Thursday, April 29, 2010

Jeffery Paine's "Adventures with the Buddha": Book Review

"A Buddhist narrative meant to be enjoyed principally for enjoyment," compiling lengthy excerpts from nine Westerners, this reads engagingly often enough. Five adventurers from earlier, pre-countercultural days when Asia still beckoned as exotic and when Buddhism had not spread westwards en masse combine with four representatives from the modern era, when the West found itself coming to a Westernizing Asia, and back to a changing America that welcomed Tibetan lamas and Zen masters.

Paine, as with his "Re-Enchantment" (see my Amazon US or blog review) about the spread of Tibetan gurus abroad, notes how rapidly the shift occurred. He credits Max Weber with the scheme of a magical age followed by charismatic leaders and then bureaucratic rules that both lay and clerical members of a religion subscribe to. Alexandra David-Neel (1868-1969) spanned the transition from a remote expedition to Tibet to the hippie-era, jet-fueled connections with an Asia far closer and less distinctive. She popularized the sorcerer and yogic adepts of Orientalized lore; Lama Anagarika Govinda (b. Ernst Hoffman in Germany) symbolizes the Westerner who took, as did David-Neel, the guise of the native in a quest to become another. John Blofeld from England and Peter Goullart from Russia show the erudite, if impoverished, adventurer willing to let go of their culture to immerse themselves among the lamas.

Janwillem van de Wetering pivots; postwar he left Holland for Japan before it had quite changed, and his stint in a Zen monastery shows his pioneering curiosity that would begin in the 1950s to attract others like him on to what became a well-worn path. Jan Willis left her segregated Alabama behind for academia via the Kathmandu route during the end of the Sixties heyday; she as with Tsultrim Allione and then Sharon Salzberg describe their quests less focused on the novelty or sheer otherness of the Asia of earlier travelers. For, that has receded, and their narratives merge the political with the personal, the psychological with the feminist, ethnic, and progressive identities of their tumultuous times. Michael Roach continues this, and shows again how transformed Americans may become when immersing themselves into Tibetan practice-- and then how that can be brought back into American everyday life.

I will cite a sample from each author to give a sense of their range. David-Neel appears more anodyne and detached despite her reputation as a fearless investigator. I was less enchanted by her style, which may have suffered in translation or distance from our own attitudes. On "Tumo/tuomo," or "art of warming oneself without fire," she dryly observes: "To spend the winter in a cave amidst the snows, at an altitude that varies between 11,000 and 18,000 feet, clad in a thin garment or even naked, and escape freezing, is a somewhat difficult achievement." (63)

Govinda tells us of his acceptance as a "chela" to a guru, and his message being: "every being carries within itself the spark of Buddhahood ('bodhicitta'), but as long as we concentrate on other people's faults we deprive ourselves of the light that in various degrees shines out from our fellow-beings." (91) The guru adds: "The greater our imperfections, the more we are inclined to see the faults of others, while those who have gained deeper insight can see through these faults into their essential nature." Govinda's portions are full of such insights, formal and dignified in mood.

Blofeld's style by comparison, from his "The Wheel of Life," presents a lively and poignant array of visually arresting and vividly described scenes from the now-obliterated world of Mahayana Chinese Buddhism. He hears one Rimpoché tell him: "The wrathful, blood-drinking deities with their skull-cups and horrid ornaments are as much a part of your mind as Bodhisattva's compassionate smile." (138) His teacher assures him simply not to strive to understand so much as to accept: "Be tolerant, love, understand. The whole universe is but yourself." Sincerity trumps intellect.

After a harrowing account of deprivation in post-revolution Russia and the death of his mother among exile and poverty, Peter Goullart takes us to where he fled: Shanghai. He tells us about Taoism and Buddhism, and of his stays in China until again he had to flee as Mao neared victory. Both approaches to this Ultimate Reality, a Daoist abbot explains, share much, and also need differentiation. "The Ultimate Truth is one, but it has an infinite number of aspects and what is more beautiful than that each faith should reflect only one facet of the Divine, all of them together creating a shining gem of beauty." (212)

Van de Wetering offers a wry account of his eight months in 1958 Kyoto; his Zen immersion ends and he contemplates suicide. "But how about my soul? Buddha had always refused to answer this question. Soul or no soul, life after death of no life after, an empty question. Walk the eightfold path and the question will drop away by itself, later, now, it doesn't matter." (260) Three days before his ship sails, he returns to bid his master farewell. He is told: "By leaving here nothing is broken. Your training continues. The world is a school where the sleeping are woken up. You are now a little awake, so awake that you can never fall asleep again." (261) This chapter is full of such conversations and insights, told bracingly and coolly.

This bridges the later pilgrims, who tend to open up far more about their inner turmoil and psychic traumas. Willis as a black woman mastering the most advanced levels of Tibetan practice, and teaching these in universities, shows how far one trekker's quest can take one in post-60s Asia and America. As Kent State and Black Panthers fill her mind even in the Himalayan retreats she takes, she asks the Dalai Lama how to balance activism with non-violence. She relates how their conversation informed her: "Buddhism was a process; one did not need to delude oneself or to pretend to be other than oneself, and one did not have to become completely passive in order to embrace the notion of peace, Choosing peace did not mean rolling over and becoming a doormat. Pacifism did not mean passivism. Still, patience and clarity were essential." (286) These lessons fill her absorbing account as she battles how to balance pride with humility in many guises as a noted scholar and daring, if perhaps too eager-- as she shows graphically-- ritual practitioner.

Allione also finds her life challenged-- her baby dies and her two marriages crumble even as she advances also along the way to Tibetan high levels of mastered practice. Her report feels more roughly transmitted than Willis' but Allione parallels her path. And she finds similar revelations. "One cannot force or grasp a spiritual experience, because it is as delicate as the whisper of the wind. But one can purify one's motivation, one's body, and train oneself to cultivate it. Because we come from a culture which teaches us that there is always something external to be obtained which will lead us to fulfillment, we lose contact with our innate wisdom." (323)

Later, she wonders about "this luminous, subtle spiritual energy" being a "'dakini' principle. She is the key, the gate opener, and the guardian of the unconditioned, primordial state which is innate in everyone. If I am not willing to play with her, or if I try to force her, or if I do not invoke her, the gate remains closed and I remain in darkness and ignorance." (336) This continues the common thread of the earlier authors who relate how their visits to the East turn them into devoted, if cautiously accepting and carefully perceptive, mediators between the culture they visit and the one they must return to, as Asia merges with their homelands.

Salzberg delves into suffering like the previous writers, and counters her own family's narrow limits and her own difficulties with a "state of love-filled delight in possibilities and eager joy at the prospect of actualizing them." This "bright faith" contrasts with her dying father's resignation: "The boundary of his autonomy was the decision about where to have lunch if someone took him out of the hospital on a pass." (355) Far from Lhasa or Dharamsala, this contemporary application of dharma at its most basic grounds this, a more matter-of-fact entry from our milieu.

Closing the collection, Michael Roach gives a telling account of his go-getter, Type-A personality as he applies his geshe-level Tibetan study as a monk to the business of diamond selling in NYC. This case study shows the transition from the counterculture to the yuppie realm, how Eastern ideals incorporate into Western capitalism. Roach labors to show how he turns around at his office customary egotism into generous empathy, and how the millions generated in profits by his company do produce good works for Tibetans in exile, but the tone of his chapter, with its earnest engagement, left me disappointed.

Roach praises his international clientele and his polyglot workforce, but he never mentions the African miners. Nor does he consider the exploitative nature of an enterprise so bent on charging so much for a few precious stones. He defends wealth-creation as a Buddha's nature, and articulates clearly the rationale for generating affluence, but the compromises that underlay this justification, for me, closed this book with a cautionary rather than inspirational tale. Unintentionally perhaps on Roach's part, I closed this book pondering the risks in bringing dharma practices into the West if this exchange shortchanges compassion for the humblest worker responsible, and paid so little, for the gems peddled at Roach's firm so dearly. (Posted to Amazon US 3-7-10)

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

"Buddhism in America": Book Review

I was never bored with these forty entries on "the future of Buddhist meditation practices in America." While a few speakers transcribed appeared on paper too glib, too rambling, too esoteric, each essay left me thinking. You hear the long discipline of practitioners who mix the mind with the heart. They range from Asian monks to Western-born nuns, along with a psychotherapist, anthropologist, popularizer, lamas, philosopher, physicist, professors, care providers, and a butler. Al Rapaport compiled their talks from a hundred hours over a weekend, and Brian D. Hotchkiss edited their presentations from this 1997 conference attended by nearly eight hundred in Boston.

