BTRIPP (btripp) wrote,

"Me too"???

Every once in a while you hit a book that just plain ought to be better than it is. I'm afraid that my main take-away of Franz Metcalf's What Would Buddha Do?: 101 Answers to Life's Daily Dilemmas is along these lines.

One gets the feeling that this book exists primarily as a reaction to all the insufferably smarmy “What Would Jesus Do?” pablum out there. It's easy to imagine the author (holding a Ph.D. in Religion from the University of Chicago) getting sick of seeing all those WWJD things and deciding that it was time to do something for the Buddha. However, while Christianity is all about rules and blame and guilt, Buddhism does not lend itself to a “flip through the file-cards” approach of finding out what the “regulations” are for a particular situation. Now, it appears that Metcalf is a practicing Buddhist (and teaches Buddhism in college settings), which I am not, so my complaints are, perhaps, totally unjustified; but I have read a great deal of various Buddhist teachings and traditions, and believe that I have a competent sense of Buddhism, and feel that it's closer to a “Bill & Ted"-esque” “be excellent to each other” way of living than to a “let's look this up in the rule book” approach.

This discrepancy is where the book is weakest. Were one to be following a Buddhist path, it seems to me that one would not be framing questions like “What would Buddha do when feeling frustrated?” or “What would Buddha do when he can't resist having dessert?” or “What would Buddha do when waiting in the snow for a taxi?”, having a pattern of behavior (and a set of moral attitudes) which would steer towards appropriate thought/action in these assorted situations.

Also, out of the “101 daily dilemmas” in the book, at least a dozen would only be substantial concerns for hard-core liberals, and be unlikely to come up as a “top 100” for most folks (from his bio, I'm guessing Metcalf spends most of his time with the “fruit and nuts” part of Los Angeles culture, so for him maybe “What would Buddha do about gun control?” is a “daily dilemma” rather than an affront to the Constitution).

Another weakness here is that most of the answers to the “what would Buddha do?” questions don't come from the Dhammapada or the various Sutras, but are based on the writings of other Buddhist teachers, from Zen classics to quotes from the Dalai Lama. The format here is to state the question, provide a brief quote (2-5 lines), and follow up with a couple of paragraphs of the author's commentary (grouped into 8 “thematic” sections). Ultimately what the book contains is “what Franz Metcalf says one should do in various situations, justified by quotes from various Buddhist traditions” ... which, while no doubt having a certain value in and of itself, the specific instances frequently lack the gravitas of being a definitive statement clearly based in the teaching of the Buddha.

Again, my perspective on this might not be the most constructive ... it's certainly not a bad book, but one that could have been so much better. If “101 answers to life's daily dilemmas” from a Buddhist perspective sounds like something that would enhance your existence, by all means, do check this out! This seems to still be in print in a paperback edition, but you can get “very good” used copies of the hardcover for 1¢ (plus, of course, the $3.99 shipping), and “new” ones for as little as 35¢ from the Amazon new/used vendors.

This is one that I really had hoped to like, but it disappointed me. However, as always, (with hat-tip to Dennis Miller) “your mileage may vary” and this could well be a book that would “float your boat”.

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Tags: book review
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