Monday, June 17, 2019

Girls in Their Married Bliss by Edna O'Brien (Book Review)

The newest edition
Girls in Their Married Bliss (on it's own) = 6/10
The Country Girls Trilogy + Epilogue = 9/10

Girls in Their Married Bliss by Edna O'Brien is the third in her classic trilogy: "The Country Girls." Originally written in the 1960s, my edition came with a new epilogue written in the 1980s and wow, what a difference that addition made.

I absolutely loved the first book, "The Country Girls" and I really liked the second book "The Lonely Girl" although it was fairly depressing (you can find my reviews HERE and HERE). What I didn't see coming, but maybe can now in retrospect, is just how sad and miserable and, dark and strange the final book would be.

When I finished Girls in Their Married Bliss I was initially very disappointed with the writing, the plot, the character changes, just about everything. But when I read the epilogue, it tied the third novel in with the prior two in a way that dramatically changed how I thought of the first two and made the three work together in a much more haunting way, a way that shows the terrible destiny that our main character, Kate, was almost bound to from birth. However, I won't give away the epilogue's content because it is so vital, but if you do chose to read this book, please find a version with that epilogue.

When we left off at the end of The Lonely Girl, Kate, our young woman and mid-century Irish main character, had left her dour, older, quietly-cruel boyfriend Eugene and was going to finally, we thought, embark on a path of liberation - school, work, and a self-determined life.

The edition I read
That makes the first chapter of "Girls in Their Married Bliss" so jarring. Unlike the prior two books which are told in first person from Kate's perspective, the third novel is told in first person from her friend Baba's perspective or in third person on chapters more dedicated to Kate. This has the effect of depersonalizing and slightly distancing us from Kate. However, when considering the epilogue, this must have been a conscious choice of the author to tie the writing in stylistically to Kate's deteriorating (and distancing) mental state; but more on that to come.

Baba, our narrator this time around, was never a nice person, not when growing up with Kate, not at their convent school, and not when they moved out on their own to live together and find jobs. But so much, if not most, of this third book is Baba's story, at approximately age 25. It is about her marriage, her choices, and what an ugly life she is leading. It is hard not to judge Baba who comes across as spoiled but also crass and mean. She cheats on her husband, who is also a horrible man, but it isn't cheating out of love. But she isn't just mean due to cheating. She isn't nice to Kate (at least when speaking about her) and she just isn't very likable. To have her as the main narrator and so much of the third book, and focused on her life, was not what I expected, nor a very pleasant story (although well written as the author's works always are - just different).

So what of Kate then? In the opening chapter, Baba catches us up quickly on Kate's last few years, a jump in time forward from the prior novel. Kate has returned to Eugene, giving up her schooling and any possibility of career, and has settled down as a housewife, married to him, and now with a son together, age 5. I had been reading these three novels as a straight-forward feminist work, thinking of Kate as the one who would break through the patriarchy and establish her own agency in a rousing feel-good conclusion. However, I needed to reevaluate these novels instead as a feminist critique on all the ways structures and society were still holding women down, even mid-century. There would be no hurrah at the end as she showed them what women could really do. It seems that Kate and Baba were always meant to suffer in order to hold a mirror up to the world.

We begin to sense that Kate is not well. She had always been sort of middle-of-the-road. That was likable, she wasn't some perfect person being oppressed, she was a real girl in the real world. She could be silly and stupid and insightful and rash and whiny and dependent and exasperating all in turns. But over the course of this novel, her mental health clearly deteriorates as her life continues its muddy trek downward. Compounding her internal struggles, she begins flirtation with another man and Eugene goes cold and passive aggressive, meanly so. Ultimately it is so psychologically abusive that Kate leaves him to keep what shred of sanity she has. The novel focuses on the impact of that separation, Kate's attempts to live on her own, stay a good mother and see her son, and her own widely vacillating emotions.

