The Day the Buddha Woke Up: A handful of words from a handful of leaves

Note bene: This book was received from the publisher for review.

The Day the Buddha Woke Up by Andrea Miller is a surprisingly delicate presentation of a story every Buddhist has heard over and over. (I was about to write that it is a story Buddhists have heard but I wonder if we’ve ever really heard the story.) I knew Miller’s book was a board book when I agreed to review it, despite reservations about a genre I associate with my daughter’s early bedtime stories or – more often – her early attempts at training as a pitcher for the Blue Jays baseball team! I was tentative.

Miller is an editor at Lion’s Roar and the author of what seems to be a delightful book, My First Book of Canadian Birds, and lives in Nova Scotia. One does not simply walk into a book review of an editor with these chops though I feel a bit more reassured now as I write this.

The Day the Buddha Woke Up is a delightfully written and illustrated book. The back cover says it’s “the heart of the Buddha’s story in a handful of words.” The direct and unsparing writing suggests it’s the handful of words containing the handful of leaves the Buddha held up when he said, “this is what I have taught you.”

The story of the Buddha’s life from birth to enlightenment is told in simple words accompanied by rich and incredibly textured illustrations that form the container of the script. From the sweet drawing of the baby-to-be-Buddha held in maternal arms to his journey through ascetic practices, from the sadness of home-leaving to sitting down under a tree, the story fills out and overflows into your imagination.

Sometimes, I think we read things with too many words.

This little book can be enough.

Before Buddha was Buddha by Rafe Martin: bedtime stories to wake up by

Disclosure: I was provided the book for an honest review.
Connection: Rafe Martin is in my social media circle and I’ve likely known him in some Jataka Tale or the other.
Previous reviews: Endless Path – Awakening Within the Buddhist Imagination: Jataka Tales, Zen practice, and daily life

Rafe Martin adds Before Buddha was Buddha: Learning from the Jataka tales to already prodigious library of mythic tales drawn from the Buddha’s past lives. The morality themes in the stories resonate with other morality tales from the same period such as Aesop’s fables. The primary – and crucial – difference, however, is the portrayal of human frailties: animals typically carry the tone of moral decrepitude in the Greek and later Renaissance fables whereas, in the Jataka Tales, the moral lack is equally possible in humans as in animals. Perhaps this is the deep appeal of the Buddha’s past lives and its potential for discomfort; we are not spared painful lessons by being at the top of this food chain.

In the introduction, Martin offers one of the least addressed challenges to Prince Siddhartha Gautama’s sudden realization that aging, illness, and death occur. Not only quietly challenging this hole in the plot of the Buddha’s coming to be, he also offers the insight missed by many others: it’s the felt sense, that deep embodied realization of the reality of aging, illness, and death that wakes us up. It’s the beginner’s mind of all beginnings. The familiar, the taken-for-granted, the obvious is inescapably real.

And the rest, as is often said, is commentary.

The heart of the Jataka teachings is that this human birth is precious. And the rhythmically pounding message is that it’s not the final destination. The animals in the Jataka tales are by turns blind and aware of this message. Their actions move them in the direction of becoming human; whether we choose to see it as rebirth or realizing their own-form compassionate nature depends on our own landscape. The naga king who chooses to become the silver snake, the monkey king who sees through the delusions of humans and their self-making, the two cousins reborn over and over as fawns and osprey – they begin to understand that the path to liberation is through the human birth and.

Yet, I wonder if that idea has a risky edge of elevating our human capacity above the others. Perhaps it doesn’t matter because the human lives lived by the future Buddha in the Jataka stories are equally challenged and, after many, many failed attempts at liberation, seem to finally arrive at the base of the bodhi tree.

Because I’ve felt too many dharma talks rely on students having already cultivated clear comprehension and too many teachers presume vicarious learning suffices, Martin’s commentaries for each Jataka tale are important to read because they offer a clear perspective of the intent of the tales. As we learned from the Zen story of Gutei’s finger, much can be lost in translation. Martin skillfully draws from the teachings of Zen masters and threads together the sometimes elusive morals in the tales. As he emphasizes in the tale of the Bodhisattva Robber, it helps to know what is really being taught.

