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.