By the ending of this novel, Kate has suffered a near total collapse in every way. This is hardly the heroic feminist icon I thought she would be when first reading the initial novel. Instead, this is a bleak and harsh look at the very real lives that so many women probably lead, tied down by their parents, their society, their class, and the burdens and scars they bear as a result. I won't give away the ending, but it is not a resolution. For that, you need the epilogue, and it won't be the resolution you were seeking.

However, it is a resolution that helps to situate this third novel in with the first two in a much more Gothic arc for Kate, one that now has a scary echo of her mother's own tragic life. Did Edna O'Brien know about that parallel with her mother when she wrote the first novel, or did it evolve naturally, as the only possible conclusion, from their shared psychic DNA? Who knows, but while it isn't uplifting, it is a fairly amazing bit of writing. And that makes this third novel not a novel on its own, but really ACT 3 of a much larger cycle. The trilogy and epilogue must be read as a single novel to see Edna O'Brien's true brilliance as a writer.

As an important aside, given the current climate in the United States right now (2019), there is a section in this novel that needs to be discussed. CONTENT WARNING - home abortion discussion to follow, skip the rest of this paragraph if you don't want to read about it. At one point, Baba becomes pregnant by the man she is cheating on her husband with. In desperation she solicits Kate to help her with a home abortion, abortion being illegal in Ireland at the time. The description of the methods and experience is so vivid and disturbing that it should be required reading by anyone who is seeking to end legal abortions. Because women have always needed abortions, and have every right to their body's autonomy, they will find a way. If legal abortion is ended, it will not end abortions, but instead drive them underground and cause nothing but more suffering and death. Those who proclaim to value life are not valuing the woman's life and her body by making abortion illegal. Like so many women throughout history, Baba endures unimaginable physical pain during the attempt. In this case, for all the horrors of their attempted abortion, it doesn't work. Baba now must also bear a child she doesn't want, to a man she'll never see again, while living with a physically abusive husband who knows it cannot possibly be his child. This is not respect for all life, this is another example of the bleak picture of women's lives in modern society that is the crux of Edna O'Brien's three novels. In some ways, this is the truly penultimate scene of the trilogy. For this IS a feminist novel, one determined to expose the quietly lived yet totally unacceptable "normal" that are Kate and Baba's lives - lives so many women can probably see themselves in.

Back to the review specifically. In her decisions to return to Eugene, marry him, cheat on him, and leave him, Kate has undermined any hope of getting out from under the psychological torture of Eugene. He haunts her like a living ghost. Her mental condition deteriorates as she loses everything, and yet her collapse is told in a slightly impersonal, detached manner. This wasn't a pleasant read. And yet, it wasn't supposed to be. This final novel plus the epilogue was Edna O'Brien tearing away any remaining pleasant veneer from the lives of Kate and Baba and women in general. Make no mistake, this trilogy is a tragedy and the payoff is the epilogue which will reward the reader with a true understanding of what the author intended as the inevitability of Kate's journey into adulthood.

Do yourself a favor, when you read this, read all three novels plus the epilogue as if it is one single novel. It will make more sense that way. It will be more meaningful that way. I broke it up with months in between each novel, and I think I lost some of the author's intended emotional arc when I did that.  On it's own, "Girls in Their Married Bliss" doesn't quite work, but as part of the entire trilogy, as simply the third act of a greater story, it is indispensable. On it's own then, it's just a 6/10, but the total trilogy is a strong, incredible, and still prescient 9/10. You can get all four parts on Amazon in a single edition:


Friday, June 14, 2019

I Married My Best Friend to Shut My Parents Up was less problematic than expected (Manga Review)

Kodama Naoko
I Married My Best Friend to Shut My Parents Up - 6/10

I purchased "I Married My Best Friend to Shut My Parents Up" (by Kodama Naoko, published by Seven Seas) with mild trepidation. With a title like that and the premise that two women fake a marriage then really fall in love, I was skeptical that it would handle a gay relationship with any validity. Surprisingly, it wasn't bad, and actually had a few solid moments.

