Tolle does it again

Eckhart Tolle, cover picauthor of the spiritual bestseller The Power of Now has a new book, A New Earth: Awakening to Your Life’s Purpose, on the bookshelves. I’ve just started it, so it might be a little while before I can review it in depth, but my initial impression is that this book is very powerful. So powerful, in fact, that I’ve often had to put it down after reading a couple of pages. The teacher’s presence is felt through his words.

It seems that in this book, Tolle will go more deeply into what he’s taught in the The Power of Now, as well as describe in much greater detail the nature of the ego, and the social and global consequences of awakening and unconsciousness. I greatly look forward to reading this.

Superb Translation of Thomas

I just came across the perfect translation of The Gospel of Thomas. It’s The Gospel of Thomas: the Gnostic Wisdom of Jesus, by Jean-Yves LeLoup, translated by Joseph Rowe.

This is a double translation. LeLoup translated the gospel into French and wrote a wonderful, meditative saying-by-saying commentary, originally published in 1986. Fortunately, Joseph Rowe has now translated the entire work into English. (It strikes me that this process is much like the history of the superb Jerusalem Bible, which also was a French translation first.)

Trust me when I say this is not just another Thomas translation. From the Introduction:

Pope Gregory I said that only a prophet could understand the prophets. And it is said that only a poet can understand a poet. Who, then, must we be in order to understand Yeshua?

Read more!

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

This book rocks? kicks butt frims. I definitely consider it the best of the Potter series so far, and leads to the possibility that the final book might have a markedly different format from these first six.

Best line:

The Aurors are part of the Rotfang Conspiracy, I thought everyone knew that. They’re working to bring down the Ministry of Magic from within using a combination of Dark Magic and gum disease.

The Power of Now

book cover

We live in an explosion of spiritual writing. In addition to tons of recent books on Christian inspiration, there are breakthroughs in scholarship, archaeology, and an ocean of writings on meditation, the New Age, and Eastern religions. In the flood of information, it’s only natural to wonder—What do I read? What will help me with something I don’t already know? What will be forgotten in five years, and what will endure?

Eckhart Tolle’s The Power of Now is a superb book already being hailed as a classic. Although nothing changes about enlightenment itself, Tolle has a wonderful new gift for teaching it. Dramatic teachers of enlightenment have sometimes described their transformation by the Divine Presence in startling terms, saying “I am God,” and such, which might highlight the profundity of their transformation, but does little to help their disciples to understand the way in. Other teachers, such as Thich Nhat Hanh, say almost nothing about enlightenment per se, and instead concentrate almost exclusively on the way in, mindfulness. Tolle strikes a middle ground; although he places greater emphasis on the means, he does not play down the profundity of his enlightenment. And no wonder! Enlightenment actually saved his life. He was near the point of suicide when suddenly he came to the realization of the false self and the true self, and awoke the next morning to a world of wonder which he’s lived in for years now.

time is mind

Eckhart’s genius as a teacher lies in his insights which may never been as clearly worded as before. The core of Eckhart’s understanding of enlightenment is that the “mind” (in the sense of conventional thought, feelings, sense of separateness and ego) is inextricably tied up with time (past and future). The way to get out of the activity of mind—the false self—and into the awareness of true reality is to step out of time, into the Now.

The Now is not part of “time,” but is simply how eternity is experienced by finite beings. The time is now. It is always now; it always has been now, and always will be now. The concept of past and future is a function of the mind, recalling past Nows and anticipating future ones. The past gives a sense of identity, (and thus the sense of being separate from God), as well as resentment, regret, and other emotions. The future gives hope for better things in the future, as well as fear and anxiety. Both sides of time remove us from the present moment, which is the only place where we exist, and where God exists. Salvation can only happen in the Now.

a brilliant clarity

Are questions and objections starting to surface in your mind? Great. The entire book is arranged in a Q and A format, answering questions such as yours. And Tolle’s answers are always lucid, understanding, and genuine, with the conviction of someone who knows and is not just guessing. Furthermore, Tolle’s suggestions are practical. Although like many enlightened teachers before him, (Jesus, the Buddha, St. Francis, Peace Pilgrim) he lived homeless for some time after his transformation, he later returned to the world of work, and gaining insight on how to use the Power of Now in day-to-day life. A particularly insightful chapter is “Enlightened Relationships” which goes beyond all popular surface psychologizing, to the real issue, (almost never discussed), that underneath it all, we want others to do what they cannot: bring us into ultimate happiness, and they can’t, only realizing our own connection with the Ultimate directly can bring us into that level of fulfillment. Because of that, relationships need to be worked on from the standpoint of the present and being, but from projecting the other with impossible demands.

