Lion’s Roar July 2024 Book Reviews

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Three Years on the Great Mountain: A Memoir of Zen and Fearlessness (Shambhala Publications) is an inspirational call to practice. As a young adult, author Cristina Moon protested for human rights in Burma. She attended her first meditation retreat as a way to prepare in case she was arrested and tortured in Burma for her political activity. A few years later, burnt out from activism, Moon discovered Chozen-ji Zen, a Rinzai temple and dojo located on the Hawaiian island of O’ahu. She was drawn to the physicality of this form of Zen. She learned sword choreography, carried rocks, picked weeds, learned the intricacies of tea ceremony, and stayed up all night practicing zazen. This kind of challenging practice suited Moon, and she’s never looked back. After three years at the Chozen-ji temple, she was ordained as a priest. Her highest directive is to give courage.

In Unbroken Wholeness: Six Pathways to the Beloved Community (Parallax Press), social activist and dharma teacher John Bell explores the Beloved Community, where love and the divine are made manifest. The concept of Beloved Community was first developed by Dr. Martin Luther King to refer to a world where wealth is shared and bigotry is abolished. The concept was later built on by Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh, as well as many other important thinkers. Bell describes the Beloved Community as both a utopia that we strive for and as part of current reality, which we just need to find within ourselves. Bell discusses his work healing trauma using a peer-led therapy called Re-evaluation Counseling. He talks about how to transform racial and social oppression and build deep local community, referencing his work as a teacher at East Harlem Block, a parent-controlled community school, and YouthBuild, a low-income housing program. 

In his new autobiography Karma (Mango), Boy George expresses gratitude for the role that Nichiren Buddhism has played in helping him become a better human: “I have to tell myself that ten minutes chanting Nam Myoho Renge Kyo is good for my soul. I was once so privy to my internal moods that I spent most of my time overreacting to everything…. In fact, I think being less reactive has been my life’s work for the last ten years.” After a tough childhood in a big Irish household in southeast London, and getting bullied at school for being a “pooft,” Boy George went on to develop his iconic style and voice as the lead singer for Culture Club. Soon after reaching the pinnacle of success, however, he succumbed to addiction and even wound up in jail for a while. Now, at sixty-two, he’s meditating, chanting, and practicing yoga.

In A Monk’s Guide to Finding Joy: How to Train Your Mind and Transform Your Life (Wisdom Publications), Khangser Rinpoche provides spiritual tools to help you alleviate suffering and discover happiness. His focus is on Tibetan mind training (lojong), which can help you tame unruly emotions. “Mind training practice is not just sitting there silently with a blank mind,” says Khangser Rinpoche. “Mind training is about overcoming obstacles, developing healthy mental habits, and emotional strength training, all of which lead to positive mental states.” Each chapter ends with a reflection, including a short, colorful fable, contemplative questions, and exercises. At the end of the book, Rinpoche offers guidelines for setting up your own personal mind-training practice. He acknowledges that it’s natural to want immediate results, but training the mind requires endurance, much like training for a marathon. His advice is to practice little by little—without giving up.

In her memoir, Brief Flashings in the Phenomenal World: Zen and the Art of Running Free (Parallax Press), elite ultrarunner Katie Arnold tells the story of being injured during a white-water rafting accident and how, through a hardy mix of Zen and long-distance running, she recovered. Her relationship with her husband, motherhood, and the act of writing are all explored in the context of this life-changing injury and its aftermath, which includes a renewed, refined Zen practice. Arnold learns to see life as “a series of flickerings, like lightning bugs pulsing in a meadow or streetlamps blinking randomly in the blackness.” Ephemeral moments of enlightenment occur randomly. Arnold finds these moments when running down a mountain, riding a bike through late afternoon sunlight, or getting wet as river water comes up to meet her on a raft. She believes these flashings, while they come and go, leave us changed, nonetheless. 

While in Kathmandu in her twenties, Helen Tworkov came across a Tibetan refugee selling trinkets outside a restaurant. He handed her an ivory mala that had a few beads of turquoise and coral. She shook her head. “No sell. No money,” he said, continuing to hold the mala toward her. “Lotus Girl, for you. You take Buddha beads to America.” Today, Helen Tworkov is founding editor of Tricycle magazine. In her colorful new memoir, Lotus Girl: My Life at the Crossroads of Buddhism and America (St. Martin’s Essentials), she explores what it means to be a member of the first generation of convert American Buddhists. From growing up on East Twenty-third Street in Manhattan as the daughter of an influential painter, to exploring various strains of Buddhism, experimenting with LSD, and living with her dog in a dilapidated house in Cape Breton, Tworkov has searched long and hard for truth. 

In addition to being the first fully ordained Theravada nun from Thailand, Bhikkhuni Dhammananda is the abbot of Songdhammakalyani, Thailand’s first all-women Buddhist monastery. As such, she’s widely regarded as the leading voice for the bhikkhuni movement in her country—the movement to give women access to full ordination. This Fresh Existence: Heart Teachings from Bhikkhuni Dhammananda (Windhorse Publications) is her story, as told by her American student Cindy Rasicot. The book, which is presented largely in the form of a dialogue between teacher and student, covers Venerable Dhammananda’s remarkable life story; her teachings on meditation, compassion, forgiveness, despair, and more; and the evolution of women’s ordination in Theravada Buddhism. “The Bhikkhuni sangha is relatively new in Thailand,” says Venerable Dhammananda. “Therefore, we are starting a new page of history. May this young tree, this young sapling of bhikkhunis be strong and prosper so that we can strengthen Buddhism in the future.”

When her VW van broke down in the middle of nowhere, Illinois, Tracy Cochran was forced to wait for a new engine to arrive so that she could continue her journey. While waiting, she hung out with local youth, who spent their time driving around, “because there’s nothing else to do.” But how could there be nothing to do under a sky so vast? What was stopping these young people from living fully? Cochran was struck by this puzzle, and in the years following the incident, she practiced mindfulness. Ultimately, she came to discover that the true meaning of mindfulness is presence, and that, in her words, “the power of presence will bring us home to the wholeness and goodness of our lives.” In Presence: The Art of Being at Home in Yourself (Shambhala Publications), Cochran reminds us that life is made up of present moments—and we can always bring awareness to them.

Jessica Little

Jessica Little is an English teacher and freelance writer who lives in Nova Scotia.