As premises go, this one is pretty flimsy. Two young woman (Morimoto and Hana), who have known each other since high-school, decide to fake being married in order to get Morimoto's parents to stop setting her up with various eligible men. With that, there were  three possibilities for handling this that came into my head:

1) This manga might just be a male-centric lesbian fantasy - ie, put two women in the same room long enough and they'll get it on, or

2) This manga might be a silly, light yuri fantasy - ie, put two women in the same room long enough and they'll fall sweetly in love, or

3) This might actually be a story about a genuinely gay couple with meaningful backstories that makes the shaky premise make emotional and logical sense even with the forgone conclusion that they will fall in love and live happily ever after.

Much to my surprise, it's closest to number 3! Thank goodness. I have no desire to read any that are in category number 1 but a bunch of so-called yuri manga being published in English seem to be leaning in that direction. On the other hand, much of the rest of yuri being published in English seems to be in category number 2. Sometimes that can be enjoyable, but it isn't usually very emotionally sound, nor realistic, nor deep, nor moving.

Thankfully, "I Married My Best Friend" is closer to being an actual LGBT manga than a yuri manga, maybe a bit like an LGBT josei comedy (if I had to really label it). Yes it is about two women, but they are adults (about time), one of whom is openly gay, and they actually talk about discrimination (briefly at least), how people will take it if Morimoto comes out, actually touches (albeit minimally) on the complexities of gay life that are essentially absent from most yuri (I'm looking at you "Kiss & White Lily For My Dearest Girl" - not that that's necessarily bad).

Getting down to brass tacks, Morimoto, the one who reluctantly agrees to the marriage charade to get her parents off her back, is given several flashbacks to high-school and college where her ambivalence about the boys and men she is dating helps situate the possibility that she hasn't realized her sexual orientation with just enough believability to make the conclusion feel okay. (Wow, that was a long sentence)

Hana, her friend, came out in high-school, has dated other women (one of whom we meet), and has long-standing ulterior motives for suggesting the fake marriage (ie, she's always crushed on Morimoto). While not the most in-depth back stories, given that the main story is only three chapters long and thus must move briskly from setup to the inevitable conclusion, this is enough history to make the premise and resolution plausible(ish).

In these three brisk chapters, we see the evolution of Morimoto's feelings for Hana, we also get some interactions with Morimoto's angry parents, and a pretty sweet blossoming of Morimoto both at work, standing up to her parents and defending Hana, and with Hana herself. There is actual character growth! Who knew?

Further helping this story is that there is no sex, nothing dirty, and while there is visual service in the form of big chests and cleavage shots, there really isn't any from a narrative standpoint. This is basically a sweet story about two women falling in love and one coming to terms with her long-simmering but un-realized sexual orientation. It's not delicate writing, it's also pretty predictable, but it was still enjoyable in a simplistic way, and it was actually kind of sweet. It thankfully treats a lesbian couple with dignity and not as service for male voyeurs.

The art is pretty simple in a modern manga style. The backgrounds are barely there at all, there isn't a lot of complex screen tone usage either. It definitely has the overall visual style of a comedy manga, which it more or less is (call it a rom-com). The art is competent enough and works perfectly fine for the simple story. In addition to the main three chapters, there is an unrelated side story that is pretty middling and a couple 4-koma pages at the end.

To be honest, I almost expected the worst, especially given some of the other one-shot's that I've read recently and hated. But, while this wasn't profoundly deep reading, it was pleasant, sweet, and had some legitimate LGBT representation rather than being the pure angelic fantasies of so much yuri manga or service for the male crowd. While I wasn't overwhelmed, I did like it. It gets a solid 6/10 (it would be higher if the art was more detailed and emotional and had less breasts).


Wednesday, June 12, 2019

All My Darling Daughters - catching up with a classic (manga review)

Fumi Yoshinaga
All My Darling Daughters - 8/10

I came across All My Darling Daughters (by Fumi Yoshinaga) in a list of top josei manga. It is a single volume that tells interrelated stories about a woman, her friends, her mother, and other relatives. Published in English in 2010 by Viz, it remains a powerful set of stories. I am so glad to add another quality josei volume to my collection. As far as I can tell, they are too few and far between in English. As always, please let me know your favorite, legally published in English, josei (or shoujo or yuri) titles because I'm always looking for more!