Many of these talks may have worked better "live," but the give-and-take format gains summary, and a sense of the techniques conveyed mind-to-mind echoes despite the distance of print. Although some grounding in Buddhism seems a pre-requisite, they can be understood by any reader, as terms earn inclusion in a glossary, but no index is provided. A reading list is appended.

One minor drawback: the typeface for the text is in a less readable font than the citations; one wishes the opposite choice for printing was chosen as this book may wear out your eyes over its 568 two-columned pages. Still, it's a handy resource, accessible and lively. The Buddha talked rather than wrote; oral transmission remains how dharma teachings come down to most of us over 2500 years. Wes Nisker quotes his guru Chögyam Trungpa's warning that Buddhism's like getting into the crocodile's mouth-- once inside, his teeth won't let you back out. The flavor, wit, harshness, and warmth of these vibrant, insistent, and bracing messages survives the packaging-- in black letters on stacked white pages.

Five sections group the challenging material. The talks are compiled out of original order but are cross-referenced and arranged by thematic rather than chronological fidelity. 1) Chinese monks in the U.S. relate a journey back to home, ancient Asian practices merge with loving-kindness, Mu Soeng connects quantum theory, Guru Rinpoche's Tibetan modes earn explanation, and Rizong Rinpoche presides over medical empowerments.

2) Practices informed by monasticism follow: anapanasati breath awareness; vipissana tranquility; shikan mind-calming; dzogchen (well, sort of); ch'an; shikantaza; "don't know" Zen; Miranda Shaw on tantric intimacy; "deep agnosticism" via Stephen Batchelor; and monastic viewpoints. While Wes Nisker seems to skirt "deep ecology" in its environmental framework, he does offer thoughtful reminders on the mind-body tangle.

3) Living and dying practices include more on "great perfection" (again, sort of); Robert Thurman on the consolations of dharma; being in the present; insight meditation; rituals; relationship advice; student-teacher mores; "Celtic Buddhism"; life and death, mind-healing, psychotherapeutic approaches. Tsutrim Allione conducts a "feeding the demons" visualization. Patricia Shelton on hospice care, and Joan Halifax on death preparation end this theme.

4) The socially engaged "not enraged" Buddhist movement expressing compassion in action comes next. Peter Matthiessen addresses not so much American Zen as our "animal nature" and contrasts his meditations at Auschwitz with our shared potential to turn little Hitlers. Next comes Soka Gakkai's diversity; mindfulness and ethics; Bernard Glassman's visit to Auschwitz, his peacekeeping apostolate, and his street people outreach; Kobatsu Malone's work in prison Zen.

5) Finally, Thurman and then historian Rick Fields discuss American Buddhism's evolution; Jon Kabat-Zinn looks at mainstream currents: these three agree that whatever happens in the U.S., it'll be more akin to a countercultural force, a "corrective to religion," or "stress reduction" as the way an unlabeled, less exotic Buddhism expands into the mainstream. Issues of elitism, dilution, and adaptation earn consideration. These speakers tend to anticipate a skeptical, loosely defined, secularized, perhaps New Age or yoga-tinged varietal that will bloom into an American setting. Similarly, a panel follows on media coverage, from three editors of Buddhist-oriented publications. Lama Surya Das's third talk concludes with emergent trends in the West; he encourages an open-minded, deromanticized outlook.

"Don't take it so personally--that's the message of Buddhism."
Wes Nisker sums up the theme of this collection. "We look at ourselves in the mirror of our culture and we can see the distortion, that something is vitally wrong, and there is a hunger for connection and reconnection. I know of no better way than through this particular kind of practice. You don't have to call it Buddhist. You don't have to call it meditation, if you don't want to." But, he explains, the interconnection to all before and after and around us turns into our life's lesson.

He cites Gary Snyder: "Wisdom is the intuitive knowledge of the mind of love and clarity that lies beneath one's ego-driven anxieties and aggressions. Meditation is going into that mind to see it for yourself over and over again until it becomes the mind you live in." Nisker adds: "That's why we call it practice, because you're never done." (263-4) (Posted to Amazon US 4-27-10)

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Jack Kerouac's "Some of the Dharma": Book Review

If it wasn't him, we'd not be reading this. "In me there's a Buddha/ Impressing himself through this mold of darkness/ Morning will come & these writings/ will be revealed to the world for pity." (288) Kerouac, from 1953-6, filled ten notebooks with his reflections. Readers of "The Dharma Bums" & "Wake Up! A Life of the Buddha" (see my reviews also on Amazon for "Dharma Bums" and for "Wake Up!") may welcome these extended ruminations, but they're likely to weary those less enamored with the Beats or the Buddha.

Over four hundred pages try to offer a facsimile in their spacing and type of the spiral-bound notebooks from which Kerouac took elements for "Wake Up!" and "Dharma Bums." (See chapters 8-9-10, where the tone lightens up somewhat and the poetry "pops" break up the didactic prose.) At the start of 1955: "I dont really want to write systematic books of literature any more, just these private memorial notes..." (221) At 33, he sought enlightenment. He tried to live alone: "a man doesnt need a woman, or a cigarette, or a house"-- as he resolves to survive on one full meal a day, no intoxication, and detachment from his friends, to pattern his ascetic life as a "bhikku," what he renders a "dharma bum."

He witnesses fellow beings wrenched into shapes.
"All sentient life is tortured-- the bird, the March wind, the twisted branches, the wiggling gory-grackened-claw-pushing-into-Void leaves, the inconceivable anxiety of clouds changing the light on hills, the twit wrung out of the night bat's throat (night airmouse)...the wild outreach of the boy's kite like a Sage's false hopes----life sending out its agony into space and doesnt know what to do Agony of all living things The cold clay earth, its huge camp of solidity----the disturbable water with haggard bugs rushing out of the mud....The motion of wind...The revolvement of the spheres---But Compassionate Tathatagata mourns." (20)

He can be pithier. "Desire for learning is a ravening hound, wisdom is the kitten./ A Kitten eats, sleeps & purrs. This is Tao." (222) He can be relevant. Kerouac certainly predicts the counterculture he helped create as he responds to a story about
"Pay increases for prosecutors" as "tax-slash battles in Congress" consume taxpayer savings. He muses: "Soon the populace will be divided in three:-- 1. The Criminals in Prison/ 2. The Disabled Set Aside....both SPOON-FED/ and 3. The Adjusted at Work, .....SIPHON-FED/ Networks of roads, birth and death unending." (271)

This chain of karmic attachment leads him to bristle against women throughout this work. "Warm golden thighs produce cold black mornings." (292) "PRETTY GIRLS MAKE GRAVES F[---] you all." His women perpetuate ignorance by incarnation; Jack wants to love them simply, free of their "crocodile" instincts. In his early thirties, he's struggling to stay celibate, to separate from lust; this conflict may change your stereotype of him. He's an idealist, but he's still an egoist. His art's as complete as Mozart and Rembrandt's, he assures himself. He realizes what those in suburbs and cities don't. "Everybody is getting mad at me for knowing the truth now." (61)

Irritation, restlessness, sorrow, boasts mingle with hope on every page. He knows how vainly he fights against himself, but he must do so: he equates karma with fatalism, so he settles down even as he rears up. He rants to escape from his waking dream of ignorance, to calm the monkey that's his mind, to enter a blissful Nirvanic nothingness that his body and brain do not let him attain. Ultimately, he strives for a purer sense of being that incites him, as many Beats and hippies and urban refugees after him, to reject conformist greed for romanticized self-sufficiency.

he insists; "Buddhism is the gradual becoming-intelligent of the participants/ of the dream so that it may be eventually awakened from." (54-5) You may not leave this book convinced of this teaching unless you enter it converted, but for that subset of readers interested in Buddhism and Beats, here's his version of a lot of the dharma.

