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In the opening pages, author Martine Batchelor notes her intent is to make this enlightening volume "not about Buddhism," but "about the Buddha." Much of the slim text is true to her words. The Spirit of the Buddha, a 2010 addition to the Yale University Press Sacred Literature Series, reveals the former Zen Buddhist nun's understanding of and devotion to the fifth century BCE prince-turned-enlightened-one, Siddhatta Gotama, the Buddha.
Batchelor moves easily through the historical and legendary tales of Gotama's early life. She recounts his dissatisfaction with palace life, his search for meaning through various traditions of the time including renunciation, first as a wandering mendicant following Alara Kalama who "claimed a direct knowledge of nothingness," before switching allegiance to Uddaka Ramaputta with his "sphere of neither perception nor non-perception." When neither of these teachers satisfied Gotama, he turned to the ascetics, living it is said on a single grain of rice per day. None of these paths led him to his desired goal of ending suffering for himself and others. Batchelor describes the oft-repeated story of Gotama finally taking refuge under an Assatha banyan, the Bodhi tree, to meditate until he found enlightenment. "On the seventh day, upon seeing dawn, he reached awakening." He spent the remaining forty-five years of life guiding others along the same journey.
A primer on the Buddha's philosophy begins with a chapter called "The Dhamma, the Teachings" (translated as the more familiar Dharma in Sanskrit) where Batchelor explains each facet of the original Pali canon. This three-part record of the Buddha's words (the Sutta (discourses), Vinaya (monastic rules), and Abhidhamma (commentaries)) was transcribed in a literary form of Sanskrit (Pali) following three hundred years of memorization and oral transmission after his death. Batchelor aligns the steps on his Eightfold Path with the wisdom, morality, meditation and samma (right, correct, just) of the Four Noble Truths. The interconnectedness of impermanence, suffering, and non-self are highlighted as she states, "The Buddha saw that suffering arose from the fact that we could not rely entirely on things, on people or on ourselves because of impermanence..." With a nod to modern definitions of suffering, or dukkha, she notes "stress" or "anguish" are often substituted. This follows her belief that Buddhism is "conditional, impermanent and creative," and how over the centuries it "created ethics that fitted its own cultural conditions and needs, but also accorded with the...Dharma."
Batchelor's description of the Sangha, or community, is wide-ranging, from the original simple call of the Buddha, "Come, monk," to the elaborate full-ordination incorporating 227 precepts of discipline from the Patimokkha used by some schools today. She delves into the sometimes thorny issue of acceptance of women into the sangha. Nuns were not admitted until five years after the Buddha began teaching, and then only at the urging of his aunt, Mahapajapati, and cousin Ananda, who served as his personal attendant for the last twenty-five years of his life. The sangha offered caring and support for the monastics with specific rules for daily activities such as meals and housekeeping, to more elaborate sharing of grievances and ethical behaviors.
From this chapter on, Batchelor departs from "the Buddha" into "Buddhism." The Buddha remains a general focus as the philosophy which bears his name morphed into a religion, but she turns much more to the later recording and interpretation of his words. She shares her views on his original intent while sometimes speaking of the Buddha in the present tense, revealing the personal relationship she feels with him. Batchelor takes readers on a journey through the Suttas attributed to the Buddha as well as through later interpretations, of which there are many. She outlines the initial schism of 383 BCE at the Council of Vesali. The Sthaviras, "the elders," a more conservative practice, is believed to have become the Theravada found in Burma, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Laos, and Cambodia, while the more liberal Mahasanghika took the Mahayana tradition to China, Korea, Japan, Vietnam and Tibet.
In the chapters on "Practice," "Compassion," and "Ethics," Batchelor relies heavily on the words of others in relating the Buddha's teachings over the centuries, quoting from a number of esteemed teachers, monks and nuns. As seems to be the case in any religion, man's interpretation often strays from the original philosophy. The Buddha's relatively simple Four Noble Truths and Eightfold Noble Path became, over time, the elaborate Pali canon supplemented by numerous longer translations and explanations, including the Brahma's Net Sutra, a Chinese Mahayanist sutra which contains the Bodhisattva Precepts. The Buddha himself noted that many of his lessons were situational and could be abolished; however, since he did not specify which, his followers kept them all intact to avoid errors. He stressed moral actions, not sacrifices or rituals. "For the Buddha, the practice had to be transformative." He pointed his followers toward self-reliance, teaching that any moral action must focus on Nirvana, "blowing out the three fires of greed, hatred and delusion" with "morality, meditation and wisdom."
Modern society in the West most often focuses on the Buddha's teachings of mindfulness and meditation, with compassion only recently receiving much attention. Batchelor details the incorporation of meditation in medicine and psychology from Jon Kabat-Zinn to Williams, Teasdale and Segal's Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy. She accepts these practices as keeping with the Buddha's original intent, noting "Sacred texts have appeared in a certain context and culture," and quoting author Donald Rothberg's The Engaged Spiritual Life: "...what the world most needs are our unique contributions...rather than our performances of some ingrained set of uniform duties."
The Spirit of the Buddha is a thoughtfully prepared summary of the life of an extraordinary man whose words exert tremendous influence still. Batchelor ends her work with a final perceptive insight: "The spirit of the Buddha... has influenced modernity as much as it has been influenced by modernity." Her book reveals the significance of that influence, in both directions.
© 2011 Cynthia Pauwels
Cynthia L. Pauwels holds an MA in Creative Writing and a BA in Humanities with a World Classics certification from Antioch University McGregor in Yellow Springs, Ohio. She works as a freelance writer with numerous short fiction, non-fiction and technical writing credits.