Medicine Buddha Teachings
Khenchen Thrangu Rinpoche
Snow Lion 2004

Medicine Buddha Teachings is the edited transcript of teachings given by Venerable Khenchen Thrangu Rinpoche at an eight-day retreat in Washington’s Cascade region. What makes this book so readable, enjoyable, devotional and practical is the sense that you are there as part of the retreat. At the very beginning of the book, readers are welcomed and given instructions on how to approach the teachings: “Please generate strong devotion for the root guru and other gurus of the lineage…please think that you are listening to them…”

Khenchen Thrangu Rinpoche constantly reminds us that the motivation for receiving the teachings is extremely important. We need to be physically and mentally healthy in order to establish “a stable and profound practice” to be of benefit to all beings.

The book contains the Medicine Buddha Sadhana in Tibetan with an English translation, and commentaries on the Medicine Buddha Sutras. There are many practices given in this book, from the simple repetition of the name of Medicine Buddha to very complex visualizations. Khenchen Thrangu Rinpoche’s wisdom and patience shine through as he guides us through the practices and the basic principles of Tantric theory. Because of the direct relation between mind and body, we can experience decreased illness and suffering by meditating on the Medicine Buddha:

“Visualize the Medicine Buddha four fingers high in an afflicted place in your body and think that from this small but vivid form rays of light are emitted. These rays are not simply light, which is dry, but liquid light having the quality of ambrosia. This luminous ambrosia actually cleanses and removes the sickness and pain.”

There are many valuable teachings in this book. So make yourself receptive as the Buddha instructed – listen well, listen fully and hold this in your mind.

At the end of the retreat, Khenchen Thrangu Rinpoche thanked people for taking time out of their busy lives to come and hear the teachings, and said that by coming they had somehow awakened their Buddha nature and can begin to attain liberation.
– Swami Radhananda

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Healing Yoga for People Living with Cancer
Lisa Holtby
Taylor Trade 2004

People with serious illnesses are turning to yoga in increasing numbers because it is both an intelligent system for physical revitalization, and a calming centring practice that helps reduce the emotional toll of illness.

Lisa Holtby provides a beautiful and compassionately written guide for people living with cancer who want to help themselves. Her instructions are clear and complete yet simple enough for beginners. Most importantly, she infuses every page with positive affirmations that are genuine and uplifting without being saccharine. The core of the book is six sections that build from the most basic warm-ups to more vigorous postures. It is clear from her introductory segments and the guidelines for each exercise that she knows her audience; she has worked with cancer patients and designed this program based on what worked best for them.

The first two practice segments address attitude and breathing, both foundational for a holistic practice of yoga. Ms. Holtby writes in down-to-earth language about subtle aspects of experience, such as how to set an intention, the sensations of breathing, and how to get behind the clutter of the mind’s chatter. Her writing style is natural and welcoming, with a personal touch that inspires confidence and invites a deep personal exploration on the part of the student.

The four sections of asana (ten poses in each, with English and Sanskrit names) progress from gentle chair poses to gentle floor poses, to more vigorous strength-building floor poses, to standing poses. There are at least two variations of each pose, one more gentle and one more intense. The book concludes with an anatomy primer and a comprehensive resource guide. This is a must-have book for all those who want to help themselves through difficult times with yoga – Ellen Saltonstall

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Father Joe: The Man Who Saved My Soul
Tony Hendra
Random House 2004

Tony Hendra is best known as a writer and satirist who co-wrote This Is Spinal Tap, a seminal comedy about a fictional 1970s rock band that inspired an entire film genre – the mockumentary. Hendra’s writing with National Lampoon in the late ’60s and early ’70s helped a generation of North Americans express their growing cynicism and frustration with politics and religion. What is less known about Hendra is his spiritual side.

Father Joe begins with a fourteen-year-old Tony getting caught in an affair with a married Catholic woman. He is sent off to meet Father Joseph Warrillow, an unconventional Benedictine monk chosen to mete out punishment for the boy’s sin. Much to Hendra’s surprise he is not admonished, and he eventually becomes so enthralled with the life of a monk that he tries unsuccessfully to take the vows and gain acceptance into the abbey for many years to come.

