#214: BUDDHISM PLAIN AND PRACTICAL / BUDDHA BIOS. Credit where it’s due: Alex J. O’Connor, a young man at Oxford who posts videos on Youtube as CosmicSkeptic, said once that if taking an interest in a topic, rather than reading a book on the subject he preferred to see a debate, thus getting both sides of an argument. Debate of course is still daily fare at Oxford, where you can see people hashing out, say, the existence of free will as part of a Friday evening out. Debating has all but vanished here in the States, and his remark made me take note. Something of this advantage is visible in The Monk and the Philosopher: A Father and Son Discuss the Meaning of Life (Schocken Books, 1998). The father in this case is Jean-Francois Revel, who has published, in France, widely read books on politics and political philosophy. Revel’s son is Matthieu Ricard, who is a very striking case. (His mother was the painter Yahne Le Toumelin; as one Englishman observed, art in the blood is liable to take the strangest—at least unpredictable—forms.) Ricard did degree work at Pasteur Institute in molecular genetics and was soon working with top people in the biological sciences, Francois Jacob, Jacques Monod and the like. But he then pulled away from those studies and became a monk in the Tibetan Vajrayana Buddhist tradition, again studying with the most esteemed teachers possible: Kangyur Rinpoche and Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche and others. He has published translations of Buddhist texts—most notably of the songs of Shabkar, the nineteenth-century yogi and poet—and has been in the thick of academic studies on the neurological effects of meditation; he is also a marvelously gifted photographer. The conversations reported in The Monk and the Philosopher are not so much the pro-and-con of hard debate as amiable comparative conversations of the two men’s philosophies and beliefs. Revel, with courtesy and curiosity both, often allows Ricard to take the stage, and the book is probably one of the better expositions of Buddhism, Tibetan Buddhism especially, available in English (ably translated from the French by John Canti). This is Buddhism, to some degree, from the West looking East; both men, with their backgrounds in Western science and philosophy, approach their conversation with obviously first-rate intelligences and little recourse to the specialized and complex terminology of the Vajrayana. It can be a long haul for Western students sometimes to understand the language of Buddhism: dharma, that Sanskrit word alone that has been naturalized into English, could be the subject of many pages of explication; the Buddhist use of the word “emptiness” has probably been the cause of who knows how much confusion and worrisome misunderstanding. The Monk and the Philosopher’s special quality is in its plain and colloquial, conversational tone; whatever you bring to the party by way of knowledge of Western thought will be a help, but French or English, Revel and Ricard speak a familiar language.
A little personal bow to this book: I read it years ago, just at the point when my study of Buddhism was in danger of becoming a little scholarly, a little book-bound, and it returned me to practice with fresh enthusiasm and fresh vigor. This is a book not for the library shelves: rather, it gets you out onto the edge of the diving board. Where you go from there is up to you.
A similar practical energy pervades Red Pine’s recent compilation book Zen Roots: The First Thousand Years (Empty Bowl Press, 2020). Zen is Red Pine’s obvious affinity: his book Zen Baggage, one of the best travel books I’ve ever read, is Porter’s account of visiting the Chinese monasteries, north to south, where Zen took form.* Zen Roots is a compact compilation from the sutras most associated with Zen, as well as teachings from Bodhidharma, Sengcan, Hui-neng, Yongjia and Huangbo. In form and format, it’s an ideal vade-mecum, of a size to go with you. Porter’s introductions are best in show: splendid little fast-forwards in the history and teachings of the individual texts; nobody does this sort of thing better than he does. It’s a beautiful little book, a joy. But Porter warns us, “It is, though, just words. Don’t let it distract you from what’s important.” Point taken.
One of the vexing and confusing Buddhist terms, for Westerners, as mentioned above, is the notion of emptiness—which as Jean-Francois Revel remarks, often conveys to Western students a dismaying notion of mere nothingness, a void. The Heart Sutra (included in Zen Roots) then doubles the whammy by telling us (the essential line of the entire work) that “Form is emptiness, emptiness is form.” This has been commented on almost endlessly; The Other Shore: A New Translation of The Heart Sutra, with Commentaries (Palm Leaves Press, 2017), is a study by Thich Nhat Hanh, the rightly loved Vietnamese monk who passed away last year. For all of its brevity, no one will probably ever exhaust what is in the Heart Sutra, but it's more accessible to explanation and comprehension than may at first appear, and Nhat Hanh’s study is one of the best I’ve come across. The sutra climaxes with one of the most reverberant of all the Buddhist mantras: “Gate, Gate, Paragate, Parasamgate”—“Gone, gone, safely gone, safely gone to the other shore.” Safe voyage.
