Battle of the Buddhas: new in bookstores

The scientific Buddha vs. the ancient Buddha: Who’s winning? Donald Lopez offers some answers in his new book.

Standing in a retail line on this infamous day, Black Friday, I heard someone (couldn’t help hearing) on their cellphone behind me.

“It’s crazy, but I’m good. I’ve done a lot of shopping,” the person said. “I’m just trying to be Zen about it.”

That’s a great goal for dealing with the shopping madness, but what does it mean to be Zen?

Ask Donald S. Lopez Jr., and he’ll probably tell you that most of us really have no idea what it means.

His new book, “The Scientific Buddha: His Short and Happy Life” (Yale University Press), is all about how a scientific version of the Buddha has belly-bumped the authentic, ancient one into a corner.

“The Scientific Buddha is a pale reflection of the Buddha born in Asia,” the author writes as he explores the Buddha’s original teachings and how they’ve been misunderstood in the West. The real Buddha, he adds, “entered our world in order to destroy it.”

Instead, he’s the one who’s getting destroyed:

  • by the self-help movement
  • by the gospel of mindfulness – a term found on the tips of tongues everywhere
  • by discussions of mindful eating, mindful children, mindful coffee breaks …. on and on.

The tone of Lopez’ book isn’t judgmental — with his academic bonafides, he certainly could preach if he wanted to — it’s measured and careful. A chapter on Buddhist meditation is stunning: Lopez guides us through the meanings of bhavana, a word usually translated as “meditation” that Lopez says means so much more: “cultivating, producing, manifesting, imagining, suffusing, and reflecting.”All of this, he points out, gets lost in translation.

That’s Lopez’ argument, and we should all listen to him because he’s a big deal in the world of Buddhism scholarship. His book (very brief: about 130 pages) is fascinating, powerful, enlightening, necessary … and a little irritating.

Fine, the person behind me in line may not know anything about why Siddhartha Gautama sat down under the bodhi tree — or maybe he does, how can I assume? — but the important thing is that he was trying to stay calm and civilized while I was impatiently biting on my fingernails. I admire that.

Can’t simple steps lead to deeper insights? Anyone trying to “be Zen” in the checkout line at the department store may one day get much closer to understanding the insights in Lopez’ excellent book.

For now, at least, they’re coping with Black Friday much better than I did.

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