Another important aspect of Tolle’s contribution to the enlightenment literature is a neutral language. Eckhart occasionally uses phrases from Christian and Buddhist spirituality, but prefers to use neutral words which are as objective and clear as possible. For instance, he says “Being” and “the Unmanifested” instead of “God,” to avoid the problems caused by our conceptions of God interfering with encountering the Ground of Being. Phrases like “realizing your connection with Being” are much less likely to cause confusion than terms such as “becoming God,” from early Christian mysticism. The non-dramatic language helps us accept that enlightenment is obtainable, and its neutrality is equally accessible to people coming from different spiritual traditions, as well as those coming to spirituality for the first time.

portals into the unmanifested

Of course, simply reading The Power of Now won’t make you enlightened. As Tolle would say, only “intense presence” can do that. However, throughout the book, he gives numerous exercises to touching the Presence. (One of which, feeling the inner energy body, is very like S. K. Goenka’s vipassana method and quite similar to the practice in the short 13th-century Christian classic, The Book of Privy Counseling.) Another “portal” is to listen to the silences between sounds. Tolle gives numerous other examples of how to make everyday life, as well as meditation time, into spiritual practice, no matter where one is on their journey. His idea is to cultivate the conscious, awakened state of mind, and gradually make it your dominant state of being. Tolle knows that Awakening isn’t to be sought, but experienced. Now.

His insights are sometimes startling in their profundity. He has a succinct definition of enlightenment: “your natural state of felt oneness with Being.” His answer to whether love is a portal to the Unmanifested is, “No, it isn’t….Love isn’t a portal, it’s what comes through the portal into this world.” How true, since God is love.

Do you want to go beyond devotional spirituality? Do you want the Presence of God to transform you into That likeness? Read this book or listen to the audio version again and again, and practice the techniques continually. As of this writing, I think I’m getting a glimpse of the other shore.

Dandelion Wine

I finally posted my review of Dandelion Wine. It was much harder for me to write than I expected; it’s so difficult to find to words to speak further about what Bradbury has expressed so perfectly. Something else that makes it difficult is that Dandelion Wine brings up memories of insights and revelations long-lost in childhood. Not only does reading it require processing, but writing about it does, too.

I re-read Dandelion Wine this year, and I was struck by how much had gone completely past me before–for instance, how very *Buddhist* this picture of small-town Americana is, with its lessons on the impermanence and *dukkha* of the world, grasping as the cause of suffering, the freedom of non-attachment, and the courage required of compassion.

It even has a story in it about reincarnation–I never remembered that being there! It’s an amazing book. If it’s been a while since you’ve read it, treat yourself again.

I also posted a poem I wrote on Dandelion Wine, and the original AANVVV version of it as well. A few days ago, I posted my review of The Wisdom of the Enneagram along with mini-reviews of other Enneagram books and links to major Enneagram information sites

Dandelion Wine

the holy glimpse

All children start out as natural mystics. Unfortunately, most of us forget our childhood mysticism almost completely. But one person who does remember is Ray Bradbury, an American genius of the mystic heart. Bradbury is an unusually versatile writer—the eternal misplacement of his books on the science-fiction shelves obscures his range, which spans from drama, mystery, and horror, to whimsy and heart-whirling poetry. Yes, a significant portion of his output is sci-fi, but all of it is what I call “spi-fi”—spiritual fiction—whether set in outer space, small-town Illinois, or Los Angeles.


Douglas opened one eye.

And everything, absolutely everything, was there.

The world, like a great iris of an even more gigantic eye, which has also just opened and stretched out to encompass everything, stared back at him.

And he knew what it was that had leaped upon him to stay and would not run away now.

I’m alive, he thought. . . .