There's a poignancy within these often wearying, solipsistic excursions into Buddhist thought. You're trapped as he is within his own mind, battling for liberation. You enter his meditative, scribbling, manic mind, sharing his unease. And, his inspiration. I'm not an acolyte or avid admirer of Kerouac, so I waded through these reflections with more detachment, but I admit-- despite their chaotic state of maddening repetition-- that they allow us a valuable retreat into a writer's formation. You watch his soul's struggle.

Obviously, these verbose chronicles weren't meant for publication. A collator might have chopped this down to a quarter of its length, for better or worse. I can't fault Kerouac for these notes, but they could have been presented by their publisher with commentary, for those less learned. There's a brief introduction, but no editorial notes or glossary. It's crammed with vocabulary and references, naturally, to Buddhist philosophy that may turn anyone not an adept back to an easier work such as "Wake Up!" (with its lively introduction by Robert Thurman).

I felt almost voyeuristic, for you intrude on the intimacy of Kerouac's notes to himself. Again, if you lack an interest in Buddhism, their hectoring and fervent content may not be compelling enough for you to continue. It's a task best taken in small doses. If you are intrigued, you may study these accounts of him trying to reject the bottle with dread. knowing that after a decade and a half he'd drink himself to death after having drifted away from Buddhism back to his childhood Catholicism, that these earnest, relentless, and mystifying torrents of prose and poetry, quotes and sketches would dry up and leave him drained after a few years of instant, then unwanted, intrusive celebrity. "It doesnt matter whether I die/ drinking or imitate Buddha, it'll/ be the same ethereality---" (376). (Posted to Amazon US 4-25-10; cf. my take on the original scroll of "On the Road")

Friday, April 23, 2010

Shunryu Suzuki's Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind: Book Review

Beginner's minds: many possibilities; in experts: few. This sums up the optimism and clarity in these transcriptions. These talks were collated and edited by his students who organized these Zen pep talks into Right Practice, Attitude, and Understanding. They flow, summed up in epigraphs and pithy examples that open up into profundity. As with the Zen message itself, deceptively simple on its surface.

This can be, as Amazon reviewers have cautioned, not the best book for absolute beginners. I liked David Fontana's "Discover Zen" and pondered its contents for a few months before tackling Suzuki's classic. This will not give you a true primer for Zen; it's a guide for those already "sitting"-- that's the audience for the talks edited here. You can find out about Suzuki's life and career in David Chadwick's "Crooked Cucumber" (I recently reviewed Fontana and Chadwick); the contents of "ZMBM" strive for a sense of what a master might advise for his followers, but the aim's always to get beyond teacher-student dualities, and all barriers between you and the teaching. So easy to compress, yet it expands into infinity and nothingness from the brief chapters compiled within a few elegantly designed pages.

No inspirational fluff, this can be demanding, no-nonsense, and sobering. Basically, "just sit." Eat when you should eat, work when it's time to work, sleep the same-- and practice meditation regularly. Stay disciplined but free from habit; composed yet able to stand up for righteousness; detach from the world but marvel at it.

It's often moving. "When we hear the sound of the pine trees on a windy day, perhaps the wind is just blowing, and the pine tree is just standing in the wind. That is all they are doing. But the people who listen to the wind in the tree will write a poem, or will feel something unusual. That is, I think, the way everything is." (88) This gives a flavor of the calm tone and steady pace of these reflections from the Japanese-born founder of the San Francisco and Tassajara Zen Centers, responsible for the great 1960s expansion of Soto Zen into America. Anyone will find here wisdom, common sense, and the same peace that must have permeated the "zazen" sessions that inspired this book. (Posted to Amazon 9-26-09)

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)

Monday, April 19, 2010

Lus an Chromchinn Dubh: Léirmheas Scannáin

Leánaim leabhar faoi Tibéad anois. Is maith liom scéal leis radharc a shuíomh ina Hiomaleathaí. Tá suim agam a chur an India fós.

Mar sin, chuaigh mé i leith mo mac is sine le déanaí. Bhreatnaigh muid an scannán seo ar chéile. Tá bean rialta Anglacánlach, is í a bhí le Deborah Kerr, in eineacht ceathrar chuideachtaí eile in aice leis Darjeeling go tuaisceart na h-India.

D'imigh siad a deisiú saraighlí sléibhteach ann. Thosaigh siad oispidéal agus scoil chlochar ansiúd. Mar sin féin, b'fhéidir dúisíonn mna rialta maca míshásta na áit go raibh harám múchaithe ag imeall.

Measaim go raibh fáithscéal. Ní raibh ábalta mna rialta a fáil cothromaíocht idir dhá foirceann. Faigheann cúigear ban siadsan féin go raibh i ngéarchaill.

Críochnóidh siad ag aghaidh poil os comhair a chéile. Níl fhíos acusan a foghlaim an slí fhírinne. Ní inseoidh dithreabheach Indiach focal amháin dóibh. Inseoidh raigairnealaí focail ráflách go leor orthu.

Cheap mé go raibh ró-mhéaldrámata ar barr air. Nuair chuaigh an scéal sa bhile buac, smoaioinaigh mé go raibh ag déanta ró-aisteoireacht ar bun-phairteánnaí. Ach, comhairlím an scannán seo mar cineamatgrafaí agus amharc mór airsean féin ar deireadh.

"Black Narcissus": Film Review.

I am reading a book about Tibet now. I like a story with a setting in the Himalayas. I also have an interest in India.

Therefore, I joined my older son recently. We watched this film together. An Anglican nun ["woman of heaven" in Irish] who's played by Deborah Kerr, accompanies four other companions to near Darjeeling in the North of India.

They set off to repair a mountainous seraglio. They start a hospital and convent school over there. All the same, perhaps the nuns rouse up uneasy echoes of the quenched harem all around.

I judge that it was a fable. The nuns aren't able to find a balance between two opposites. The female quintet finds themselves reduced to extremes.

They end facing contrary poles together. They do not know how to learn the way of truth. The holy Indian man will not tell a single word to them. The rake will tell many raffish words to them.

I thought it was too melodramatic at the climax. When the story reached its culmination, I felt it made for over-acting in the primary roles. But, I recommend this film for cinematography and an ultimately grand vision in itself.

Tréiléar/Trailer: "1947 Tréiléar le 'Lus an Chromchinn Dubh'"

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Harry Oldmeadow's "Journeys East": Book Review

A century of Westerners encounter Eastern religious traditions in this scholarly study. Emphasizing "traditionalism" in its academic history of religions contexts, it challenges reductionist anti-Orientalism. Oldmeadow insists upon an immutable, eternal source of wisdom that persists no matter how diverse the forms it takes as Hindu, Buddhist, Christian, Islamic, or Taoist practice.

Traditionalists assert that psychology, Marxism, Edward Said, Freud, or Foucault among many, lack understanding of deeper, primordial revelations that endure through particular religious expressions as doctrine, ritual, and belief. They hold that "divinely-appointed forms" in timeless expression exist, and that "the prevailing modern worldview (secular, humanistic and scientific) which originated in the Renaissance and which has been strengthening its tyrannical grip on the modern mentality ever since" cannot suffice to account for the truth within "Sophia perennis." (183-4)

Oldmeadow argues from this dogged perspective. He fairly acknowledges the contributions of those who oppose this p-o-v, and strives to illustrate their objections at length. His book ranges over the 20th century widely if erratically. I found its earlier chapters more engaging as they recounted the struggles of those who sought a deeper wisdom that scholarship alone could not explain. Later chapters, which shift away from a chronological into an ideological dimension, skim more rapidly past feminism, scientism, ecology, ecumenism, and post-modernism with equal density of support, but less clarity, as the sheer amount of sources and viewpoints threaten to overwhelm this formidable presentation. That being said, it remains a valuable attempt to synthesize crucial data as promulgated by many leading intellectuals and teachers.

For instance, Oldmeadow's generous towards Allen Ginsberg's role in pioneering Buddhist practice and corrective towards Alan Watts' glib if earnest popularizations. He mingles the more famous such as Thomas Merton or D.T. Suzuki with the less acclaimed such as Marco Pallis or Bede Griffiths. And, his style can prove pithy and amusing: "Neither Tim Leary nor Ken Kesey was ever going to write 'The Cloud of Unknowing'!" (267-8) He distinguishes neatly the "absolute certitude" and "radical and spontaneous 'self-transformation'" of a mystic experience from the drug-induced psychic and self-contingent mental projections. His chapter on the Beats, hippies, and counterculture shows Oldmeadow's skill at presenting spiritual truths vs. cultural trends, and how they run parallel but not necessarily intersecting tracks over the past century's course.

