Monday, November 7, 2011

Releasing my inner Andy Rooney: what students read about Buddhism

[Message to the English literature teacher]

Thank you for responding to my concerns about what your students are reading in the study of the “sacred texts” of world religions. On Sunday our temple was visited by B. from your class and we appreciate her respectful attitude in wanting to learn about how Buddhism is practiced by our temple members. I gave her some of my suggestions for readings on Buddhism – the Dhammapada (I suggest using a translation without all the intrusive commentary such as Wisdom of the Buddha: The Unabridged Dhammapada, paperback ISBN-13: 9780486411200), The Gospel of Buddha by Paul Carus (an introduction for Westerners using actual sacred texts for sources), and What the Buddha Taught by Walpola Rahula (it might be more suited for a philosophy class than a literature one).

Since I am from a Japanese background I could recommend some Japanese authors whose works reflect their Buddhist beliefs – the haiku poetry of Basho, the short stories of Ryunosuke Akutagawa (a little on the dark side like Edgar Allen Poe), the novels of Yasunari Kawabata. (For post-war experiences of Buddhism in Japan, there are the philosophical essays of Shuichi Maida and several other writers.)

For literary works from other Asian countries, you can consult a specialist in Asian literature. Although the trend now and into the future is for Buddhism to be embraced by more non-ethnic Asians, to appreciate the rich historical heritage of Buddhism, it’s best to read about it from Asian sources as an opportunity to introduce your students to cultural viewpoints outside the predominantly white Euro-American perspective.

Reading Hesse’s Siddhartha to learn about Buddhism is like listening to Justin Bieber to learn about Soul R&B music. From him you can get a flavor of the style, but he’s no Marvin Gaye. Uncle Tom’s Cabin might be interesting to read for its historical significance but would you seriously read it to learn how African Americans thought and felt during that time? It would be better to read the writings of people such as Frederick Douglass.

Thank you for hearing me out – I probably sound like an old grouch like the late Andy Rooney.

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