Great books tell stories. Here’s our pick of vivid and insightful new releases for better understanding America, world events, history, science, and theology
Many Americans equate Buddhism with the search for serenity, but two books by Methodist-turned-Buddhist Brian Victoria show that Zen Buddhist priests before and during World War II taught Japan's military leaders to be serene about killing others and, if necessary, themselves. As samurai warriors in previous centuries had found Zen's mind control useful in developing combat consciousness, so kamikaze pilots visited Zen monasteries for spiritual preparation before their last flights. Buddhism also has its parallels to the teaching by some Muslim clerics that dying in the process of killing enemies guarantees passage to paradise. Some Zen priests during World War II told prospective kamikaze attackers that they would gain improved karma for the next life, and in a deeper sense would lose nothing, since life is unreal and there is really no difference between life and death. Mr. Victoria shows that D.T. Suzuki, who taught at Columbia University in the 1950s and became the prime spreader in America of Zen's mystique, stated in 1938 that Zen's "ascetic tendency" helped the Japanese soldier to learn "that to go straight forward and crush the enemy is all that is necessary for him." Mr. Victoria also shows that Hakuun Yasutani, who helped in the 1960s to make Zen popular in the United States, was a major militarist before and during World War II, and even wrote in 1943 a book expressing hatred of "the scheming Jews." Stung by such evidence, leaders of Myoshin-ji-the headquarters temple for one major Zen sect-issued shortly after 9/11 an apology noting that "in the past our nation, under the banner of Holy War, initiated a conflict that led to great suffering." Myoshin-ji noted specifically that its members "conducted fundraising drives to purchase military aircraft." Other Buddhist groups besides the Zen sects supported Japan's aggression and looked to historical warrant for it. In medieval times an army housed in temples of the Tendai sect on a mountain overlooking Kyoto dominated Japan's capital city and occasionally sacked it. Sect fought against sect in battles involving tens of thousands of men. Some 100,000 soldiers, with Buddhism's blessing, wiped out the last organized remnant of Japanese Christianity in 1637. Many Buddhists today are pacifists, yet they teach an attractive-sounding doctrine that has stunning implications for human interaction. Buddhism's top selling point is nonattachment to anything in the world; that, Gautama Buddha taught 2,500 years ago, is the way to eliminate suffering. We shouldn't be emotionally attached to our houses or cars, our cats and dogs, our own health, or even (and here is where some who understand Buddhism drop out) our husbands or wives. U.S. journalists regularly portray Buddhism as merely an attack on selfishness. The Kansas City Star in 2001 reported this central Buddhist message: "We are most attached to our self-image. Friends are those who reinforce our image, and our enemies challenge it. In renouncing attachment to our self-image, we discover the truth about ourselves.... This leads to compassion for others and our own freedom." The opportunity for nonattachment to promote a lack of compassion ("don't mess up my tranquility") is rarely examined in articles that tend to be superficial and syncretistic. Superficiality The Dallas Morning News, under a headline, "Buddhist master enthralls devotees," printed Buddhist testimonies: "Lid Juarez found something four years ago that transformed his life. The 70-year-old Dallas man has lost 25 pounds, and chronic problems with indigestion and arthritis are gone. He said the hassles of day-to-day life no longer bother him, and he feels at peace 24 hours a day." The Deseret News, the Salt Lake City daily, provided a local Zen center an article that reads like an ad: "[T]he center at 1274 E. South Temple continues to attract an increasing number of Utahns looking for a place to do some self-examination and find peace, ... honesty, openness, love, and compassion." The Austin American-Statesman quoted Austin residents rejoicing that "Buddhism is very practical. Every day in your life you can use it and share. I feel very free and very content. Above all, I now discover the joy of life." The San Francisco Chronicle described Buddhism as nice-nice belief: "a philosophy that stresses the interconnectedness of life, and the importance of being kind to others." Writer Don Lattin has one convert to Buddhism explain that her mother at first was unhappy but is now pleased because the convert's "kids are kind to other kids." Many Buddhist sects have arguments with each other that go back centuries, but U.S. newspapers almost never report those differences. One