Friday, October 24, 2008

Awakening the Buddha Within / Lama Surya Das -- NY: Broadway Books, 1997.

The centerpeice of Buddhism is the Four Noble Truths, roughly put: (1) life is filled with suffering, (2) suffering is caused by selfish desires, (3) the elimination of selfish desires will eliminate suffering, and (4) the Eightfold Path is the means to eliminate selfish desires.

For many years, I have been reading fairly scholarly books on Buddhism. I've been especially attracted to ancient writings and I have shunned more popular treatments, particularly books by Westerners. Much to my dismay, I have found very few works that provide an extended, systematic treatment of the Eightfold Path. (The Ancient Path of the Buddha by Piyadassi Thera is a notable exception.) So I was conflicted when I discovered that Lama Surya Das (a.k.a. Jeffery Miller from Long Island) wrote a 400 page work detailing the Eightfold Path. Well, I am quite pleased that I overcame my prejudice against Western Buddhist authors and read his work Awakening the Buddha Within.

In an effort to bring Buddhism to ordinary Western life, Surya Das's writing is chatty and colloquial. He often employs pedestrian and superficial metaphors to express difficult ideas. However, his honest and unpretentious treatment of the Eightfold Path makes it relatively easy for me to overlook these passages. Through out the work, Surya Das observes that Buddhism has transformed and has been transformed by every culture that it encountered, and so there is no reason to be ashamed of the westernization of Buddhism and its differences from the Asian Buddhist traditions. This, more than any substantive description or analysis of the Eightfold Path, makes the work valuable to me and worth recommending. The fact that his treatment of the Eightfold Path is generally quite instructive makes it all the more worthwhile.

Surya Das provides a clear treatment of the central concepts behind each step of the Path. He illustrates his points with stories of his training in Himalayan monasteries and in a French Tibetan retreat center with traditional stories from the history of Buddhism. His treatment of the wisdom steps of the Path is uneven. He does not give deep expression to right view, missing the complexity and nuances of the Buddhist worldview and its metaphysics. Admittedly, doing so in a popular idiom would be a remarkable achievement; however, he does a very admirable job of expressing the significance of committing oneself to the path of enlightment, i.e., right intention.

His best work is in explaning the ethical steps on the path: right speech, right action, and right livelihood. It seems clear that an important motive for his seeking training in Buddhism was to understand how to live a moral life. It is also here that the westernization of Buddhism appears most significant. Surya Das effectively identifies how Buddhist ethics are in accord with specific Western concerns and moral impulses and how Western ideals, like gender equality, can help perfect the Buddhist tradition.

The sections on meditation steps are perhaps the weakest. The chapter on right effort gives fine inspiration to the reader to remain dedicated to the path of enlightenment, and the chapter on right mindfulness does an adequate job of explaining and stressing its importance to attaining enlightenment, but his treatement of right concentration devolves into (mostly) a series of transcripts for guided meditation. Unless the reader commits these to memory or has a friend read them aloud in a medidtation session, they serve little purpose. It would have been better to present these sections in an appendix, and use the chapter on conentration to explain general principles for right concentration.

Regardless of its weaknesses, Awakening the Buddha Within easily succeeds in the extremely important task of explaining in detail the most practical and important truth a Buddhist can seek to understand: how to follow the Eightfold Path to enlightenment, and it makes an excellent case for the legitimacy of Western Buddhism as a worthy element of world Buddhism.

Friday, October 10, 2008

1968: The Year that Rocked the World / Mark Kurlansky -- NY: Ballantine Books, 2004.

As a review of the year 1968, Kurlansky's book 1968 is somewhat weak, but as a review of the student protest movement of that year, it is quite good. Kurlansky focuses mostly on the student movement in the US, particularly Berkeley and Columbia Universities, but he makes a laudable effort to include accounts of Paris, Prague, Poland, and Mexico City. He also provides an interesting account of the Democratic National Convention in Chicago and the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy.

Admittedly, this is quite a list of events to cover in a single book, but I was left wanting something more than accounts of resistance. Kurlansky recognizes the significant social and economic changes that were underway during 1968, but gives them short attention. Missing is a sense of the general ambiance of the times within which the student movement took place. Furthermore, his treatment of the student movements concentrates attention on a handful of people who came to be picked out as "leaders" by the national media. Despite the insistance of the actors themselves that the movement was driven by spontaneous, decentralized motives, Kurlansky provides biographies of a handful of people as though this would provide insight into the events.

Despite these complaints, 1968 was an engaging read. Much has been written and told about the student movement of the 1960s to make Kurlansky's work unsurprising, but it does conatain enough untold stories to make it quite rewarding, and the story is told well enough that I wanted to follow up reading this with other more complete accounts of specific events.