Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen / Christopher McDougall -- N.Y.: Vantage Books, 2011

Christopher McDougall has given us an amazing and charming book in Born to Run.  McDougall, a runner himself, has been a war correspondent, an editor for Men's Health, and a writer for numerous magazines. On assignment in Mexico, he came upon a magazine article about the Tarahumara Indians, who have made running the centerpiece of their culture.  Members of their tribe routinely run scores, even hundreds of miles at a time over the rough landscape of the Copper Canyons in Mexico.  As a writer for Runner's World, McDougall set out to meet the Tarahumara runners along with a mysterious American runner, Caballo Blanco, who was said to live among them.  After a difficult journey through territory controlled by drug lords, McDougall makes contact with the Tarahumara and Caballo.  From there he begins to explore the history of the Tarahumara's encounters with American ultra-runners, athletes who also run grueling 100 mile races over forbidding cross-country trails.  In this early section of the book, we read about amazing athletes and their dedication to a sport that resides on the periphery of the sports world.

Born to Run is his account of the people and races that he encountered in his research.  In this early section of the book, we read about amazing athletes and their dedication to a sport that resides on the periphery of the sports world.  It is easy to simply dismiss these athletes as lunatics.  Who in their right mind, after all, would run 100 miles non-stop?  But as we read about them, one gains a sincere respect for people who have developed the discipline to accomplish such a task without major injury and in a manner that they clearly find rewarding and even spiritually uplifting.  Along the way McDougall tells us not only of the remarkable spirit of these long distance runners, but of how we humans have lost touch with an ability that, according to McDougall, gave us the evolutionary edge to survive in an otherwise deadly environment:  the ability to run great distances.  While slower and weaker than other animals, our ability to patiently track prey, allowed our ancestors to chase them for great distances until they collapsed from exhaustion.  McDougall also presents the case that our feet have been well-adapted to run these great distances without causing injury.  Ironically, the sports running shoes that are designed to protect feet are causing more injuries than would occur to barefoot runners.  His book is part anthropology and part evolutionary biology.

The most interesting aspect of the book is, however, his account of the race that is organized by Caballo, bringing several American ultra-runners to the Copper Canyons to race against the Tarahumara.  In this final portion of the narrative, we get engaging accounts of the various and free-spirited personalities of the ultra-runners as they make their way to the Copper Canyons and interact with the Tarahumara and it is the Tarahumara who are the real stars of the story, even while we learn less of them than we learn of the American runners.  This is due undoubtedly to the access McDougall had to the characters and to the cultural reticence of the Tarahumara.

The tale is eminently exciting and entertaining.  Whether or not you are a runner, you are bound to find the protagonists in McDougall's story admirable and inspiring.

Saturday, April 4, 2015

Buddhism / Christmas Humphreys -- [n.l.]: Penguin Books, 1951

Buddhism by Christmas Humphreys was the first book I read about Buddhism.  I was perhaps 15 years old, newly exploring religions other than the Christianity.  I was immediately taken by Buddhism's approach to life.  It seemed simultaneously rational and compassionate.  It offered a perspective on the world that did not rely on speculation and unsupported faith and the personality traits that it prescribed seem eminently virtuous.  I did not read much more about Buddhism until many years later, but Humphreys's book made a strong enough impression on me that I was always tempted to describe myself as a Buddhist.

This is the third (perhaps fourth) time I have read the book and with this reading I now more clearly understand how it shaped my thinking about Buddhism.  Buddhism is a general introduction to the religion.  It presents chapters on the life of the Buddha and his ministry.  It then goes on to describe the essential doctrines of early Buddhism in five chapters, followed by a chapter on the Sangha, three chapters on Mahayana Buddhism, chapters on Zen and Tibetan Buddhism, and finally two chapters on "the fruits" of Buddhism and contemporary Buddhism.