St. Louis Post-Dispatch article did note the existence of one division, but gave no detail about the differences-and then explained how representatives from each group eat together: "Everyone always loves the delicious vegetarian lunch." Political reporters do not overlook battles between U.S. solons because they eat bean soup together in the Senate dining room. For example, one Buddhist sect, Soka Gakkai, has garnered wide criticism in Japan for its totalitarian nature and its control of the third-largest political party in Japan. But a Washington Post article merely noted that "chanting is one of the features that distinguishes Soka Gakkai from better-known traditions that emphasize meditation." It then quoted one Soka Gaakai member, "While doing inner transformation, also at the same time you make efforts to transform society around you as a private citizen and collectively as a member of SGI." Sounds good. Reporters regularly overlooked controversy and held out clichŽs as profundities. The Denver Post advised its readers through this headline: "Slow down, says Buddhist leader: Learn how to see 'beauty everywhere.'" A novel idea, and there was more from the teaching of Thich Nhat Hanh: "'Pay attention to the world in which you live.... The seeds for happiness are everywhere-in the blue sky, in the clouds, in the face of our children." Reporter Barbara Hey observed that these are "[c]omforting words in a place and time when seeking happiness is often relegated to a 'to-do' list." She then summarized the message: We should feel "a connection to the Earth, engaging and nourishing what is best in all of us and opting not to flame the fires of qualities that harm ourselves and others." Beware of journalistic poets. Journalistic skeptics who scorn Christian revivalists have become weak in the knees when writing about visiting Buddhist biggies. Teresa Watanabe of the Los Angeles Times, beneath an "Insights for Troubled Youths Complete Dalai Lama's Visit" headline, reported how two people came together: "She's just 17, but her world swirls with violence.... He's 64. He's won the Nobel Peace Prize, is regarded as the manifestation of the Buddha of Compassion." Ms. Watanabe reported 17-year-old Monisha gushing, "What he told her will stay with her forever.... 'He told me to find self-confidence in my heart and myself. I had tears in my eyes. My heart was beating, like, wild.'" There was more: "'You are your own light,' he told the teenagers. 'Look into your own self.' Some smiled and nodded. Others confessed the teaching went over their heads. But there was no mistaking the impact on them of the day's events." The Times did not list the signs of impact, or interview "the troubled youths" a year later to see if they had stayed out of trouble, to see if the impact was lasting. Controversy is a key element of most stories, but reporters allowed none to touch the Dalai Lama. Criticizing Christian anthropology, the Dalai Lama says, "Some people get the impression that we human beings have basically a negative nature.... If basic human nature is negative, then there is no future." Christians believe basic human nature is negative, but they still posit a bright future. A back-and-forth here could have edified readers about the differences between the religions, but none was forthcoming. Syncretism The Denver Post presented a vignette in which a child said to monk Thich Nhat Hanh, "I'm Christian. How can I practice Buddhism?" The response: "If you practice Buddhism, you will become a better Christian." The story embraced cafeteria-style theology-combine something from religion A with other elements of religions B and C-and quoted the monk explaining, "'If you are committed to eating oranges, it does not prevent you from having a kiwi or a mango, and still eating oranges.'" The Houston Chronicle reported on a Buddhist temple with good things to say about Christ: "In Buddhism, we believe that Jesus Christ is one of the Buddhas," said John Lin, chairman of the temple's board. "He came to this world to help other people." The Austin American-Statesman similarly promoted a program in which Christians were said to be "using Buddhist meditation to find a calm that they say brings them closer to God." Many stories ascribed as special to Buddhism some goals and practices shared by other religions. Seattle readers could learn that Buddhism helps people "change the way in which they think about the world, themselves, and others," and that Buddhists "recognize the things over which they have influence, while also learning to let go of the things they can't control." They could learn "that Buddhism is a matter of transforming minds, which can then transform experience." The Dallas Morning News quoted a new Buddhist, Tifany Henderson, who was promoting Buddhism because "We could all use more peace and