Buddha, the manga

Historical drama can sometimes be dangerous. Subtle twists of creative license to fit a narrative can give a false impression of the facts. Osamu Tezuka’s massive 8 volume series on the life of the Buddha is anything but subtle.

You may know Osamu Tezuka as the creator of Astro Boy and Simba the White Lion. He is one of the grandfathers of modern manga. In the late 1970s he spent 10 years on a series called Buddha. The series was translated into English and collected into 8 volumes.

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Despite being the titular character, the Buddha is just one of a large ensemble cast, featuring many people from the various sutras and stories of the life of the Buddha. In fact, it isn’t until about page 260 of volume 1 that the Buddha is even born!

Tezuka’s genius at character design really shines in this series. Every character is distinct, with one or two simple visual flourishes, a characteristic (flaw), and a distinct voice. Tezuka is irreverent, and often goofy. When Siddartha leaves the palace and meets the ascetics who will one day become his first five disciples, one of the ascetics has taken to hanging upside down as his trial. In every frame he is upside down, his legs out of frame and hanging from something … nothing? It is ridiculous and funny. Characters often make modern references (eg. about movies, or sports) or are often modern themselves. Take for example the doctor who examines the sickly young Siddartha: it is Professor Ochanomizu from Astro Boy!

But it isn’t all silliness. Serious teachings of Buddhism find their way into the pages. Tezuka obviously made a deep study of a number of texts in order to be familiar enough to give it such a spin. And the art can be astounding, especially the landscapes, drawn in painstaking detail.

Extremely detailed lush scenery, topped by a naked cartoon kid.
Extremely detailed lush scenery, topped by a naked cartoon kid. (Source)

Similar to the way that watching the TV series Game of Thrones helps put a face to the massive cast of characters in the books, making it easier to follow, Buddha does a great job giving you a simple visualization of characters from one of the greatest stories ever told, from the obscure to famous disciples like Sariputta and Mogallana. That is one of the values of historical drama, and books like this. It certainly makes it easier when reading other, more academic histories like Karen Armstrong’s Buddha, or even the Buddhist canon itself. The one thing to remember is: take the details with a giant bag of salt. Tezuka’s Buddha is not historical document, and it helps that he doesn’t deign to pretend it should be. That said, it is a great introduction to the life of the Buddha and some of the basic tenets, and furthermore, is a masterwork in the medium of manga.

500

500

This weekend I passed 500 read books on Goodreads. I started using the site Dec 27th 2009 and added a bunch of read books in early 2010. Since then I have logged 295 reads, averaging about 46 a year.

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My 500th book was Mindfulness in Plain English by Bhante Henepola Gunaratana aka. “Bhante G”.cover_mindfulness-in-plain-english I purchased this book five years ago, and read only a quarter of it before stopping. I wasn’t ready.

After reading about the life of the Buddha, listening to a couple of Jon Kabat-Zinn guided meditations, and prepping for my tour of Buddhist temples in Kyoto, I understood this book much better on the second attempt. I am glad I did. I will continue to explore how to integrate meditation in to my daily life. From the book:

Our mind is analogous to a cup of muddy water. The longer you keep a cup of muddy water still, the more the mud settles down and the water will be seen clearly.

I have tried to take that lesson and apply it to reading. Upon finishing a book, I usually let it settle in my brain for a few days, then look over the annotations I made, to get a good sense of it as a whole. Then I write a short review on Goodreads. When I read a related book, going back and looking at old reviews sparks a lot of interesting conceptual connections — insights I would have totally missed had I merely just picked up the next book. Books are part of a literary universe, you shouldn’t start tabula rasa every time you crack one open. Keeping notes helps you to navigate the connections. It is sort of like how a commonplace book works.

If you are looking for a similar experience, I recommend using Goodreads. If you become a member, connect with me.

Shinran and the Buddhist Evangelical movement of Japan

A fifth of Japanese — about 25 million people — identify as practitioners of Jōdo Shinshū, the largest denomination of Buddhism in Japan. My family in Japan are all Jōdo Shinshū, also known as “Shin” Buddhism. I am currently here in Japan, and this weekend we will be performing the 13th memorial service for my wife’s grandmother’s death. This ceremony will be conducted by a Shin officiant, of course. I have participated in the funeral as well the memorials for the 1st, 3rd, 5th and 7th anniversaries. This will be the last one. Thus, I took this opportunity to explore the history of the sect, the life of its founder, and visited some of the important historical places in Kyoto linked to his life. Continue reading “Shinran and the Buddhist Evangelical movement of Japan”