Book Review: American Dharma by Ann Gleig

Book Cover American dharma by Ann GliegJust when I thought I had caught up with the winding path Buddhism took from Siddhartha to Asoka to Buddhist Modernism via McMahan and Braun, American Dharma adds another step in the evolution of Buddhism in the West. Author and scholar Ann Gleig brings an incisive and insightful examination of Buddhism’s adaptation, shapeshifting, and co-creation by Western perspectives of its root philosophy. In fact, Gleig’s reading of this path (as with McMahan and Braun) questions whether there was ever a root philosophy. And that takes us directly to the anxiety-provoking thought: Is Buddhism only what we decide it is?

Here, I need to disclose that Gleig includes our work in confronting the misconceptions of the psychologized form of Buddhism called Mindfulness. More specifically, my colleagues and I have attempted to address the self-identification of Mindfulness-Based Interventions/Programs (MBIs) with Buddhism/not Buddhism. (I will forebear jokes about self/not-self.) Gleig is generous in covering our concerns that MBIs while attempting valiantly to siphon in Buddhist concepts and practice, fall short of what is required to be Buddhist teachings in spirit if not exactly in design. I’ll have more to say about that further down.

For now, let’s take an overview of Gleig’s incisive thoughts about Buddhism and the shapes it took in Western culture. Drawing from McMahan’s and Braun’s extensive work, Gleig carefully describes the cultural (and political) imperative that shaped Buddhism from the time of Ledi Sayadaw which placed meditation at the heart of Buddhist practice. The passing on of the torch is traced further from U Ba Khin, Mahasi Sayadaw and their own students, with the most influential being Goenka who (aling with Thai Forest monks) eventually influenced the American phalanx of Buddhism: Jack Kornfield, Joseph Goldstein, Sharon Salzberg, Sylvia Boorstein and the founding of the East and West Coast Insight Meditation Societies.

Gleig explores, with a remarkably balanced perspective, the explosion of Buddhist-based practices with Chapter Two: From the Mindfulness Revolution to the Mindfulness Wars. This is a particularly important chapter because it lays out the reality that it doesn’t matter whether we have subverted Buddhism to support our Western consumer-mind. If we have yet to address issues of disadvantage that are misogyny, racialization, and abuse, Buddhism qua mindfulness is only a mirror of our corrupted values. And, it becomes a weaponized approach to maintaining the status quo. This topic of disenfranchisement is powerfully explored in Chapter Five: The Dukkha of Racism, Gleig unmasks the attempts to change “racial rearticulation” which is

the acquisition of the beliefs and practices of another’s religious tradition and infusing them with new meaning derived from one’s own culture in ways that preserve the prevailing system of racial hegemony (From Cheah quoted in Chapter One).

Chapter Five is sad to read yet from the undertones of disappointment in our limitations to understand how we hurt each other through erasure, there is some hope that with pain comes insight into the suffering caused. Personally, I deeply resonate with “The Empty Seat” (that painful space left on either side of me when I sit at any table – meeting, gathering, socializing) and felt seen by the reading of it.

But back to Chapter Two where Gleig addresses the surge of mindfulness in its multitudinous forms of psychological programs, wellness movements, and “woo-vending”, a fantastic term coined by Philip Theofanos in his article here. The central criticism of mindfulness as a secularized and psychologized process (not practice) is repeatedly that “ethics are stripped” from its content. I’m stepping out of the container of this review by inserting my ongoing stance to this criticism: ethics are both implicit and explicit in the teachings of mindfulness. Dare I say in teaching anything. As such, the battle lines of ethics-protectors (ethics must be included in MBIs) and ethics-dismissives (ethics are implicit in MBIs or would be oppressive to teach) are missing the point. It’s impossible to teach any concept without immediately hoisting the flag of one’s inclinations as well as value-ridden approaches, and that requires full transparency (see Gunther Brown’s chapter in this linked page) as well as self-awareness. However, there is much gold to mine in the hills of conflict, even if generating that conflict is somewhat in conflict itself with the essence of Buddhist thought. And that essence is living a life that is congruent in its intention to do no harm and to test one’s actions against its consequences.

One interview mentioned in Gleig’s impressive references is between Edo Shonin and Jon Kabat-Zinn. Although Gleig uses it to support the view that secular/psychologized mindfulness has value, the interview points directly to the many reasons the discussion of MBIs are so confusing. Kabat-Zinn, both in this interview and innumerable other sources continually dances between “it’s Buddhist” and “it’s not-Buddhist” – I would add there is a hint of “it’s not-not-Buddhist” too. However, this chapter is worthy of a careful read if we hope to understand the convulsive route secular mindfulness has taken to ensure it doesn’t offend anyone.