I read each chapter as a bedtime story, letting the echoes carry through me the next day and the days after. It’s not about savouring – although there is that too – rather, it is about letting the nuances fill out the spaces between sleeping and waking up. I hear in Martin’s writings, always, the urgency to wake up, “like the dragon when he gains the water, like the tiger when she enters the mountain. (Dogen)”

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.

what the buddha learned about burnout

Karen Armstrong (2001) and Wallis (2007) point out that Siddhartha’s story is very relevant to the struggles of 21st century society as both external and internal representations of current challenges.  Wallis (2007) in particular places the reader of the Buddha’s journey in the position of observer and practitioner of his teachings, not being seduced by the flamboyant language yet open to the potential of transformation.  Just as the man who would become Buddha was confronted with the inequities of his society and the common fate he shared with every human, we too are challenged by the glimpses of incongruence in our lives be it at work, in the home, or in our personal realm.  The clash of values experienced by Siddhartha parallels the value conflict individuals experience when they encounter the incongruence between their organization’s stated mission and its actions or attitudes.  Nakamura (2000) describes the moment of disillusionment and arising distaste in Siddhartha for the life he had; he suggests that the vivid detail of the texts is strong argument for an actual occurrence underlying the legend of renunciation.

Obsessed by the disparity between his beliefs and the reality of life, Siddhartha is said to have become despondent and emotionally numb.  Unable to love his wife and son, unable to take part in the things that once gave him pleasure, at the age of 29 years he resolved to leave behind his royal life to seek the truth of human existence.  However, his decision to leave behind family and privilege may not have been unusual or solely motivated to seek a spiritual path.  Both Armstrong (2001) and Nakamura (2000) point out that the social climate of the times were challenging.  Political upheaval and societal change were harbingers of the eventual destruction of kingdoms and traditional values.

In the face of this erosion of power and culture, Siddhartha stepped into a growing movement against clannish warfare and exploitation.  Although Nakamura (2000) states that he chose to engage in a greater good by deciding to forego his life of privilege and take up the robes of a mendicant, it is difficult to say whether he set out to transform the world and later scriptures suggest altruism was not likely his motivation or intention.  Whatever the rationale, his decision reflects the difficult choice between maintaining the status quo through a wilful blindness to reality and cultivating a willingness to bear witness to the truth of life as it is.  In the context of resolving a values conflict, his decision to seek a deeper truth points to engagement in and not withdrawal from life as the potential resolution to the imbalance.

After many years of practice, Siddhartha, now referred to as Gotama, began to understand the truth he sought was as inaccessible through severe ascetic practices as they had been through a hedonistic lifestyle.  In fact, the process of denying the fundamental reality of nourishing the body was an obstacle to calming the mind and seeing into phenomena with clarity (Hanh, 1991).  Continuing the theme of facing incongruent values, Gotama recognized that living by the values of his rigidly ascetic community had lead to his weakened state; in a moment of physical exhaustion, he accepted nourishment from a young woman and incurred the censure of his ascetic community.  Nevertheless, gaining strength, he resolved to attain deep insight to the truth of living life in balance and sat in meditation until he achieved the realization that he and all beings are already enlightened to the truth of the world (Lopez, 2001; MN 36:12 in Nanamoli & Bodhi, 2005).

He became a Buddha, one who is awake.

from Burnout and Spiritual Incongruence, Lynette Monteiro 2012©

what the buddha taught about burnout

The Buddha’s story as burnout and recovery

          The story of Buddhism is at once the story of an individual’s lived experience of his spiritual unfolding and the larger unfolding of a paradigm shift in conceptualizing suffering and its transformation (Suzuki, 1996).  For the purpose of this thesis, the unfolding of the Buddha’s life serves as an exemplar of experiencing and transforming value conflict, the trigger for burnout symptoms. Twenty-six hundred years ago, Gotama, also referred to as Sakyamuni (Humphreys, 1987; Nakamura, 2000), is believed to have lived and taught on the existence, cause, cessation, and transformation of suffering (dukkha).

Given the name Siddhartha, his coming into being was a paradox of loss and gain. His mother died giving him life and, at his naming ceremony, the Brahmins declared him to be one who had achieved the spiritual purpose of all beings (Nakamura, 2000).  They prophesied that if he stayed in a secular life, he would become a great monarch; but if he renounced the world, he would become a Buddha – one who will remove the veil of delusion.  Suddhodana, Siddhartha’s father and ruler of the kingdom of Sakka, having no wish to lose his heir to a life of a recluse, asked what would lead to his son’s renunciation; he was told that Siddhartha would see four signs: an old man, a sick man, a dead man, and a renunciate.  In an attempt to prevent this loss, Suddhodana ordered that all such persons be kept from the sight of the young prince.  Although more legend than fact, this story of the future Buddha’s developmental years is an exemplar of way in which reality can be constructed for an individual and how it subtly creates a resistance to change.  Old age, illness, death, and the need to release ourselves from all forms of bondage become natural transitions we deny and life is lived as if youth, well being, mortality and possessions are eternal.