The grass whispered under his body. He put his arm down, feeling the sheath of fuzz on it, and far away below, his toes creaking in his shoes. The wind sighed over his shelled ears. The world slipped bright over the glassy round of his eyeballs like images sparked in a crystal sphere. Flowers were suns and starry spots of sky strewn through the woodland. Birds flickered like skipped stones across the vast inverted pond of heaven. His breath raked over his teeth, going in ice, coming out fire. Insects shocked the air with electric clearness. Ten thousand individual hairs grew a millionth of an inch on his head. He heard the twin hearts beating in each ear, the third heart beating in his throat, the two hearts throbbing his wrists, the real heart pounding his chest. The million pores on his body opened. . . .

“Tom!” Then quieter. “Tom . . . does everyone in the world . . . know he’s alive?”

“Sure. Heck, yes!”

“I sure hope they do,” whispered Douglas. “Oh, I sure hope they know.”

Dandelion Wine is set in Green Town, Illinois, (a pseudonym for Waukegan) in the summer of 1928. It’s episodic, a novel woven from short stories of the magic and tragedy of life seen through the eyes of Bradbury’s alter ego, Douglas Spaulding.

Douglas is a normal twelve-year-old who finds himself suddenly jolted into the awareness of life itself, the experience of truly being alive. (See excerpt.) Douglas is amazed to actually be awake to Reality, and flabbergasted that he had been asleep till then.

The entire world is fresh and new, and Douglas resolves to never go back to sleepwalking through life, but to hold on to this sacred awareness forever. He begins writing a spiritual journal, divided into two sections, Rites and Ceremonies, and Discoveries and Revelations, thus inviting the summer to begin its majestic unfolding.

holding on

There’s only one problem, one which everyone who knows this experience can identify with, which is that all experiences, even these holy glimpses, are transitory. Yet their beauty invariably makes us who experience them to want to hold on. We become “seekers”, wanting to live in the Kingdom of heaven, even though the wanting itself lowers the curtain.

This tricky thing of holding on permeates Dandelion Wine. The problem is not of recording moments and returning to them—the past is honored throughout. For instance, one wonderful character is Colonel Freeleigh, an old man who becomes a living time machine for Douglas and his friends, who takes them to his memories of the Civil War or of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show. Bradbury repeatedly uses the image of bottling the wonder of a moment, a day, or a place, by capturing its air or pressing wine to be bottled and aged. Bottling dandelion wine is a yearly tradition for Douglas’ family:

The wine was summer caught and stoppered. And now that Douglas knew, he really knew he was alive, and moved turning through the world to touch and see it all, it was only right and proper that some of his new knowledge, some of this special vintage day would be sealed away for opening on a January day with snow falling fast and the sun unseen for weeks…

Rather, the problem is what the Buddha called tanha—grasping to find happiness or identity itself. One of Douglas’ neighbors decides to create a Happiness Machine, and ends up destroying it for the grief it causes.

impermanence and suffering

From its beginning of unbridled hope, the summer immerses Douglas in increasing levels of disappointment and pain. At first, some of the hurts are almost trivial, such as the final ride of the town’s beloved trolley, but they increase quickly. Just as the Buddha experienced the whole world of suffering from four tragic sights in one day, Douglas experiences the whole world of suffering from the events of one summer.

His best friend moves away, leaving him feeling like part of him has been torn away. Douglas is left with only his younger brother to share his thoughts with, and begs him never to leave:

“You can depend on me, Doug”, said Tom.

“It’s not you I worry about,” said Douglas. “It’s the way God runs the world.”

Tom thought about this for a moment.

“He’s all right, Doug,” said Tom. “He tries.”

Life forces Douglas to grow up quickly. He witnesses a deadly hit-and-run accident, and takes on the burden of keeping it secret to avoid sending the drivers to jail. A serial killer terrorizes Green Town, and Douglas is there when he claims another victim. The awareness of death and suffering becomes inescapable. Over the course of the summer, most of the old people he has come to know and love pass on.

the freedom of non-attachment

Douglas is learning a lesson that so many of us never learn—that nothing lasts, and because of our desperate attempts to hold on to changing things and people, we suffer. There’s an interplay of youth and age taking turns teaching the importance of not holding on and accepting change.

For instance, Tom, just two years younger than Douglas, is largely still in a stage of innocence. He has never lost his essential trust, and accepts everything as it comes, good and bad, with peace and joy. Tom acts a spiritual director for his older brother.

