Book Review: In the Garden of our Minds by Michelle Johnson-Weider

Teaching children is a high-level skill at the best of times: A fine balance between gentle guidance and determination to soften the resistances without breaking the spirit. Teaching the Dharma, while challenging even with adults, seems tricky. At least for me, but I “grew up” with the mythology of Buddhism that was troublingly close to the fire and brimstone of Catholicism. Somehow the stories of parents eating their children as a metaphor for the consequences of destroying our future or Angulimala or Gutei chopping off fingers as a dire warning of how we can be misled by the teachings don’t encourage me to convey the beauty of the Buddha’s mind. So, when an author is able to convey these complicated concepts as their true nature – simple, thoughtful, relational – I’m all ears… and eyes.

In the Garden of our Minds by Michelle L. Johnson-Weider (Blue Moon Aurora) offers a skillful and gentle way to bring the Dharma into the lives of children. Illustrated beautifully by Brian Chen, the book comes alive with vibrant colour in images and language. The stories are rooted in Siddhartha’s journey into his spiritual future and expand into the primary teachings (many are my absolute favourite). Qualities of determination (fighting Mara) and persistence (Mahaprajapait) are showcased through the experiences of Briana and Alex, the narrator’s children.

Alex is a firebrand of emotions; he is, in turns, cynical yet tantalized by new ideas; Briana shines in her curiousity and love for adventure. Mom does seem unendingly patient but perhaps I’m just jealous that she’s gained the fruits of her practice! Dad is easy-going and joins in the story-telling effortlessly. The family’s interaction around everyday chores and relationships are the stage for the Buddhist stories to prompt reperceiving their experiences.

I’ve always wondered how the concepts of death and chopping off fingers as a ritual are conveyed so children are not traumatized. Johnson-Weider does an admirable job of folding these stories into the reality of everyday life. Pets, people, everything in our world dies. Not only do we see people doing things that are harmful, but we are also asked to do things that are harmful. Lessons in Stopping: the story of Angulimala is woven into Alex’s schoolday experience of seeing other children wanting to harm a grasshopper. Briana learns how to stop being disruptive in class even if it’s so hard to do. The Doorway of Death: the story of Kisagotami lovingly speaks to ends and beginnings realistically complete with expected “Ewwws” that Kisagotami would walk around with her dead child.

The book has a useful section Conversations with Children which explains the illustrations of the Eight Auspicious Symbols that head each chapter. It also explains the meditation practice explored in the chapter, In the Gardens of our Mind. In all, highly recommended for parents who want to explore the stories that guide Buddhist practice. Also highly recommended for the child in all of us who want to have a gentle rendition of this challenging inter-relational process we call living with compassion and love.

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.

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.