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Elizabeth Harris recommends the best Introductions to Buddhism

Where does one start if one wants to know about Buddhism? Professor and practitioner, Elizabeth Harris, recommends some of the best books to get you going on the path to Enlightenment.

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Elizabeth Harris

Elizabeth Harris is an Honorary Senior Research Fellow at the University of Birmingham. She is also a former Associate Professor in Religious Studies at the University of Liverpool Hope. Dr Harris specialises in Buddhist Studies and inter-faith studies, and has published widely in both disciplines. She is currently President of the European Network of Buddhist-Christian Studies and an International Adviser to the USA-based Society for Buddhist-Christian Studies.

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Tell me about your first choice, Cathy Cantwell’s Buddhism: The Basics

I chose this book because Cathy gives a fantastic overview of the whole tradition of Buddhism. Cathy is a scholar as well as a Buddhist. She has done a lot of fieldwork among Tibetan communities and in this book she writes for students and for anyone who is quite new to the tradition.

What I think is good about it is that Cathy doesn’t write from a Western perspective, because she has knowledge of Buddhism on-the-ground in Asia. So she brings in the diversity within Buddhism, within the devotional practices and ritual, for instance, as well as attitudes to texts. She gives helpful guidelines about how Buddhism is split up in terms of tradition. She speaks about Southern Buddhism which some people would call Theravada Buddhism, the Buddhism in Cambodia, Sri Lanka, Laos, Burma and Thailand, East Asia Buddhism which is the Buddhism in China, Japan and Vietnam and then Northern Buddhism, in countries such as Bhutan and Tibet.

Buddhism is tremendously various and can be very confusing and I think Cathy has done a very good job in a fairly short book. Hers is definitely one of the books I would recommend for giving people a good grounding in this diversity.

Your next book is The First Buddhist Women:  Songs and Stories from the Therigatha by Susan Murcott.

I love this book. Within the Pali Canon of Theravada Buddhism, there is one book called the Therigatha—the verses of the women elders. These are verses which are supposed to have been written by the first Buddhist nuns, those who heard the Buddha face-to-face and renounced and became nuns. These women often had homes and families. They left these, shaved their heads and took on the robes of a Buddhist nun. They followed the Buddha and eventually formed themselves into communities.

“Greed and hatred are the poisons which create suffering according to Buddhism.”

According to Buddhist tradition, the Buddha was at first quite reluctant to ordain women. He brought men into his community as celibate monastics and then women asked him whether they could also become monastics and at first he is said to have refused. Eventually he said yes and the order of nuns become incredibly strong. And their verses are enshrined in the Therigatha. Susan Murcott’s book is a commentary on these Buddhist nuns, which includes her own translations of some of the poems and verses. What comes across is that these women were strong and determined. Some of them leave quite abusive households and become nuns. Some turn aside from admiration from suitors and most of them become enlightened.

Here is just one example of the text. This is Sakula:

    I am the one

    who left son and daughter,

    money and grain,

    cut off my hair,

    and set out into homelessness.

    Under training

    on the straight way,

    desire and hatred fell away,

    along with the obsessions of the mind

    that combine with them.

    After my ordination

    I remembered

    I had been born before.

    The eye of heaven became clear.

    The elements of body and mind

    I saw as other,

    born from a cause,

    subject to decay.

    I have given up the obsessions

    of the mind.

    I am quenched and cool. (p51)

This image of coolness is linked with Nirvana or Enlightenment. So you get this wonderful poetry. And I choose this book because of its emphasis on Buddhist women and because Susan Murcott has brought into her book not only the verses of the nuns but also their stories, bringing in her reaction to the nuns as one woman to others.

And what about women in Buddhism today, how are they treated?

Well, it depends where they are. There are women in places like Taiwan and Vietnam who can gain higher ordination as they did in the Buddha’s time. In some of the Theravada countries, higher ordination has been lost or never existed. And there has been a struggle in the last two decades to bring back higher ordination within these countries. Such struggles are present in other religions also where women are trying to gain their rightful place in the sacred.

Your next author, Thich Nhat Hanh, is something of a guru. You’ve chosen his book Call Me by My True Names: The Collected Poems of Thich Nhat Hanh.

He is a Vietnamese Zen master who was born way back in 1926. He was a very socially minded young monk and became a monk early. In the 1960’s he went to the USA on a peace mission and wasn’t allowed to return. He was in exile in the West for many years and in 1982 he founded Plum Village in France, which is a Buddhist centre which people flock to from all over Europe and beyond – not only Buddhists but others.

In some ways, he has become an icon of Buddhism, particularly that form of Buddhism that works for human rights, building peace and engagement with society. He was co-founder of the International Network of Engaged Buddhists and has written numerous books. But I have chosen his poems because some of the poems are exceptionally hard-hitting and beautiful.