Of course, the most reliable evidence we have that ethics-in or ethics-out requires more than posturing is this evidence of sexual predators within Buddhist communities. Chapter Three: Sex, Scandal and the Shadow of the Roshi is an excellent dissection of yet another way Buddhists fail to see their dismissal of secular/psychologized mindfulness because of its “stripping away of ethics” begs the question. Further, the connection Gleig makes between Buddhist Romanticism and Buddhist Modernism is crucial to understanding the reasons Western Buddhism has taken on the allure of self-help and the mantel of psychology. This is also covered in Chapter Four: Meditation and Awakening in the American Vipassana Network where we meet the varied branchings out of the vipassana practices into addiction, pragmatism, emotional and relational health, and so on.

In Chapter Seven, aptly titled From Boomers to Gen X, Gleig sets the stage for future generations. Noting the heavy lay slant in the Gen X cohort of young teachers, I wonder about the possible loss of historical memory of what Buddhism is and how Buddhism is to become (though they just need this book to ensure fidelity to the path). However, despite its efforts to rise above the previous generation’s missteps, it was noted in the first gathering of Boomer/Gen X teachers that Gen X may be creating its own blindspot of a “progressive America”. Time will tell.

In all, Gleig has dug deep and carved thick slices of understanding the historical evolution and societal forces that created Buddhism.America. It’s a powerful and unstinting gaze leveled at our misunderstanding of how Buddhism came to be in the West and what it represents in American culture (I can include Canadian culture to some degree because so much of where we train and what we learn comes from south of the 49th parallel). This is a book for the person who wants to strip away the illusion that is currently Buddhism so that they can discern whether it’s self-improvement, awakening, or therapy that they seek.

For the academics of MBI trainers, the look on your students’ and trainees’ faces is worth gold when you talk about the long and winding road that is Western Buddhism! I’ve already made it required reading for my University of Toronto course on Buddhist Mindfulness approaches to Mental Health!

Book Review: Zen Beyond Mindfulness – Folding the Abhidhamma into a Western psychology I

Zen Beyond Mindfulness: Using Buddhist and modern psychology for transformational practice by Jules Shuzen Harris (Shambhala Publications) presents some very intricate Buddhist psychological concepts interwoven with a Western psychological model of Mind Body Bridging.

Shuzen Harris is a Zen teacher and dharma heir of Roshi Pat Enkyo O’Hara and a psychotherapist trained in the MBB approach of psychotherapy. In Zen Beyond Mindfulness, he brings together an in-depth exploration of a select set of concepts from the Abhidhamma and the psycho-educational framework of MBB. The approach, ironically, flips the usual East-West weave by setting the Abhidhamma as the cognitive process with the MBB as the body-centered, experiential approach. It takes a moment to see that are the infrastructure of Shuzen Harris’ model.

With the glut of Buddhist-W.Psychology integration books, there is a risk that the essence of either or Buddhism or Western psychology becomes a makeover, not a crossover. Zen Beyond Mindfulness manages to avoid the makeover; yet, it perhaps sets up strong boundaries between the two that is not as easily bridged as one would hope. Still, the book offers an interesting start point that is rarely seen in this genre.

Suzen Harris’ teachings on the skandhas are insightful, definitively showing them as the formation of consciousness by which we connect with our inner process rather than heaps we should be diving into. Tying in the five common factors, he draws a rich picture of how we relate to the world through our ego, patterns, and desires.

Understanding the dynamic of skandhas and common factors is an important system for the beginning practitioner whose impulse in seeking out the Path is to find a way to relate to the external world. Granted, it’s often because we have a misunderstanding that by knowing how we relate to the external world, we can then control that world and by extension, control our reactivities to it. It’s the bugbear of all psychotherapies – and Buddhist practice.

Zen Beyond Mindfulness then incorporates the twelve links of dependent origination as the granular view of the creation of our cyclic patterns of suffering. Of particular note for me was his description of ignorance which moves the term away from lack to a process we can shift through observation:

Normally ignorance means a lack of knowledge, but in Buddhism, it is closer to “ignoring.” p. 51

Once we enter the six realms, I was wishing we had an interactive map that showed the interactions of the skandhas, common factors, dependent origination, and now, the six realms! However, the book is meant to be read slowly, allowing consolidation of the concepts and not as a “quick give me the answer to my woes!” For the sake of transformation, I appreciated the time Shuzen Harris took with each chapter: laying out the model, showing its connection to fundamental Buddhist teachings, tying it back to the previous models, and moving it forward.