Humphreys does a good job in nearly all of these chapters.  His accounts are generally clear and accurate.  He does, however, present some ideas in a rather sectarian fashion.  His treatment of Tibetan Buddhism over emphasizes the magical and ritualistic trappings of the tradition, making it seem a poor degeneration of a noble tradition.  His characterization of Zen, on the other hand, describes it not only as the consummation of Buddhist thought and practice, but the highest achievement of human spiritual and philosophical thought.  His treatment of the concept of the self appears to be most consistent with Yogachara thinking in which the self is a kind of world consciousness (what is sometimes elsewhere described as a "storehouse" consciousness).  At times Humphreys even appears to verge into agreement with Pudgalavada Buddhism which accepts an "inexpressible" self or the Advaita Vedanta that posits an eternal, universal soul.  Humphreys asserts that the earlier doctrines which accepted anatta or the doctrine of no-self misunderstood the true views of the Buddha.  Perhaps the largest missing piece in his account is an clear and detailed explanation of the doctrine of sunyata or emptiness which was the critical concept in the Madhyamaka school.

As a result of these more or less evaluative treatments, my own impression of Buddhism failed to appreciate the importance of anatta and sunyata, and it led me to explore and embrace Zen for perhaps longer than was good for my progress through understanding the whole of Buddhism.  It was nearly twenty years later that I finally picked up T.R.V. Murti's The Central Philosophy of Buddhism in which a gained a good understanding of anatta and sunyata and recognized the importance of their place in Buddhist thought.  I don't mean to denigrate the ideas and perspectives of Zen or the Yogacara tradition.  I merely hope to point out that a best understanding of Buddhist thought is not achieved by reading its history in reverse.  To appreciate Zen and the Yogacara Buddhism,  one should first understand and appreciate the early schools of Buddhism and the orthodox view of the self that they propose.  With that (and with an understanding of Advaita Vedantism) one can appreciate the remarkable perspective of the Madhyamaka and the natural reaction to it that resulted in Zen and the Yogacara tradition.

I  am forever thankful that I encounter Christmas Humphreys's book at an early age.  It no doubt made a significant and very beneficial contribution to my intellectual growth and perspective on life.  I only wish that before going on to read about Zen, I was directed to the earlier phases of Buddhist thought, particularly the doctrine of no-self.  It may have been too much to expect a teenager to understand and appreciate the concept of emptiness, but with the doctrine of no-self under my belt, I would likely have come to it sooner than I did.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

What the Buddha Taught / Walpola Rahula -- Revised Edition -- N.Y.: Grove Weidenfeld, 1959, 1974

Walpola Rahula's short book What the Buddha Taught is among the best introductions to the essential doctrines of early Buddhism that I have read.  His introductory chapter admirably lays out the basic "attitude of mind" that characterizes Buddhism.  This is followed by four chapters, each on one of the Four Noble Truths:  the fact of suffering or dissatisfaction (dukkha), cause of dukkha, the cessation of dukkha, and the actions by which one brings about the cessation of dukkha.  Rahula then devotes a two chapters on topics that are critical for the appreciation of Buddhist enlightenment.  The first of these chapters deals with what is possibly the most important concept unique to Buddhism among the world's venerable religions:  the doctrine of the non-existence of the self (anatta).  The second chapter is devoted to the cultivation of the mind through meditation.

In the chapter on anatta, Rahula appears to be responding to a work that had been recently published by Christmas Humphreys.  Humphreys translates a passage in the Dhammapada as asserting "The Self is the Lord of the Self."  From this, Humphreys goes on to reject the Theravada interpretation of the doctrine of anatta, claiming that their are two selves:  one that is the composition of psycho-physical attributes and another that is "a reservoir of character brought over from life to life" which while not immortal, endures long enough to "control the lower self" and in a long process of self-purification, become liberated from the suffering world.  Against this, Rahula argues that the translation that Humphreys accepts is faulty.  Instead, Atta hi attano natho should be translated "One is one's own refuge" or "One is one's own support."  The passage does not suggest a bifurcation of the self.  On this score and on others, Rahula's interpretation of Buddhism is in accord with the doctrines of Early Buddhism, i.e., the Buddhism that pre-existed the Mahayana reformation.

In the final chapter, Rahula discusses how this ancient practice can be made relevant to the modern world.  Though written more than 50 years ago, his account is still quite relevant.  A significant portion of it refers to the Sigala Sutta and is devoted to recognizing the importance of loving and respecting ("worshiping" the people in one's life in place of the six directions that were traditionally worshiped in the ancient Indian practice, but Rahula also discusses what is a lay Buddhist's proper relationship to economics and politics.

Finally, Rahula includes translations of five important suttas and excerpts from five more.  These are generally the suttas that he has referred to in the course of his book.