The first story concerns a young woman, living at home with her mom. Her father passed away when she was young and out of nowhere, her mother has just remained someone younger than her own adult daughter! These three people form the backbone for all the stories in the volume and all three are wonderfully, and fully, realized people. They have faults and good qualities, unique personalities, back stories, motivations, and they grow and change. To do all this with these three, plus the other characters, in a single volume, is simply incredible writing.

Because each short story stands on its own, I won't talk too much about them so as not to spoil the joy of reading them. Other than that there is the above trio, the various stories focus on the daughter's boyfriend, the step-fathers friend, an aunt, a grandmother, and a few others who populate this beautiful collection. We get an almost arranged marriage, a seemingly desperate young woman who turns out not to be, a seemingly strong women who somehow falls behind, lost opportunities, childhood trauma, and above all: complicated, imperfect, and unresolved feelings. You know, messy feelings, like we all have. We don't get pretty bows tied up at the end of each story, these are snapshots and we know that their lives will continue evolving beyond the pages. All My Darling Daughters is a collection of stories that reveals some of the multitude of complexities of various women's lives and presents them all without judgment.

The art is relatively simple, with fairly minimal backgrounds, and a somewhat angular use of line. There isn't much complex use of screen tones, just some simple blacks and grays. But the art is still appealing and serves the story well. It isn't standout on its own, but doesn't get in the way, and that's fine given the high quality of the writing.

I'm so glad I picked this up (even if it's 9 years after publication). If you love josei, and really want a well written collection of lightly intertwined short stories about adult women, this is definitely the volume for you. All My Darling Daughters by Fumi Yoshinaga - 8/10.


Monday, June 10, 2019

After the Rain volume 4 (manga review)

Akira x Kondo
After the Rain vol. 4 - 8/10

After the Rain continues its slow, delicate, low-stakes story in volume 4 (Vertical Comics). Like the volumes before it, very little happens (at least of consequence), but one can sense the subtle shifts in the characters under the surface narrative. It also continues to suggest that the romantic plot is hardly the point of the series at all (and that's a good thing).

Quick catch up: Akira is the injured star of the track team, who has refused physical therapy to heal after surgery and given up running. She works at a diner and has fallen for the slightly balding middle aged divorce manager. He is a former writer with a young son. Even though she has expressed her feelings for him, nothing is happening, and propriety remains between them. This could all be icky, but it isn't, because of the extremely sensitive writing of Mayazuki-sensei.

In volume 4, Akira is showing more and more outward feelings about track. At one point she tries to throw out her track spikes, but ultimately tells her mom not to. She and her friend (and track mate) Haruka continue their awkward meetings, unable to say the things they need to say to each other. Akira even visits an up-and-coming "rival" at another school (and by visit, it's in typical Akira fashion which means she stands, says nothing, then leaves!). Kondo, too shows his conflict about writing, this time mirrored through comments and interactions with his novelist friend. There is a birthday party for Yuto (his young son), co-planned by Akira and Kondo, there is more work on the Christmas scarves, and even a little tension between Akira and Kondo as he becomes more and more uncomfortable around her.

Lots of little things happen, but as with the other volumes in this series, it is the unsaid feelings expressed through subtle changes in facial expression that show so much under the surface. Nothing is ever said, it's just people going through the day doing what they can to move forward in the face of life's roadblocks. Akira and Kondo continue to be a very similar pair, but while Akira still says she has feelings for him, and Kondo begins to think he might have feelings for her, I just can't shake the sense that they will never get together (that's good) and instead slowly get back on track with their true loves, track and writing, respectively.

The subtlety of storytelling, the slow moments, the wistful lost-in-thought expressions, exemplified in this volume as Akira and Haruka both reflect on Akira's former love of running, the way the wind sounded in her ears, are beautifully drawn. The art, while not realistic, is also not cute. Its long forms, telling eyes, and perfect pacing complement the writing exquisitely. The backgrounds have care taken, there is good use of shading and screen tones, and each character is uniquely portrayed. The art manages to be both simple and revealing at the same time. Just like the writing.

