Becoming Kuan Yin: The Evolution of Compassion
By Stephen Levine (Weiser Books)
Stephen Levine’s Becoming Kuan Yin tells of Miao Shan, the daughter of a spiteful Chinese king. When she wouldn’t yield to his wishes that she become the wife of a military officer, he banished her to a life of hardship and abuse in a convent and threatened to kill the abbess if she did not break his daughter’s will.
The young woman was given a windowless room, a stone floor for a bed, latrines and animal pens to clean, and stone walls to dust, which rained sharp tiny specks into her eyes. To the king’s angry surprise, Miao Shan thrived in caring for the hideously ill and suffering, emerging in history and myth as Kuan Yin, a female Bodhisattva—an enlightened being who turns back from nirvana to serve others on earth.
The first book in a decade for Levine (Who Dies?, A Year to Live), Becoming Kuan Yin is more poetic than didactic, an infectious fever dream of images and insights. Reminiscent of St. Francis, Kuan Yin drew wild animals to her even as a young girl, and she fed them by hand. These creatures—tigers, snakes, wild boar, wise carp, even pterodactyls and dragons—offer a menagerie of metaphors.
While her story holds elements of spiritual parable—Cinderella meets Mother Teresa—Levine mines it for contemporary reference points, drawing on the experience of service to the dying for lessons in compassion and forgiveness.
“Becoming” is the key to the reader’s relation to Kuan Yin: her challenges and transcendence a guide for less evolved souls to confront our own pain and doubts, to escape the illusion of our “selves,” to find in our own suffering compassion for the suffering of others.
This is a book you access through intuition as much as intellect, one to read again and again, struck by new awareness each time.
Darling: A Spiritual Autobiography
By Richard Rodriguez (Viking)
In the months after the events of September 11, 2001, the award-winning journalist Richard Rodriguez found himself drawn to learn more about Islam—both the religion and its followers. He began a quest that took him from the old kingdom of Jerusalem to the posh high-tech world of Silicon Valley. Along the way, he examined not only how this religion is so misunderstood by the Western world, but also how he had developed his own relationship with the faith. As a Roman Catholic, he sees himself as a spiritual cousin to both Jews and Muslims, who worship the same God. Yet as a homosexual he feels excluded from all three religions.
Rodriguez suggests that, more than a decade after September 11, we are “at the dawn of a worldwide religious war that Americans prefer to name a ‘war against terror.’” In this collection of provocative and beautifully crafted essays, Rodriguez challenges the reader to move beyond the dialogue of terrorism—and the resulting grief and sadness—to a place of greater understanding and compassion.
He equates the feminist movement of the ’60s with the current movement for gay rights. And he believes that women, in their compassion and wisdom, will play a central role in the future of the desert religions that have treated them as second-class citizens for centuries.
From False Dogma to Life-Affirming Faith: Journalist and author Richard Rodriguez discusses faith, terrorism, and “the age of the woman.”
How does faith play into your personal definition of religion?
There is no “personal definition of religion.” Religion defines itself; religion is creed, it is form, the enumeration of laws and beliefs. Faith, on the other hand, is often idiosyncratic. Faith can be at variance with dogmatism and certitude. Faith is the willingness to trust in the God of the night, to live with a God who remains in mystery.
You’ve said of September 11, 2001: “It worries me that 10 years later, we’re still preoccupied with this one event. We need to move from grief to a different kind of sadness.” What would that entail?
A society that is overwhelmed by grief forbids imagination, which is an understanding of the world beyond itself—and a grief other than its own. I am struck that cultures that are “tragic” in their disposition often are more joyful than a culture like America’s, which is afraid of grief.
Why did you publish this memoir now?
There is an epic change in the world—let me call it “the
age of the woman.” It may be that the male energy is exhausted. The question for me, as a practicing Christian—who considers himself spiritual kin to the Jew and the Muslim because we worship the same God—is whether patriarchal religions will come to see women as equal, will be willing to learn from women, and in that way recognize that the feminine aspect of God coexists with the male aspect of God.
What do you hope readers take away from it?