Having laid the foundations, we are moved into the Mind Body Bridging model, which in my reading seems to be a way of using the Body Scan with written reflections that explore our assumptions and self-made rules of how the world should serve us. The I(dentity)-System was developed by physician Stanley Block and is intended to uncover that ways the identity we developed to survive developmentally have become obstacles to healthy relationships. The I-System overactivity becomes the cause of our symptoms of distress.

m the MMB page

The latter half of Zen Beyond Mindfulness is the reflective exercises (many written) that open us to the ways we get in our way. I found it hard to link back to the Buddhist framework so carefully set up, although it is there in the chapters themselves. Experientially, it takes a bit of (non)doing. In Shuzen Harris’ own words, some of the concepts may be artificial delineations of this-that and sometimes those divisions can be misleading for readers less familiar with Buddhism’s core foundation of emptiness/sunyata.

I can certainly recommend the book for practitioners (zen or not) who want to spend some introspective time exploring their edges. However, the words “beyond mindfulness” beg the question of anything being “beyond” in the Buddhist worldview – except just plain going beyond. Svaha!

authors & publicists

I’m willing to consider reviewing books that are in line with the theme of this blog. Books about mindfulness, Buddhist practice, compassion, or mental health are welcome. I do not review books that promote violence, racism or make unsubstantiated claims about the Power of X. But I do run out of firestarters for the wood stove, so thank you for that.

Please be generous. If I review your book, pass it on in your social media. Even if I didn’t like your book. It’s your chance to write a better review.

Please use my correct name when contacting me: Lynette. Depending on how we may know each other Dhammaji, Chân Diệu Thi or Genju are all acceptable.

Not Lynn, Lynne, Lyn, Lime, Lise, Linet, or any of the 108 variations available.

Thank you, Lynette

The Day the Buddha Woke Up: A handful of words from a handful of leaves

Note bene: This book was received from the publisher for review.

The Day the Buddha Woke Up by Andrea Miller is a surprisingly delicate presentation of a story every Buddhist has heard over and over. (I was about to write that it is a story Buddhists have heard but I wonder if we’ve ever really heard the story.) I knew Miller’s book was a board book when I agreed to review it, despite reservations about a genre I associate with my daughter’s early bedtime stories or – more often – her early attempts at training as a pitcher for the Blue Jays baseball team! I was tentative.

Miller is an editor at Lion’s Roar and the author of what seems to be a delightful book, My First Book of Canadian Birds, and lives in Nova Scotia. One does not simply walk into a book review of an editor with these chops though I feel a bit more reassured now as I write this.

The Day the Buddha Woke Up is a delightfully written and illustrated book. The back cover says it’s “the heart of the Buddha’s story in a handful of words.” The direct and unsparing writing suggests it’s the handful of words containing the handful of leaves the Buddha held up when he said, “this is what I have taught you.”

The story of the Buddha’s life from birth to enlightenment is told in simple words accompanied by rich and incredibly textured illustrations that form the container of the script. From the sweet drawing of the baby-to-be-Buddha held in maternal arms to his journey through ascetic practices, from the sadness of home-leaving to sitting down under a tree, the story fills out and overflows into your imagination.

Sometimes, I think we read things with too many words.

This little book can be enough.

The Compassionate Kitchen: Book Review

Disclosure: I was asked to review the book by its publicist.

The Compassionate Kitchen: Buddhist practices for eating with mindfulness and gratitude by Thubten Chodron (Shambhala Publications) is a gentle, paced exploration of how to approach a very central aspect of our lives. It’s not the typical book on mindful eating, crammed with cheery ways of looking at food and upbeat approaches to savouring every morsel. I was relieved.

The truth about food is that it can be a tormenting dance at least six times a day with a lover we can’t be rid of or negotiate piece treaties. Having been on a few – many – a lot! – of diets and deprivations, I can absolutely attest to the reality that food and I cannot live with or without each other. 

Reading Thubten Chodron’s very disciplined yet gentle approach to exploring the intricacies of nourishing ourselves, I think I’ve had it all wrong. It’s not about the food. Well, it’s not ONLY about the food. It’s about the intimacy with which we approach the whole relationship of being with each other. While she opens with a generous portion of life at Sravasti Abbey and the title of the first chapter can seem daunting (Eating as Spiritual Practice), the theme is clear. See and know the net that gathers for you what you need to live. And that’s not just food.

 The motivation we bring to each action impacts its results, and eating is no exception.

Attachment makes our mind very narrow and self-centered: a mind filled with craving has no room for generosity.