Another case: Neighborhood children torment old Mrs. Bentley by telling her they don’t believe she was ever young, or that the little girl in her photographs was ever her. She finally sees that she’s wasted decades reliving memories of her youth, and sets herself free by burning all her keepsakes and “admitting” to the kids that she never had a past.

Another old woman and a young man recognize each other from a previous life, where he had been too old, and she too young. As she senses her death approaching, she gives him instructions so they can sync up in their next life:

You must promise me not to live to be too old, William. If it is at all convenient, die before you are fifty. . . . I advise you this simply because there is no telling when another Helen Loomis might be born.

And finally, there is Great-Grandma, who announces her death to her family like a Zen master to his disciples. She compares shedding the body to a snake shedding its skin and the body shedding its cells. She sees her true self as a boundless being that includes all she loves:

Important thing is not the me that’s lying here, but the me that’s sitting on the edge of the bed looking back at me, and the me that’s downstairs cooking supper, or out in the garage under the car, or in the library reading. All the new parts, they count.

For Douglas, this is the straw that breaks him. He can deal with all the death he’s encountered so far, but not the loss of his own loved ones. A few days later, faced with the undeniable fact of his own mortality, the young mystic himself has lost the will to live, and lies dying of a mysterious fever in his bedroom.

the practice of awakening

I will not discuss how Douglas is saved (read the book!), but I want to point out the change in his purpose from his revelation at the beginning of summer to its conclusion. Spiritual experiences such as Douglas’ at the beginning of the book are not rare. Yet most people’s minds are so full of noise, that they cannot make an impact, like the grain choked by the weeds in Jesus’ parable. Worldly concerns never give them a chance to grow, and so we live life as though nothing ever happened, as though we were not touched by God, and did not glimpse for a sacred moment the overwhelming divine Presence in all things. We don’t hear the alarm, and never rouse from the slumber we mistakenly call life.

Others, though, see this for what it truly is—actually seeing the nature of things, the meaning of life itself, God within all. We are amazed by the beauty and wonder of life, and overflow with unbearable love. Our spirits open up.

There is only one thing left: Our own ego’s desire to hold on—for this to be the once-and-for-all transformation, “Big E” Enlightenment, theosis, union with God. The flipside of this attachment is aversion, an unwillingness to accept life as constant change, full of sorrow as well as joy, and love it all anyway.

When Douglas renews his commitment to life, he does so unconditionally. He goes to work as a spiritual warrior, eager to do whatever he can to bring more love and beauty into the world, not shy of the difficulties and pain. He relishes living for its own sake, not for the joys that come from it. The light-hearted final story presents the Spaulding kitchen as the field of battle between light and darkness. It’s a charmer.

Dandelion Wine is an amazing book. It’s a genre apart, blurring distinctions between novel, short story, prose, and poetry. It should be read slowly, savoring the words in the heart as Douglas savors a taste of dandelion wine in his mouth. This has been one of my favorite books since I first read it in high school. But I’ve never really seen it till now. A year ago, in his Spiritually Incorrect Enlightenment, Jed McKenna made the assertion that Moby-Dick was an epic on awakening by an unrecognized spiritual master. Perhaps it is; I’ll have to read it again, sometime. But I know without a doubt that Dandelion Wine is. Simply put, this one of the greatest books ever written. Let it touch you.

Related pages and posts:

A History of God

a history of the concept of god

Is the Universe wholly apart from God, or is Creation in some sense, a part of God? Is God solely One in nature, or is there a Threeness, or a Manyness, or an Infinitude to God? Is God knowable or beyond knowledge? Is God personal or impersonal? Does God have feelings? Billions of people have had an opinion on these matters, and that’s the subject of this groundbreaking book. Those who depend upon the unshakeableness of their beliefs may find this book upsetting or worse, but to those who consider and question their faith, Karen Armstrong’s A History of God will be challenging and illuminating, and perhaps, as I found it, even thrilling.

