Sunday, September 20, 2009

BOOK REVIEW - The Essential Sangharakshita

In my early days of involvement with the FWBO, I read hardly anything outside the Suttas and Sangharakshita's lucid commentaries and explanations of the Dharma. I heard tapes, and watched videos of his talks, and saw him give short ones live, once or twice. But by the time of my involvement the days of his best talks were, even by his own admission, dwindling or past, he had already said so much of what he felt needed to be said. One is often struck in his autobiographies by how energetic and prolific he has been throughout his life. What it must have been like to be around him then, only the disciples who were present then can tell us. I've only really been aware of him in his pre and post-retirement phase, as he was in the process of standing down from being the head of the WBO.

Sangharakshita's written and public style of presentation, I've not always found uniformly accessible, his expression can appear stilted, over formal, old fashioned, even imaginatively dry. Though the content has never been anything other than clear and apt. I was therefore surprised whilst reading this compendium of his writing, by how coherent,visually rich and eloquent his writing can be. Though this may to an extent be down to superb editing, it can't entirely be a result of it. Perhaps some of my own resistances present in those early days of involvement,were coloured by how I heard those trenchant words of exposition and encouragement, not what I heard.

'The Essential Sangharakshita, draws from quite a wide spectrum of his output, from books he wrote, to later transcriptions, or adaptions from his many seminars, which he had some input into the editing of. Vidyadevi, the editor for this project, has over the years worked tirelessly on these seminars turning them into coherently themed books, with his overview and input ever present, of course. So she was,without doubt,the ideal person to be involved in compiling this book. It hss obviously been commissioned by Wisdom Publications, because there is a great respect there for his vision. It is, for those unfamiliar with his work, a comprehensive introduction to the main themes of Sangharakshita's perception and rendition of the Dharma, and its essential practices. One theme logically flows onto the next, and though the source material is disparate, it appears seamless, as if this was originally conceived as an enormous series of carefully thought out lectures spoken over several decades. It is a vivid expression of one mans consistent vision of the Dharma, that you get carried along by. There is a recognisable steadiness to the tone and level of communication, that is very far from inaccessible, or dull. This man remains very alive to the contemporary world, and Western social trends.

He's not afraid to be controversial with his criticisms either, often confronting head on the modern shibboleths of political correctness, relativism, rights and duties etc. This hasn't made his views necessarily popular with some Buddhists in the West, even, a times, within his own order. Though he's clear we need to adapt Buddhism to our own culture, he feels it must never be done by diluting or distorting the message of the Dharma. His writing is frequently an extended critique of modern culture and mores, and how these diverge from Buddhist thought. Even becoming, on occasions, as near as Sangharakshita ever gets to a rant. For when he's on a role about something, such as war and the pursuit of peace in the twentieth century, he becomes something of an unstoppable force - an angel of clarity dispelling the fog of bland statements and sound bites that bedevil our worldly perceptions and expression. This book seems both timely in its appearance, for his own Order to reassess the larger corpus of his legacy, and all too relevant to the world outside it too, because this is what the Dharma should be.

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