The Pure Joy of Being
An Illustrated Introduction to the Story of Buddha and the Practice of Meditation
- ISBN: 9781611804843
- Published By: Shambhala Publications, Inc.
- Published: October 2017
Before starting this review, I should make my own position explicit: I am both a scholar and a practitioner of modern Buddhism, specifically Zen. My main religious practices in this respect consist of meditation, with occasional prostrations, incense burning, and chanting. While I have studied with Zen teachers, most of my practice derives from personal reading. Because of this background, the reader needs to keep in mind that I perhaps do not belong to Fabrice Midal’s intended audience for The Pure Joy of Being, which is aimed at readers unfamiliar with Buddhism and meditation.
Midal’s book presents itself, as the subtitle tells us, as “An Illustrated Introduction to the Story of the Buddha and the Practice of Meditation.” There are thus three aspects to this book, the combination of which is rather unique: not only is this an introduction to meditation, but it is also an introduction to Buddhist mythology, and it achieves both of these goals through visual as well as textual means. For Midal, this is no random connection: “Even if you know nothing about Buddhism and meditation, a representation of the Buddha can be moving and give you a sense of openness and peace, of presence and goodness. In a sense, you’re already getting an initial experience of meditation” (11).
The book itself is divided in four parts. The first part is a summary of Shakyamuni Buddha’s life, focusing on famous scenes including the Buddha’s birth, his leaving home, the battle with Mara, his first sermon, and so on. Each entry consists of three distinct elements: (1) a photograph of an artistic portrayal of the scene (for example, the Buddha’s repulsion of Mara’s armies, as found painted on the walls of the Chinese Mogao caves); (2) a narrative summary of this scene with particular attention to how the Buddha’s exemplary life can deepen our own contemplative practice; and (3) a meditation exercise inspired by the scene.
The second and third parts of the book move to discuss the many other buddhas and bodhisattvas found in the mythologies of Central and East Asia. In view of Midal’s Tibetan Buddhist background as a student of the famous teacher Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, this is not surprising. Whereas the second part focuses on different manifestations of Avalokiteshvara, the bodhisattva commonly associated with compassion, the third part talks about cosmic and heavenly buddhas such as Amitabha. Finally, the fourth part discusses “Buddhist masters” (Midal’s term) such as the Tibetan Saint Milarepa and the Zen master Lin-Chi. As in the first part, each discussion is accompanied by an illustration and a meditation exercise.
Midal’s attempt with this book to do three things at the same time is laudable, and at their best the discussions provide the reader with a valuable contemplative exercise that is illuminated by Midal’s discussion and by the illustration flanking it. In such moments, Midal effectively translates the images to speak directly to the concerns of his reader and the necessities of our time. The book is also a welcome relief from most contemporary meditation manuals in that it greatly values the Buddhist tradition beyond bare meditation practice. Midal insists on the importance of Buddist ethical rules (67) and insists that Buddhists and meditators must take a stance against modern capitalism and consumerism (182). This is a far cry from what has been called “McMindfulness,” the use of meditation to perpetuate the political and economic status quo.
But often the daring combination that is the root concept of this book fails to inspire. Because of their plenitude, the meditation exercises Midal proposes often sound remarkably similar. Moreover, Midal frequently omits any discussion of the image that is so prominently displayed next to the text. Admittedly this is in keeping with his own stance that the image itself can inspire meditative practice, but it seems to me that at least an indication of what is portrayed would unify the entry and make the image more accessible to someone unfamiliar with Buddhism.
Even worse, when Midal does parse the image, his psychologizing interpretations (the image is about our own mental state) sometimes struck me as strange. This is especially the case when he discusses scenes featuring sexual intercourse and women. Commenting on a tantric image featuring a black-hued buddha engaged in intercourse with his consort, Midal denies that the meaning of this image is to “evoke a sexual act.” Instead, it “show[s] the profound unity of all polarity” (138). Mara’s seductive daughters are not representations of sexual desire, but instead “symbolize the belief that we think we’re accomplishing something important” (46). Of course Midal is right that there are multiple ways of reading these images, and that their meaning stretches well beyond the sexual. But to then explicitly dismiss the sexual as a possible meaning in scenes that portray, well, sex, seems to be going too far, particularly in a book aimed at lay readers.
In addition to this “de-sexing” (for lack of a better word), Midal insists on presenting Buddhism as female-friendly, a view that seems overly unnuanced, even for a non-academic introduction to Buddhism and meditation. Discussing the foundation of the order of nuns, Midal asserts that nuns had “a status equivalent to monks” (64). While scholars have disagreed on the exact nature of the relationship between monks and nuns in early Buddhism, surely the fact that nuns were technically subject to more obligations and had a lower status than any male monk would have been appropriate to mention here, as would the assertion that the Dharma’s lifespan has been cut in half by the Shakyamuni’s decision to allow women into the order. This would have acquainted the student of Buddhism with the idea that Buddhists are above all human beings subject to ideologies such as patriarchy, even if modern Buddhist practices rightfully try to move beyond this complex heritage.
I want to conclude this review by praising this book’s ambition again: I have never seen anything quite like it. Moreover, the production quality of the book is exquisite while its purchase price is affordable. Both Midal and Shambhala should be congratulated for a wonderful selection and presentation of Buddhist art, a selection that does not remain limited to premodern examples but also includes contemporary art objects. It is therefore all the more regrettable that the combination of illustration, discussion, and meditation does not work very smoothly.
Ben van Overmeire is Flanders Research Foundation postdoctoral fellow at the Centre for Buddhist Studies at Ghent University.Ben van OvermeireDate Of Review:February 28, 2018