The title goes for brevity over accuracy. Perhaps it could have been titled “A History of the Idea of God in Judaism, Christianity and Islam,” but that would have lacked panáche, to say the least. Armstrong concentrates on the changes in the concept of God, particularly the unique aspects of monotheistic theology, for instance, God as separate from Creation, God having a “personal” nature, and so forth.

religious cultures in conflict

Armstrong makes theological history simply fascinating. Beginning with the evidence for near-universal worship of a Sky God in prehistory, Armstrong traces the shift from the Sky God to the Earth Mother to polytheism, and then focuses on the revolutionary development of Abraham’s faith in one God which would clash with Canaanite, Egyptian, and Mesopotamian paganism for the next 1500 years. Many Christians interested in objective Biblical scholarship are familiar with the “Documentary Hypothesis” of the Pentateuch stemming from sources J, E, P, and D. Yet never have I seen an attempt to reconstruct the history and interplay of these perspectives throughout ancient Israel and the surrounding regions, and not in my wildest dreams would I have imagined it would be so illuminating…

For instance, Armstrong shows the revolutionary effect of the prophets in Judaism, beginning with Isaiah, at the time when the J and E material was still being written. She shows that prophetic Judaism was an “Axial religion,” a development of the Axial age when cities became the centers of culture in Asia and the Mediterranean. Other Axial religious developments included the teachings of Socrates, Plato, Zoroaster, the Upanishadic sages, the Buddha, Lao-tse, and Confucius. These all taught a universal ethic, insisting that God or the Absolute needed no temple, transcended all, was accessible to or within everyone, and that compassion was the highest virtue.

The prophets’ teaching that “God desires mercy, and not sacrifice,” was in sharp contrast to the priestly, Temple-based establishment, which insisted the Temple was the ultimate dwelling on God on Earth, having chosen the Israel out of all the nations. (This was the beginning of a clash which would endure until John the Baptist and the ministry of Jesus.)

But this is just the beginning. Instead of specializing on a single religion or period in time, Armstrong boldly takes up all the threads of theology throughout the four millennia of the monotheistic religions. With them, she weaves a tapestry of our collective religious experience which can help us understand our faith and ourselves better. Subsequent chapters focus on the life of Christ, early Christian theologies, understandings (and misunderstandings) of Trinity, the influence of Greek philosophy upon Christianity and Islam, mysticism, the Reformation, the Enlightenment, and Fundamentalism.

three persons or three personae?

A special treat is her insight on Trinitarian thought. It was a surprise to learn that the term “persons” in “One God in three Persons” came from the Latin word personae, referring to the masks of characters in a drama. Personae was the Latin translation of the Greek word hypostases, “expressions.”  The different words used in Greek and Latin to describe the Trinity reflected (and influenced) very different understandings of God’s nature. For the Eastern bishops, the Trinity described how One God, whose essence (ousia) is mysterious, ineffable, utterly beyond and above being known or described in any way, imparts his energies (energeia) to Creation through the expressions (hypostases) of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. In other words, the Eastern view of the Trinity reconciled knowledge of God as both personal and beyond personal, knowing and loving in his expressions, and yet beyond any human conception at all in essence. Have you ever heard it like that before?

world-wide paradigm shifts

Brilliant also is her ability to relate the historic phenomena of mysticism, reformation, rationalism, and fundamentalism beyond just the Christian perspective, into a world-wide perspective simultaneously developing in all “the religions of God.” Her revelation that the Reformation was not just a Protestant reformation, but a universal one is a brilliant example. As the printing press spread, the authority of the written word took on unprecedented dimensions. Galileo, she points out, was condemned by the Catholic Church not because his heliocentric universe conflicted with any doctrine or dogma, but because it contradicted an extremely literal reading of the Bible.

Especially helpful is her knowledge about Islamic history with revealing treatments on philosophical and mystical eras in Islam, before the relatively recent phenomenon of Islamic Fundamentalism. It was fascinating to learn that some Sufi schools were so devoted to Jesus that they adapted the Shahada to “there is no God but God, and Jesus is His Prophet.”

However, A History of God has minor but significant flaws: Awkward sentences abound, and her lack of direct experience with conservative American Protestantism makes her disdain for it seem less than objective. Furthermore, errors like “Maurice Cerullo” (i.e. Morris Cerullo) make it feel insufficiently edited, particularly in the age of the Internet. However, none of these are fatal flaws by any means; Armstrong has created a landmark work, undoubtedly unique in its combination of depth and scope. What can I say, but read it!

