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Tuesday, May 20th, 2008

Time Event
10:28p
Caught up ...
This is another book that's taken me a while to get around to reviewing, not (as in the case of the recent Paine review) because I was avoiding typing up a lot of quotes, or that I was particularly avoiding it, but because it's one of those things that just "is what it is" and I'm not really competent to address it on "critical" levels such as translation, or interpretation from original documents.

I likely bought Thich Nhat Hanh's Old Path White Clouds: Walking in the Footsteps of the Buddha back in the early 90's, assuming that it was something like an "introduction to Buddhism", and it sat on various shelves and in assorted boxes awaiting for "the right time" to pick it up. Imagine my surprise, nearly two decades later, when I discover that it's actually a very charming "Life of the Buddha", and that the somewhat mis-leading sub-title "Walking in the Footsteps of the Buddha" refers to sort of "following along" rather than "following" in an active sense! In my defense, back when I bought this (and many other books), I would order dozens of books at a time just because they looked interesting, and had kind of pegged this as something of a "Theravadan guide" rather than a biography.

Of course, there is a hazy line there, as the biographical material on the Buddha does come from those Theravadan sources, and is thereby part of the Canon, but what Vietnamese monk Thich Nhat Hanh has done here is extract that material and make it read like a storybook (a long storybook at nearly 600 pages) about the life of Siddhartha Gautama. The story unfolds in a series of scenarios, both in "real time" and in reminiscences being told of previous times, with the multitudinous people, places, and events of the Buddha's life being woven through the narrative.

Gautama lived in northern India around 550 BCE, the son of a royal family in one of the many small kingdoms (the Shakyas, hence the name Sakyamuni, "sage of the Sakyas") who sought spiritual development rather than the duties of kingship. Through dedication to this quest, he achieves enlightenment, and claims to point to a "middle path" which can free humans from the cycles of rebirth which were a central tenet of the preceding Brahmanism.

Nothing in Old Path White Clouds is this "direct", however, as it is not a history book, but a story, so one gets to "walk" through the various scenes of Gautama's life, while picking up much of the philosophy in the forms of addresses he made to gatherings of students, assorted Kings, and those in his inner circle.

If one has an interest in Buddhism, this is quite a delightful way of learning about the life of the Buddha, but I think it would be a very good way to introduce folks to Buddhism who don't know very much about it, as it is very clear that Buddha is not "a God", not a supernatural being, but a man dedicated to discovering the spiritual truth, and succeeding in that effort. This also isn't a pure paean to the early days of the Sangha, as many "growing pains" are worked through with monastic rules that only gradually were adjusted to allow women to follow, situations where schism was threatening, and other early difficulties.

I was very pleased to see that this is still in print, and it is a testament to the value of the book that the new/used vendors don't have much of a deal to offer on it (even in just "acceptable" condition) compared with Amazon's 34% discount off cover price on this. So, this is one you might want to pick up at your local brick&mortar book vendor, or put it together with something else (to get free shipping) and have Amazon send it out!


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