However, such information as Merton entering the monastery in "1948," or Samye-Ling being founded in "England," or "Ojia" and "Shaster Abbey" both in California exemplify a few errors I caught, so I suspect that others remain undetected; typos also mar the pages as the text goes on. This detracts from the value of the bulk of this work. Certain connections appeared missed, such as Merton's analogy of Zen vs. "the birds of appetite" with one that begged for illustration, Chögyam Trungpa's "spiritual materialism," a concept which is barely touched upon but which demanded more attention given the countercultural contexts Oldmeadow otherwise intimately explores.

The pace of the book slows noticeably as it verges into Oldmeadow's defense of Traditionalism against a scientific inquiry which has only itself to answer to. I understood his densely cited and rather convoluted counterargument, but coming fresh to this school of thought, it appeared that much more support needed to be marshalled against what to nearly any modern student appears self-evident, the establishment of facts and data. Traditionalists as Frithjof Schuon cleverly charge: "The rationalism of a frog living at the bottom of a well is to deny the existence of mountains: this is logic but it has nothing to do with reality." (qtd. 344)

Yet, I am unsure if many newcomers to this debate will be swayed by the expectation that "the inner meaning of religion through an elucidation of immutable metaphysical and cosmological principles and through a penetration of the forms preserved in each religious tradition" will supplant the historian of religions or the comparative studies that dominate any university. "Revelation, tradition, intellection, realization" as the sources of the Traditionalist vision are admirable, no disagreement there, but I do wonder how Oldmeadow and his colleagues figure to overthrow the rule of reason that controls their academic colleagues and those whom they indoctrinate. (447) Still, it's more admirable than ever to strive to lead others to what the Qur'an lauds as "light that is neither of the East nor of the West." (qtd. 449)

So, a welcome addition-- if a tonally uneven work that assembles much incisive commentary. It relies often on tertiary references from other scholars-- notably Donald S. Lopez regarding Tibetan Buddhism-- rather than the primary narratives and proof-texts. I wondered why he did not delve deeper into the original texts, but this documentation does reflect Oldmeadow's credit being given the many scholars who preceded him in this vast field. I recommend it with reservations for editorial imperfections, but with enthusiasm for its own range and depth. (Posted to Amazon US 3-7-10)

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Stephen Batchelor's "The Awakening of the West": Book Review

"The Encounter of Buddhism & Western Culture" examines two millennia of Europe's vexed and visionary experiences when meeting what's not quite an Asian religion, but more than an exotic philosophy. Batchelor, a Scot who was both a Korean Zen and Indo-Tibetan monk before espousing an agnostic dharma interpretation, proves ideal for introducing the characters and meetings that confounded Jesuits and friars, excited explorers and mystics, and unsettled despots and dictators.

He begins by listing five "attitudes" in the "long, uncertain relationship of the West with Buddhism." Blind indifference, self-righteous rejection, rational knowledge, romantic fantasy, and existential engagement. Outside of a few ancient Greek contacts, Europeans lacked knowledge until the 13th c. when Catholic clergy ventured far enough east. From then until the end of the 1800s, the West tended to denigrate or at least dismiss Eastern teachings. The Romantic movement broke with the Enlightenment by exaggerating the Oriental Other. Others in the 19th c. strove by reason to bring science to study the East, accompanying the colonial expansion.

Finally, in the last century, a few Westerners started to practice Buddhism; until nearly 1970, however, most of those in Europe practically knew each other, so small were the numbers before the Tibetan diaspora and the counterculture built upon an earlier interest in Zen among the Beats and intellectuals to bring in the flourishing of Buddhism among many disaffected with traditional beliefs, alongside others blending the dharma with conventional faiths-- or psychotherapies-- today.

Batchelor notes how in the 13th century of change, when Asia and Europe were roiled by political and military conflict, three traditions took root in Asia that in contemporary Europe now number the most adherents. Karma Kagyu became Chogyam Trungpa's Shambhala school; Soto Zen shifted with D.T. Suzuki's books and Shunryu Suzuki's San Francisco Zen Center & Tassajara emerged from this California 1960s epicenter; Nichiren's insistent renewal allied with Japanese lay evangelism turned into Soka Gakkai worldwide.

The Japanese and Chinese, faced with missionizing Jesuits, found their Asian tolerance strained by European claims that the truth lay only in the Catholic way. Batchelor fairly sets out the horrific tortures inflicted by the Tokugawa Shogunate upon the recalcitrant martyrs, but he also shows how rare a Buddhist-affiliated state has generated violence against its ideological foes, as opposed to the colonial and contemporary norms. Korea, Japan, China, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Burma, and India: the list of places where Buddhism has fallen before tyrants lengthens in our own times. In Thailand and Southeast Asia, the movement for an engaged Buddhism tackling injustice and advocating pacificism takes up an eloquent chapter that shows how the "interbeing" of Thich Nhat Hanh and the "universal responsiblity" of the Dalai Lama connect to overthrow the notion of Buddhism as a self-involved, nihilistic, dreary, and moribund religion. This notion, spread by Western philosophers, scholars, missionaries, and early translators, served to taint Buddhism for centuries, and still lingers in many prejudiced accounts we find now.

Sir William Jones, who figured out in 1786 that Sanskrit was the root from which Indo-European languages sprouted, as with many British in India, ignored Buddhism. It had been wiped out by the Moghul invaders centuries before; it lingered in a few Himalayan redoubts beyond real contact with all but a few intrepid travellers. Hinduism regarded it with as much disdain as the West. "Jones believed that Buddha was the teutonic god Wotan or Odin." (233) This level of ignorance took many years to overcome.

Eugene Burnouf (1801-52) stands out midway through the book as a diligent Sanskrit-adept investigator; his philological and Orientalist lessons would rub off on his student Ernest Renan who famously tried to historicize the life of Jesus. Extreme rationalism brought extreme prejudice; the hostility to a declining Catholicism exacerbated among Enlightenment-inspired intellectuals a dismissal of any elaborate rituals within the Buddhism imperial reports discussed. A Protestant-like Buddhism in Sri Lanka and Thailand became favored in the later 19th c. by Theosophists, colonial translators, and native reformers.

Unknowingly, the search for an "Aryan" homeland to which Jesus retreated in his "lost years" for Indian wisdom, free from Jewish influence, provides a detour that Batchelor notes in passing. Antisemitism was fostered by European scholars bent on prying Judeo-Christian origins away from even the Gospels. Romantic Orientalism cast a long shadow over Indo-European studies. 19th c. German contributions that tried to push aside Latin Renaissance biases themselves have since then suffered by reputation. The barbarians were celebrated rather than Romans, via this search for Eastern origins for a purified "race" generated by Hindu and Buddhist distortions.

Buddhism as such misreadings show is often misunderstood by us. It was misused to train kamikaze pilots; but it also inspired Soviet "samidzat" tracts and learning was preserved even in the gulags. Although many have tried to crush it, as we see in Asian totalitarian states today, many try to save it at the cost of their lives.

Philology for rationalists, fantasy for romantics, but neither IE-professors or New Age dabblers pin the tail on this varied elephant, to adopt a Buddhist analogy! "To fix the elephant in space or time is to kill her. The elephant breathes and moves-- in ways one cannot foresee." (274) It's not an ethical system, psychology, philosophy, faith, mysticism, devotion, meditation, or therapy. But it can use all of these aspects. Batchelor, anticipating his 1997 book "Buddhism Without Beliefs," tells us that its "attitude towards life is neither rational nor non-rational; based neither on feeling, intuition nor sensation. Yet it includes them all."

