Friday, November 28, 2008

Learning What the Buddha Never Taught

Many of my favorite books are the ones I've bought at used bookstores and just tossed on the shelf without reading them for months or even years after purchase. I'll buy cheep books based upon nothing more than the coolness of the author's name; like Ngugi, author of Devil on the Cross; or because the book has a stellar cover; like all of the Vintage editions of Haruki Murakami's books; or because the book has a thought provoking title, like the one this post is about: Tim Ward's What the Buddha Never Taught.

I picked up What the Buddha Never Taught at Boulder's Red Letter Books (the best used bookstore in Colorado) almost 3 years ago. Here was a book about Buddhism I didn't own and it had the added bonus of being signed by the author for a fickle woman named "Anne." I slotted it on my shelf where it aged like a fine wine, for when I read it a few weeks ago I was astonished.

What the Buddha Never Taught is an entertaining travelogue about the author's stay in a Buddhist temple in Thailand. Like all good travel writing, the author is witty and deeply reflective as he records his temple stay. Ward writes as a questioning outsider living in a foreigner run Thai temple. His philosophical questions guide his own spiritual development as a practitioner while spurring the other monks to think about their own commitment.

While at the temple, Ward never receives any formal training in meditation or any words of spiritual development. He is simply told to "follow the rules" by the temple abbot: an ex-jazz guitar playing, Australian. Though Ward resents the abbot's lack of teaching, he slowly begins to find his own methods and motivations for meditation.

As you might guess, the monk hood of the temple is a motley assortment of international folk of all ages, each seeking something different from the Buddha and their own take on Buddhist practice. One thing Ward does extremely well is sum up the various personalities and idiosyncrasies of each of the monks he lives with. Of all the folk Ward lives with, he spends most of his time with Jim- a depressed American college student looking for release.

One of the most insightful chapters I ever read about Buddhism shows Ward and Jim sitting on a moonlit porch debating and dreading the consequences of enlightenment, namely, the death of the ego. That is a very scary idea to both men and me as well. When I finished reading that passage I realized that Buddhism isn't just about being compassionate and not killing things. No. The quest for enlightenment is an inward gauntlet that requires mountains of faith and relentless introspection than most people, including myself, are comfortable with. For the first time Ward helped me realize that Buddhism is a deeply serious philosophy, forcing its followers to explore their own souls before those very souls are snuffed-out with nirvana. This is lesson the Buddha never taught.

I highly recommend Tim Ward's What the Buddha Never Taught to anyone interested in Buddhism or Thailand. The book is a fine depiction of what Buddhist practice looks like in the real world. It is a finely crafted and fun book that effortlessly mixes profound spiritual insight with embarrasing cultural mishap. I wished the book kept on going, so I was thrilled when I learned that the book is first of three in Ward's "Nirvana Trilogy," where in each book he experiences life in each of the three schools of Buddhism. What the Buddha Never Taught is about Theravada Buddhism, the second and third books deal with Mahayana and Tibetan Buddhisms. I have those last two book slated for reading, though I haven't tossed them on the self yet.


  1. Great post...I gotta get this book...heading to Thailand in November...this looks like a good read for the plane...

  2. Nice synopsis, given that I agree with it. I read this many years ago and the Ward's others, too. They sit right beside 'What the Buddha Taught'.

    I am curious what lead you to think/believe that Buddhism wasn't 'serious'? This question comes from someone who doesn't take it seriously! When I like Zen best is when it approaches the playful intense language of Lao-Tzu and, especially, Chuang-Tzu.

  3. e.gajd: I've always taken Buddhism seriously, but Ward's book drew out the implications of what the Buddha said but never taught: namely that loss of self in enlightenmnet. The way Ward and Jim discuss it on the porch really impacted my thoughts and feelings about enlightenment.

  4. Justin: I just found your post - cruising the net looking for reviews as the new Canadian edition of WBNT has just been published. I'm so glad the book gave you so much to dig into. If you have not yet found Arousing the Goddess (on Tantric Buddhism)in your second hand store, I would be glad to send you a copy. Tim Ward.