If you've liked this series so far, this is a great volume, even though there are really no specific plot developments worth belaboring. It continues the slow steady march of time, slow slight growth in the characters, and just enough progress to suggest where things are going.

I for one am loving this series and hope it continues in the same fashion and allows each of our lead characters to grow organically. I love how nothing has been forced in this series, and no matter where they go (together or apart) as long as it happens at its own pace, rather than through overt plotting, I'll continue to be happy. This volume gets an 8/10 (it's somewhat a time-passing volume, with no real developments, so that's why it isn't higher, but for what it is, it's excellent).


Thursday, June 6, 2019

Ao Haru Ride Volume 5 is nearly perfect (manga review)

Kou x Futaba
Ao Haru Ride Vol. 5 - 9/10

Ao Haru Ride (Viz/Shojo Beat) continues to be one of the greatest shoujo manga series I have ever read. Volume 5 exemplifies that trend and hits all the marks - romance, emotions, will-they-won't-they, the feels (oh the feels!). I can't stress enough how much you need to read this series if you are a fan of thoughtful highschool romance.

We left off with things warming up between Futaba and Kou. Yuri has confessed to Kou and Kou turned her down. Futaba and Yuri agreed not to let their mutual affection for Kou get in the way of their friendship.

In this volume, Futaba and Kou make plans to go the festival, the same one they weren't able to attend during middle school when Kou mysteriously disappeared. Unfortunately, something comes up and Kou backs out. Unlike last time, at least he lets Futaba know. Despite her sadness and frustration, she's determined not to get down.

Complicating things, the new boy on the scene, Toma, briefly introduced a few volumes back, clearly has his sights set on Futaba, who seems ignorant to his gentle flirtations. Kou, on the other hand, is very aware of this new boy, yet can't seem to take the next step with Futaba. We begin to understand why when he shares that he has been supporting a mysterious friend who also lost a parent recently and doesn't feel he can give Futaba his all yet.

This volume really shines with the growth that both Futaba and Kou are experiencing. Futaba was determined to be herself rather than trying to live up to others fake expectations for her or down to her own thoughts about herself. She shows her classic stubborn resolve, what makes her so appealing to Kou and so appealing as our heroine.

Kou is desperately trying to dig himself out of the deep depression following the death of his mom, for whom he was the sole caretaker during her illness. Futaba doesn't get mired in the fits and starts with Kou, and Kou shows more emotional resilience than he has at any other time in the series, yet is still somewhat trapped in his feelings. These are not static characters, but real, living, changing people. Such good writing.

We also get so many "almost" moments between them in this volume, where things are so close, but the past traumas just aren't resolved enough to free Kou; and Futaba can't quite find the timing to tell Kou how she really feels. The way Sakisaka-sensei writes their inner feelings, their outward dialogue and actions, and depicts their emotions through her effortless art, is such a joy to read and has such vitality without devolving to pathos, drama, or sensationalism.

As always the art is extraordinary. Beautiful lines, beautiful character drawings, strong sense of anatomy, great use of shading and screen tones, detailed background without being distracting from the characters. This mirrors beautiful writing with fully realized people. People who are kind but have been through things, are teens and still confused by life, all imperfect, but all nice people. This isn't a manga of plot and big reveals and enemies or villains. It is the reality of people growing, changing, hurting, healing, and finding each other. The art and writing are perfectly in sync.

I know I seem like I'm gushing, but that's because I am. If you've read this blog long enough, you know I won't pull punches when I don't like something. Ao Haru Ride is really that good and Volume 5 is nearly perfect.