Finally, as Batchelor's own young monastic quest demonstrates, the counterculture allowed contact with real Buddhist practice for more than a few European scholars, officials, missionaries, or explorers. It's still in a "transitional" phase, and the book alternates often between historical accounts and recent adaptations of the various schools and movements as they journey westward, often brought by Europeans training in Asian monasteries before going back home, but as often Asian monks and experts travelling to the West to start or assist at new centers across Europe and the Americas. "It required two World Wars, Hitler and Stalin, the threat of nuclear war and environmental destruction and, in many cases, a hefty dose of LSD to render Europeans sufficiently humble to seek their lost spiritual centre elsewhere." (275)

Breaking the "grid of reason" and twisting the "dreams of romanticism," the dharma manages today to transcend, in Batchelor's view, a heretical Buddhist practice in Europe now. Protestant revolt had earlier broken Catholicism's "stranglehold" but also "ruptured the cohesion of the European soul." He finds Buddhist heresy a positive force; moving "outside the Judaeo-Christian-Hellenic tradition" forces adherents to choose the dharma in the same way that Asians do traditionally. Intriguingly, he finds: "It makes little sense to regard oneself as a Buddhist by birth." (276) The choice to practice, not one's birth culture or the bought décor, makes one a Buddhist.

While some of the chapters drag with recitals of names and dates that any history may find inescapable, especially one that pioneers study of its subject, as with the American counterpart, Rick Fields' "How the Swans Came to the Lake," (1992), Batchelor weaves many disparate strands into an intelligent narrative. He adds a short glossary, endnotes, a bibliography, and index that assist our comprehension of a saga stretching over two thousand years, and across half the earth in its quest.

The middle of the volume, which takes on "Everyman" in his attempt to make Buddhism matter, provides the sharpest insights, as perhaps these energize from their author's own formation at this period of what's been labelled subsequently "methodological agnosticism" applied to the dharma's Western adoption and modernizing representation. In the heart of his book, Batchelor grapples with the force of culture and tradition for a European determined to become a Buddhist. He finds the salvific Christ a "consoling fiction," as he opens his book quoting Voltaire's estimate of history as a "convenient fiction." Buddhism, as its teachers show, depends on "transmission" from expert to learner; this chain can be tracked back in documented lineages to the historical Buddha. One cannot "grow up" in the practice, but must take it on actively. He cites an Hasidic tale of a rabbinical student going far to see how his chosen master ties his shoelaces. This sort of unexpected meeting, Batchelor explains, shows the type of unplanned teaching that characterizes true encounters.

People want to pin down their version, their part of the elephant that they touch and see and smell. They miss the rest of the great beast beyond their grasp. Reification presents a danger. Attributing permanence, substance, and condition to that inherently changeable, evanescent, and dependent upon its components is the basic dharma that defining Buddhism resists. Batchelor stresses adaptation for the West, and for the East as its westernized; he reminds readers that any form of the dharma must be transformative, forced to change to a new environment for it to survive among its practitioners. This evolution happens in the culture as well as within the practitioner. "As long as the practitioner remains unaffected, the Dharma can be no more than a consolation, a diversion, a fascination or an obsession." (279)

Later sections take us through various contemporary expounders of teachings. With "engaged" Buddhism, Batchelor finds an antidote for the pablum often "soft-peddled" as dharma that panders to romantic, nihilistic, consumerist, or passive fads. Delving into the recently popular "interdependence" concept, he finds that Thich Nhat Hanh's "interbeing," developed out of the peaceful opposition that brought down the Catholic despot Diem in 1963, can topple oppressors. (Of course, I add, military might as wielded by the U.S. and its Vietnamese puppet regime insured that the non-violent alternative did not last long.)

Globalization reminds us of interbeing in another context. The "'poisons' of the mind (delusion, greed and hatred) to be uprooted through Buddhist practice have become institutionalized in the forms of the multinational corporations, consumerism, and the arms industry that increasingly dominate life on earth." (361-2) If one acts with true compassion, one cannot sit on a cushion all day. One must get out and take time to make changes to trouble the complacent and comfort the weak.

Batchelor ends this book as he began, with the Dalai Lama being recognized by Vaclav Havel after the fall of Communism. Nearly twenty years on, reading his accounts, I wondered if any hope was left for Tibet, Burma, Vietnam, North Korea, or Laos where the "sangha" has been terrorized but where perhaps in a few redoubts monks, nuns, and laity try to rally opposition peacefully. He concludes with an telling and haunting anecdote from oral history conveyed firsthand that's missing from "convenient fictions" of the historical record. The Dalai Lama in his official autobiography "Freedom in Exile" omits his real encounter at the Wall of another East-West divide now broken by capitalism, migration, and global diaspora. He was on the East side, not the West as he writes.

On that side, the GDR's Communist Party had fallen earlier that same day. The Stasi, the secret police, escorted him and his entourage into then-Soviet Zone at Checkpoint Charlie. A Citizen's Action Movement had rallied, wishing to take over East Germany to make it non-aligned, demilitarized, nuclear-free, and "environmentally aware." (376) This CAM told the Dalai Lama he'd be their "first official guest," and that Tibetan independence would be recognized. But, his handlers were nervous and got him back to the western side of the Wall. West Germans intervened, and reunification under the consumer oligarchy that epitomizes Western democracy in Europe followed for the GDR.

Petra Kelly, Green Party leader, and her companion Gert Bastian told him this story. They were in the crowd that saw the Dalai Lama light his candle on the other side of the Berlin Wall. Petra had illicitly arranged the car that took the Tibetans to their clandestine (and heretofore unknown to Batchelor) roundtable. Four days after Kelly told this story, Gert fatally shot her and then himself. No suicide note, no explanation, at least of the New Year's Eve, 1992 completion of this book's manuscript. Out of such stories, multiplied in unpredictable, inspiring, and depressing fashion, history emerges into written form, and out of the scraps gleaned from past notes and testimonies, Batchelor has created an engrossing story himself.

(P.S. Readers wanting more about Shunryu Suzuki: see my review of David Chadwick's "Crooked Cucumber." Also, see my review of "Buddhism Without Beliefs"-- both on my "Blogtrotter" blog and on Amazon US recently, where this review was posted 7-24-09. Cross-posted to my site for longer reviews, "Not the L.A. Times Book Review." Author's website: "". His newest book, "Confession of a Buddhist Atheist," awaits my reading and reviewing.)

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Philip Almond’s “The British Discovery of Buddhism”: Book Review

This monograph surveys the Victorian reaction. Up to about 1840, the “discovery” of a vast religion in the East depended for its export upon incantations, idolatry, and superstition to peddle its shiny wares to an English public. Then, this emphasis on decadence shifted into an “ideally construed Orient.” That is, progressive Christianity aligned against a decayed Buddhism, fallen into suspiciously Romish parallels in “Lamaism” as opposed to a purer, primitive Theravada strain closer to its founder. The Reformation in Europe seemed to find a ghosted pattern in Mahayana Buddhism, as degeneration into worship and images, in the eyes of Victorian interpreters, who countered the “ideal textual Buddhism of the past with its contemporary Eastern instances.” (40)

As the historical Buddha was pinpointed thanks to archeologists and historians, by 1840, he becomes a “textual presence.” Critics analyzed the Bible, India fell under imperial sway, and geology and biology colored how scholars approached religious texts and rituals. Etymology, geography, and exploration helped determine a Buddha within time and place in India. Mythological suppositions faded; by the 1870s, the Buddha as we generally accept his setting and lifespan now had been located.

From “out there” in the Orient, Buddha migrated from a mystical Other to a figure perceived as part of Western power—for European scholars began to translate and publish primary texts. The West controlled Buddhism’s past. The British believed they had rescued the texts from their dissolute holders, the idolaters of the present Asian practitioners of a feebler dharma. From being sent Eastern legends to Western readers, European guardians kept what was sent and improved upon it, scouring with dictionaries and grammars the tainted overlays that obscured the Buddha’s original message.

Not that this message was accepted. Rather, it often suffered by comparison to secular, rational, or scientific sources—if not Christian ones. Buddhism aroused fear within secular as well as Christian hearers, for it seemed to undermine the impact of religion as a motivating force to save a people from corruption. Idealistic as Buddha may have been, Victorians tended to regard his followers as fallen.

No matter the slant, the British tended to favor a textually constrained angle. This fidelity to an earlier source became—similar to biblical criticism emerging by the 1870s—the criterion against which to test the texts. The southern manifestations as closer to a Protestant attitude gained, understandably, favor in Victorian eyes; those further north were relegated to a more lax judgment in the eyes of critical British students.