Religion is probably the most dangerous force in the world. Indeed, it’s possible the world will end with a mad man’s prayer. But true religion is life-affirming and at odds with the terrorist’s false dogma. If religion is not life-affirming, it is nothing. —JH
Root-to-Stalk Cooking: The Art of Using the Whole Vegetable
By Tara Duggan (Ten Speed Press)
In an age of nose-to-tail animal cookery, it’s only natural that an enterprising chef should turn her attention to whole-vegetable cookery too. Tara Duggan’s new cookbook, Root-to-Stalk Cooking: The Art of Using the Whole Vegetable, promises to teach home cooks how to make the most of their produce, featuring 65 recipes showcasing parts of vegetables that typically get tossed.
It’s a savvy (not to mention thrifty) idea, and some of Duggan’s recipes are truly inspired: carrot-top salsa verde with roasted root vegetables is a clever, all-inclusive side; beet greens strata is a colorful and hearty main dish. Duggan even tackles some trickier scraps like watermelon rinds, which are transformed into a Thai-inspired salad. But some creations, like the thimble-sized, labor-intensive tomato water and cucumber granita, seem like more trouble than they’re worth.
The book’s six chapters represent different edible parts of a plant (roots, stems, leaves, flowers, seeds, and fruit), and Duggan helpfully points readers toward multiple recipes using different parts of the same vegetable.
Duggan, a regular contributor to the San Francisco Chronicle’s food section and the author of The Working Cook, has a knack for making sometimes-complicated recipes seem accessible. But home cooks who aren’t comfortable improvising may wish for more guidance; some of her recipes rely more on intuition than precision.
Cooking root to stalk is a noble goal, and Duggan makes it seem reachable. If home cooks can implement even half of her suggestions into their daily routine, consider it a job well done. —Jamie Feldmar
Love Your Enemies: How to Break the Anger Habit & Be a Whole Lot Happier
By Sharon Salzberg and Robert Thurman (Hay House)
As the elevator door closed in my face, I felt my blood pressure rise. Didn’t those two men notice me pushing a giant stroller? How rude! Then I thought back to the times I’ve struggled to find the right button to keep an elevator open, only to miss letting someone in. Maybe that’s what happened with the men. I felt compassion instead of annoyance.
That little moment came courtesy of reading Love Your Enemies, by Sharon Salzberg and Robert Thurman, which encourages what Thurman calls our “heroic potential” in overcoming our instinctive urge toward anger. The authors are writing from a Buddhist perspective: Salzberg is a founder of the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts, and a well-known meditation teacher and author. Thurman is a professor of Indo-Tibetan Buddhist Studies at Columbia University and an advocate for Buddhist studies around the world. Love Your Enemies comes from a workshop the two have been teaching together for seven years.
The authors examine four kinds of enemies: outer (situations that frustrate us or people who get in our way); inner (our own anger and fear); the secret enemy (our preoccupation with ourselves); and the supersecret enemy (a deep sense that we are unworthy of true happiness). Each chapter helps the reader identify and dismantle the causes of anger, transforming us into happier, more peaceful creatures. Salzberg and Thurman provide masterful insights, creating a book you immediately want to read again to process it even more fully. —Kathryn Drury Wagner
The Art of Healing: Uncovering Your Inner Wisdom and Potential for Self-Healing
By Bernie S. Siegel, MD (New World Library)
Whether or not you enjoy this book has little to do with how well it is written.
Rather, it depends on whether you relish a doctor frankly revealing his own challenges and fears as a caregiver, a near-death-
experience survivor, a star surgeon who advises patients to ponder their divinity, a dog lover who communicates psychically with his pets, and a devoted son whose dead father has delivered messages in dreams.
For all those who idolize (and thus dehumanize) physicians as omnipotent, emotionless wielders of life and death, Siegel’s disarming disclosures about clairvoyance, the healing power of art, and his spirit guide, George, will be as jarring as those moments when film actors “break the fourth wall” and start speaking, as themselves, into the lens.
Siegel’s “carefrontation” protocol for cancer patients and his other medicospiritually radical strategies—which emerged from epiphanies about a “greater intelligence . . . that allows cells to communicate inside the human body,” revealing that they want to heal—have gained international renown and yielded remarkable real-life results.
Is this the actual alt-med revolution?
“Nothing in my training as a physician taught me to understand that all life-forms emit a mirror image of invisible conscious energy at the subatomic quantum level,” Siegel explains in this part memoir, part manual packed with engaging anecdotes, “or that this energy can be communicated by individuals through psychic or intuitive methods.”
His prescription? Joy.
“I ask seniors to tell me how they can die laughing,” Siegel reveals.
Heck, it beats crying. —Anneli Rufus