Karen Armstrong has noted: “Some Buddhists might say that to write a biography of Sidhatta Gotama is a very un-Buddhist thing to do.” The Buddha’s last words were “Be ye lamps unto yourselves,” and he discouraged taking things only on faith. But we are humans and we work from stories, from archetypes, from myths, fully as much as from notions, rules and ideas. This, probably as much as the antiquity of the topic, is why the story of the Buddha remains compelling, and stubbornly retains its legendary feeling and shape. “In modern historical criticism,” Armstrong writes, “it is usually a rule of thumb to discount miraculous events as later accretions. But if we do this with the Pali Canon we distort the legend.” So the life of the Buddha cannot be told only as history; the miraculous, the activities of the gods and celestial spirits, the supernatural abilities of the enlightened, are intrinsic to the story, and their presence advances or retreats to the tune in the writer’s mind. This does not remove the psychological or archetypal content; it merely brightens the colors. So reader, take note: we're not in Kansas any more.
Of the older works, the Lalita-Vistara, a Mahayana text, and the Buddhacarita, by Ashva-ghosha, are still used as sources and widely read; both are available in English, both in print and online.** Of the modern biographies, The Life of Buddha as Legend and History, by Edward J. Thomas, can be found online at archive.org and has been reprinted by Dover. Thomas’s prose goes along at a somewhat deliberate pace, but he’s solid and still worth reading.
More accessible and easier reading, are Karen Armstrong’s Buddha (in the excellent Penguin Lives series, 2001) which is compact and sympathetic and informative; and A Life of the Buddha, by Sherab Chodzin Kohn (Shambhala, 2009; originally published as The Awakened One, which I thought was a better title) tells the traditional tale exceptionally well.
My thinking about the story of the Buddha’s life was prompted just now by running across Kurtis R. Schaeffer's recent translation of an eighteenth-century Tibetan work by Tenzin Chogyel, The Life of the Lord Victor Shakyamuni, Ornament of One Thousand Lamps for the Fortunate Eon, published now more laconically in English as The Life of the Buddha (Penguin Classics, 2015). Schaeffer points out that by the time Chogyel got to his sources, the story of the Buddha’s life had been essenced down, as stereotypically as with Thomson’s folktale motif-index, to twelve events***. The pleasure is that Chogyel is a wonderful story-teller, and the surprise, given that the Tibetan genius is often elaborative, is that he also tells the tale in just 100 vivid and, yes, colorful pages. No work I’ve read has better captured the story’s wonder-tale beauty and its emotional impact. The elements of the remarkable—the traffic of the gods and their shepherding of events, the hyperbole, the heightened phrasing--all seem fit to the story; the quiet, suspenseful moments, as when the Buddha comes within an ace of deciding not to teach, seem colossal events; and when Chogyel interpolates a rarely-mentioned scene and reunites the Buddha with his long-abandoned son, he heals over something that has always rankled in the original. In Chogyel’s telling the universe pays close attention to what’s happening, and we believe it would.
Armstrong quotes a tale from the Majjhima Nikaya: a king in a state of acute depression leaves his carriage and goes into the forest and, surrounded by the ancient trees, marvels how “they gave out a sense of being apart from the ordinary world, a place where one could take refuge,” and found himself hurrying miles away to reach where the Buddha was teaching. Deciding to follow the Buddha came to be known as “taking refuge;” it’s another part of the legend that has stuck, and Chogyel’s swift and moving retelling of the old tale helps us understand why.
*Porter’s books on travel are published under his own name, Bill Porter; his translations are published under the name of Red Pine.
**The Lalita Vistara can be found translated online as The Play in Full on the website 84000.co and is available in print, in two volumes from Dharma Publishing, as The Voice of the Buddha, translated by Gwendolyn Bays. The Buddhacarita can be found online at archive.org, in the translation by Edward Cowell; Cowell’s translation is in the anthology Buddhist Mahayana Texts, published by Dover, and in a new translation by Patrick Olivelle in the Clay Sanskrit Library, as The Life of the Buddha.
***Life in heaven, descent to earth, birth, education, the pleasures of the royal harem, renunciation of house, spiritual discipline, journey to Bodhgaya, battle with demons, enlightenment, teaching, death.