Chapter 2: The Taste of Altruism: Our motivation for eating

Throughout the book, Thubten Chodron offers this refrain, which I have always held as the core of practice. In this age of quick-fix mindfulness, it’s an important foundation for practice. Our intention sets the tone for our path, yet it is a fragile vow given to being swept off in the torrent of negative emotions. The value of the teachings in this book is the constant reminders to return and refresh our motivations of awareness and kindness.

Most cultures treasure eating not only for its sensual pleasure but also because people bond by sharing food together. By nourishing each other with food and human connection, life continues.

Chapter 5: Mindful Eating

 The chants offered in the book are an interesting part of practice. In every Zen center I’ve practiced, it was my favourite time – perhaps only because it meant good stuff was about to happen! The chants in this book are more elaborate and expansive, yet they have a soothing quality that opens the heart and relaxes the craving mind. I admit, after trying a few chants, it seemed to require more dedication than I have at the moment. Still, I do believe that recitation together at a meal can have a positive impact. The sharing of our lives is more than happenstance and we quickly forget why we came together. Communal recitations of any kind can remind and refresh our intention for being together.

Chapter 10 is likely the most powerful and I sense a wisdom in walking us through the principles and practices of food as a relational process before bringing it home in this poignant and powerful way. In the chapter,  community members write about their relationship to food and their words are both painful and reassuring. 

Overall, I enjoyed having the chance to shift my vision of food and the roots of my relationship to it. What came as a surprise though was the realization of the “kitchen” as this flesh body, this world, these relationships we have with each other. For that I am most grateful.

Book Review: Pause, Breathe, Smile by Gary Gach

Disclosure: I received the book for a fair, unbiased review. However, I actually bought it for myself because I was too impatient to read it.

I met Gary Gach (I think) a few years ago (I think). Or maybe he and I met on Facebook after I met someone he knew who knew someone I didn’t know… All of which to say, I appreciated the chance to read this book.


Pause, Breathe, Smile (PBS) sets a high bar for itself. “Awakening mindfulness when meditation is not enough” throws the gantlet down at the feet of the infatuation with meditation. This an important understanding: meditation is not many things we want it to be and it is not enough. When that becomes apparent, most practitioners give up and find another escape or addiction. Gach is not afraid to confront this head on. If you want to experience changes in your life, you have to be willing to take the show on the road. And Gach offers a terrific framework for getting traction on the path to liberation: Intentionality (pausing), Introspection (breathing), and Insight/clarity (smiling).

It may take a moment’s breath to pause and stop chafing against the seemingly random connections between the words and definitions. But hang in; it does make sense. Gach, ordained in the tradition of Thich Nhat Hanh, makes a quick deep dive into the heart of mindfulness practice: discipline leads to mastery. Using the fundamental practices taught by Zen master, Thich Nhat Hanh, he outlines the daily, continuous practices of attending in the life we live: mindfulness bells, mindfulness blessings, mindfulness trainings, and the triad of study, observe, practice. This is no sweet-talking, do-what-feels-good approach (well, maybe there’s a sweetness in the invitational tone which is irresistible).

Rarely found in today’s deluge of mindfulness books, however, is the courage to address the core of mindfulness practice: cultivating a moral life or what is called “living by vow”. Gach doesn’t shy away from this. In “A moral perspective” he lays out the arc of mindfulness as a relational process.

Being a good person…can be one of the most valuable gifts we can offer ourselves and others.

Gach weaves the threads of continuous practice into a fabric of compassion. When we pay attention to the consequences of our actions, we become aware of how we hurt ourselves and others. Often unintentional – but that’s the whole point. Can we become more intentional in our lives by pausing to see the hurtful impact of our actions, speech, and thoughts? (Of course, if you just want to intentionally hurt others, keep reading anyway because you may learn how to repair what you’ve done.)

The proof is in the practice.

Studying our lives, observing the consequences of our actions, and iterating through practices makes our aim more true in becoming human, more compassionate. Gach offers the Five Mindfulness Trainings, the lay vows taken by Buddhist practitioners and reframed by Thich Nhat Hanh to be more prescriptive than proscriptive, as a means of setting the frame for practice accessible to anyone regardless of religious or personal beliefs.

Gach moves smoothly into Breathe with a detailed examination of the awareness of breath practice – a powerful meditation in many schools of meditation. He follows the interpretation by Thich Nhat Hanh which is a simple (though not always easy) and welcoming process to train meditation habits. He’s emphatic that meditation is not self-hypnosis. I particularly loved Gach’s teaching of the impact of slowing down and going deep:

It’s like gazing down at a clear stream bed, when, unexpectedly, a little leaf falls upon the surface and then whoosh! whoosh zooms away. The leaf surprises us by showing how swiftly a current has been flowing invisibly. So too can our mind race like the wind, without our realizing it.

