Book review: Choosing Buddhism

Choosing Buddhism: The life stories of eight Canadians by Mauro Peressini (published by University of Ottawa Press 2016) offers an interesting mix of socio-anthropological information of Buddhism in Canada wrapped around narratives of eight living Canadians who converted to Buddhism. Specifically, the domain of the book is the phenomenon of conversion rather than cultural or heritage Buddhism. The arc of the book however is a study in coming to Buddhism through a variety of life choices, many of which appeared to move away from Buddhism rather than towards it.

Peressini begins with a detail description of his own process in writing the book and a heavily detailed description of the way the book is set up. It’s only 13 pages but it’s a bit of a slog unless research methodology and census data is something that intrigues you. Nevertheless, it was interesting to learn about the intricacies of tapping into the actual numbers of Buddhists in Canada and even more so for the conversion to Buddhism. The chapter on Buddhism in Canada (p53-61) was particularly fascinating especially noting the differences before and after 1967 being related to the political lines drawn between those of European races and the “undesirable” Asian races. (We arrived in 1965 and I recall my parents saying with some awe and anxiety that we were one of 19 families accepted from “the East”.)

The heart of Peressini’s book however beats in the narratives of the eight Canadians (some naturalized):

Ajahn Viradhammo (born Vitauts Akers in Germany),
Jim Bedard (born in North Bay ON),
Albert Low (born in London England),
Taigen Henderson (born Ian Henderson in Toronto ON),
Zengetsu Myokyo (born Judith McLean in Aylmer QC),
Louis Cormier (born in Rogersville NB),
Kelsang Drenpa (born Christine Ares in Longueuil QC), and
Tsultrim Palmo (born Anna Szczygielska in Ostrow, Poland.

Their stories are not the typical sorry tale with a flash forward to some moment of enlightenment after which all is well. The very poignant human struggles and challenges of faith are helpful to know for anyone who thinks the Path smoothly rises up to greet us. And of course, it just continues after (their self-reported) enlightenment. Peressini offers a commentary at the end of each life story which rather nicely ties together his intent in the methodology and the narrative itself.

Personally, I was fascinated to read the life path of Ajahn Viradhammo and Albert Low, having met both as teachers and practice briefly with Low. Ajahn V. is a towering individual in the Buddhist community in and around Ottawa. I recall meeting with him when he was living in Ottawa and caring for his mother. Our conversation was warm and wide-ranging but it was very clear that he, as a traditionalist, was going to have no truck with this beast called ‘secular mindfulness’. I learned a lot in that conversation, not the least was to hold the integrity of the Dhamma close in anything I was going to do.

Albert Low’s narrative was astonishing probably yet so consistent with his clear vision of who he is (was?). Of all my teachers, I knew him for the shortest time but was most deeply affected by his gentle and quiet presence. He left me with a simple instruction: Be gentle with your breath, don’t be afraid to always start over. When I wrote to tell him I could no longer make the 4-hr return trip to Montreal every week, he wrote back (I paraphrase here): We are only given the privilege to walk with each other for short spaces. But stay with each other for an eternity.

Choosing Buddhism is really not about how these practitioners decided what path to take. It is about the what they chose in each moment of their lives. If it was to suffer, they chose to suffer fully. If it was to stop, they stopped fully. If it was to move on, they did so whole-heartedly. Like Ajahn V., they heard that very quiet call that could have easily been lost in the noise of whatever drama was playing out in their life at the time.

The book itself is a resource to understand both the development of Buddhism in Canada and how we come to create the path we walk. If that’s not your bag, the life stories make a lovely fireside read.

 

stillness of a river: book review of Sid by anita n. feng

Sid by Anita N. Feng is a surprisingly well crafted telling of the traditional story of the Buddha’s life alongside a contemporary version set a Western life.  It’s a risky undertaking: this attempt to demonstrate The Awakened One’s tale can be taken from the lofty allegories of becoming the Enobled One and make it applicable to the quotidian. The transformation from Siddhartha to Gautama Buddha is entrenched in details of its own, mythologies, and narratives that demand suspension of disbelief. And they have been re-written often, mostly with attempts to make the Enlightened Him more human – as if the very point of the root narrative wasn’t to showcase his deep humanity.

I avoided buying this book for those very reasons. After Chopra’s McPyschology attempt at interpreting the Buddha’s story, there seemed little need to wander back into that genre. But it arrived, unrequested, a solitary little package from what is likely my favourite publisher of Buddhist books, Wisdom Publications. (That’s full disclosure and then some!)

Feng enters into a lineage of authors who have tried to recast in modern terms this storyline of birth, loss, suffering, and death. But I think this is the only one that runs a parallel story to the main narrative. Hermann Hesse did so in the much beloved Siddhartha; however the characters were contemporaries and it ran more as an alternate universe: “what if the Buddha met himself across a time warp.” The writing in Sid, unlike Hesse’s romantic lyrics, has an unaffected tone that makes the slide from one stage to another easy and one goes along willingly. And stages there are. Like a Shakespearean play, we are carried from the stage with Suddhodana, Siddhartha, and Avalokitesvara to one with Professor Sudovsky, Sid, and Ava; from Yasodhara to Yasmin; from Siddhartha’s Rahula to Sid’s Rahula (this last a fascinating convergence of lineages). With a nod to the Jataka Tales, animals fill in narrative gaps like the Chorus of a Greek tragedy – observing, commenting, and imparting their wisdom. And with a deep bow to an honourable lineage, Feng offers homage to Hesse’s river that is the final teacher of Siddhartha and Sid in their last pages.

This isn’t an interweaving of two stories and perhaps those who attempt to do so fail because of the artifice of a forced relevance. These are life events that can unfold anywhere in any time. That, at its heart, is the intent of understanding the Buddha’s life. Of course, the book can be read as a sequence of the Buddha’s life in 4th c. B.C.E. followed by Sid’s life in the 21st c. C.E. – interesting and sufficient to feel reassured that nothing changes. It can also be, in some way that only physics can explain, contemporaneous stories whose details grip us for different reasons – a recognition that in stillness everything changes and in movement nothing changes.