Why didn't I give it a "ten" then? What would make it better, if everything is as great as I say? When I asked myself that, the only thing I could think of was how amazing it would be if they were both girls! (LOL, there's my bias showing through) But I do wonder why I can't find a yuri manga of this depth, delicacy, honesty, and normality? Are they out there and just not in English*? Please let me know any suggestions you might have. That being said, not every story can be two girls, so it's really not a criticism of Ao Haru Ride at all! >_<

In truth, I can't really find any fault or imperfection in this volume, and yet, I also don't quite feel like I can give it a perfect score. As amazing as this volume is, it just feels too early in the series to go a full ten. So for no other reason than propriety (and what a lame reason that is!), I'm giving this volume a 9/10. But so far the series itself is going to get a perfect rating if it can keep this quality up (and I'm betting it can)! Do yourself a favor and buy this manga!


*UPDATE 6/7/19 - obviously there are the landmark series Sweet Blue Flowers (Aoi Hana) and Maria Watches Over Us (Maria-sama ga Miteru). I'm just greedy and want more like those!

Monday, June 3, 2019

Futaribeya - A Room For Two - Volume 1 (manga review)

Futaribeya Vol. 1 - 6.5/10 or 9/10 YMMV ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
Sakurako x Kasumi

This will be a simple review for a simple story. If you love comedy moe 4-koma manga, then Futaribeya (Tokyo Pop) is likely to top your list of best series this year. If you tend to like deeper stories and more complex emotional ranges, then you might find this lacking in depth (as in totally). For what it is, it is well done.

Volume 1 is the story of two high-school 1st years, Sakurako Kawawa and Kasumi Yamabuki, who share a room in the local boarding house near their school. Sakurako is very good at school without trying, loves to cook, is dependable, but easygoing. Kasumi is drop-dead gorgeous but doesn't care at all, bad at school, always cold, and always hungry. The volume covers much of their first year, what they eat, where they shop, how they sleep, and many other random assorted moments. 

As is the norm for most 4-koma, this is a gag manga. Each "strip" ends with some sort of humorous moment, mostly silly, sweet, cute, or goofy. But all very very light. There is no service to speak of (which is great). It's basically two nice teens going about their day, but doing so in a cutely funny way. Like I said, if this is your thing, then this is really well done!

I tend to want more depth in my manga, even in comedy ones, and so I don't typically read 4-koma which by its very structure doesn't lead to much depth. I had similar feelings reading Futaribeya as I did reading Tomo-chan Is a Girl! It was cute, but not really my thing. 

However, I did find myself still interested in these two girls' lives even though it isn't the style I most enjoy. Those who know me well know that I LOVE the Sakura Trick anime (even though I don't normally like moe and it has WAYYYYY too much and totally unnecessary service). I haven't read the manga its based on, so I wonder if Futaribeya would similarly benefit from the expanded storytelling power of anime? (Yes, I am a feminist and yes I still love Sakura Trick, it's called cognitive dissonance folks! But I also think it would be defensible if anyone wanted to talk about it.)

The art in Futaribeya is well done for this style, with more attention to detail and shading than is typical of many 4-koma. A bit too much of the time, the characters are drawn superdeformed for emotional (read: "silly") emphasis. But when Yukiko-sensei goes into normal (but still moe) mode, they really show their artistic ability. It may be moe, but it's well done. 

Now, for the big question. Is this a yuri manga? Wikipedia says it is. But I'm thinking, not really. At least for volume 1, we only get the very slightest moments of possibly maybe hints that something might somewhere in the distant future become maybe yuri-ish. But the truth is, any yuri that exists, exists only in your mind (or some of the extra images between chapters) because there isn't anything textual to suggest it (except maybe there when Sakurako gets a bit jealous of her younger sister's attention on Kasumi). There certainly isn't even the slightest bit of overt relationship beyond normal friendship though. But we'll have to see. It certainly could go the yuri direction or it might just stay where it is and let people read into it or "ship" the characters if they want.

Do you like moe teen girl light comedy with no service (sort of like K-On! but without that anime's TOTAL AMAZINGNESS)? If so, this is well done, a strong 9/10. If you like shoujo/josei manga with any substance, nuance, emotional depth, or realism then you'll find this wanting (it's also considered a seinen manga). However there is something to the characters that might make you come back for more, so it gets a 6.5/10 for fans of more intricate stories. You make up your own mind, you know yourself better than I do! As for me, I will probably keep buying it, but it won't be first on my limited expense list each week.