Being 1988, Almond published this study with an eye to Orientalism and the counter-reaction to this. He uses academic jargon sparingly, however. Although written for an audience assumed familiar with Buddhism and Victorian history, this book remains accessible for the inquirer outside these fields. Illustrations could have enriched this short work; I suspect a limited press run for their lack.

Almond does not explore in this brief study the actual practice of Buddhism in 19c British Isles, nor does he relate the teachings themselves. Rather, he focuses on their critical reception, not by adepts but by academics and bureaucrats. Yet, he also delves into such as “The Penny Cyclopedia” attentively to track the progress of knowledge of Buddhism as recorded within editions of popular reference works. He also relates the unease such progress revealed to a populace confident in their own values and mindset.

Victorian pride tended to diminish the contributions of this burgeoning faith, three hundred million strong then, that threatened to rival Christianity in numbers. Almond passes over reactions of everyday citizens to Buddhism; perhaps this would have been minimal to non-existent for nearly all British folks. A wider social history may have not been possible given the practical gulf between everyday lack of knowledge of Buddhism and that—half comprehended, half distorted-- filtering into the libraries of a few intellectuals or missionaries. However, this gradual awareness of Buddhism has taken two centuries perhaps to filter into even the mindset of a small minority of people in the Isles in any “true” fashion.

Almond shows how slow a process this construction of Western Buddhism has been. He also sets the scene for why-- given formidable challenges in language and culture-- the Victorians, in their own way, attempted to begin at least to understand this complex tradition. They stressed its morality, its seeming atheism, its philosophical emphases on nothingness, its preoccupation with human nature and its taming control. No less than these inquiring predecessors, we view Buddha in the West through similarly challenging preoccupations of our age. (Posted to Amazon US 4-19-10)

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Charles Allen's "The Search for the Buddha": Book Review

Orientalism's derided in academia, but without scholars in British India, Buddha's teachings might still be regarded as but a Brahmin heresy. Allen sums up in two pages the historical names and places linked to the historical Buddha, but the impact of such discoveries which led to the verification of what were little-known Burmese legends through Sanskrit carvings and archeological excavations proved far-reaching. Recovery of an historic foundation for India's Buddhist past, long hidden by Hindu jealousy and then Muslim destruction, led Asians in Sri Lanka to assert their inheritance of a more rational, less ritual practice that in turn inspired Westerners to take up the cause of spreading the dharma in later Victorian times. Out of this dissemination, the present resurgence of Buddhism can trace its energy to the efforts of bureaucrats, adventurers, and officials employed in British India starting over two hundred years ago.

Allen presents this story straightforwardly. His brisk narrative often gets, perhaps unavoidably, mired in minutiae as he must explain a great deal of rather esoteric lore as background and context and detail. Yet, when he shows how lovely rock paintings inside long-neglected caves were discovered, or how James Prinsep decoded the "Delhi No. 1" script that proved the empirical link between King Ashoka and the contacts with Hellenistic Greece, the excitement of arcane finds infuses the page.

In 1953, the place of the Buddha's great enlightenment at Bodh-Gaya had been regained by the Buddhists. Trails that Fa Hian and Huan Tsang, early medieval Chinese travellers, followed across Asia as they went on pilgrimage to Buddhist sites, are now retraced by tourists and new Buddhists from all over the world. Allen tells how the immense statue of "Maitreya, the Buddha to come," will rise at Bodh-Gaya, 45 stories and 500 feet high. The last chapter ends: "The Maitreya will face north, towards the Land of Snows, as if to signal to Tibet's present occupiers that his time will come." (293)

Allen, with many books on British India to his credit, also offers in this concluding chapter a cogent, if very attenuated, account of the subsequent spread of Buddhist learning as East and West cooperated to advance the knowledge that the Indians themselves had long relegated as an withered offshoot of Hinduism. It seems the chance inquiries of emissaries in the Burmese kingdom of Ava, seeking the holy sites of Buddhism that were recorded, preserved the kernel of the facts that began, after decades of patient study by British and European scholars in cooperation with native priests, to ripen into the solid evidence that concrete proof, long abandoned in jungles and caves or under ground or in a language nobody knew, had preserved for over two thousand years.

One wonders, reading Allen, how much has been lost about this once-dominant faith over much of ancient India. The fragility of what we have been lucky enough to snatch from obliteration humbles, and haunts, for what more has been burned, pulverized, or plundered irrevocably? Allen begins his history noting how the Taliban's dynamiting of the twin colossi, the Bamian Buddhas, in March 2001 echoes. For, "many of the rock-caves in which Osama Bin Ladin and his fellow bigots have sought refuge during the recent war against terrorism were originally excavated by Buddhism for their viharas or monastic retreats." (2)

At least the colonizing British ended, Allen notes, the equivalent Hindu elimination of the subcontinent's Buddhist heritage. The imperialists did not build churches on temple sites, nor did they convert Buddhist images into Christian shrines. The past, which fascinated a few amateur and often self-funded, self-taught scholars, teased a few "griffins" who arrived in India to re-create out of a few surviving hints so much of what we now know about Buddhism's first flourishing there, centuries before Christ.

Certainly, as Stephen Batchelor's complimentary study "The Awakening of the West" attests (also reviewed by me on this blog and on Amazon US), the scraps and shards left reveal but a fraction of what once documented the rise of the dharma. Closing this study, as Allen remarks in conclusion, the reader may compare the fate of the Indian ruins and runes with the equivalent storehouse of Tibetan wisdom, so much of which has been destroyed by the Chinese today. (Posted to Amazon US 8-6-09.)

Friday, April 9, 2010

Michael Carrithers' "Buddha": Book Review

Barely two pages repeat the standard account of his life; half of these hundred pages explore the Indian contexts that inspired and then separated the Buddha from his predecessors. Carrithers emphasizes the psychological, "insight" (vipassana) meditation and moral aspects of dharma. He argues that while the legends compress his enlightenment into one moonlit night, that true liberation for him as his followers came over a lifetime's application of lofty ideals to daily rigor.

It's a pragmatic, rather than nihilistic, pessimist, life-denying, or navel-gazing attitude. Carrithers dismisses the fantastic tales; he explores instead the secular ideas. Tested by experience, the Buddha's "stubbornly disciplined pragmatism" marks the man and his message. His originality emerged from "his close analysis of human experience, but his importance stemmed from his acceptance of this common Indian belief in rebirth." (53-4) Carrithers delves into the Indian traditions at surprising length, carefully dissecting how the Buddha integrated some, rejected some-- while challenging the estates system and the caste structure by offering everyone some chance to better their karmic situation.

Elucidating "tanha," the "clinging, craving, impulse, thirst" whose propensity comprises the First Noble Truth of Suffering, Carrithers shows how "the impersonal active principle" was what the Buddha sought to discover as an answer to the eternal human condition: "how did I come to be in this sorry plight?" (64-5) While monks tend to gain the advantage by renouncing earthly ties to seek such detachment from cares, Carrithers concludes by showing the wider integration of the laity into this ideal. Practicality, the analogy with "skillful" craftsmanship to the spiritual quest, and psychological explanations for human predicaments and their remedies characterize for Carrithers the Buddhist synthesis.

This brings in an ethical, outwardly directed dimension, for after one has sought to tame one's desires, one needs to guide others along this same path to reduce their suffering. The Buddha's discourse to some common folk, the Kalamans, therefore assumes importance: rational attention to easing harm and maximizing benefit will hasten the betterment of all. While Carrithers (perhaps for editing reasons) skims over how cultural relativism does and does not apply to how our values are rooted in our own time and place, nonetheless he suggests how Buddhist concerns connect the psychic, the small-scale, and the "universal collectivity of all things."

Therefore, for those reading this book in the West, beyond its parochial origins, the Buddhist philosophy can suggest a template akin to Socratic reflection. Upon it, rational moderns may construct a values-based platform for self-transformation. As with this life, "shorn of its mythical elements," a Buddha freed from legend (you do not even learn the name of his son and wife here nor of the cities he travelled among, nor of his birthplace, for instance) may present a sensible example for secular inspiration. (Posted to Amazon US 4-28-10; highly recommended companion in the Oxford UP's "Very Short Introductions" series: Damien Keown's "Buddhism.")

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

"An Búda": Leirmheas scannáin réamhthaispéantas

Beidh sé scannán faisnéise anocht. B'fhéidir, féachfaidh mé seo leis mo chlann. Má ní iarraidh muid a féachaint air liomsa, d'fhéachfainn mé mise féin.

