The International Writers Magazine: Review

with a foreword by Thomas Moore and an afterword by Alan Hunt Badiner,
Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2006, 123 pp.
 ISBN-13: 978-1-56512-520-9, ISBN-10: 1-56512-520-7

A Charlie Dickinson review

Among the vast Pali canon ascribed to what Buddha said and lived--a literature worth a small room for its thousands of volumes--there is one oft-told story about Gautauma, the Buddha, meeting the Evil One in the person of Angulimala.

Satish Kumar, born in India, first heard the story from his mother as a child.  Angulimala is a monster who terrorizes villages, taking the lives of men solely to cut off their ten fingers (anguli), which he threads on a necklace (mala) with other severed fingers and wears about his blood-stained neck.  We later learn in this story Angulimala will not stop killing until he has one thousand fingers hanging from his neck.
Fortunately, the Buddha seeks out Angulimala, who caught off balance by Gautama's offer of friendship, finally sees the error of his ways and becomes a monk, Ahimsaka ("The Nonviolent One"), living with other followers of the Buddha in their forest retreat at Jeta Grove.

The conversion of Angulimala is but one episode in THE BUDDHA AND THE TERRORIST as told by Satish Kumar, who besides his study of Buddhism was a Jain monk for nine years.  The "terrorist" Buddha encountered 2,500 years ago probably didn't quite fit the profile we ascribe to that term in our post-9/11 era, replete with suicide bombers.  Still, Kumar is to be commended for making this story relevant to the dilemmas of global violence today.

Yes, there are times in this retelling of THE BUDDHA AND THE TERRORIST the words chosen seem contrived to echo, as one example, pre-Afghan War rhetoric: (The enlightened King speaks) "It would be easy to declare Buddha an accomplice and not only arrest Angulimala but also to arrest Buddha himself--accusing him of being a protector of terrorists, of aiding and abetting terrorism."  But such occurrences are relatively minor and represent Kumar's well-intentioned effort to make THE BUDDHA AND THE TERRORIST more relevant to today's troubled world.

And troubled it is.  In a world where among but three identified rogue nation-states (1) one joined the "nuclear club" last week, (2) one has a leader who asserts Israel should be taken off the map, and (3) one was "liberated" only to descend into a waking nightmare of mindless violence, THE BUDDHA AND THE TERRORIST tackles some essential questions whose evasion today is ignored at mankind's peril.
For starters, Gautama in THE BUDDHA AND THE TERRORIST actually seeks out Angulimala, at what others perceive great danger to his person (which concerns the Buddha not, for he seeks a greater good than personal safety--he seeks safety for all beings).  Initiating this dialogue with the Evil One is a first step to acknowledging Angulimala's humanity, tortured though it might be.  In a contemporary setting, when President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad says he wants to debate President George W. Bush about real issues, why doesn't Bush go to Tehran and do so, instead of dismissing such an idea as a circus?  The "cost" of such a circus is much less than letting the cycle of mutual demonization continue (Buddha's words are, of course, "violence begets violence," both literally and in thought).  And to keep such a proposal from seeming too political, the question arises, Why didn't President Bill Clinton go to Baghdad and debate President Saddam Hussein not that many years (of misery) ago?

THE BUDDHA AND THE TERRORIST offers much more insights into the Buddhist path of nonviolence and given Kumar's monastic background (albeit Jainist) is impeccably accurate in its presentation of the words of Buddha.  I found this relatively short book a wonderful introduction to the basics of Buddhism wrapped up in an engrossing narrative of human interest.  Violence, revenge, forgiveness.  Conquering fear, finding spiritual simplicity, and transcending life and death.  For such a compact book, this is one well-seasoned omelette of a tale!
© Charlie Dickinson November 2006
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