Saturday, June 1, 2019

Essence of the Heart Sutra (Book Review-ish)

Dalai Lama and Geshe Thupten Jinpa
When I read Buddhist sutras and commentaries, they are mostly Mahayana. And of those, an increasing number fall in the category of the Perfection of Wisdom (Prajnaparamita) sutras. Perhaps the most meaningful of all to me was the "Large Sutra on Perfect of Wisdom" translated by Edward Conze.

After much searching for the "right" copy of the Heart Sutra, perhaps one of the most famous of all sutras, and part of the Prajnaparamita cannon, I settled on a copy that includes a discourse and commentary by the current Dalai Lama, "Essence of the Heart Sutra."

As with all sutras, there are frequently versions in Sanskrit, Tibetan, and Chinese, and while all similar, not all necessarily agree exactly. From that, I only speak English, so I need a further translation. This makes the choice of which version I buy all the more important - which language tradition did it start from and how is it being translated into English?

For while the Buddha, himself, has made clear that the words in the sutras should not be mistaken for the actual Dharma, they are part of the pathway that people use to bring their understanding closer to the Dharma. Hence, a translation can ease that understanding or obscure it. I am proud to say that the English translation of the Heart Sutra by Geshe Thupten Jinpa used in this volume, "Essence of the Heart Sutra - The Dalai Lama's Heart of Wisdom Teachings", is extraordinary. Also delightful was the Dalai Lama's commentary. Not only was it profoundly revealing of this text's meaning, but it rang with his voice, even through the English translation of his original writing.

I'll leave reading this extraordinary, and very readable, book to you for the full understanding which I could never hope to convey. But as a starting point for those who may not be familiar with the perfection of wisdom (prajnaparamita), it is considered the deepest level of understanding the Dharma. The perfection of wisdom is expounded in many sutras, often referred to by their line numbers, some supremely long. The Heart Sutra, is one of the shortest of them, and yet contains the full perfection of wisdom in its several short paragraphs. "Essence of the Heart Sutra" also provides a history of the schools of Buddhism, the central tenets of Buddhism, and the place of the perfection of wisdom in all that (as explained by the Dalai Lama). It then includes the full text of the Heart Sutra as translated from the Tibetan by Thupten Jinpa (who also translated the Dalai Lama's portions of the book), and then the Dalai Lama's exposition and commentary on the sutra.

The perfection of wisdom holds dear two key beliefs, the first is in the emptiness of intrinsic (absolute, inherent) existence. The second is in the profound path of the boddhisatva, who is pursuing the Dharma, by means of the perfection of wisdom, for the benefit of all sentient beings to help all sentient beings achieve full understanding of the Dharma themselves.

Here's my best quick attempt to unpack that: Emptiness of intrinsic existence is often mistakenly taken to mean that nothing really exists. That couldn't be further from the truth the Buddha is expounding. Instead, the two truths doctrine explains there is a conventional reality, the reality that we taste, touch, smell etc... where things come and go, are born and die, break and are made, etc... But there is also a second reality, the "ultimate" reality. And in that ultimate reality, there is no intrinsic existence. Things and sensations and thoughts and ways of being "exist" only in relation and dependence on each other. Nothing came into being out of nowhere and nothing ceased with an absolute end to its existence. This is the culmination of understanding dependent origination at its deepest levels.

The principle of emptiness here is about recognizing that there is no everlasting, unchangeable, "essence" of a thing or feeling of thought. The Buddha is saying that there is no inherent existence, no intrinsic existence of a thing independent of anything else. Another way of saying this, is that somethings "own-being" is emptiness/no-self (or lack of inherent existence). When we come to accept the intrinsic emptiness of all things in ultimate reality and see that emptiness at the same time we touch and feel and think in conventional reality, then we can truly experience the Dharma. Early in our practice, a person may be able to accept the emptiness of intrinsic existence at one point (say, during meditation) but then when they notice something (perhaps touch their own skin as they shift position) they lose the ability to hold both thoughts simultaneously. And yet, holding those two thoughts simultaneously is only the beginning, we must work to end the cognitive dissonance between ultimate and conventional reality see how they are one and the same, not two truths, but a single truth. But please don't take this explanation from me. This of course, is only my fabulously mangled summary of a beautiful level of wisdom. That's why you are supposed to read these sutras and commentaries!