Hardcore Zen:

Punk Rock, Monster Movies, and the Truth about Reality

© 2003 by Brad Warner
Published by: Wisdom Publications 206 pp.

not your grandmother’s zen book

Hardcore Zen cover

You won’t find Hardcore Zen at the bookstore by looking for a cover with a pretty “Zen” picture. This one is about showing us what we don’t want to see; in keeping with that spirit, the cover features a toilet. Brad Warner uses many expressions of the kind which Captain Kirk described as “colorful metaphors” in Star Trek IV, some of which are really striking, “like a pit bull [on] a postman’s ass,” to quote Brad. This ain’t your grandma’s Zen book.

A friend asked me a couple of years ago what I found so valuable about Buddhism, and I replied that Buddhism seemed obsessed with reality. Brad seems to agree, and the difference between reality and “religion” is a running theme throughout the book.

Brad is a married American Zen priest living and teaching in Tokyo, whose day job is making Ultraman monster movies. In keeping with that theme of learning from reality, Brad teaches Zen from his own life, and the book is about one-third autobiography, and two-thirds hard-hitting Zen lessons. He discovered Zen while a punk-rock musician studying at Kent State University (at the same time I was there, BTW). From there he went to Japan, and found employment in making cheesy monster movies, a Soto Zen master, and a wife. Hmm, did I say hard-hitting? Isn’t Zen supposed to be something like a spacious room covered with floor cushions, perfumed with incense, New Age music rippling through the air, and a copy of The Art of Tea on the coffee table? No, it isn’t; It’s about discovering your true nature, and Brad’s mission is to shock us into realizing how desperately we avoid our reality, even with most of what we consider “spirituality.”

Hardcore Zen is does have some flaws. Sometimes Brad seems to condemn whatever awakening experiences and traditions which are not like the Zen ideal. My suspicion is that although enlightenment is only one thing, all who experience it do so differently, and will use different terms to describe it.

a brilliant introduction

But if you can take an occasional jibe to your tradition, you’ll find that Warner Roshi is an excellent teacher. His explication of the Heart Sutra is the best I’ve ever read, and his chapter on the “The World of Demons” by itself is worth much more than the price of the entire book. Brad explains how practicing zazen lifts the lid on the things we’ve tried to hide from ourselves, and often reveals what we didn’t want to see: makyo (our psychological demons). This extremely helpful chapter gives excellent advice on how to cope when we start seeing ourselves as we really are instead of how we’ve told ourselves we are. Beyond that, this chapter also has the most lucid explanation of the “no-self” concept in Zen, which can be helpful even to those who have been practicing Zen for years.

The next chapter, “In My Next Life, I Want to Come Back as a Pair of Lucy Liu’s Panties” (I wonder what his wife thinks of that title!) follows, with the clearest explanation I’ve ever seen on how the Buddhist concept of rebirth differs significantly from the general idea of reincarnation. Brad shows how our concepts of the afterlife are usually far off the mark because we don’t understand this present life, which happens in the present moment.

No Sex with Cantaloupes” (great chapter titles, huh?) is a delightful perspective on personal and social Buddhist morality through the ten training precepts, with an emphasis on its importance: “There are nitwits out there who’ll tell you Buddhism, particularly Zen Buddhism, isn’t concerned with morality, that it’s enlightenment that really counts. They’re wrong. Enlightenment is crap. Living morally and ethically is what really matters.”

That leads into another “hardcore” message: the waste of searching for “enlightenment.” Soon after I realized that enlightenment is real, and there actually are people who maintain a constant awareness of non-duality, I succumbed to the disease of enlightenment-seeking, and from which my own teacher had been trying to cure me. Something clicked in me when reading this:

Zazen isn’t about blissing out or going into an alpha brain-wave trance. It’s about facing who and what you really are, every single goddamn moment. And you aren’t bliss, I’ll tell you that right now. You’re a mess. We all are. But here’s the thing. That mess is itself enlightenment. You’ll eventually see that the “you” that’s a mess isn’t really “you” at all. But whether you notice your own enlightenment or not is entirely inconsequential. Whether you think of yourself as enlightened or not has nothing to do with the real state of affairs.

