Thursday, January 10, 2008

"Mapping the Dharma"--A Book Review

I have a book for you, if you happen to be just little a bit like me.

Maybe, like me, you have a decent, serviceable mind, but you don’t possess that enviable sort of brain that snaps to and remembers everything that comes to its attention. Maybe you have a more than passing interest in Buddhism, have read some of the literature and have even attended a couple of retreats. And maybe you’re just as muddle-headed as I am when it comes to all those lists—the four of this and the seven-fold that... and so on.

If you are just a bit like me in these respects, there’s help for us in the form of a neat little book called “Mapping the Dharma: A Concise Guide to the Middle Way of the Buddha,” 2007, by Paul Gerhards. Gerhards sets out to provide “a visual guide to the teachings—more a map than a text,” with the recognition that “The Buddha said that a map is not a territory; it is merely a tool of discovery.”

As Gerhards points out in his Introduction, the Buddha left his followers with a lot of these lists. His purpose, at a time when human wisdom and knowledge were passed from generation to generation in strictly oral traditions, was surely to organize his teachings in such a way that they could more easily be memorized (at least by those gifted with the sort of brain that many of us lack! There were probably more of them back then: they didn’t have calculators to do their sums, or cell phones with speed dials to induce in the human brain a terminal condition of mental sloth!) It was, in fact, centuries before the Buddha’s teaching were written down, so we must be thankful that he had the foresight to work things out this way.

This book is wonderfully helpful to those who, like me, could use both a handy map and a refresher guide, for quick reference when one of those darned lists crops up in reading or a teaching session. First, it succeeds remarkably well in schematizing and simplifying the relationship between the key lists with which the Dharma abounds, starting with the “Three Jewels” that provide the “refuge” for Buddhists of every persuasion: the Buddha himself, the Dharma (his teachings) and the Sangha (originally, the association of monks who followed him; today, used more loosely, everything from monastic orders to small groups of practitioners.) Then come the “Four Noble Truths” that form the basis of all Buddhist teaching, the “Eightfold Path” the Buddha prescribed as the true path for those who seek the end of suffering and a shot at enlightenment, the “Three Characteristics of Existence;” the “Five Aggregates;” and so on. (Sorry. It’s not my purpose, here, to explain. That’s the book’s job.)

Gerhards does an excellent job of drawing this map, and of providing a reliable reader’s guide to the monuments along the way. His explanations of the basic principles are clear and accurate, and as uncomplicated as is possible with so profound a system of religious tenets. As with all maps, of course, it provides us with the abstract rather than the experience: a AAA route from Los Angeles to San Francisco provides a useful guide to those looking for simple directions from here to there. It’s clearly not the same as the experience of the long tedium of Interstate 5, the inland route, or the delights of the coast road winding along the cliff’s edge through Big Sur. Nor does the recipe for a good ratatouille give the slightest clue as to its taste.

Maps, however, do serve a purpose. They do help you find your way around. That's what this one does, with clarity and precision. So, as I say, if you're a little bit like me, you'll appreciate the orientation that Gerhards has to offer.


MandT said...

Good recommendation for we muddled by cosmic numerology, especially applied to the workings of karma. LOL I just try everyday to remember that I wasn't afraid before birth and won't be afraid after death! peace

Robin said...

hmm.. haven't got a chance to see this book in Singapore yet.

Will look out for it.

Thanks for the review

Tom Davidson-Marx said...

Thanks, Peter. I ordered this today. I am fond of diagrams and the sample ones the author provides on his website are worth deeper contemplation.

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