the Noble Eightfold Path of right view, right intention, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration based upon an understanding of the impersonal law of cause and effect, known as karma. Just as mango seeds give rise to mango trees and chili seeds give rise to chili plants, wholesome deeds lead to happiness while unwholesome deeds lead to suffering. Since everyone wants to be happy and no one wants to suffer, it stands to reason that we should strive to avoid unwholesome actions and create wholesome ones. Buddhism does not decree absolute right or wrong, but leaves individuals free to determine for themselves the appropriate course of action in the particular circumstances. Thus Buddhism presents an ethic of personal choice and responsibility, based on an understanding of cause and effect, and informed by compassion and wisdom.
An emphasis on practicality is one of the book's consistent themes. If the Dharma doesn't have the potential to impact your life right now, it's useless. And that's what makes Buddhism through American Women's Eyes so powerful and relevant. It presents teachings, insights, and stories that are immediately applicable in the mixed-up, filth- and beauty- and noise- and confusion- and hope-filled whirlwinds that make up our lives. Take it from me: this is a great book, for all of us.
Books mentioned in this post