BOOK REVIEW: The Gospel in Dickens ed. by Gina Dalfonzo

The Gospel in Dickens: Selections from His WorksThe Gospel in Dickens: Selections from His Works by Charles Dickens
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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This book captured my attention because (I must confess) I’m delinquent when it comes to the writings of Charles Dickens. I’ve only read “A Christmas Carol” and that is admittedly sad given the profound impact of (and masterful storytelling in) Dickens’ work. The challenge confronting me is that (excepting “A Christmas Carol”) the works of Dickens tend to be huge bookshelf-cracking tomes, and so I’m seeking a strategy by which to approach his publications – given the time investments involved. Because this is a book that largely consists of excerpts from his various works, I figured it might help me devise a plan of how to tackle Dickens (figuratively.) I believe it did help me in that regard.

The book’s theme is how biblical teachings feature in the works of Dickens. While my own reading objectives tend toward the secular, I figured that knowing about the moral conundrums and growth, or lack thereof, of characters would be a good way to understand Dickens’ canon as stories and not only as reflections of religious attitudes. Moral dilemma is, after-all, a central element of storytelling — universally, and not just with regards to religious or mythological contexts. I feel I was correct in this regard, as well. I did learn about which stories were most likely to appeal to me.

I do believe the book was as much about how Dickens (not by himself, by any means, but as part of an artistic and societal movement of the day) influenced the nature of Christianity (both in his time and beyond) as it was about how the Gospel influenced Dickens. I’m not saying this with intent to blaspheme. It’s just that the nature of the problems and how they were approached is very different between the time of ancient Rome and Dickensian London. So, one has a kind of general teaching of being charitable and kind to those less fortunate and it is applied to policy questions that were nonexistent at the time of the Bible or that individuals in the Bible were silent upon.

There are three chapters or section to the book. The first looks at attitudes toward the poor. If one knows anything about the works of Charles Dickens, it’s that they virtually all deal with down-and-out characters having to make their way through worlds controlled by (often uncharitable) wealthy people. This was true of my beloved “A Christmas Carol,” but I know it’s also a major feature in “Oliver Twist,” “Great Expectations,” “Bleak House,” “The Old Curiosity Shop,” and others. This first section takes up about half the book. The second section involves the issue of redemption, and it’s about a quarter of the book. The final section is also about twenty-five percent of the book and it looks at living a good life. Each of these chapters has a series of excerpts. Generally, there is a short paragraph of editorial input before each excerpt to explain any necessary background as well as to provide some insight into why the excerpt is included (i.e. how it relates to the book’s theme.) While most of the excerpts come from Dickens’ major novels, it should be pointed out that there are some that come from other works (i.e. nonfiction and short fiction.)

There are some artistic drawings that are congruous with expectations of a Dickens book. Otherwise, there’s not much in terms of ancillary matter, though there is a Forward. I didn’t feel anything else was particularly needed (though a timeline of publications and / or an appendix with concise plot summaries might have made the book a bit easier to use.)

If you’re interested in learning more about the works of Dickens, I’d recommend this book – particularly (but not necessarily exclusively) if you have interests at the intersection of literature and religion.

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BOOK REVIEW: Dhammapada trans. by Venerable Acharya Buddharakkhita

Dhammapada: a practical guide to right livingDhammapada: a practical guide to right living by Acharya Buddharakkhita
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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The Dhammapada consists of 423 sayings attributed to the Buddha. There seem to be numerous versions of the Dhammapada as translated by Venerable Acharya Buddharakkhita in circulation, so your results may vary for good or bad from what I report here. (Not to mention there are many other translations which may vary tremendously)

The 423 sutras or maxims included in the book are arranged into twenty-six topical chapters. The version I have presents no analysis, it’s just the text of the verse in Pali (i.e. the Roman / English language alphabet spelling out the phonetic Pali words) with an English translation below.

First, the pros of the edition I read: There are some explanatory notes offered as necessary (38 of them,) there are a few graphics (drawings and photos in B&W,) and there are two indexes. The first of the two indexes wouldn’t be of much use to me, but it would be for the Pali literate because it indexes the Pali verse. The second index is in English and is organized by analogies (i.e. analogies employed in the verses,) and that could be a tremendously useful feature. For the Pali literate, having the original phonetic Pali included must be an excellent feature. (There’s also a page in the front matter that shows how the pronunciation works.)

As for the cons of this edition: First, there were a few typos (mostly of the type that wouldn’t be caught by spellcheck – though this translation was pre-spellcheck — so I’m referring to the kind of typos that aren’t easily caught.) Second, while all the verses are translated, there is some text that remains in Romanized Pali [I suspect prayers, but can’t say for sure.]

