Online Edition: Spring 2002

The Complete Idiot's Guide to Understanding Buddhism by Gary Gach

The Complete Idiot's Guide to Understanding Buddhism

Gary Gach

Alpha ($18.95)

by Charisse Gendron

In the introduction to this do-it-yourself manual on the history, teachings, practices, and applications of Buddhism, author Gary Gach feints, "A few people may scoff that this is sacrilegious, or something." Yes, reading about suchness (the "unrepeatable interpenetration of impermanences") in the standardized format of a Complete Idiot's Guide is ironic. But Buddhism, of all religions, embraces irony and paradox. Think of this book as a koan, as the sound of one hand clapping.

Anyway, modernity has already adopted Buddhism as a life-style; as Gach points out, "zen influence (lowercase) has extended to martial arts, gardening, haiku, motorcycle maintenance, you name it." You can't get through the day without hearing something described as "very zen." Yet enlightenment cannot be commodified! It's always already there for free. That's why the Buddha is smiling.

On balance, idiocy is not a bad approach to Buddhism. Even in the West, the idiot (from the Greek idiots, layperson) points to the wisdom of emptiness (Shakespeare), ineffability (Dostoevsky), compassion (Faulkner), and alterity (Iggy Pop). The Buddhist term for idiot's (or layperson's ) mind is "beginner's mind," or "don't-know mind," a precious state in which we see things unfiltered by preconception.

True to the series' format, Gach uses contemporary expressions and references to describe the indescribable, as when he explains duhkha (universal human suffering) by way of the Stones' song "Satisfaction." Turns out everybody really is a buddha, from Yogi Berra ("When you come to a fork in the road, take it"), to Thelonius Monk ("Simple ain't easy") to Mel Brooks ("Now thyself"). And everything has buddha nature, as modern artists already know: "Dawn sunlight tingeing cloudtips rose-peach is no less lovely than the orange green iridescence of the wings of flies buzzing around some dung on the mosaic of the ground." And vice versa.

Simple ain't easy. While Buddhists everywhere--Tibet, Vietnam, Japan, the United States--share core beliefs in impermanence and interconnectedness, Buddhism combines with local customs wherever it travels, resulting in an elaborate menu of manifestations, from the austere meditation halls and neutral robes of Japanese Zen to the crammed temples and saffron and maroon raiment of Tibetan Vajrayana. The Buddha himself seems to have loved both reduction and amplification: he meditated under a tree for seven years, then he came up with the Four Noble Truths, the Eightfold Path, the Three Jewels, the Three Poisons, the Three Dharma Seals, the Four Sublime States, the Four Bodhisattva Vows, and the Cardinal Precepts (there are five of these).

Frankly, not many books give as good an overview of the varieties of Buddhism as The Complete Idiot's Guide, since most Buddhist writers aim for depth in a specific tradition. One may have sat zazen for years without knowing about the Vipassana technique of noting, which consists of voicing a sensation, without subject or object, until it passes: "tingling, tinglingŠrepulsing, repulsing Šaccepting, accepting." This technique is said to ameliorate the pains of meditating for 40 minutes in the lotus position.

Besides Zen, the most popular Buddhism in the United States is Tantra (favored by writers at The Jack Kerouc School of Disembodied Poetics at Naropa University), and Gach's caution in approaching Tantra makes it all the more attractive to the uninitiated. Without "declassifying" secrets, he tells us that it "engages human emotions as levers of transformation.Štakes the end as the means.Šwork[s] with what is, rather than trying to transcend it." One of Tantra's techniques is visualizing (and identifying with) "wrathful deities." Powerful stuff--not for idiots.

Gach plants the guidebook's sidebars with little gardens of etymology. "The word sutra, from Sanscrit, means a thread, such as for stringing jewels or prayer beads.Š It also carries the connotation of story, the way we hear tale in the word yarn. It comes from the same root from which we derive the word suture, meaning to sew, to connect." Sutra/suture--there's a poem in there. One also discovers that the opposite of symbolic is diabolic and that Shazam is a Hebrew word.

The thing about beginner's mind is that one cannot preserve it; one has to lose it to find it again. Gach quotes a Zen saying: "Before I studied the Way, mountains were mountains, and rivers were rivers. After I'd practiced the Way for a few years, suddenly mountains were no longer mountains, and rivers no longer rivers. But now that I've practiced the Way for many, many years, mountains are again mountains, and rivers are rivers." To study Buddhism is to become engrossed in its forms, at least for a while. This book is a not an undignified place to start.

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Spring 2002 Table of Contents