While there are some notable holes in Father Joe, particularly in regard to Hendra’s two wives, I found that I could connect to Father Joe on a number of levels. Like Hendra, and like many people I know who grew up inside the Church, I also for a time considered taking vows and staying inside the tradition in a more formal way.

I was also inspired by Hendra’s struggles with satire itself. Having convinced himself that making people laugh was a noble pursuit, Hendra was unable to understand why he took so little personal pleasure in it himself. In speaking to Father Joe, Hendra realizes that the scabrous nature of satire – the skewering of a subject at whatever cost – is born from a vindictive, vengeful place, and not born from traditional Christian tenets, even if the result is laughter. As someone who has often used humour as the last line of defense – and perhaps too often as the first line of offense – I was interested in how a professional satirist and spiritual devotee engages with the contradictions found in these two pursuits.

Overall, I don’t know if Father Joe would be to everyone’s taste, but I found myself greatly impressed by the deftness with which Hendra dealt with spiritual and cultural matters. I was 32,000 feet above the Canadian Rockies when I finished Father Joe, and was surprised to find myself weeping – surprised to the point where I actually looked at the man next to me to see if he could explain why the book in my lap was wet. He just looked back at me with a puzzled expression. When I landed in Vancouver, I stopped at an airport washroom to freshen up, only to find my face streaked with black ink. I realized that my pen had exploded mid-flight, staining my hands, and when I was weeping into my hands the ink transferred to my face. I found it a fitting and comical end to a book that engaged and challenged me in considering the role of satire and faith in my spiritual life. What else can you do, except laugh?
– Scott W. Gray

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Not Turning Away:The Practice of Engaged Buddhism
Susan Moon, ed.
Shambhala 2004

Not Turning Away is a collection of writing from Turning Wheel: The Journal of the Buddhist Peace Fellowship that brings forth the stories of everyday people finding strength in the practice of engaged Buddhism. The book captures twenty-five years of reflection on right action and Buddhist ideals in practice. From San Quentin’s death row in California to Ambleside Beach in West Vancouver, writers offer very personal insights on practising Buddhism in, as editor Susan Moon writes, “lives being lived in the cross current of our world.”

Recounting personal stories, authors such as Thich Nhat Hanh and Marianne Dresser convey the details of everyday life and avoid entrenching their words on social action into the dichotomies of “right and wrong.” The essays bring Buddhist principles into practice, asking, How can I live rightly? How can I bring peace? And, as Joanna Macy says in her article “Buddhist Resources for Despair,” in reference to social action in the nuclear age, “the inner work of social change—it helps us expand our awareness of both the peril and the promise of our time.”

Sally Clay’s “Healing and Empowerment” does a wonderful job describing and normalizing social phenomena that are often stigmatized. She deftly describes her experience living with a mental illness and how her spiritual practice has helped her manage her own life and know her own mind. And Lin Jenson, in his article “Bad Dog: From Shame to Compassion,” illustrates how living his practice helps him move from agonizing memories of an abusive relationship with his father to being able to care for his father as an old and dying man.

Throughout the articles, writers return to themselves as a point of reference in both the cause of illness and the effect of healing. In prescribing an anecdote for peace, Thich Nhat Hanh urges that “when you have shown your capacity for listening and understanding, the other person will begin to listen to you, and you have a chance to tell him or her of your pain, and it’s your turn to get healed. This is the practice of peace.”