In the Dalai Lama's writing in "Essence of the Heart Sutra," he begins by working through the schools and beliefs of Buddhism, ultimately finding a path of reconciliation between them and a warning not to judge others by which school they work through. His heart and kindness, his magnanimity shines through so clearly in embracing all parts of Buddhism but also all other faiths. This section also serves as a pretty good primer on the basics of the first two turnings of the wheel of dharma. However, no brief introduction, as this is, should be seen as sufficient.

I would say the same thing about his commentary on the sutra itself. Having read the Large Sutra and some of the middle length Prajnaparamita sutras, the Dalai Lama's commentary here was perfect and valuable. I could read it and compare and contrast against the thousands of other pages I had read. Had this been my first foray into the Prajnaparamita, I think I would have liked it and recognized its significance, but not necessarily understood it well given that it doesn't spend time going into much depth. However, this short commentary would likely have started me on the journey just fine if it was my introduction. And as an introduction, he does a marvelous job. Basically, either read this to further your knowledge and thinking about the Prajnaparamita (perfection of wisdom) because the Dalai Lama has some key nuance in his commentary, or use it to start down a deeper exploration of other texts that you can compare and contrast with his nuance here. The order in which you read these is really inconsequential.

Either way you go at this, at any point in your studies and thinking, this is a profound sutra, beautiful really, as well as a clear, well written, and lovely commentary. As the Buddha also said, you cannot read or learn or think to arrive at the Dharma, the Dharma is a lived experience. The more you surround yourself with it whether through reading the sutra or commentaries, or just puzzling over it in your own life, acting on it where you can, then the more you will begin to be the Dharma - realize your buddha-nature (Tathagatagharba), and develop, live, and cultivate your bodhicitta.

At first I wanted to give you the entirety of Thupten Jinpa's Heart Sutra Translation because for me, it was far more beautiful, far clearer, and far more meaningful than others I have found. However, I also really want you to buy this book. So I will leave you with just the middle passages, the ones that expound the "essence" (pun intended) of the prajnaparamita as contained in the Heart Sutra, to whet your appetite:

When this had been said, the holy Avalokiteshvara, the bodhisattva, the great being, spoke to the venerable Shariputra and said, "Shariputra, any noble son or noble daughter who so wishes to engage in the practices of the profound perfection of wisdom should clearly see this way: they should see perfectly that even the five aggregates are empty of intrinsic existence. Form is emptiness, emptiness is form; emptiness is not other than form, form too is not other than emptiness. Likewise, feelings, perceptions, mental formations, and consciousness are all empty. Therefore Shariputra, all phenomena are emptiness; they are without defining characteristics; they are not born, they do not cease, they are not defiled, they are not undefiled; they are not deficient, and they are not complete. 

"Therefore, Shariputra, in emptiness there is no form, no feelings, no perceptions, no mental formations, and no consciousness. There is no eye, no ear, no nose, no tongue, no body, and no mind. There is no form, no sound, no smell, no taste, no texture, and no mental objects. There is no eye-element, and so on up to no mind-element including up to no element of mental consciousness. There is no ignorance, there is no extinction of ignorance, and so on up to no aging and death and no extinction of aging and death. Likewise, there is no suffering, origin, cessation, or path; there is no wisdom, no attainment, and even no non-attainment.

Please, no matter where you are in your studies, or even if you have no interest in Buddhism at all, no matter what your faith, no matter who you are, buy yourself a copy of "Essence of the Heart Sutra" by the Dalai Lama.

tadyatha gate gate paragate parasamgate bodhi svaha!