less stress." According to the Los Angeles Times, the Buddhist goal is "to take life's ups and downs in a balanced and centered way." The Deseret News noted that Buddhists teach "correct posture" and provide "guiding principles" such as honesty, openness, love, and compassion that help us develop "an appropriate response to any given situation." Perhaps one signal of journalists' nonattachment to Christianity is the sense that these principles are Buddhist. A typical piece about Buddhism in The Seattle Times noted that city resident George Draffan, after his father and others close to him died, "reacted to these personal crises by searching for some sort of spiritual support or belief system that could help him cope. His search led him to Buddhism, of which he said, "I think the thing that attracts a lot of Westerners is stress.... If you get into [Buddhism], you can't do without it. It's a much more productive way of dealing with problems than drinking beer." The article publicized an upcoming Buddhist festival "which organizers say could draw up to several hundred people, is open to the public and will feature music, food, dance, meditation, chanting, informational tables, and presentations." Maybe with such free publicity, more than several hundred would show up-but would anyone ask hard questions? One Buddhist speaker in Dallas said that people must honor "all other beings, including humans, animals, and even the smallest insect. 'We are all equally the same,' he said, referring to humans and all creatures, big and small." The reporter did not point out that behind that democratic notion, which suggests that people should be kind to dogs and deer, lay an equation of humans with cockroaches. Can we do better? Sure we can. While the overwhelming majority of stories about Buddhism were superficial, syncretistic, and self-censoring, I found one article from The New Republic and two from U.S. newspapers that went beyond public relations. I've also been impressed by two stories from Australian publications and a sharp critique from an Indian one. First, here's a Chicago Sun-Times piece that didn't go very deep but at least made a Buddhist leader seem like a human being and not a plastic figurine. Under the headline, "I Blew My Monkhood," Debra Pickett profiled Nawang Gehlek, an Ann Arbor resident: His followers "address him as 'Rimpoche,' which is a title used for people who are the reincarnation of a major lama or other important figure." But Mr. Gehlek rebelled in the 1960s: "'I smoked a pack and a half of cigarettes a day,' he says, and then with made-for-TV delivery, pauses, adding, 'but I did not inhale.' Also, he drank. And some other stuff." The story continued, "Living in India, through his 20s, he did a good bit of the aforementioned experimenting, mostly with American and European 'seekers' who traded their vices for his abbey-trained wisdom. More significantly-to him-he also had a crisis of faith. He wasn't sure he believed in reincarnation, and particularly not his own." Devotees would tell him he did wonderful things in his past life, but he could remember nothing. "He felt he couldn't ask his teachers and was afraid of being rejected by his peers if he put his doubts into words. 'Buddhists accept reincarnation just like we accept hamburger,' he says. 'Imagine an American kid asking their parents about hamburger in the 1940s or '50s. He'd get beaten up, too.'" Second, UPI's Uwe Siemon-Netto (under the headline "Buddhism's pedophile monks") showed the dark side of some Buddhist practice: "Sex between clergymen and boys is by no means a uniquely Catholic phenomenon, a noted American scholar said Wednesday-it's been going on in Buddhist monasteries in Asia for centuries." University of Wisconsin Professor Leonard Zwilling told Mr. Siemon-Netto, "Of course, this is against the Buddhist canon, but it has been common in Tibet, China, Japan, and elsewhere. In fact, when the Jesuits arrived in China and Japan in the 16th century, they were horrified by the formalized relationships between Buddhist monks and novices who were still children. These relationships clearly broke the celibacy rule." Buddhist pedophilia has a long background and is still a concern, Mr. Siemon-Netto reported: "Some 2,500 years ago, the outrageous behavior of one pandaka (homosexual, in Pali, the sacred language of Theravada Buddhism) prompted the Buddha to ban the ordination of such men." UPI included Mr. Zwilling's citation of 20th-century "incidents where members of the Bob-Dob, an order enforcing discipline among Tibetan monks, fought each other over boys." In The New Republic, Joshua Kurlantzick wrote that his view of Buddhism "was shaped by the American media, which usually portrays Buddhists as pure, serene, and incorruptible." But then he attended a Buddhist seminar in Bangkok and spoke with Thais