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Sunday, February 15th, 2009

Time Event
11:24a
So, you wanna know about Buddha?
This book came in as a nice surprise. As I've noted, I'm part of the LibraryThing "Early Reviewers" program, which every now and again sends me something for my review. This, however, came from a post on the E.R. boards there, and e-mail follow-up, from a contact at Hampton Roads Publishing (http://hrpub.com), who must have considered the fairly substantial part of my library that Buddhist books represent in selecting me for a review copy.

While I understood that Stephen T. Asma had illustrated his Buddha for Beginners, I wasn't quite prepared for how much of a "picture book" this is, as its content likely runs something like ¾ the author's drawings and only about ¼ the actual text ... meaning that this is, by any measure, a fast read.

This presented a bit of a challenge to me. I'm no fan of the "graphic novel" genre, and my first guess for an excessively-illustrated book is that it's shooting for a less-than-prime intellectual market. A few pages into this, I was thinking that maybe I should pass it along to my 13-year-old daughter who has "helped" me with some YA-oriented reviews, but the deeper I got into it, I realized that it really wasn't intended as a "kids' book" either. What is the market for this? It's not a children's primer, but it is "sugar coated" with extensive illustrations, yet at the same time not "dumbed down" as you might expect for either the comicbook crowd or as a "gentle" approach to the Christian masses. In fact, one of the most "difficult" parts of the book is the author's attempts to condense substantial philosophical issues from Buddhism into a paragraph and a series of graphic panels. The more I tried to wrap my head around it, the more it reminded me of a long-format Chick tract (but without the hatred and, of course, the Bible-thumping), having about the same level of intense, but abbreviated, engagement with the materials covered.

Naturally, as a downside of my having studied Buddhism, I found that it was difficult for me to "blank slate" my mind to approximate a person picking this up for an initial introduction to the Buddha. In fact, most of the book served to provide flashbacks to Thich Nhat Hanh's Old Path White Clouds which is also something of an introduction to the Buddha, only minimally illustrated and nearly 20 times as long! In our short-attention-span world, however, Buddha for Beginners certainly has a leg up for the "quick investigation" of the subject!

I get the impression that the author here has a strong Hinayana bias, and he unfortunately chooses to wield it against other developments of Buddhism. Being that most of my direct contact with Buddhism has been of the Vajrayana variety (with lesser work with Mahayana traditions), I bristled a bit at his near-dismissals of these later forms. I suppose, in this sense, the parallels to Jack Chick (who is always happy to flail away at anybody not of his particular stripe of lock-step fundamentalism) are more to the point.

This is not to say that I disliked the book as a whole ... just that I found it hard to either take it on its own terms, or to classify it as "good for a particular audience". One does have to applaud the author's efforts to condense down the life and teaching of the historical Buddha into something that has both proportional breadth and depth to its length, which is quite impressive, but the above caveats keep coming to the fore. I suppose that this would work for highschool students who are lacking exposure to religion/philosophy classes, as this might well spur them to further investigations, giving them just enough lingering questions, but it seems out-of-synch with (my perceptions of) "general audiences" much older or younger.

However, as mentioned above, Buddha for Beginners is a fast read, and very reasonably priced. In fact, both the publisher and Amazon have it at substantial discounts. Obviously, the issues I've had with the book are not those that the vast majority of readers would likely have with it, so I'm sure that most folks picking this up would find it an enjoyable, informative, amusing, and low-time-investment read!


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