Siddhartha, growing up in his father’s kingdom, was sheltered from these realities and groomed for a life of statesmanship and power.  In his position of heir, he would have been trained in the craft of caring for the people in his kingdom although distanced and disconnected from them.  Politically and culturally, it is likely that Suddhodana and Siddhartha ruled not as protectors of their citizens but as protectors of the land and commodities they possessed (Armstrong, 2001) against the neighbouring kingdoms.  In that sense, their world would not have been very different from that of a corporation whose mission is to provide care to those in their jurisdiction but whose actions may not account for the human face of the organization.  However, Siddhartha inevitably encountered the human face of his kingdom in the form of an old man, a sick man, a dead man, and a renunciate (Lopez, 2001).  The cocoon constructed by his father fostered a hedonistic lifestyle and it is likely this lifestyle cultivated a set of values removed from the attitudes and struggle of the ordinary person (Wallis, 2007).  Unable to reconcile his life of protected splendour with the harsh truths of aging, illness, and death, Siddhartha found his worldview challenged.  As his realization deepened he understood that despite his privilege, he was not immune to the way life unfolds; he and all beings suffer the same fate (AN 3:35, I 138-40 in Bodhi, 2005; Nakamura, 2000).

from Burnout and Spiritual Incongruence, Lynette Monteiro 2012©


I attended a talk the other day, given by a hospital Chaplain who spoke about weaving the threads of body and spirit together.  This, he said, is the role of the Chaplain.  It struck me that when we do this we are joining together what “man tore asunder.”  Descartes, Spinoza, and all those heavy hitters of mind-body dualities are well beyond my capacity to weave together in this thread of thought but it is giving me a hint of the challenges about to face me in writing the next section of my thesis.

As I plod through the sections on burnout and spiritual well being, I feel very much like that spider in the picture.  Strands of knotted thoughts secrete out the tips of my fingers sometimes gluing them to the computer keyboard as I frantically try to keep the unrelenting winds of work and other demands from tearing it all apart.  Practice is helping.  Just this one word, just this one sentence.  It helps too that the old habits of academic writing are still lurking around the edges of my awareness.  One day, one hour, one word, one moment – and slowly I’ve come to the end of the dreaded, mind-parching “literature review.”

However, I’ve actually learned some things, acquired some insights to the nature of burnout and the corrosive action of being in organizations that cannot live their mission statements or manifest their values.  That, it turns out, is the realization that precipitates the exhaustion and cynicism we associate with burnout.  Interesting, isn’t it?  An incongruence in values that leads to a physical depletion and the arising of the judgmental mind. And yet, for so long we’ve focused on the physical nature of “work-related” depletion, missing the crucial role of the heart/mind which says, “This, this is not right.”

Is this what faced Siddhartha?  Raised in a life sheltered from the reality of poverty, illness, and death, a royal corporation that enjoyed an ease not available to those outside the palace walls, how did he meet the incongruence between his unquestioned values and what he witnessed on that fateful ride outside?  Was his disillusion and release from the trance of privilege a manifestation of this clash of values?  Did he Occupy Kapilavastu?  Methinks he did – and more!

The mythology of his intense emotional reaction after seeing illness, aging, and death suggests he felt the weariness of unrelenting hedonism and the cynicism of the worth of the path he tread.  I think he felt the rift in a place beyond the simple mind/body fracture point but it would be years before he would experience it.  It was only after determined rejection of the body which brought him to the brink of death that he wove together the threads of body and spirit, heart and mind.  It would take years and many teachers before he would know deep in his being that the most dangerous gap is between his wisdom and his choices.

If the Buddha’s life is an exemplar of ours, there are questions raised from his direct experience of incongruence that are worth asking.  Is this where you are – this place where the threads have been torn from your fingers, spun but not anchored?  Is this where you see most vividly the vastness of the canyon between what you believe in and what you are living?   Is this where you can feel the futility of continuing to feed the delusion that your victimhood is your privilege?

What now?

book review: Chopra’s Buddha

Buddha – a story of enlightenment by Deepak Chopra

The Patheos Community invited me to read Deepak Chopra’s latest book, Buddha – a story of enlightenment, and share my thoughts on their newly setup Book Forum.  Unfortunately, I can log on but not contribute because there aren’t any “reply” buttons visible to me.  Fortunately, my fellow blogger Nate of Precious Metal is there so, if you manage to get in the group and if the Reply button is magically available for you, do consider his questions.