who told him of "saffron-robed Buddhist monks guilty of graft, lechery, and other crimes." Mr. Kurlantzick first "chuckled skeptically at their tales," but then found that the stories of rape, orgiastic sex, and murder were true, and "especially shocking because so many Westerners assume Buddhism to be fundamentally different from other faiths. It isn't.... Not that any of this is undermining Buddhism's reputation in the West.... American disciples won't let reality get in the way of their preconceptions about the religion." Some newspapers in Australia also were willing to fight Buddhist public relations. Under the headline "Buddha in Suburbia," Joyce Morgan of The Sydney Morning Herald asked whether Buddhism is "a temporary staging post for aging baby boomers." Disillusionment with materialism is key to the appeal of Buddhism, which teaches that "the solutions lie within ourselves." That's a welcome notion to boomers who don't want to be part of "Christianity, with its emphasis on God the Father [that] evokes a parent-child bond. In short, a vertical relationship." Ms. Morgan traced the history: "One of the biggest influences on the spread of Buddhism in the West was the emergence of the hippie trail through India and Nepal in the 1960s and 1970s. Some of these psychedelic dreamers were no doubt muddle-headed as they clutched their books by Lobsang Rampa, the so-called mystic monk who turned out to be Cyril Hoskins, a British clerk.... Not that the Tibetans were enamored of the dope-smoking Westerners filling their rucksacks with prayer beads and incense ... the hippies were viewed with suspicion as people who had run out of things to do in the world and were looking for novelty. And perhaps they were.... Buddhism may appear fashionable today and some will no doubt discard it with last season's flares." The Age (Melbourne) also came through with a profile of one woman who became intensely Buddhist after her partner committed suicide: "You ask me what brought me to Buddhism?" Jenny Kee says. "Suffering. Suffering and great pain." Others, however, dabble: "Many more people profess vague allegiance to the ideals of Buddhism than are card-carrying members.... Buddhism in the West does not ask followers to make a lifelong and exclusive commitment, or to join a community of believers," and that works well in a culture where people believe "spirituality" but not religion is important. The article, headlined "Devotees and Dabblers," quoted a religion professor's argument that many use Buddhism in the pursuit of "power, personal autonomy, and profit." Writer Sophie Cunningham concluded, "Precisely because it is so easy-going, Buddhism can be seen as just another New Age philosophy." Shefalee Vasudev of India Today set a particularly colorful article, "New Buddhism: The Buddha Bar," on "the eve of the 67th birthday of His Holiness, the Dalai Lama. Up in the hills of Himachal Pradesh in the small town of Mcleodganj near Dharamsala, some students of Buddhist philosophy sway in abandon to the beats of a techno-trance number that plays loudly at a rave party ... amidst uninhibited smooching, petty arguments, umpteen puffs and sniffs of drugs, the night lingers on." Mr. Vasudev described "the many groups of beaded, bearded, funkily accessorized moksha-seeking tourists clad in tattered blue jeans with pierced lips and eyebrows who are redefining this religion.... They seem to be showing the world that worldly detachment can be on friendly terms with the trappings of desire." He quoted "Gintaras, a Lithuanian who studies Buddhist philosophy, saying, "This taste of Buddhism is doing me a lot of good since my disillusionment with Christianity turned me into an atheist. Spirituality works only if it is flexible. And unlike most other religions, I find Buddhism open to interpretation. I had thought of experimenting with different concepts, but Hinduism and Islam are not my cup of tea." Mr. Vasudev then quoted "Ideno, a 21-year-old Israeli girl" saying over cups of Tibetan herbal tea, "Peace does not necessarily have to be about passivity. Even as I seek peace, I do not want to withdraw from the path of desire because it will only make me agitated." Sacha Faller, a psychology student from Switzerland, added, "What better way to understand detachment than to have it constantly tested by an indulgent life?" He added, "I had the most intense relationship of my life here, which lasted only 11 days," but lessons in detachment helped him recover. "The monks too seem to be wading in doubtful waters," Mr. Vasudev concluded. "There is no mistaking the body language of young monks who are seen with girls in restaurants and other public places. Is this an indication that the liberated, neo-Buddhists who crowd the philosophy classes are becoming role models for the monks instead of it being the other way round?"