An bhreatnóidh sibhsa air liomsa féin freisin? Craolfaidh sé le PBS ar dtús anseo i SAM. Beidh sé ag cur ar an gréasán go gearr ar bealach an suíomh seo: "PBS: An Búda: scannán le David Grubin." Tá leagan "fiséan" ansiúd inniu; agus triu "You Tube" freisin.

Chonaic mé réamhthaispéantas cúig-noimeadh uaidh le déanaí ansin. Bhí maith liom é as siocair an gréasa. Cuireann sé san áireamh leis anamúlacht scannánaíocht nos tíre Indiach faoi béaloideas An Bhúda.

Níl mé cinnte, mar sin féin, faoi an teacht 'na céannaí ag rá'. Ar ndóigh, is é an gnás é leis an clár ó teilifís pobail. Silim go mbeidh modh coitanta na PBS agus uarraim a thabhairt dó a leithéidi abhar sin.

An éisteoidh thar cionn leis an scannán? Smaoiním de réir an tionscadal seo an fior-chiall Búdachas go raibh go luath a múineadh. Go beoightear a foghlaim níos mó faoi teachtaireacht Búdaíoch trí bhíthin an tionscnamh dianiarracht seo.

"The Buddha": Review of the film's preview.

There will be a documentary film tonight. Perhaps, I will see this with my family. If they do not wish to look at it with me, I should watch it by myself.

Would you all watch it with me too? It will be broadcast starting on PBS here in the USA. It will be put on the web shortly by way of this site: "PBS: The Buddha: a film by David Grubin." There's over there a "video version" now-- and also through "You Tube".

I saw a five-minute preview of it lately there. The decorative design pleased me on its account. It includes Indian folk-style cinematic animation of the Buddha's lore.

I'm not sure, all the same, about the "talking heads approach." Of course, it is the usual for a program from public television. I think that it will be in the normal PBS mode to pay reverence to such material.

Will the film 'rise up' as a great success? I contemplate about this project that it may be valuable to teach Buddhism's true meaning. May someone be enlivened to learn more about a Buddhist message by means of this enterprise's earnest effort.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Karen Armstrong's "Buddha": Book Review

It's difficult to fit this subject into the usual "Penguin Lives" format. As Armstrong acknowledges, we really know hardly anything about his dates of birth and death, many of the places mentioned in the early Pali texts (she uses this form of transliteration which differs from traditional Western spellings of even the name of the Buddha let alone terms for his concepts) no longer can be found, and the scriptures tend towards supernatural contests as often as they do pithy exchanges between mortals with names, if not developed characterizations. The absence of the texture of daily life that we gain from more familiar Jewish, Christian, or Muslim texts makes the study of the formative years of Siddhama Gotana challenging even in simplified form in a couple of hundred pages for the general reader.

However, as I'm that reader, wanting a introduction to a topic I know next to nothing about, Armstrong's succinct summary met my needs. On the other hand, parts of even this short text dragged-- the fourth chapter on "Mission" with its accounts of internecine warfare between chieftains and strife within the burgeoning communities of adepts who followed the "dhamma" failed to rouse much of my attention. The most moving section can be found in her paraphrasing of the end of the Buddha's life. She tells the story well: "the Buddha experienced an extinction that was, paradoxically, the supreme state of being and the final goal of humanity"; she shows how he struggled to overcome "the distorting aura of egotism that clouds the judgment of most human beings" (187).

Especially strong are the background chapters that place the birth of Buddhism within the yogi practices and Hindu caste system, and that compare the rise of the new "dhamma" within the contexts of the Axial Age's shift from unchanging, unquestioned roles for gods vs. humans into a restless, almost existential, despair that Siddhama himself experienced. Armstrong shows how and why he left his sleeping wife and child, and why this separation would have been seen as necessary.

Similarly, she explains the persistent structure of gender roles and how the women were placed in a subordinate position even as followers; likewise, the laity had to assume an auxiliary status and could not attain the full potential that only the monks could aspire towards. While Armstrong compliments Buddha's teaching as the first that broke out of a tribal or specialized group to offer enlightenment to all, it remains inevitably disappointing that the everyday pursuits of making a living, raising families, and tending to one's necessities turn into barriers to fulfillment, then as now, for most of the religious and spiritual paths that have been developed with roots in the Axial Age of 800-200 BCE. This isn't a fault of such systems as Buddhism, and Armstrong does her best to place this approach to holiness within the confines of its feudal times, but it does keep the full realization of what the Buddha offered to the rest of humanity at a bit of distance from the mundane preoccupations that consume much of our efforts.

The liberation and the freedom from such worldly concerns turns interior for much of this narrative, and it's difficult material to make vivid on the static page. Armstrong relies on both the primary texts and interpretations to try to enliven this journey within to those of us who stand outside of the process towards "Nibbana" and away from "samsara." A list of further reading might have aided us after we close this study.

Armstrong's a skilled interpreter for popular readerships of monotheistic faiths from the Middle East. The strengths lie in how she compares and contrasts the traditions more familiar to Westerners with the more esoteric nature of a less theistically based, more subtle and ethically centered tradition in Buddhism. However, I also wondered if Armstrong found herself a bit out of her familiar expertise with this daunting subject. She's a well-placed interpreter, but I did keep aware that she, not speaking from within the tradition, might not have been able to master the nuances and lived experiences that could have clarified and revivified what remain rather unfamiliar concepts for most of her English-speaking readers. (Posted 3-28-08 to Amazon US)

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Nightstand Buddhists, daytime reading

I used to boost my baby sons up to peek into a Chinatown shrine. We'd see a Buddha surrounded by gilt and fruit, lit in orange, behind the front window, across from Mon-Kee Restaurant in downtown L.A. I wondered, and still do as I've yet to step inside a temple, what it looks like inside. That always locked-up "Cambodian Ethnic Chinese Association" lacks a website or even an photo on the net, so Spring Street's secret remains. Like its image, it remains impermanent-- at least outside my reach. My Buddhist interest stays arm's length, yet my hand beckons me to library books now and tapping away about it at this blog.

Thomas Tweed defined (see my review of "Westward Dharma") a "nightstand Buddhist" as one curious about the dharma but who keeps to one's self. My little table next to my bed does have volumes borrowed on Tibet, the Silk Road, and Buddhism. I have bought very few, for I lack income and space now, but my visits to the stacks, and interlibrary loans, keep apace. I find my research into Irish literary culture also searching for the admittedly sparse, spare, spurious or spiritual intersections with the East as it enters Erin.

This trek gradually accelerated. While as a child I loved reading about the Himalayas, I've matured still hazy about Buddhism. Two springs ago, I found myself finding out, after a long time wondering but never quite searching, about questions I had regarding Buddha's teachings. Outside of a course taken that rushed past comparative religions (my report was on Zoroastrianism) when I was in high school at fifteen, I lacked much more than anybody in L.A. might gain by osmosis. I stayed apart from it as I had from that viewpoint in Chinatown. It was all around me, like that district five minutes drive (if no traffic) from my house, but I still needed to go there myself, so to speak, and look around actively.

My wife had asked me what I could not answer. So, I checked out two books from the library for Easter weekend in Joshua Tree appropriately. I read them, starting in the car (as passenger) eastward to the low desert Karen Armstrong's decent Penguin Lives contribution on "Buddha" and coming back to the smoggy city via Damien Keown's excellent Oxford UP's Very Short Introductions entry on "Buddhism."

I reviewed the latter book two years ago this weekend. I watched my first Easter sunrise ever, getting up and shooting photos as the desert roused. Not sure if any revelation happened. No stones rolled, no tombs opened, not even a Mary Magdalene touched. But awakenings "ex oriente" may slow, unlike a resurrection's burst. I remain more eclectic than even before, to my wife's perplexity, I confess.

As a Californian, I've suspected many who took up Buddhism as charlatans, deluded by superficial cravings they masked as profundity rather than platitudes. I figured most of this persuasion around my State bought into and/or peddled romanticized, unsubstantiated, self-help nostrums. They may have been well-meaning, at least some, but I witnessed in my 1970s Catholic formation, I imagined slack beneath the stance.

