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Buddhadharma : Summer 2017
summer 2017 buddhadharma: the practitioner’s quarterly 79 Prolific translator Bhikkhu Bodhi offers a massive contribution to the study of Bud- dhism with his 1,600-page translation, with commentary, of The Suttanipata (Wisdom 2017), an anthology of discourses from the Pali Canon that includes some of the oldest avail- able Buddhist writing. Written largely in verse, it lacks the systematic doctrines found in many canonical works; topics like the four noble truths, the eightfold path, and the five aggre- gates are seldom addressed. Strikingly, Bhik- khu Bodhi notes that even the Pali word for impermanence (anicca), seemingly fundamental to any traditional understanding of Buddhism, does not occur in any of the poems, though he resists the theories of some scholars that these works represent a nascent form of Buddhism that predated formalized doctrine. He argues instead that they served a different purpose: “to inspire, edify, and instruct” on such top- ics as social ethics, devotion, death, loss, and renunciation. as figures able to transmit Buddhist wisdom in effortless and incredible ways, free from their own political and cultural contexts. But in his view, these texts served specific agendas critical to Chan’s survival, framing it as a “pure” tradi- tion that was beneficial to the state and maxi- mally appealing to the donors. There has long been a belief in some Bud- dhist traditions that a person’s last thought before death can dramatically alter their next life. This final thought is said to be so power- ful that it can overturn a lifetime of negative actions and, in some cases, even lead to libera- tion. In Right Thoughts at the Last Moment (Hawai’i 2017), Jacqueline Stone builds on her years of research into Buddhist understand- ings of death to explore deathbed practices in early medieval Japan. She explains that as early as the year 986, we find a collective of monks dedicated to helping each other obtain rebirth in the Pure Land through focusing on the Bud- dha at the moment of death. Yet as practices like these spread, so too did new anxieties: what if someone dies badly or thinks of the wrong thing? Such fears led to new strategies for helping the dying make the most of a ter- rifying yet critical moment. Anyone who has visited a Tibetan Buddhist center will have encountered a rich amalgam of objects: statues, reliquaries, paintings, man- dalas, amulets, sacred pills, and many others. Despite the ubiquity of such objects in Tibetan Buddhist settings, historical discussions of their significance have been largely overlooked, tak- ing a back seat to writings on philosophy and meditation. In his book Power Objects in Tibetan Buddhism (Brill 2017), James Gentry examines the works of the famous “Mongol repeller” Sokdokpa Lodrö Gyeltsen (1552– 1624) and the debates he engaged in concern- ing the power of material objects. Responding to criticisms of the Nyingma school’s theories of “buddhahood without meditation,” Sok- dokpa provided sophisticated theoretical sup- port for the possibility of becoming liberated by seeing a sacred object, hearing a particular sound, wearing a special object, or tasting a sacred substance. Gentry lifts the curtain on this fascinating discussion, challenging us to rethink the importance of material culture for Tibetan Buddhist practice. A three-part folding screen depicts Amida coming over the mountains with two attendant bodhisattvas; threads near the Buddha’s hands indicate that a cord was once attached for a dying person to hold during his or her last hours (Kamakura period) (TOP)FROMrightthoughtsatthelastmoment|courtesyoFkonkaikomyoJi,kyoto