This is the second translation of the Dhammapada I’ve read, and I found it worthwhile. It’s easily readable, not too flowery, and not bogged down with needless analysis or exposition. I can’t say how it compares among all translations (either in terms of skill of translation or in accurately capturing the Buddha’s meaning,) but it reads pretty fluidly.

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BOOK REVIEW: Crazy Wisdom by Chögyam Trungpa

Crazy WisdomCrazy Wisdom by Chögyam Trungpa
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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This book collects the lessons of two seminars on crazy wisdom taught by Chögyam Trungpa in 1972. “Crazy Wisdom” is an awakened state of mind that was taught by Padmasambhava – the teacher who introduced Buddhism to Tibet from India. The two seminars consist of six and seven lessons, respectively. These thirteen lessons make up the chapters of the book. Each chapter consists mostly of a text discussion of the topic at hand, but with an interview at the end in which the teacher is asked to clarify points mentioned in the text or that are relevant to the topic under discussion.

The book starts with differentiating two approaches: trying to live up to what one would like to be (i.e. spiritual materialism), and trying to live what one is. While the former is a widespread phenomenon across many religions, it’s dismissed as not all that productive. Along the way, the book discusses how being childlike, ruthless, hopeless, fearless, and in touch with death can all have beneficial effects on the mind. Of course, one has to go about such things in a proscribed manner as it’s emphasized that crazy wisdom and being crazy aren’t identical states (even if they may share similar appearances in some instances.)

Like many books on wisdom, this one offers a mix of profound insight and a sort of double speak used to make profound-sounding but ineffable statements, or logically inconsistent statements, seem true and / or thought-provoking. A philosophizing style is employed rather than narrative style, and so it can read a bit blandly.

There are a few notes and several line-drawn artworks in the Tibetan Buddhist style, but otherwise it’s a straightforward text.

I found this book to be intriguing and to offer interesting food-for-thought. It’s a short book, but may be a bit challenging for a reader without a background in Tibetan Buddhism, or in Buddhism in general. If you’re interested in Vajrayana Buddhism, you should give it a read.

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BOOK REVIEW: What the Buddha Taught by Walpola Rahula

What the Buddha TaughtWhat the Buddha Taught by Walpola Rahula
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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It might seem like any book on Buddhism would — by definition — be a book about “what the Buddha taught,” but, no. Buddhism, like all religions that I’m aware of, has experienced the drift that occurs as part of the religification process – though some sects and sub-sects remain truer to the Buddha’s original approach than others. I was happy to stumble onto this book because whenever I’ve read the ideas attributed directly to the Buddha, I’ve always found them to be brilliant in elegance and simplicity.

Walpola Rahula’s book is a summation of what the Buddha actually taught, presented in a way that makes sense for today’s English-language reader. The book is just eight chapters, plus appendices comprising ten texts (excerpted or in whole, depending upon the document’s length and contents.) The first chapter explains the Buddhist conception of the mind, and gives the reader a context for much of the rest of the book. Chapters two through five each link to one of the four noble truths: i.e. dukkha (suffering-ish — the controversy of that translation is addressed in detail), the arising of dukkha, the cessation of dukkha, and magga (the path to the cessation of dukkha – i.e. the eight-fold path.)

Chapter six addresses one of the most controversial and unique of Buddhist ideas, the doctrine of no-soul (anatta.) This is the idea that the idea of a permanent self or soul that is ever-present and that lives on past the body is an illusion. The Buddhist conception imagines the self as being more like a river. It only appears to be a permanent entity, but, in reality, it is different every moment and what appears permanent is more an emergent property than a thing or entity. I found this chapter to be the most interesting, because it is such a unique idea (though one a number of neuroscientists seem to be converging on this way of thinking), it appeals to my sense of simplification versus needless complication, and it was interesting to read Rahula’s challenge of those who have tried to deny Buddha argued thus (presumably seeking to make Buddhist doctrines converge with their belief systems.)

Chapter seven discusses meditation, mindfulness, and misconceptions about the two. When I took the Vipassana ten-day course, it was emphasized to us repeatedly that in the Buddha’s conception is that one needs to do two things in pursuit of enlightenment, live ethically (as per the eight-fold path) and practice (meditation and mindfulness.) While Rahula doesn’t put it exactly like that, that message comes across. (Rahula presents the eight-fold path categorized in three divisions of ethics, practice, and wisdom.) Whereas the doctrine of no-soul is controversial on metaphysical / philosophical grounds, the necessity of practice is passively objected to on the grounds that people really don’t want to practice because it’s challenging and it keeps them from getting the most out of all the apps on their phones.