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I would like to share one of them with you. It’s called, ‘Please Call Me by My True Names’ and it’s rooted in the context of the Vietnamese War. In his prologue to the poem, he talks about the different people involved in the poem. There is a 12-year-old girl who is one of the Vietnamese boat people. She is raped by a sea pirate and hurls herself into the sea. Then there is the sea pirate born in a remote village in Thailand. And Thich Nhat Hanh in his prologue speaks about the anger he felt when he first heard of the event. But then he moves into deeper reflection on the inter-relatedness of everything and comes to a point where he can write a poem that confirms that he could have been the sea pirate if he had been brought up in the same context.

It is quite a long poem so I will just read some of it.

    I am the child in Uganda, all skin and bones,

    my legs as thin as bamboo sticks.

    And I am the arms merchant

    selling deadly weapons to Uganda.

    I am the twelve-year-old girl,

    refugee on a small boat,

    who throws herself into the ocean,

    after being raped by a sea pirate.

    And I am the pirate,

    my heart not yet capable

    of seeing and loving…

    My joy is like Spring, so warm

    it makes flowers bloom all over the Earth.

    My pain is like a river of tears,

    so vast it fills the four oceans.

    Please call me by my true names,

    so I can hear all my cries and my laughter at once,

    so I can see that my joy and pain are one.

    Please call me by my true names

    so I can wake up

    and so the door of my heart

    can be left open,

    the door of compassion.

I have used this in my teaching and have encouraged students to think about this question of inter-relatedness. Some are quite horrified that Thich Nhat Hanh could have identified with someone who raped a young girl. But then Nhat Hanh would say that we must show compassion both to the oppressor and the oppressed, which is a very Buddhist idea.

The author of your next book needs no introduction. This is The Art of Living: A Guide to Contentment, Joy and Fulfillment by His Holiness the Dalai Lama.

Yes he is the 14th Dalai Lama and, like Thich Nhat Hanh, he has become rather an icon in the West. Tibetans believe the Dalai Lama is the reincarnation of one of the bodhisattvas in Buddhism – Avalokitesvara, who is the epitome of compassion. I could have chosen many different books by him but I went for this one because it is the record of lectures he gave in both Tibetan and English in Wembley in 1993. It is a very accessible book and shows the Dalai Lama speaking to the West about what he feels is important to everyone, not only Buddhists.

“According to Buddhist tradition, the Buddha was at first quite reluctant to ordain women.”

Speaking from his Buddhist perspective, he affirms, for instance, that everyone likes happiness and not pain. He then stresses that this happiness must not infringe on the rights of others. And then gradually he tells people what happiness really means – a happiness which is free from the craving for material things that Buddhism sees as the root of our suffering. Happiness, he says, can be about developing one’s own potential but it must have no conceit and pride about it. So, in a very accessible way he speaks about what some Buddhists would call the four noble truths.

He also mentions contemporary topics like birth control, how we should approach death and how we should deal with suffering and anger. It is a very useful book for me and for anyone who wants to touch what Buddhism can offer through the words of a teacher.

Your last choice is, Come and See Yourself: The Buddhist Path to Happiness by Ayya Khema.

I met Ayya Khema in the 1980s when I was living in Sri Lanka. She was then a Buddhist nun. She had set up a community on an island in a lake in the South of Sri Lanka. She was born a Jew in Germany. She married and had children but eventually converted to Buddhism and became a nun. She spent the last 18 years of her life teaching in Sri Lanka, Australia and Germany. She published quite a number of books and this is the fullest one. In it we hear a Buddhist teacher explaining the path of meditation in a very accessible way. Ayya Khema was a meditator par excellence.

For instance, she speaks in one chapter about four fundamental principles of Buddhism: freedom from greed, freedom from hatred, right mindfulness and right concentration. Greed and hatred are the poisons which create suffering according to Buddhism. And right mindfulness and right concentration lie at the heart of Buddhist meditation.

She also speaks about such things as loving kindness. One of the things that impressed me when I met her was the way she led meditations on loving kindness and I have used some of her meditations myself when I have taught. It is a practice whereby one radiates loving kindness to those one likes  to our family and friends – but also to those we don’t like, to the oppressors and the people who have hurt us. Such practices are at the heart of Buddhism and she speaks movingly about them.

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Elizabeth Harris

Elizabeth Harris is an Honorary Senior Research Fellow at the University of Birmingham. She is also a former Associate Professor in Religious Studies at the University of Liverpool Hope. Dr Harris specialises in Buddhist Studies and inter-faith studies, and has published widely in both disciplines. She is currently President of the European Network of Buddhist-Christian Studies and an International Adviser to the USA-based Society for Buddhist-Christian Studies.