Wednesday, March 25, 2009

What is the What / Dave Eggers -- NY: Vintage Books, 2007.

What is the What is the most extraordinary book I have read in quite a while. Dave Eggers novelizes the astonishing experiences of Valentino Achak Deng. Achak, born in a small village in southern Sudan, was made a refugee at the age of six. Torn from his family when genocidal horsemen descended on his village, he fled alone until meeting up with a group of boys led by Dut Majok, a young teacher from his village. Apparently, Dut is leading the boys to safety in Ethiopia, but in time it is revealed that he may be delivering them to the Sudan People's Liberation Army to become child soldiers.

The structure of the novel provides further interest to the story and insight into Achak's psyche. Achak narrates the story by imagining himself recounting his events to Americans he encounters once he has emigrated to Atlanta. Achak has a desperate need to tell his story, but without a venue for doing so, he recounts it to himself. We, the readers, are the beneficiaries of his reflections.

Among the most striking features of the book is the role that sheer luck played in Achak's survival. He is often placed in a situation where he must choose between two or more courses of action without any basis for knowing what is best. One path leads to survival, the other to disaster or even death. On his journey, many of his fellow travelers die of malnutrition, disease, and exhaustion. Some are attacked and eaten by lions and hyenas. At one point, Achak is running through the forest with another boy and a lion "takes" the boy. The lion comes so close to Achak that he can smell it. It's clear to the reader that survival is entirely a matter of chance.

While the novel recounts horrors and hardships, it also recounts Achak's adolescent urges, his friendships, his school-day triumphs, and romantic passions, allowing the reader to not merely feel sympathy for him, but to empathize with him. Other characters are also well constructed. His friends are multidimensional and his fellow Sudanese refugees are engagingly diverse, leaving the reader to understand that the horror of the civil war beset real people and not merely generic African victims.

More than anything, What is the What provides a clearer understanding of war and the personal cost of war than any political or military history that could be written.

The Art of Buddhism: An Introduction to Its History and Meaning / Denise Patry Leidy -- Boston: Shambhala, 2008.

The Art of Buddhism is a beautiful and informative stroll through the history of Buddhist sculpture, architecture, and painting. The narrative follows a rough chronological order, but by the 6th to 8th century, the spread of Buddhism followed too many different paths to permit a single story. Consequently, Leidy begins describing the art of particular geographic regions chapter by chapter.

Leidy explains many of the subtle features in Buddhist art that help the reader (or viewer) to understand what personalities are represented in the art. She notes that continuity in the art forms across different regions roughly matches the continuity of Buddhist doctrine. For example the sinuous forms of early Indian sculpture appear in Southeast Asian sculpture just as the Theravada doctrine spread from early India to Southeast Asia. Along the way, she explains some of the difference between various schools of Buddhism.

The book is beautifully illustrated, with a photograph or diagram on nearly every page. Unfortunately, they are often too small to really display the full beauty of the art. Indeed, the book's 10" x 7" format makes even the largest images small. Nevertheless, the selection of paintings and especially sculptures are sometimes breath taking.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Buddhist Sutras: Origin, Development, Transmission / Kogen Mizuno -- Tokyo: Kosei Publishing, 1982.

Buddha, like Socrates, left no writings of his own, but shortly after his death, his followers gathered to recite his sermons. The goal was to agree upon precisely what he said to preserve his teaching in an oral tradition. The language spoken by the monks of this First Buddhist Council was probably Old Magadhi. As the popularity of Buddhism grew, the desire to evangelize to speakers of other languages also grew. Consequently, the sermons of the Buddha were written down and translated into various languages of ancient India. These sermons are known as sutras. Along with the sutras, early Buddhists compiled monastic rules known as vinayas. Later, commentaries on the sutras developed, known as abhidharma. Collectively, these writings are known as the Tripitaka or the three baskets and are the canon of early Buddhism.

In centuries following the establishment of this canon, other important works were written in an effort to express the insights of Buddhism in various languages, importantly Chinese. With the addition of a number of original Chinese texts to the canon the "Pali canon" or the original canon written in Pali, was expanded into what is known as the Chinese canon. In Buddhist Sutras Kogen Mizuno recounts the origin, development, and transmission of the Pali canon through the Chinese canon. Along the way, he describes the transmission of Buddhist sutras into various other Asian languages, especially Japanese.

Mizuno's work is loaded with information about the texts, languages, and translators of the sutras and includes valuable explanation of some of the sectarian movements in the history of Buddhism and important cultural contexts. He notes that doctrinal divergences within Buddhism can often be traced to different interpretations of the teachings generated by translations into different languages. Unfortunately, the work is not well organized. While it follows a rough chronological sequence, there are many leaps forward and backward in time. Furthermore, it overlays this sequence with topical treatments of his subject that do not have a clear pattern of presentation. The effect is a rambling narrative. However, it is filled with illuminating facts and details in the history of the Buddhist canon.

Among its most valuable features is an appendix which alphabetically lists the titles of scriptures and catalogs of scriptures in Pali, Sanskrit, Chinese, Japanese, and other languages. Each work appears in the list using each language into which it has been translated. For example, The Heart Wisdom Sutra is also listed as the Prajnaparamita-hridaya-sutra (Sanskrit) and as Pan-jo po-lo-mi-to hsin-ching (Chinese). English details about the work are given in under the title listed in the original language.