The last chapter ties things up by bringing what the Buddha taught into present-day in order to ask questions like how it can be applied and what it means to be a Buddhist.

Besides the appendices of texts and text excerpts, there are photos throughout the book, mostly of Buddhist sculptures from around the [Buddhist] world.

I found this book to be very informative. It’s concise and readable, and seemed to me to be very consistent with those beautiful ideas I’ve come to associate with the Buddha. I would recommend this book for anyone who’s looking to learn what the Buddha actually told his students back in the day.

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BOOK REVIEW: Two Saints by Arun Shourie

Two Saints: Speculations Around and About Ramakrishna Paramahamsa and Ramana MaharishiTwo Saints: Speculations Around and About Ramakrishna Paramahamsa and Ramana Maharishi by Arun Shourie
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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I suspect this book is extremely controversial for many, though it echoes many of my own views. The central premise of the book is that there is a middle ground position between: a.) true believers who insist that gurus and god-men hold superpowers and can perform miracles, and b.) rational skeptics who hold that god-men are inherently frauds and their followers are necessarily either shills or dunces.

What is this middle way? First of all, it denies the existence of the supernatural and rejects the premise that certain men and women — through great virtue or intense practice — can circumvent the laws of physics. (Which isn’t to suggest that great virtue and intense practice can’t have profound impacts on a person and the community in which he or she resides.) Secondly, on the other hand, it acknowledges that scientific findings (or at least feasible hypotheses) on matters such as out-of-body experiences (OBE,) hypnotic trances states, hallucinations, epileptic seizures, the placebo effect, and near-death experiences (NDE) can offer insight into how rational, intelligent, and good-natured individuals might develop a belief in the supernatural. There is a third premise that is implicit throughout Shourie’s discussion of the life and works of these two great teachers (also which I share), which is that a lack of superpowers in no way detracts from what these two great gurus achieved.

As the subtitle suggests, the author is merely speculating as there is no way to put these ideas to the test, given these individuals are long deceased and (unlike, say, the Dalai Lama) would be unlikely to show an interest in such explorations even if they were alive. However, Shourie seeks to systematically demonstrate connections between the events described by the holy men and their followers and what scientific papers have described with respect to studies of unusual phenomena like OBE, NDE, and hallucinations. (e.g. it’s long been known that with an electrode applied to the right place on the brain a neuroscientist can induce an OBE in anyone. The widespread accounts of this feeling /experience that one is rising out of one’s body, often by respectable individuals of impeccable character, is one of the reasons for believing there must be an immaterial soul that is merely carted about by the body.)

The titular two saints that Shourie makes the centerpiece of his inquiry are the Bengali bhakti yogi Sri Ramakrishna and the jnana yogi from Tamil Nadu, Sri Ramana Maharshi. [For those unfamiliar with the terms “Bhakti Yogi” and “Jnana Yogi,” the former are those whose practice emphasize devotion and worship while the latter are those whose practice emphasize self-inquiry and study. The third leg of the stool being “Karma Yogis,” who focus upon selfless acts is the core of their pursuit of spirituality.] These two teachers were both born in the 19th century, though Sri Ramana lived through the first half of the 20th century. Besides being widely adored and seen as holy men of the highest order, they also serve as a kind of bridge between the ancient sages who lived out simple lives of spirituality in destitution and the modern gurus who often have vast commercial enterprises ranging from hair-care products to samosa mix all run from ashrams that are similar to academic universities in scope and grandeur. Some might argue that Ramakrishna and Ramana were the last of their kind in terms of being internationally sought after as teachers while not running an international commercial enterprise. Another way of looking at it is that they are modern enough that the events of their lives are highly documented, but not so modern as to have the taint modernity upon them.

The book is organized over sixteen chapters, and is annotated in the manner of scholarly works. The early chapters delve deeply into the life events of these two men, and in particular events that are used as evidence of their miraculousness. Through the middle, the author looks at how events in these individual’s life correspond to findings in studies of subjects such as the placebo effect (ch. 10,) hallucinations (ch. 7, e.g. given sleep or nutritional deprivation,) and hypnotic suggestion (ch. 9.) Over the course of the book, the chapters begin to look more generally at questions that science is still debating, but which are pertinent to spirituality – e.g. what is the nature of the self (ch. 12), what is consciousness? (ch. 13), and what does it mean for something to be real (ch. 15.) The final chapter pays homage to these two saints.

I found this book to be highly thought-provoking and well-researched. Shourie is respectful of the two teachers, while at the same time insisting that it’s not necessary for them to be super-powered for them to be worthy of emulation, respect, and study. I’d highly recommend this book for anyone interested in the questions of mystical experience and the scientific insights that can be offered into it.

