Book Review

Algonquin Books, September 2006 
144 pages, $14.95

I suggest meditating before reading Satish Kumar's The Buddha and the Terrorist. Take time before opening this diminutive 121-pager to focus on the cover art: the faded azure sky, the lush fruit tree mirrored and introverted by a skeletal web of roots .... Only when you've cleared your mind of exterior concerns, thus achieving that rarified state of "being wholly in the moment," should you commence reading. Then, awash in Zen calm, be prepared to lose it: The Buddha and the Terrorist will prick at your present emotions, alter your past perceptions, and challenge your future actions. 

"New Age" verbiage aside, The Buddha and the Terrorist is a solidly crafted, simply-worded book requiring the time span of one Yoga class to finish, but necessitating a far greater commitment to fully ingest and interpret. Kumar - an Indian-born monk turned author and prominent spiritual thinker - retells the classic Buddhist tale of Angulimala, a murderous outlaw whose transformation into a peaceful monk inspired legions of followers to adopt a creed of non-violence. Kumar's word choice, plotting structure, and dramatic emphasis, artfully (if not covertly) make this ancient tale of sin and redemption apropos with the violent conflicts gripping today's post 9/11 world. Its rhetoric is easily paralleled to the "non-negotiation" and "retribution" rhetoric of the Bush administration. For example, Angulimala is labeled a "hater of human beings" who will never change. His persecutors then declare that people who help him are either "with us or they are against us. If they are giving refuge to a terrorist, then they should also be punished." 

However, The Buddha and the Terrorist is not an anti-American policy rant disguised as parable. It's an equal opportunity revealer, uncovering the dehumanizing pitfall of America, terrorists, and all those who use violence to problem solve. "All efforts of control over and conflict with others end in tears, frustration, disappointment, or war," the Buddha explains to Angulimala. Then, to the unconvinced King, "Fire cannot be extinguished by adding more fuel. Only water can extinguish fire. Only with love can we overcome hate. Only with trust can we overcome fear." 

In addition to updating the story of Angulimala with the language of a CNN broadcast, Kumar also infuses The Buddha and the Terrorist with a sprinkling of psychoanalytic precepts. At times, the book reads more like a philosophical self-help tome than anti-violence tract. As the Buddha tells one of his ardent followers, "When you are free of pride and prejudice, when you are calm and attentive, a light will shine within you [...]. You will be your own light." 

Although non-violence as a means of utopia is not a novel idea, it is a spiritual path that must be readdressed in a world spiraling more toward Armageddon than Eden. The power of The Buddha and the Terrorist, however, is not in its grand vision of world peace, but rather in its focus on the individual - the impact one person's courageous choice, in this case Angulimala's, can have on countless others. Kumar does not sugarcoat the ostracism, ridicule, and perhaps even physical harm that will be returned upon those who do go against the tide of violence, but as it is spelled out in his book, if we are not willing take up this spiritual spear, we will certainly die by it. And that is a conclusion with no end.

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