This is an extremely important point which all the thousands of enlightenment seekers in the world would do well to take to heart. The bottom line, Brad says, is that reality is real. Enlightenment isn’t escaping from it, but going into it, and finding the treasure inside every part and every moment. Hardcore Zen ends with a compelling appeal to practice zazen, the concentrated practice of looking at reality. Zazen can change us, and the world, from within, by destroying the self-interest that comes with the myth of self. He closes with some clear, simple instructions for beginning Zen meditation, written with the confidence of a master who has himself been transformed by this practice.

Brad also has a website with some wonderful pages written in his inimitable style, at Sit Down and Shut Up!»

Update, December 5, 2004. Brad has now moved back to the US, and is living in Hollywood, California. I’ve also updated the link above with his new URL


by Karen Armstrong,
© 2001 by Karen Armstrong
Published by Penguin Books 205 pp.

an insightful biography

book cover

Karen Armstrong, the author of the best-sellers A History of God, The Battle for God, and Islam: A Short History, is known for her reputation as a lucid and insightful historian of Western religions, with a particular expertise on Islam. Leaving the interplay of monotheistic history might seem like a departure for her, but it really isn’t. Even in A History of God, Armstrong referred often to happenings in the Buddhist world to give an even wider perspective to Western religious history. Apparently, she has an inside connection; she dedicates this book to Lindsey Armstrong, her Buddhist sister.

There are many excellent biographies of the Buddha available, especially coming from a faith perspective, such as Thich Nhat Hahn’s Old Path, White Clouds. However, Armstrong predictably applies her historian’s ability to capture the sense of the time and presents Siddhatta Gotama (aka Siddhartha Gautama; Armstrong uses Pali forms consistently in this book) in the context of his time and culture. She begins with a frank assessment of the difficulty of a historian’s work in capturing Gotama’s life. Although the massive Pali canon bursts at the seams with his conversations and accounts of events in his life, they are conspicuously stylized for recitation, and they deliberately avoid revealing his personality. Furthermore, they were not committed to writing until hundreds of years after his death, so a historian must use them judiciously. Nevertheless, Armstrong dives into the accounts, separating the oldest accounts from later ones, and embellishments from history. Her style might seem somewhat repetitive to someone familiar with Buddhism, but she wants to build a clear understanding with a reader who knows nothing on the subject. Generally, her style is clear and fresh, only occasionally does her perspective get in the way, for instance, in psychologizing Mara the tempter’s appearance as Buddha’s subconscious “shadow.”

looking around the buddha

Armstrong’s greatest accomplishment here is in looking around the Buddha to give the reader a sense of the social and political situation in upper Ganges basin, the family life of a prince of a major tribe, and the interweaving threads of his family and companions throughout his life. For instance, we find that becoming a sanyasin, a renunciate monk, was not at all uncommon. Armstrong shows us that thousands of young people throughout the region were sick of the structure of their society and resolved to “go forth” as renunciates, rebelling against a world-system that seemed evil and meaningless by dedicating themselves to finding the key to total liberation from it. For them, total liberation meant never having to return to this realm where ultimately sickness and death prevail. So pervasive was the dissatisfaction with the state of things, that Armstrong says these mendicant monks were seen as “heroic pioneers” and were “honored as rebels” by society as a whole.

The account of the six years between Gotama’s “going forth” to becoming the enlightened one is particularly fascinating. We learn surprisingly specific information of the teachers he had, the philosophies they upheld, the disciplines he practiced, and why he ultimately found all of them lacking. From there, we learn of his dedication to the practice of mindfulness, the discovery of the Eightfold Path, and his enlightenment.

Much Buddhist writing is simply dreary. Unenlightened Buddhists not only lack the experience which they seek, but they may not have the environment of joyous enlightenment around them to fuel their quest with joy. Non-Buddhists who write on Buddhism routinely misinterpret vital but difficult concepts such as nirvanaanicca, and anatta, sometimes even believing them to signify a quest for annihilation! (Amazing the persistence of such ignorance.) Armstrong is the first writer I’ve come across who successfully communicates the incredible joy the Buddha radiated, which drew tens of thousands of people to his radical way of life. People saw something passionate and compelling in him! In short, this book will certainly give readers new insight into the Buddha, and might give many new insight into Buddhism itself.