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BOOK REVIEW: Pilgrimage: A Very Short Introduction by Ian Reader

Pilgrimage: A Very Short IntroductionPilgrimage: A Very Short Introduction by Ian Reader
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Reader compares and contrasts the ways and motives of pilgrims around the world, from Muslims on hajj to Elvis fans going to “Graceland, Graceland, in Memphis, Tennessee” [name that tune.] The author’s specialization is Japanese pilgrimages and so trips such as the circuit around Shikoku’s eighty-eight Buddhist temples are well-represented among the examples used. However, he also visits and revisits popular Hindu pilgrimages such as Kumbh Mela and Amarnath, Christian pilgrimages to Lourdes and Santiago de Compostela, and even secular pilgrimages to locations such as the Vietnam War Memorial.

The book consists of six chapters. Chapter one offers a fly-over of the topic in the context of it being a worldwide phenomena. Cultures from around the world engage in similar behavior when it comes to spiritual travel. Chapter two investigates forms, themes, and meaning in pilgrimage, and how they vary across different religions. This helps one define the topic and differentiate pilgrimage from similar activities – to the degree that that can be done. Chapter 3 delves into the pilgrimage as a search for the sacred, and it uses many examples from around the world to consider the varying perspectives.

Chapter 4 reflects upon the differences in modes of transport, motivations, and how the latter influences the former. Obviously, technology has radically changed the face of pilgrimage. There usually remain purists who wish to continue in the old ways (i.e. traveling mostly on foot) and others who’d just as soon use jet airplanes and air-conditioned buses. This leads to conflicts in the pilgrim community where walkers see those who travel in comfort as lacking commitment, and those who travel in comfort may see the old-schoolers as hikers who are more interested in walking than praying.

The penultimate chapter examines pilgrimage as a form of tourism. While it may be considered sacrilegious to some to equate the two activities, they certainly share in common not only the activity of travel but also such behaviors as the collection of souvenirs (e.g. relics, scrolls, and amulets.) The final chapter looks at how pilgrimage has spread into the secular domain with war memorials, nature trails, and the birth or death homes of popular personages from politics or entertainment.

The book contains many monochrome photos and a “further reading” section in the back.

I found this book to be interesting. As a secular traveler who often crosses paths with pilgrims, I was fascinated to gain insight into their head-space and to reflect upon the role that religion and spirituality played in the dawn of travel.

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BOOK REVIEW: How Enlightenment Changes Your Brain by Andrew Newberg and Mark Waldman

How Enlightenment Changes Your Brain: The New Science of TransformationHow Enlightenment Changes Your Brain: The New Science of Transformation by Andrew Newberg
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This book busted me over the head with some profound food for thought. I’d been skeptical of the notion of Enlightenment. [Note: the authors distinguish big-E Enlightenment as a permanent and substantial brain change, in contrast to the little-e enlightenment which is just a momentary epiphanies or insight—a number of which may precede the big-E Enlightenment.] It’s not that I disbelieved that some people had life-changing and / or perspective-changing experiences, but rather that such events represented permanent change. My skepticism was influenced by the many gurus who have been said to be Enlightened, but who behaved to all appearances like petty, materialistic douche-bags. It’s not that I couldn’t believe that these teachers achieved some momentary heightened state of consciousness during their youth, but—if they had—they clearly couldn’t maintain it under the pressure of being idolized. I’d, therefore, come to think that life is a perpetual struggle to try to be a better version of oneself, and backsliding can and will happen at any moment. This book, however, suggests there is a possibility for permanent brain changes. [Though Dalberg’s “Absolute power corrupts absolutely” seems to still apply.]

Andrew Newberg is a neuroscientist who has made a career out of conducting brain imaging studies of people engaged in various spiritual, religious, and meditative activities. His co-author is a psychologist, Mark Robert Waldman, who works on applying neuroscientific understanding to positive psychology. In this book, the two examine what Enlightenment is from a neuroscientific standpoint and then try to cull the common features across a population of cases of Enlightenment / enlightenment. Discovering the common elements of Enlightenment is no easy task. While it seems everybody is theoretically capable of achieving Enlightenment, it also seems that the experience is different for everybody and the collection of systems (religious, spiritual, and secular) by which it’s pursued is vast. However, the authors present a five-step outline by which readers can prime themselves to achieve Enlightenment, and it can be personalized depending upon one’s beliefs (or lack thereof—Enlightenment occurs among agnostics and atheists as well as religious practitioners) and background.

