Short Book Review: What the Buddha Taught by Walpola Rahula

What the Buddha Taught by Walpola RahulaSBRWhat the Buddha Taught is a book usually found at the top of the recommendation lists if you are interested in Buddhism. Perhaps with good reason. The book is supposed to focus on the basic and essential teachings of Buddha. It was, however, an unsatisfactory experience for me. Because it still can’t avoid the temptation of jumbled up explanation of things, which sound profound, but really don’t make sense when you come to think of it. What particularly piqued me was this insistence on there being no “self” (“no thinker beyond thought” and all that), but no attempt to address the issue that if there is no “self” in us, who is being preached to. Who is supposed to do all the nice things Buddha thinks we should be doing? The book isn’t converting me to Buddhism yet, although if I have to make a list of books on Buddhism, it will continue to feature in it, perhaps even at the top. Because it’s not like I have found anything else satisfactory yet.
To read or not to read: Read if you are interested in Buddhism, either because of faith or because of intellectual curiosity. I will not necessarily recommend it to an unsuspecting reader without a specific interest in Buddhism.

Short Book Review: Old Paths White Clouds by Nhất Hạnh Thích

Old Path White CloudsSBR: The book Old Paths White Clouds is a confusing experience. With a subtitle like Walking in the Footsteps of the Buddha, you would think it is some kind of travelogue through Buddhist landmarks, but it is not so. It is categorized on the cover as a Biography. What I found it really to be was a work of historical fiction based on the life of Buddha. But unlike regular historical fiction, it makes no attempts at making the story relatable and interesting. It consists of one sermon after the other, punctuated by some miracles and is full of unbelievably devout people. It is supposed to be read as the biography of Buddha by those who already believe in the current Buddhist lore or have a predisposition towards it. Not surprisingly the book bored me to the hilt. But I read it through the end because I was trying to learn more about Buddha at that point of time and it is a good collection of stories that Buddhist tradition believes about him.
To read or not to read: If you have religious or Buddhist inclinations, go ahead. If you have academic interest in Buddhism, it is a good resource. Otherwise spare yourself.

Short Book Review: Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism by Chogyam Trungpa

Cutting Through Spiritial MaterialismSBR: I am happy to see this phrase “spiritual materialism” coined and acknowledged, that too by an insider. Spiritual journey isn’t about accumulating “spiritual achievements” or about basking in the glory of your efforts and sacrifices.  If you are feeling smug and proud of your spiritual journey, it is time to step back. You might be feeding your ego, instead of transcending it.
The author does a very good job of ruthlessly telling us what spiritualism is not – that is most of what we see around us! When it comes to describing what it is though, things become vague. His descriptions are rich. But that doesn’t necessarily makes it graspable. This is not something I have a quarrel with. From what he says, and from what I intuitively feel, you cannot actually describe spiritual experiences in words. Why even try it is my question.
It is also disconcerting that after saying all that he did in this book, he was still a part of a big spiritual establishment and a “spiritual entrepreneur”, if I can coin a phrase too.
To read or not to read: If you are on or embarking on a formal spiritual journey, especially by joining an organization or following a guru, you should read it to keep your smugness and expectations in check.

Short Book Review: Seven Systems of Indian Philosophy by Pt. Rajmani Tigunait

Seven Systems of Indian Philosophy by Pt. Rajmani TigunaitSBR: Why can’t we Indians write about ourselves dispassionately and objectively? Why can’t it be about studying our history or philosophy for the sake of understanding and not for glorification? Seven Systems of Indian Philosophy was good enough in explaining the seven systems it covers in simple words. But wherever the author ventured into his opinions, justifications and (shallow, offhand, but confident and patronizing) comparisons with western philosophy, I felt like tearing my hair out. Okay – I will try to forget those parts. At least I got to know that treating rituals as ultimate duty, the way of life I have grown up with, is the outcome of one specific system of Indian philosophy – Mimansa.
 To read or not to read: This book is much shorter (and simpler and less comprehensive) than the much recommended two-volumes from Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan. I am yet to read that one, since I wanted something quicker before delving deeper. If you either like justifying and glorifying everything Indian, or can ignore it, then read this book for a quick and simple introduction to the seven (selected) systems of Indian philosophy.  But If the glorification and justification bothers you too much, or you are prone to getting influenced by whatever is written, unable to ignore unfounded opinions, wait till I find something better on the subject.