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.


what choice do you have?

It’s easy to make more of something than it is.  It’s easy to put a negative face on a person or situation to justify our anger, frustration, helplessness, and ultimately, our reactive actions.  

A couple of weeks ago, I made a phone call to an agency that, over the last 15 years, has referred people for psychological treatment.  I needed some paperwork sent for a particular client so they could take part in one of our programs.  The colleague I spoke with was embarrassed; she hedged around her answer and then blurted out, “You’re no longer on our provider list.”  She was upset about it, working on re-instating our clinic, but until then her hands were tied.  As the story wound out, it seems someone from my ignoble past has slid into my professional life with an agenda.  From what we could tell, this has been cooking for about four years and has ripened into action.

I spent a few days embellishing various fantasy scenarios of retaliation.  To give myself credit only one or two involved violation of the precepts.  Mostly, hunger strikes on the steps of the agency, opening a free clinic, and holding protest marches tended to be the flavour of my hit-backs.  Now before you go all Awwwww on me, let me point out that the ego is still quite rampant in the latter scenes despite the great Gandhi-like camouflage.  And then there were days of practicing one of the Shadow Fourth Noble Truths: Noble Outrage; I envisioned miles of needy patients snaking down hallways, winding out into the parking lots, and drifting in wounded aimlessness down the street.  I rarely worry about the closure of DVD rental places; there are ample life has uploaded into my mind. 

And then, in sangha, a friend asked what we were going to do to protect ourselves.  I responded, “Nothing yet.  It’s only been four years.”  True, there is potential in this situation for injustice, inconvenience, and the up-ending of projects waiting to be activated.  All of which to say, there is great potential for high drama and the tilting at windmills.  Yet once I strip away all the drama, faux-calls-to-social-engagement, and I call into play that powerful practice of patience, I’m left with a very different set of choices.

Reading The Misleading Mind by Karuna Cayton, it was good to see I’m not too far off base.  In the book, Cayton describes four steps to vanquishing the delusional mind.  Step One: You have a Choice!  I do absolutely have a choice.  There is a choice in viewing something as just what it is.  No more, no less.  As I sat with the not-doing, this was an additional realization: to narrow* our focus on the individual or the situation as it is now is the delusional process.  And no choice of skillful actions can arise out of that perspective.

Cayton sets up a four-step process of training the mind.  I don’t quite follow the set up of the book to see how the four steps match up with the chapters.  But maybe that is just my hobgoblin mind wanting a clear map.

Regardless, it doesn’t take away from the practice he describes and which I’ll explore this week.

* Edited 2012 May 21 @ 0941