Monday, October 17, 2011

"Buddhism for Dummies": Book Review

The core message here's "proceed at your own pace," that is, take what works and leave the rest, and to "question what you hear, experience its truth for yourself, and make it your own"--this tone shows the nature of this user-friendly guide. I never read a "For Dummies" book before as I suspected an insult, but when it comes to the message of the Buddha, we're all ignorant until we "wake up."

While "dependent arising," for me a crucial component of Buddhist understanding, gets only a quick mention in the text, its illustration by "12 links" elaborates this wonderfully. Similarly, the Wheel of Life and Tibetan iconography, in simple monochromatic drawings, gain clarity as often in other books, such concepts either are hard to discern in depicted paintings or relegated only to a block of formidable text. Many notions are of course streamlined, but this is precisely the intent of this encouraging, sensible overview and stimulant.

Origins and philosophy, compassion and wisdom practices, life and teachings of Shakyamuni Buddha, meditation varieties and advice, the big questions of the here and now and what is to come, enlightenment, role models, pilgrimage sites, and historical contexts all gain coverage. The bulk of the book is on practice rather than on philosophy alone, which is proper. Ethics, putting others first, and widening one's awareness of how one fits into the bigger picture blends into an insistence that what is here is not only to be studied, but put into practice, literally. As they say (and quote here) in Zen: "a picture of a rice cake cannot satisfy hunger." The editors look in, as it were, while you read, as would a mentor or teacher, to direct you along.

This updates an edition nearly a decade old. I'm not sure what new editor Professor Gudrun Buhnemann adds to her predecessors Jonathan Landaw (Tibetan orientation) and Stephan Bodian (Zen & Yoga), but I suppose her academic expertise in Sanskrit, Indian, and South Asian studies widens the applicability and scope. Bodian wrote "Meditation for Dummies," and the attention given this fundamental practice enhances this volume considerably. The highlights for me included "a day in the life of..." different practitioners, the Ox-Herding Zen pictures, and the helpful sidebars and checklists (including a sensible pair on common misconceptions and on how Buddhism helps us deal with life's problems) that keep the brisk text running along, while allowing one to pause and reflect, of course.

That format works well; this combines the gist of what you may find in a more advanced academic textbook such as Donald W. Mitchell's "Buddhism" or Rupert Gethin's "Foundations of Buddhism" (both Oxford UP) with pithier advice common to guides like Sogyal Rinpoche's "Tibetan Book of Living and Dying" or Shunryu Suzuki's "Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind" (see my reviews). Appendices annotate more reading; a glossary reminds you of what tricky Sanskrit, Tibetan, Pali, or Japanese terms mean. It's an inviting overview, and as it's for beginners, the tone remains warm, reflective, and a bit witty, which eases the challenges of its contents.

For an introduction, and a reference, this title is recommended. Its title may still embarrass me, but it fits, for once, the spirit of anyone approaching dharma and practice in the right frame of mind. For those too who are ignorant of Buddhism or misled or little informed, this may direct one to learn more, to integrate with whatever outlook one may carry into this text. I have a hunch, however, that if thoughtfully read and acted upon, this book may not be one relegated to the shelf again so easily. (Amazon US 8-27-11)

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