Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Kevin Trainor's "Buddhism: The Illustrated Guide": Book Review

Enlightenment depends on seeing, on waking up, on the visual insight. This practice uses illumination via the mind's eye to the spirit. Its editor, featured on the recent video at PBS "The Buddha," compiles what's designed to appeal to the eye as text and as image.

It's accessible yet scholarly; a timeline, glossary, and an academically oriented reading list append short articles ranging across the spectrum of what may attract the gaze of the curious investigator. Todd T. Lewis joins Trainor in discussing origins, in the Hindu and ancient Indian contexts, which precede a life of the Buddha. Then, the principals and practices, doctrines and philosophical schools follow. Mark L. Blum and John Peacock add chapters. Holy writings as the sutras and pitakas find elaboration, a feature often skimmed over in introductory texts. Finally, the adaptation of Buddhism across first Asia and then the world gains treatment. Art, ethics, and cultural impacts all gain coverage. It's all presented efficiently, with terms explained and cross-references helping one's own orientation.

As for the illustrations, they can dazzle, as in a two-page sleeping Buddha figure from Burma. The concept of emptiness gets the simple circle from a depiction of the famous Ox-Herding Zen sequence; it matched well the description of what on pg. 140 I spot-checked as a test case of how well the text managed to convey for me a difficult to summarize concept, that of "dependent co-origination." Try this and see if it works: the teaching concludes that "all known realities are constructed realities whose identities are merely intellectual conventions used to order the world so that it can be understood."

It did for me. Kevin Trainor and co-contributors probably faced severe editorial constraints to fit some complicated explanations into short sections on these lively pages. Such topics as the role of women get brief but thoughtful comment, and the links between sections I found especially helpful to connect ideas that otherwise might not have been threaded and enriched. One cross-reference was inaccurate, and the elegant pages can be hard to read in the Oxford UP reprint in paperback as the text falls towards the gutter of the center spine. But these are minor flaws.

The team that produced this guide did so well. I recommend this as a portal into the realms that the Buddhist texts and commentaries and studies in the references at the end continue to elaborate. It's an affordable, engaging, and intelligently sequenced overview that can serve well for a classroom or for one's own study. (Posted to Amazon US 4-21-10)


tamerlane said...

Visual is good. Visual is fun. I bought 6 little plastic Buddhas from the Grocery Outlet, $1.99 a set. Then I bought another set. They are gilded in gold paint, and have very joyous postures. I've toyed with painting them in Bruins and Canadiens hockey uniforms and setting them on a little cardboard rinkm and pasting tiny sticks in their hands. I think this is very buddhish.

Fionnchú said...

Just don't dress them in bear suits even if Bruins. Look what happened to "South Park." Great idea for the iced Buddhas, TL, like those grandiose chessmen kitted up as Johnnie Reb, Mongols, or gladiators.

I have no hockey team to root for (could care less about the Kings), but since I found out the ungrammatical Maple Leafs were originally the Toronto St. Pat's, I liked that; the Red Sox are my back-up team to root for against the hated Yankees (perhaps the Canadien counterpart?) and I have a "Stocai Deargai" t-shirt in fact.

Here is "Keep Your Team Out of My Book," an insanely fun article by Joe Queenan, who shares my hatred of also Man U and USC (go UCLA speaking of Bruins); I lack his vitriol towards my hometown Lakers but confess indifference, as I always rooted again for the Celtics, an unpopular choice. But a friend grew up here too and is a lifelong SF Giants fan, to my Dodger disgust.