Atop the slope a mile from our house rises the world center of one Eastern-influenced, Asiatic eclectic, sort of Buddhist, sort of Hindu, sort of yogic, all-American organization. Like many New Age sects, twice it's split into squabbling factions. We neighbors fought off a slick, rather underhanded, attempt by this h.q. to cart the tomb of its founder up there to create a tourist attraction. Elvis had once been entranced by this eclectic group, but he died before he could have given his royalties to it; I shudder to imagine what that influx of Graceland wealth might have erected on the modest summit. Still, they host Halloween for the neighborhood (most years) and their monastics seem genial enough in yellow and maroon robes behind the gates of their hilltop estate, which they took over in 1925. It had been a quail-hunting lodge where Charlie Chaplin and pals retreated to with mistresses, if only half-an- hour's drive from Hollywood studios and their wives in mansions.

My reaction growing up in L.A. tended to be distancing, as I'd kept away from New Age prattlers. Yet I suspected that core Buddhist teachings-- if they could be freed of their Westernized distortions-- might penetrate even my cynicism. Recently, my interest with how the dharma has begun to be transmitted to our West intrigues me.

As a son of cross-cultural influences within a blended religious milieu, at the crossroads in this city of every other culture around our world, I remain enchanted if not spellbound by beliefs, ideologies, and manifestoes. I also if as a child (literally) of the '60s expect countercultural, naysaying, skeptical challenge to any slogan, chant, or assertion. Some of the friends I respect most disdain any religion; others I am close to respect manifestations that may mesh with their childhood Christian or Jewish upbringing. Still others equally sincere espouse pagan, magical, Eastern tendencies they have grown into as they left the Church. These all tangle, as my blog interests drew me into an circle of disparate thinkers, into my own academic research as it tangles with my personal searches.

I blogged last entry about "Juniper: Buddhist training for modern life". That precedes a series of book reviews this month about Buddhism's places and practices. Many have been sent to Amazon US over the past few months as I finished each title, but I saved them up for here. So, even if you're skeptical, check out Juniper first and maybe you'll return here; if you're up for the lineup, stay tuned every other April day. Whatever your perspective, I think you'll find out more than you expected from my nightstand's stack.

P.S. A fine place to begin: "PBS: The Buddha: a film by David Grubin. (Two-hour documentary with innovative animation and design, this premieres April 7th.) The PBS site's crammed with resources. See the episodes via "You Tube". I liked this review, by Paul Knitter from a Christian perspective in the Jesuit magazine America. Also check out a decent book list-- even if at the "Puffington Host" (sic) -- c/o Waylon Lewis. "Best Buddhist Books".

Photo: Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Juniper: pragmatic Buddhism for secular seekers?

Juniper's rational. It dispenses with icons. It eschews ritual. It encourages criticism. I clicked on my first Facebook ad ever; I found it.

It was, I admit, the first Buddhist site that's popped up. Based up in Redwood City, in the Bay Area, Juniper opened a meditation hall. Primarily, it reaches out-- given their Silicon Valley locale-- by the Net to explain a streamlined, secularized, and sensible take. It emerges not from a religious sensibility, but as a transforming direction. I understand why some prostrate and bow, but I step aside from such devotional gestures, so I appreciated Juniper's ascetic presentation.

Five founded this effort: a Brazilian-born lama; his assistant, a nun born near Chicago; a speech therapist and her husband, a former CFO of Pixel; a college instructor/consultant. They take their name from the sturdy, humble tree that grows in Tibet. Their mission also reminds me, in the muted earth tones they favor, of that friar who loved St. Francis of Assisi but who once burned the meal for all the brethren. Francis showed them how to charitably eat Brother J's ruined fare. Francis himself sprinkled ashes on all his food, for that matter. Franciscans, as with Buddhists, migrated far from their primitive mendicancy into medieval monasteries, splendid edifices, and incensed pageantry. Jupiter may in its understated manner restore what dissenting Spirituals tried for Francis' radical message: the earthshaking core, the challenge to verities, the reaction to power, the insistence upon simplicity, amid a bit of humor and a lot of gritty discipline.

These five founders present, gently but insistently (to me a characteristic style) a modest array of brief articles that convey their spiritual outlook. I find in reading Buddhist sages that their many years of study and meditation boil down-- as with moral expounders of all opinions at their best-- to a terse, honest statement of clarity and confidence. Their recent one, "The Courage to Reason," concludes:
Reason and inquiry are the fuel that keeps Buddhist ideas authentic. To shape Buddhist thinking in modern life, we should not be afraid to apply them. Instead of holding theories about karma and the mind as unquestionable truths, we should examine them in light of genetics, neuroscience, and other modern fields of study. Instead of accepting a male-dominated hierarchy, we should put traditions to the test of modern norms. Instead of worshipping Buddha images, we should use such imagery as archetypes to empower our potential. To accomplish this, however, we must not fear upsetting the status quo. Instead, following the original impetus of Buddhist thought, we must have the courage to reason.

In "A Second Renaissance,", quoted below, they reflect on "the dissonance between science and religious tradition as the challenge of our age." I hope that you may learn from the final sentence of Jupiter's entry. It jibes with my own perspective.

A friend with no previous background or interest in Buddhist thought reported that when he started sharing with others his interest in Juniper’s work he repeatedly found a wellspring of interest in Buddhist ideas. He said it was as if these people had been on a secret exploration of Buddhist thought and meditation. Why is this, and what is the relationship between Buddhist ideas and this modern dissonance?

Juniper’s answer is that Buddhist training contains within it the seeds to resolve the dissonance between science and religious dogma. With its focus on inquiry, the mind, and inner development, Buddhist training permits us to have a rich inner life without having to accept ideas that have not stood the test of time. Buddhist tradition is not free of dogma; in many instances, it has similar trappings of classic religious traditions. The difference is that Buddhist tradition makes use of inquiry, reason, and critical thought to examine the nature of things. Its own principles give us the tools to free ourselves from old dogmas and to resolve the challenges of our time with inquiry, wisdom, and compassion. By applying this process of inquiry, we can dissect the essence of Buddhist methods of inner development and embed it in a modern wrapper.

Photo: "Jupiter: Buddhist Training for Modern Life"

After I compiled this draft, in a thread on Amazon I've been following about the koan "Does a Dog Have a Buddha-Nature?" this was posted: "Buddha's words are entangling briars to forever ensnare the faithful who cannot let go of clinging, yes, even to the Buddha and the sutras."

Chan Tue Lon's caution blends with Juniper's agnostic approach, which as their reading list shows has been influenced not only by classic science-of-mind Tibetan lamas, but by Stephen Batchelor. Both Juniper and Batchelor urge a Buddhism relevant, clear, and accessible to critical inquiry; karma or rebirth may not mesh with today's science. His "Buddhism without Beliefs" I have discussed last year on my blog. I also added it, after over a hundred reviewers, here on Amazon US. I recommend Batchelor as a counterpart for Juniper's stripped-down mindset. I'm in a library queue to read his new "Confession of a Buddhist Atheist"; given his past appeal for "deep agnosticism" as opposed to "atheism," I wonder if it's savvy marketing or if after another decade Batchelor's shifted his path once more.

(See Barbara O'Brien's spirited review of his new book via her site at ""; Mark Vernon at "The Guardian" confirms my hunch that Batchelor's indeed moved towards a position winning him plaudits from Christopher Hitchens, who in his "god Is Not Great" as I critiqued it on Amazon US seemed all too eager to equate Buddhism with all the religions he lambasted. He conflates Dalai Lama with dharma. It's true and not true in Buddhist parlance, but Hitchens lacks precision and nuance.)

In light of the neo-atheist assault and a widening Western disenchantment with nostrums, I suspect many skeptics might benefit from "Buddhism without Beliefs" with its bracing commentary. Those turned off by guru groupies, a hundred thousand prostrations, or wealth-generating chants. They may yearn for Juniper's less ornamented, more austere, articulation that conveys the richness of Tibetan approaches to wisdom beneath their smoke and glitter. Van Morrison had one record entitled "Enlightenment." Another: "No Guru, No Method, No Teacher." Juniper hosts a Brazilian-born Tibetan-schooled guru and an "Awakening the Mind" method they teach but maybe they-- as with Belfast-Marin's troubadour-- sidle into the not-knowing mystic.