BTRIPP (btripp) wrote,

An excellent introduction ...

This was another “Early Reviewers” selection that the “Almighty Algorithm” matched up with my collection over there. At first I was sharing some of the other reviewers' consternation that this book originated out of a children's program at a Hawaiian Zen temple, “based on {the author's} experience as a Zen priest and an elementary school teacher”, a data point not suggested at all in its descriptive paragraph in the LTER listings. However, if one takes a step back from that genesis, one is faced with a really very good “introductory” book about Buddhism (albeit primarily from a Zen perspective).

Richard Gentei Diedrichs' Living in Blue Sky Mind: Basic Buddhist Teachings for a Happy Life covers a lot of ground, with over 80 chapters (each illustrating one particular point from the Buddhist perspective) in its brief 162 pages. Each chapter is 1-2 pages of text, followed by a “Reflecting” section featuring 1-5 questions for the reader to contemplate regarding the material in that chapter (ranging from the very basic like “How does being good help us and everyone around us?”, to the technical as in “What is a mental formation”, to the more obscure such as “What did Chogyam Trungpa mean when he called Sangha 'clean friendship'?”).

Obviously, nothing here is considered in depth, but I was very pleased to find what it lacked there, it made up in breadth, as the book is a quite attractive (and certainly accessible) over-view on Buddhism (although, with its Zen grounding, a Theravada practitioner might not be as enthusiastic about it). I have been reading Buddhist books for decades (part of me wishes I had been practicing all that while, but no), and this is, I think, one of the best introductory pieces that I've seen.

If I had one gripe here, personally, it would be that I would have liked to have seen more structure, even to the point of pedagogical presentation of the material. The sections of this are, however, fairly evidently crafted to appeal to an audience of children, so the text is light-handed in doling out the information, such as this paragraph at the start of the chapter (“How to Solve the Problem”) which introduces the concept of “the Middle Way”:
      If we know that craving causes us so much trouble and sadness, as Buddha indicated, we might also know that we are happy when we stop craving. If we understand how life works, we also are happy.
There are also, notably, eleven indexes and a glossary. I would have liked to have had more of this material interspersed in the book itself, but the component elements of these are the main subjects of most of the “chapters”, so I guess it would have created a situation of the author “getting ahead of himself” repeatedly through the book … but these are as short as six words (and that's including the heading). I suppose listing these out here will give you a good sense of what's in the book (although it doesn't march through these in order): “Eightfold Path”, “The Four Noble Truths”, “The Six Virtues/Perfections/Paramitas”, “The Four Wisdoms / Methods of Guidance”, “The Three Refuges / Three Treasures / Three Jewels / Triple Gem” (quite a heading for a 3-word appendix!), “The Four Sublime Attitudes/Immeasurables or Brahma Viharas”, “The Seven Factors of Enlightenment”, “The Three Poisons”, “The Five Strengths”, “The Four Bodhisattva Vows”, and “The Three Marks of Excellence”. The Glossary, while only covering three dozen terms, included a handful that I wasn't familiar with (such as Piti: joy, rapture, happiness” – go ahead, say it like Mr.T), which either indicates the author was delving into a particularly technical level of Zen in his word choice, or that I had somehow managed to not have encountered (or, possibly, remembered) these from previous reading.

Diedrichs uses his background and childhood for a lot of the illustrative bits here, be it when he stole something, lied about something, failed at something, etc. Here's a paragraph from the chapter discussing the “Right Speech” aspect of The Eightfold Path:
      Besides never lying or trying to never lie, we also do not talk trash. We try to talk kindly to people. I watched a video of my brother and me playing baseball when we were kids. I was probably twelve, and he was nine. I hit the ball and ran towards the base where he was standing. The sun shone in his face, and he laughed. I saw my mouth move as I ran up, and I said something to him. Suddenly, his face darkened, and his expression turned to a mean scowl. He said something angry back at me. My heart broke when I watched that. I was so nasty to him. These hurtful actions sill bring me suffering as Buddha said they would.
I think this illuminates the dual level of the book … while this is certainly targeted to being something that children can relate to, it also has a payload of reflective material for the adults reading it. That's what makes this as useful as it is – not only does it cover nearly all the “main points” of Buddhist teaching, making it informative to nearly everybody (and, as I mentioned, it includes stuff that I'd not recalled seeing in dozens of Buddhist books), but presenting it in a form that anybody can connect with.

In the chapter introducing the “Three Poisons” (greed, anger, and ignorance, although the particular chapter here is mainly about greed), one of the “Reflecting” questions is “Where does your happiness come from?”, which points the reader back to this bit:
      We understand the truth about life, and we realize that our happiness, sense of well-being and worth, and our joy come from inside our own hearts and minds. No one can give them to us. No one can take them away from us. Our own hearts and minds are the most joyful and happy when we are loving, kind, caring, peaceful, and giving.
Again, the message is applicable to anybody, but how great would it be if more kids got those messages when they were kids? Similarly, introducing children to these concepts (in the chapter discussing “impermanence”, or annica, the “Buddha's First Mark of Existence”) early on would be awesome:
      I said that you should not believe anything I or anybody else says until you have explored it for yourself. You must make every truth you own. Take a look at the truth of impermanence. See if anybody or anything in your life stays around forever, without ever changing. Buddhists call this fact the true nature of reality.
A few chapters later he adds:
      Buddha observed that our thoughts, a Fourth Mark of Existence, become words. Our words become actions. Our actions become habits. Our habits harden into character. ...
He then leads into a consideration of attachment to mental formations with:
      A thought appears in a flash. It disappears just as quickly and completely. A thought cleanly completes its cycle unless we attach to it. … Once we grab a thought and hold on, like clutching the mane of a bucking stallion, confusion, contortion, and regret ensue. Caught in a stream of consciousness, we manufacture more thoughts. We form our captured thoughts into ideas, beliefs, opinions, and personal philosophies. We believe these fabricated formations of thought. They become our identity, which we take as our past and our life story. ...
Admittedly, this is pretty “deep stuff” for the kids … which serves as an additional example of how the book speaks to both children and adults. As mentioned above, Living in Blue Sky Mind is only 162 pages (and “really” is considerably shorter than that, as there's a lot of white space involved in those 80 chapter breaks), so it's a quick read … and possibly reasonably appealing to older kids. However, I don't think this is something you'd just hand to a 10-year-old to read, but could well be used to have “weekly Zen sessions” when you read one chapter with your kid and then discuss the “Reflecting” questions. Alternately, this is something that could be a quick, easy, and uniquely informative “first contact” for those unexposed to Buddhist thought … I would certainly contemplate suggesting this to anybody in that state.

As one would expect from an LTER selection, this has just been released (it came out this April), so it is likely to be available via your local bookstore, but the on-line big boys have it at about a third off of cover price, putting it, very affordably, under ten bucks. This, while coming from a “kids book” place, is hardly a book that should be limited to that audience, and I'd have to say this comes in as one of my “all and sundry” recommendations, as I think anybody would benefit from the very direct approach to a wide range of Buddhist thought that's presented here.

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