Tuesday, March 12, 2013


I was planning to post a book review today and had it all written, ready to post.  I decided against posting what I'd written because I judged that it would simply be unkind.  I'm sure that the book was written with good intentions and in some respects it was a perfectly acceptable introduction to Buddhist practice.  But it was written as "Buddhism for Non-Buddhists" and I'm not sure that such a thing exists.  You either are or you aren't.  Would anyone write a book about "Christianity for non-Christians"?  Or "Islam for non-Muslims"?  I suppose it's possible, but less likely.  I still might have found this book to be of value--I read and learned from Stephen Batchelor's "Buddhism Without Beliefs"--but for the author's (to me) dreadfully off-putting way with cheery colloquialisms like "Meditation Rocks!" along with typography to go with them--in the form of frequent capitals, underlinings, italics, and the occasional smiley face.  There may be a place for this, but it felt to me like disrespect not only for myself, the reader, but for Buddhism as a serious religion.  Then, too, the author paid scant attention to the concept of karma, and none at all to that of rebirth.  Is Buddhism no more than the quest for happiness?  Or, to put it better, is the Buddhist quest for happiness quite so simple-minded?  I think not.

I do write about books in The Buddha Diaries, just as I write about art exhibitions on occasion.  When I do, I feel that I owe it to myself and to those kind enough to read me to be honest.  In most instances, it's possible to be critical without being obviously hurtful, but in this case I felt that the book was written with the genuine intention of helping others to find happiness, and that to be honest in a public forum like The Buddha Diaries would be simply harmful.  So, not wanting to duck the issue altogether and in the spirit of what I hoped was helpfulness, I chose to send instead a private message to the author expressing all my reservations as forthrightly as I could.  I do think that with a bit more thought, a bit more work and some good editing, she could turn her book into something valuable for her intended readership.  The more people learn there is a path to happiness, the better off we all are as a species.

Is tough criticism important?  Of course, for someone who sets out to be a critic and wishes to establish any credibility.  I do not.  Or rather, my credibility is important to me, but not as a book critic, which is not what I set out to be.  I choose to write about books I like and which mean something to me personally, which expand my understanding of myself and my fellow human-beings.  I write in the first place in order to better understand and appreciate them; to reflect a little further on what the author has to say; to learn from them; and only lastly, if I can, to help make them better known.  As always, I'd be interested to hear what readers think...

Meantime, here's something that I'm trying to learn: how to be less demanding of myself--but on the "less is more" principle.  In other words, how to make more of my time by doing less.  It's an interesting puzzle.  Suggestions, anyone?


Donna said...

Hi Peter,
Everyone has to start someplace and perhaps you would have responded better had the book been titled Buddhism for Dummies. I haven't read the book, but I do listen to podcasts by the author. In my case, she/they have been life-savers. I care for my 91 year old mother and it is the hardest thing I have ever done. Each morning I listen to the podcast, which consists of a clear, easily understood message and a short guided mediation. What to you may seem very simplistic, has helped center me and get me through the day in a more positive way. I'm happy that you are so far along your path, and I'm also thankful to be where I am on my path, even if it is the very beginning. To papaphrase the Dalai Lama, "just because someone is not on your path does not mean they are lost." In any case, for these reasons your critique seemed harsh (and a bit snobbish!) to me and I hope your private correspondence expressed only what was true, kind and necessary.

PeterAtLarge said...

Thank you, Donna, for your response. I hope that my private response was as thoughtful, helpful and kind as I intended. My point in the blog post was not meant to suggest that I felt superior, but rather the opposite: that the book's tone and presentation made me feel condescended to. The post, "not a book review," was also intended to avoid disclosure of the title and author. But your points are well taken, and I do thank you for them. .