By John Pendall
James William Coleman has done something that I once dreamed of doing, which is great because it means less work for me.
The Buddha’s Dream of Liberation: Freedom, Emptiness, and Awakened Nature is part sight-seeing guide for Buddhist time travelers, and part apologetic essay on Western Buddhism. Coleman takes us through the, “Three Turnings of the Wheel,” which are three major paradigm shifts in Buddhism. He also paints Secular Buddhism as a kind of Fourth Turning—laying out some of the risks and benefits of modernizing Buddhism.
Coleman doesn’t just write off-the-cuff in this piece; he provides excerpts and reflections on Suttas and Sutras as well. It’s refreshing to read a beginner-intermediate Buddhist book that references the Tripitaka. You rarely see Sutra-heavy texts outside of super-expensive tomes written by Buddhologists. Coleman’s approach to the Sutras isn’t just intellectual; he muses that, “We have to do more than just translate these great teachings into our language; we have to bring them to life in our own cultural terms.”
The book follows a logical progression. It starts with an exposition on early Buddhism by frequently referencing sources in the Pali Canon. He even gives mindfulness a proper treatment by translating sati as, “Memory,” which is what mindfulness is all about. Being aware of the present moment isn’t mindfulness; being aware of the present moment in reference to the teachings is mindfulness. Coleman gives a great treatment to the Four Noble Truths, the Noble Eightfold Path, and the Five Precepts.
The Second Turning covers teachings on emptiness, including excerpts from the Heart and Diamond Sutras. There’s nothing on the Clubs and Spades Sutras though. I apologize, that was a terrible joke. Coleman does a decent job untangling the messy Madhyamaka teachings, including the Two Truths (conventional vs. absolute). Commentaries on the Prajnaparamita teachings usually go from one extreme to another: overcomplicated or oversimplified. Coleman makes a heroic effort at treading a Middle Way between the two.
The only thing that really irks me is that he frequently calls Reb Anderson a “Zen Master” which is kind of an outdated term that’s used more by the media than everyday practitioners. Except for Dogen—almost everyone says, “Zen Master Dogen,” because, well, just because everyone says that I guess.
In the chapter on the Third Turning, Coleman introduces the Sutra of the Explanation of Profound Secrets, which isn’t a widely read Sutra in the West, so I’m glad he covers it here. You can tell that he really digs this Sutra, so he gives it a thorough treatment. The Profound Secrets Sutra sets the scene for the Buddha-nature and Yogacara schools. It also introduces skillful means and Suchness. Third Turning teachings were aimed at building a bridge between the First and Second Turnings. The Third Turning was basically a response to how unwieldy the Prajnaparamita teachings were.
Coleman shifts gears in Part II of the book. While Part I gives an in-depth but digestible rundown of the Three Turnings, Part II switches to his personal variety of modern Buddhism which is, for the most part, an apologetic interpretation of the first Three Turnings—especially the Third. Really, though, Secular/Postmodern/Western Buddhism could be repackaged as “Buddhist Apologetics,” so he does paint an accurate picture of the most popular modern Buddhist views. My only complaint is that he didn’t really go into the history of Secular Buddhism, which I think would’ve been an interesting compliment to how he portrayed the first three.
Western Buddhism has already gone through several turnings of its own, and it’ll go through more. It started with comparative religion theologians and Asian immigrants. From there, Buddhism slowly diverged into two separate arms: Secular and Traditional. Secular Buddhism first found its voice as the “Beat Zen,” of Alan Watts, Jack Kerouac, and Allen Ginsberg. From there, the mantle was handed to Jack Kornfield and Joseph Goldstein who kicked off the Vipassana Movement.
From the 80’s on, Secular Buddhism became more and more focused on apologetics and pragmatism as it adapted to skeptical postmodernism. Modern champions of this movement include Stephen Batchelor and, on the Zen side, Brad Warner. On the other side of the spectrum, there’s the humanistic Engaged Buddhism of Thich Nhat Hanh, which is quickly becoming the dominant paradigm in modern Buddhism especially among Generation Y and the Millennials.
There’s a lot Coleman could’ve said on those subjects, but maybe he felt that that was beyond the scope of this book. He ends The Buddha’s Dream of Liberation with essays by Reb Anderson and Palden Drolma. They’re both fantastic introductory essays for anyone interested in Zen and Vajrayana respectively, but they seem to be kind of an afterthought in the book.
Overall, I give The Buddha’s Dream of Liberation 3.5 out of 5 stars. I’d call it a “must read” for practitioners traveling that interesting path between “beginner” and “intermediate.” Coleman offers a great variety of Sutras to choose from for further study, so this book acts as kind of a spring board into more in-depth practice.
Editor: Dana Gornall