My brother finished this book in 4 days and couldn’t wait for me to share his enthusiasm for it. Unfortunately, there are some books that speak to me and others that I have to struggle through – this is one. Don’t get me wrong. The 600-page book (including Appendix) is easy to read. There are no difficult vocabulary nor complicated plots. It’s a steady narrative about the life of Buddha, his enlightenment, his teachings (the Dharma) and how Buddhism is spread through Sangha (community of monks (Bhikkhus)). It’s a good introduction to Buddhism and it’s philosophy for any laymen who are interested in the topic, like me. What made it a struggle was the numerous names of characters that were cited, as well as the Pali names of the various places which I had difficulty keep track of, on top of the Pali terms used in the Dharma. I did enjoy the descrptions of Bamboo Forests and mango groves which was described. The perfect place to meditate.
The book follows the the lives of the Buddha as well as a untouchable buffalo boy Svasti : the Buddha from his birth to his death, and Svasti from a boy to being a Venerable.
Along the way, we learn the Buddha’s various teachings as it was recorded by his attendant Ananda, who had a tape-recorder memory skill, including the Four Noble Truths and the Eight Noble Pathways. There are other learning points that are recorded as sutras along the way.
As a person living in the 21st century, it’s rather surreal trying to reconcile the period 2000 years ago to now. Then, men in droves, including kings and people of important roles, left behind their lives and responsibilities to become bhikkhus (monks). Even Svasti, at 20, left behind his younger siblings to become one. A speech by the Buddha is enough to turn even the most stubborn to follow in his path. Even a psychotic serial murderer became ordained on meeting him. Yet the Buddha’s own trusted Venerable Devadatta turned against him out of jealousy to form a new Sangha. It may seem overly simplistic but then, we must remember that this book is drawn directly from 24 Pali, Sanskrit and Chinese sources, so the purpose is to narrate the history as simply as possible.
Perhaps what really touched me most in this book is this quote from the Buddha: Friends, do not be hasty to believe a holy scripture or words spoken by a teacher revered by the people. Accept only those things which accord with your own reason, things which the wise and virtuous support, things which in practice bring benefit and happiness. Abandon those things which do not accord with your own reason, which are not supported by the wise and virtuous, and which in practice do not bring benefit and happiness.
This teaching is perhaps what is missing in most other religions – blind followers of holy books and teachings.
To be frank, it’s very difficult to practice and understand Buddhism. While the five precepts are easy to follow (Do not kill; do not steal; avoid sexual misconduct; do not lie; do not drink alcohol or other intoxicants), sati “to dwell in mindfulness” in the four establishments of contemplating the body, the feelings, the mind and the objects of the mind, which to me sounds almost the same yet it’s categorized differently. Even the very simple Sutra on the Full Awakening of Breathing in order to penetrate the Four Establishments requires effort just to remember what the sixteen breathing exercises are meant to achieve, While I understood the reason behind no self and no death (hence no birth), it is difficult to follow.
Perhaps what I shall leave you is this quote that happiness can be realized in this life if you observe the following:
1. Foster relations with people of virtue and avoid the path of degradation.
2. live in an environment that is conductive to spiritual practice and builds good character.
3. Foster opportunities to learn more about the Dharma, the precepts, and your own trade in greater depth.
4. Take the time to care well for your parents, spouse and children.
5. Share time, resources and happiness with others.
6. Foster opportunities to cultivate virtue. Avoid alcohol and gambling.
7. Cultivate humility, gratitude, and simple living.
8. Seek opportunities to be close to Bhikkhus in order to study the Way.
9. Live a life based on the Four Noble Truths.
10. Learn how to meditate in order to release sorrows and anxieties.
I know I may get criticized for my shallow reading of this book, and I admit my Buddhism knowledge is indeed shallow, such that when the part in the book described Buddha passing into nirvana, I was puzzled when the author asks: ‘Reader, please put your book down here and breathe lightly for a few minutes before continuing.’ But I did as I was told.
I hope you will get much more than me from this book. My brother did and he wants to read it again. A friend read it and diligently practiced mindful eating such that he reduced his BMI (This Book or Nhat).