Through Smile, he explores the practice of equanimity and patience. I’ll admit I had trouble with the suggestion to “smile (as acceptance) when it’s 100 degrees! (I always chuckle when someone says “It is what it is.” One of my teachers used to retort: It is not IT!) Wisdom practices are the most challenging because they require perspective-taking and relinquishing “truths” we hold dear. Using the ideogram of wisdom that contains the scripts of heart/mind and a hand holding a broom, he explores how practice is the process of sweeping clean, purifying our hearts.

Gach’s writing is full of amazing passages that both surprise and affirm what we already understand and feel. Yet, he takes us deeper: placing hands over the heart region during a meditation is like massaging compassion into our hearts. Never insistent in one way, he offers “a hundred ways to kneel and kiss the ground (Rumi)”. Formal and informal practices are held in a realistic partnership with the latter as the “mortar that holds the bricks of formal practice together.” And he is clear that “mindfulness holds a single truth with multiple meanings.”

The power of this book is the absence of saccharine mindfulness or what a colleague calls “pink bubble-gum mindfulness”. It is determined to awaken the reader and offers a simple, clear guide along the path. Still, Gach is emphatic that practice requires awareness of the ultimate challenges we face, individually and collectively, in setting our compass to the three realities of impermanence, self-making, and interbeing. In his closing words:

The rest is up to you.

Before Buddha was Buddha by Rafe Martin: bedtime stories to wake up by

Disclosure: I was provided the book for an honest review.
Connection: Rafe Martin is in my social media circle and I’ve likely known him in some Jataka Tale or the other.
Previous reviews: Endless Path – Awakening Within the Buddhist Imagination: Jataka Tales, Zen practice, and daily life

Rafe Martin adds Before Buddha was Buddha: Learning from the Jataka tales to already prodigious library of mythic tales drawn from the Buddha’s past lives. The morality themes in the stories resonate with other morality tales from the same period such as Aesop’s fables. The primary – and crucial – difference, however, is the portrayal of human frailties: animals typically carry the tone of moral decrepitude in the Greek and later Renaissance fables whereas, in the Jataka Tales, the moral lack is equally possible in humans as in animals. Perhaps this is the deep appeal of the Buddha’s past lives and its potential for discomfort; we are not spared painful lessons by being at the top of this food chain.

In the introduction, Martin offers one of the least addressed challenges to Prince Siddhartha Gautama’s sudden realization that aging, illness, and death occur. Not only quietly challenging this hole in the plot of the Buddha’s coming to be, he also offers the insight missed by many others: it’s the felt sense, that deep embodied realization of the reality of aging, illness, and death that wakes us up. It’s the beginner’s mind of all beginnings. The familiar, the taken-for-granted, the obvious is inescapably real.

And the rest, as is often said, is commentary.

The heart of the Jataka teachings is that this human birth is precious. And the rhythmically pounding message is that it’s not the final destination. The animals in the Jataka tales are by turns blind and aware of this message. Their actions move them in the direction of becoming human; whether we choose to see it as rebirth or realizing their own-form compassionate nature depends on our own landscape. The naga king who chooses to become the silver snake, the monkey king who sees through the delusions of humans and their self-making, the two cousins reborn over and over as fawns and osprey – they begin to understand that the path to liberation is through the human birth and.

Yet, I wonder if that idea has a risky edge of elevating our human capacity above the others. Perhaps it doesn’t matter because the human lives lived by the future Buddha in the Jataka stories are equally challenged and, after many, many failed attempts at liberation, seem to finally arrive at the base of the bodhi tree.

Because I’ve felt too many dharma talks rely on students having already cultivated clear comprehension and too many teachers presume vicarious learning suffices, Martin’s commentaries for each Jataka tale are important to read because they offer a clear perspective of the intent of the tales. As we learned from the Zen story of Gutei’s finger, much can be lost in translation. Martin skillfully draws from the teachings of Zen masters and threads together the sometimes elusive morals in the tales. As he emphasizes in the tale of the Bodhisattva Robber, it helps to know what is really being taught.

I read each chapter as a bedtime story, letting the echoes carry through me the next day and the days after. It’s not about savouring – although there is that too – rather, it is about letting the nuances fill out the spaces between sleeping and waking up. I hear in Martin’s writings, always, the urgency to wake up, “like the dragon when he gains the water, like the tiger when she enters the mountain. (Dogen)”