The book consists of 12 chapters divided among three parts. Part I (Ch. 1 to 5) lays the groundwork for readers to understand what Enlightenment is, how it feels, how it’s experienced between people with radically varying belief (and disbelief) structures, and it presents a model of human awareness that is crucial to the later discussion. Part II (Ch. 6 to 9) considers what happens in the brain during various practices by which individuals advance towards Enlightenment. Concepts like unity, surrender, and belief are explored in detail. Part III (Ch. 10 to 12) describes the process by which readers can pursue Enlightenment for themselves. If one is inclined to chart one’s own path, versus adopting an existing program, one has all the insight and tools to begin constructing one’s personal method by the time this section is complete.

The book has graphics as necessary (e.g. brain diagrams) that largely consist of line diagrams. There is an appendix that consolidates tools and resources, and the book is annotated by chapter.

I found this book to be both interesting and potentially beneficial to readers who take it beyond a popular science book and into the realm of self-help. The authors do a great job of navigating the waters between religion and science. Obviously, they are scientists and are agnostic about that which cannot be proven, but they don’t question other people’s beliefs and–if anything–error on the side of being open-minded. Still, I suspect that there will be religious types offended by the very notion that all humans are biologically primed to achieve this heightened state. It should be pointed out that the book could be supremely useful for such individuals because it points out the need to engage in exercises to challenge one’s most closely held beliefs. (Those with less mental flexibility and capacity for tolerance seem to be less likely to achieve Enlightenment.)

I’d recommend this book for anyone trying to figure out how to be the ultimate version of oneself.

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DAILY PHOTO: Hindu Temple in Panaji’s Old Quarter

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Taken in October of 2016 in Panjim (Panaji)

Taken in October of 2016 in Panjim (Panaji)

 

Hindu temples are ubiquitous throughout India, but in Goa they tend to be overshadowed by massive Christian churches and cathedrals. (Despite the fact that Christians only make up about a quarter of the Goan population while Hindus make up about 2/3rds.)  This was one of the more prominent Hindu temples we saw. It’s located in Old Quarter.

BOOK REVIEW: Hindu Myths by A.L. Dallapiccola

Hindu MythsHindu Myths by Anna L. Dallapiccola
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

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Having moved to India, we picked up this book to try to wrap our heads around the vast Hindu pantheon and the myriad myths involving them. There are a huge number of tomes on the subject of Hindu mythology, but far fewer concise commentaries that look useful. We were always on the lookout for a book that would offer a sort of “Hindu Mythology for Dummies” –the quick down-low, if you will.

I can’t say that this book clarified the topic. However, I’m not sure any book could. Hindu mythology is a subject of enormous scope, while being defiant against reducibility. I was about to compare it to the challenge of writing a concise book for neophytes on quantum mechanics, but then I realized that such a book could probably be done much more effectively. For as strange as the world behaves at a subatomic scale, there’s a means to order the story and to simplify it in a way that leaves intact the gist. Along with dry descriptions of ordinary sounding events, one reads stories like that of the deity that popped out of another’s belly-button on giant lotus flower. That’s when the myths become hard to imagine–if one hasn’t been hitting the psilocybin.

That said, I did learn some interesting elements of myth from reading Dallapiccola’s book, and I think it has as effective an organizational scheme as one can hope for. After an Introduction that exposes the reader to Vedas, Puranas, and the Hindu trilogy (Vishnu, Shiva, and Brahma), there are three chapters that revolve around creation, preservation, and destruction. [For those unfamiliar, those three deities map to those processes—Brahma the creator, Vishnu the preserver, and Shiva the destroyer.]

After those three, there are another three chapters. Chapter four deals with myths about delusion, and in addition to describing Vishnu’s role in delusion (maya) it tells a couple of tales (the story of Madhu and Kaitabha, and the story of King Harishchandra.) Chapter 4 discusses the topic of grace and describes the birth of the Ganga, tells the tale of Arjuna and the Hunter, the story of Vishnu and Prahlada, and then offers a bit of insight into Shaiva saints, temple myths, and animal devotion. The last chapter is a brief overview of Hindu Mythology in modern times—especially its inclusion in popular culture.

There is a map (i.e. an India map showing major cities and crucial historical sites) and many pictures throughout the book. The pictures include photos of sculptures as well as reproductions of paintings that are of the deities and key mythical events. As far as ancillary features go, there is a half-page “Further Reading” section and the book is indexed.

This book is only 80 pages, and offers a quick overview. Whether it hits the most crucial material, I can’t rightly say. As I mentioned, there are some interesting tidbits in the book. I’d recommend it for someone looking for a quick overview. However, one should note that there are books that are more oriented toward story and less toward a scholarly level of precision in language that may be more useful for one—depending upon one’s needs.

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