The stories in Not Turning Away help me to understand my life experience with more gentleness and appreciation for the people who have influenced it. The book left me wanting more and was very effective in engaging me in further exploration of Buddhism as a practice of peace. – Kendra Ward

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Stabat Mater – Arvo Pärt
Christopher Jackson, Studio de musique ancienne de Montréal, Quatuor Franz Joseph & Daniel Taylor
ATMA Classique 2004

Arvo Pärt once said: “I have discovered that it is enough when a single note is beautifully played.” On this outstanding new release, his words ring long, clear and true. For thirty years, the Estonian composer has received worldwide attention for his haunting, “tintinnabular” style, drawing slow and beautiful music from medieval, Renaissance and Gregorian traditions. Here, Quatuor Franz Joseph’s strings join the Studio de musique ancienne de Montréal and Daniel Taylor to perform a handful of Pärt’s finest works.

The album opens with “Psalom,” where measured phrases of violin, viola and cello drift and weave together. The music seems to move not from note to note but from silence to silence, each break in sound a held breath. When “Summa” begins, the choir’s voices are like a sudden jolt of humanity; it’s as if we are stepping out of a dark wood, seeing a human face for the first time in years. Conductor Christopher Jackson leads the studio choir, letting the Latin words of the Christian Creed rise and fall like breath.

When Pärt wrote “Fratres” in 1977, he included no specification for instrumentation. Consequently, it has been arranged for a multitude of instruments, from piano to percussion to orchestra. Here it is performed by string quartet, the violin’s open chord a restful base for the other instruments’ winsome pulse.

“Es sang vor langen Jahren” lets Taylor’s high, plum voice sail over the occasional nod of cello. The result is a desolate landscape whose stillness is occasionally disturbed. “Stabat Mater,” the record’s twenty-nine-minute finale, takes these feelings and extends them even further. The violin and violas de gamba present long stretches of unmistakable sadness, and voices join them in reverent prayer.

Great beauty, this album suggests, can be found in the most barren places. The performers have outdone themselves, becoming the invisible conduits for joy and despair. Arvo Pärt’s music does not only express the depths of the human soul and the grief it can experience. But like a band of sunlight into a darkened cave, “Stabat Mater” is also an affirmation of faith, of the shimmering heights toward which our spirit can rise. After night has fallen, there will inevitably be a dawn. – Sean Michaels

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Four Tet 2003

Four Tet’s latest album Rounds opens with a coarse organic beat, the kind that is easily overlooked if you’ve got the volume too low.

Picture this. You’re riding in the backseat of a car full of friends well acquainted and silence is comfortable and easy. You’re in the city. The sky is clear. You experience the slow motion of passenger life, free to stretch your neck and look through the windows, taking it all in.

A simple drone rises up, and the foundation for all ten tracks on Rounds is laid down.

Your altitude changes by way of underpass or overpass. Your sightline increases and decreases in gentle rhythm. Telephone poles rise up to electrical wires that dip along, crisscrossing tops of billboards and signposts. The lights change. You stop. You go.

In the first track, Hands, the bright explosion of high hat and keyboard reveals straight ahead drumbeats, rhythmic guitar and driving bass lines that are sharpened with hypnotic electronic samples. As the album unfolds this relationship endures, creating a soundscape that gets inside, takes hold and, strangely, puts a smile on your face.

When I first bought Rounds I hadn’t yet heard of Four Tet and wasn’t really familiar with anything electronic. Looking for something new, something lyric-free and inspiring, I sat crowned with headphones before a store’s CD player, cautiously pressed play, and was immediately drawn in to the circular sounds of Rounds.

Four Tet is twenty-four-year-old Kieran Hebden, an electronic musician hailing from London, UK. His music is characterized by striking acoustic elements artfully layered with electronic samples. Inspired by the brilliant sounds of jazz artists John Coltrane, Ornette Coleman and Albert Ayler, Hebden’s choices are intentional and his music is relevant to the twenty-first century. His arrangements are sophisticated and artful without being escapist or judgemental.

Listening to this album, I relax, breathe easy and am seduced by the subtle interplay between electronic and acoustic sound. On the metro, in my apartment, stretched out on the grass, I pull out Four Tet when I really want to plug in. – Tressa Brotsky

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Copyright ©2007 ascent magazine, first Canadian yoga magazine, yoga for an inspired life