Having worked my way through the book, however, I think it’s worth making a comment or two here.  This may seem like a reprise of my caveat in Brad Warner’s “Sex and What I Want Zen To Be” book: Deepak Chopra is not an author I enjoy or read at all.  I’ve tried one of his books, an attempt at Arthurian fiction (The Return of Merlin), and swore off any more.  So, I was surprised by the readable start of the book.

Chopra begins with a well-crafted back story of Gautama’s childhood.  Suddhodana’s grief transformed to anger by the loss of Maya is displaced onto the child and the emotional neglect leads the young Gautama to find comfort in various parts of the palace.  All the elements of palace politics between Priest and Warrior castes are woven into a neat rationale for isolating the young prince.  Chopra then makes an interesting move in showing how this is doomed to failure.  He does this not through any mysterious encounters but through following the everyday playfulness of a young boy-child.  Gautama finds the truth of life, aging and death in the lives of soldier ants, dragonflies, and minnows.  These are not held up as any huge insights but simply left to percolate in the mind of a child where they are layered over with the usual distractions of puppy love and infatuations that handsome princes and winsome girls are prone to.  Life happens for Gautama when the adults are not looking.

Other characters who play a significant role are introduced simply.  Devadatta comes to the palace to toughen up the by-now Hamlet-like Gautama.  His sociopathy is glaring but very psychologically consistent with a child who knows he is nothing more than a pawn in a kingdom he will never possess.  Mara and Asita , at least initially, are crafted as the voices of a growing conscience in Gautama.  My favourite line comes from Krishna who appears to the starved Gautama prostrating himself in front of this vision of a blue-purple god.

“I have waited to meet you all my life,” (Gautama) murmured.  “I have abandoned everything for you.”

“I know,” Krishna said… “Now go home and don’t do anything so stupid again.”

Gautama doesn’t and forges on to his historic and mythical realization under the pipal tree.  Chopra slides into this enormous moment without much drama.  Gautama meets Mara who introduces him to Mara’s three daughters.  The verbal fencing between Gautama and “Desire,” “Lust,” and “Aversion” is a treat and the Prince Who No Longer Exists goes beyond.

Chopra would have done well to stop here.  His treatment of the various threads that wrap and traverse together in a complex life was admirable.  The writing was choppy in parts and the conclusions sometimes trite but mostly free of the New Age preaching Chopra is often (and rightfully) accused of channeling through his books.  Nevertheless, I particularly disliked the steal from Conan Doyle: “When all else fails, whatever else is left must be right.”  (Really?  Were we not to notice?)  I will give him credit however for putting together a decent and almost psychologically viable developmental history.

Then, I’m guessing, his editor called and likely said, “Deep, dear heart, we’re getting onto publication time and you’ve got to wind this baby up!”  I find many authors get caught in this 11th chapter dilemma.  So much to explore, so little time to prep for the book tour!  The last two chapters become a roller coaster of various myths of the Buddha’s life: the marauding elephant, the Turning of the Wheel, Angulimala (no, really!), Devadatta’s attempted coup, the war with Bimbisara, the reunion with Yashodhara and Rahula, Ananda and a hint of the future Socially Engaged Buddhists as the Buddha walks through the carnage of Devadatta’s war philosophizing about karmic connections.

Humanizing mythical figures is a dangerous game.  We have our pre-conceived notions of the myth and magic infused into these characters and we are not given to having these challenged by historical fact or psychological forensics.  Often these attempts sink, overburdened by trying to explain too much or be too clever.  Chopra hasn’t dodged the first bullet and was grazed by the second.  But he seems to have survived.

At the risk of blasphemy, Chopra’s attempt (at least the first chapter), along with two other treatments of the Buddha’s life, forms an interesting constellation.  Thich Nhat Hanh’s version, Old Path, White Clouds, weaves the origins of the sutras beautifully into the life this wandering mendicant painting a story of a growing community with all its joys and missteps.  Karen Armstrong’s Buddha is a more philosophically complex figure and definitely, hands-down, my favourite treatment of the Buddha’s life, despite the supra-human presentation of it.  Combining the three books, we actually have a decent insight to the life this amazing philosopher-king:  Chopra’s for the making of Buddha, Armstrong for the cultivation of Dharma, and Thich Nhat Hanh for Sangha building.

My recommendation: enjoy Chopra’s the first section: Siddhartha the Prince.  Go to the scholars for the rest.

(Edited 10 Oct 04 @ 1054: The book is divided into three sections: Siddhartha the Prince, Gautama the monk and Buddha)