Book Review: The Story of Buddhism by Donald Lopez

The Book
There has been a certain amount of groaning among the docent trainees at the Asian Art Museum about this book,  but since it's on our upcoming quiz I've decided to take a crack at it.  Southeast Asian art, as it's been presented to us, appears to be pretty much Buddhist (with a couple Vishnus, a Shiva with a funny Om in his hair, and a gorgeous Parvati from Angkor thrown in for variety).  But otherwise?  Buddhas, Buddhas all the time.  Buddhas with long fingers and flames coming out of their heads if they're Thai, Buddhas with square jaws and connected eyebrows if they're Cambodian, Buddhas with round faces and beautifully shaped eyebrows if they're from Sukhothai, Buddhas with bud-shaped ushnishas if they're from Ayutthaya, and good luck keeping your severe/soft/severe/soft pieces from Angkor straight.  Not to mention the sexily groomed facial hair on the Cambodian bodhisattvas.  Which begs the question:  what's up with all the Buddhas? 

Donald S. Lopez Jr.
Check out those curls!
Enter Donald S. Lopez Jr., Buddhist scholar extraordinaire from the University of Michigan (they do like their academics distinguished at the museum).  In one relatively slim volume he sorts out the whys, wherefores, splits, adaptations, and 
evolution of Buddhism across Asia.  Impressive, to say the least.  So what, exactly, is this thing called Buddhism all about?  A man who was born in 563 BCE (although that's hotly debated) who "uncovered a path that had been long forgotten" (9) that eases the inevitably difficulties and sorrows of life.  We don't know what language he spoke, but we do know that nothing the Buddha taught was written down until centuries after his death.  This leads to a great deal of current confusion and debate about what Buddhism.  But we do know a few things.

Head of a Buddha Image
Sukhothai, North Central Thailand
Karma is the cause that created the world, seen today as six desire realms of gods, demigods, humans, animals, ghosts, and a surprisingly detailed specificity of hell beings.  Since karma is king, one of the major foci of Buddhist practice is performing positive actions that will create positive karma, thereby changing the balance of the entire system in a positive direction.   The other foci is on developing proper perspective.  We cultivate wisdom to confront ignorance, our ignorance largely based on identifying ourselves as permanent.  "What we call the person is simply a process, a chain of causes and effects" (26), and that which we tend to call our own, our consciousness, "persists as a continuum over time... Rebirth is the movement of consciousness, ever changing, to a different physical foundation (which is itself impermanent), like lighting one candle with another" (26).  But even consciousness is subject to disintegration and emptiness.  By dependent origination, "everything comes into existence dependent on something else," (29) which means that everything is empty of "an existence that is independent of any other factors" (30). Sure, we exist.  Our consciousness exists.  But only as long as the factors and conditions that contribute to its existence are present.  Our selves, our consciousness, don't exist independently, and therefore, doesn't exist permanently.  As with everything else and everyone else in the world around us.

Head of a Buddha Image

Ayutthaya, Central Thailand
Because of our faulty perception, veiled by ignorance, we don't see reality as it is.  So how do we cut through these veils of ignorance?  A three-pronged approach, otherwise known as the three trainings:  training in ethical action to create positive karma, training in meditation to tame the drunken monkey of our minds, and training in wisdom, or "gaining a direct and non-conceptual realization" (49).  And the end result of all this?  Nirvana.  Not a heaven (although there definitely are heaven realms in Buddhism), but a state of being when all the causes and conditions of existence have been exhausted.  And that's no black hole we're talking about.  It's freedom, finally, from the endless whirling Ferris wheel of cyclical existence.  But before you have the opportunity to step off the ride, there's a lot of lists and numbers to sort out first. (Buddhists love lists.  Tracing the outlines of the Buddhist cannon is like looking at centuries of "to-do" lists.  How to pull together the ingredients and cooking procedure for enlightenment... endless variety.  And the lists tend to get pretty long.)  There's the four noble truths, the six perfections, the eight-fold path... just a small taste.

Head of an Image of the
Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara

Angkor, Cambodia

(The awesome facial hair is easier
to see in the gallery.)
And this, really, is where it all starts to get complicated.  As Lopez points out, the majority of Buddhist practitioners have been lay practitioners, not even entitled to a monastic education in Buddhism.  And all those monks and nuns over the centuries?  The majority of them never trained in meditation (which is shocking considering meditation is the main focus of Buddhism as it's taught in the west).  Not all monks even knew the four noble truths.  And then you get the proliferation of different types of Buddhism: Mahayana, which started as a scattering of local protests against a monastic tradition that coalesced into a supplement to traditional Buddhist practice (including a focus on becoming a bodhisattva), Vajrayana, which is the Tibetan approach of "pedal to the medal," or becoming enlightened in a single lifetime, and the Yogacara school flits in and out, focusing on transforming our minds into the mirror-like wisdom of a Buddha.  Then there's the Lotus Sutra, concerned with magical appearances and powers of the Buddha (because we simply couldn't grasp his teachings if he didn't appear human).  Oh, and women in Buddhism?  Subject to the same tribulations of any philosophical tradition rooted in monastic tradition for centuries... grim.  Let's just say luckily we've got Yeshe Tsogyal and Machig Lapdon waiting for us when we hit the Himalayas.  Throw in state support and state persecution of Buddhism in different countries across Asia over the centuries... Buddhism could mean most anything to any particular Buddhist you talk to, and tradition and practice is going to vary widely based on location.

Mustard Seeds
So why bother?  If "each phenomenon contains within itself every other phenomenon in the universe, described in the metaphor of a vast net bearing a jewel at every knot, each jewel containing within itself the reflection of all the other jewels," (33) I feel it's at least worth trying to see reality as it is, instead of the sepia-toned B-grade movie my mind usually presents on a daily basis.  And if the majesty of it all isn't worth it, maybe the inescapable reality of suffering is.  One of my favorite Buddhist stories, and a very famous one, is about the mustard seed.  A young mother distraught over the death of her child comes to the Buddha and begs him to bring her child back to life.  He says he will, but only if she brings him back a single mustard seed from a household that has known no suffering.  After knocking on every door in the village, she comes back without a single mustard seed.  But she discovered a new compassion for the universality of suffering.  Buddhism doesn't pretend that suffering doesn't exist, and it doesn't offer a way to fix the suffering inherent in everyday life.  What Buddhism does is provide a new way to perceive suffering and offers new alternatives for working with suffering.  And I believe it's the recognition of the difficulty and universality of suffering that ultimately provides the motivation to wade through those long to-do lists on the path to enlightenment.