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Buddhadharma : Fall 2005
buddhadharma| 71 |fall 2005 in 1819, a group of British soldiers in southwest India happened upon a large complex of man-made caves filled with exquisite Buddhist paintings and sculp- tures. Ever since, the Ajanta caves have been celebrated as one of the great artistic achievements of the ancient world and one of the most stunningly beautiful expres- sions of the Buddhist teachings. Sadly, the fragile condition of the murals and the darkness of the caves have made the mas- terpieces nearly impossible to photograph. In The Ajanta Caves: Ancient Paintings of Buddhist India (Thames & Hudson, 2005), Benoy K. Behl overcomes this challenge with an innovative approach using long exposures to capture natural ambient light. This technique captures the brilliant colors of the paintings missed in the darkness of the caves and washed out in photographs taken with bright artifi- cial light. Behl introduces the work with an informed and readable overview of the creation, appreciation, and preservation of the Ajanta murals. The heart of the book, photographic essays on the paintings of Caves 1, 2, 16, and 17, brings to life the mastery with which Ajanta’s anonymous painters rendered various Jataka tales in gorgeous detail. The other great masterpieces of Buddhist cave art are the fantastic “transformation tableaux” painted between the seventh and ninth centuries in China. In Shaping the Lotus Sutra: Buddhist Visual Culture in Medieval China (University of Washington Press, 2005), Eugene Wang provides an engaging study of these and other Lotus Sutra-inspired murals from medieval sites across China. With an innovative approach to art history, Wang traces the stunning visual images to narrative and doctrinal aspects of the Lotus Sutra. Beyond this, however, he challenges the assumed corre- lation between text and image and argues for the importance of reading paintings as “texts” in their own right. This lavishly illustrated volume (including twenty-one color plates) offers readers an in-depth study of some of the most spectacular works of Buddhist visual art and an insight- ful reflection on the Buddhist world of medieval China. In the world of tantric Buddhist poetry, the enigmatic Indian saint Saraha holds a position of unrivaled importance. Kurtis Schaeffer’s excellent study, Dreaming the Great Brahmin: Tibetan Traditions of the Buddhist Poet-Saint Saraha (Oxford University Press, 2005), eschews the search for “the historical Saraha” by shifting attention to the dynamic life of the stories, songs, and images of Saraha in Tibetan literature, art, and ritual. The study opens with a sophisticated discussion of the diverse ways that Tibetan Buddhists have understood Saraha. This is followed by an erudite history of the transmission of Saraha’s famous “Treasury of Doha Verses.” Schaeffer’s translation of the dif- ficult but beautiful “Treasury” (along with a thirteenth-century commentary) demon- strates his talent for maintaining accuracy without sacrificing poetic expression. The masterwork of a very different Buddhist poet, the contemporary Korean writer and activist Ko Un, receives its first English translation in Ten Thousand Lives (Green Integer, 2005). The author, a for- mer Son (Zen) monk, was imprisoned for rebellion against the military regime that ruled Korea in the 1970’s and early 1980’s. In the solitary and dark confinement of his cell, Ko Un conceived of an epic poem that would record the life of every person he had ever known or known of. Twenty of twenty-five planned volumes have been published in Korean already and this translation presents a selection of poems from the first ten volumes. The publica- tion of an English translation of Ko Un’s novel, Little Pilgrim (Parallax Press, 2005), which is based on the last chapter of the Avatamsaka Sutra, lends further weight to Ko Un’s growing reputation as one of the most important and prolific writers in the world of contemporary Buddhist lit- erature. The practice of mind training (lojong) is based on the essential Mahayana teach- ings of impermanence, compassion, and the exchange of self and other that the eleventh-century master Atisha brought to Tibet from India. (See “Forum: The Lojong Mind Training Practices” on page 38 for more on this subject.) The lojong teachings are a source of inspiration and guidance shared by masters of all Tibetan traditions. This makes Thupten Jinpa’s translation of Mind Training: The Great Collection (Wisdom Publications, 2005) a natural choice for publication as part of the Library of Tibetan Classics series. For the first time, this early collection of the instructions of the great Kadampa mas- ters has been translated in its entirety. The clarity and raw power of these thousand- Book Briefs By Benjamin Bogin