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Religion On The Road

A hit and miss spiritual mishmash

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The title of this new anthology, Killing the Buddha, derives from a famous Zen story. A Zen master named Lin Chi is approached by one of his students, who is ecstatically proclaiming that he has achieved enlightenment. The master then replies to the shocked student, "You meet the Buddha on the road -- kill him!" Manseau and Sharlett use this story to point out that "The Buddha that you meet is not the true Buddha but an expression of your longing. If this Buddha is not killed, he will only stand in your way." The spiritual search is made doubly difficult, they contend, by knowing what you're looking for. They then proceed to document a search of their own that is random and wacky enough to prove their sincerity.

Killing the Buddha is very loosely based around 18 books of the Bible, commented on or embellished by various authors. A.L. Kennedy, in the first book, "Genesis," gives a rather thin-gruel sermon, in which God is redeemed from his distance and indifference by having at least a dark sense of humor. Francine Prose, in her "Exodus," reminds us that the actual content of Exodus (and several of the other Old Testament books that follow, I might add) describes conduct that hardly matches our modern humanistic notion about kindness and tolerance. Therefore, she will not attend any more Seders. Yes, Francine, I muttered to myself as I read her piece: if those ancient Israelites marching into Canaan had met the Buddha, they would certainly have killed him, without a second thought.

After this unpromising beginning, we get the first installment in what the authors call their Book of Psalms, which are interspersed throughout the book. These "Psalms" are, in fact, vignettes of the authors' travels around the United States, documenting all manner of earnest, eccentric, and sometimes disturbing takes on religion and spirituality they discover all over the country. From the odd conjunction of a 500-acre spiritual retreat dedicated to the Indian Godman Meher Baba right next to titty bars in Myrtle Beach, to a visit with the "Village Witch" in Crestone, Colorado, these travel stories form the heart of the book, giving some entertaining glimpses into the real oddity and imagination of human behavior in the Land of the Free. Manseau and Sharlet prove very good at this "Fear and Loathing" style of first person journalistic adventure, and their witty, utterly skeptical, and rather brave adventures into people's delusions, aspirations, and darker imaginings often make compelling reading.

Indeed, the Manseau and Sharlet material is so much more vivid and engaging than many of the commissioned "books" in the rest of Killing the Buddha that I couldn't help but feel that the concept had been forced on them by some editor. Take the "Ezekiel" by Melvin James Bukiet, for instance. Bukiet attempts to re-imagine the prophet of that book of the Bible as a carousel operator at a cheap carnival so uptight that he cuts the balls off one of his ponies because it reminds him of fornication. For the carousel is a metaphor for Life, you see, and it actually comes to life at the end of the story. How genuinely "heretical" can such a tired cliche be?

There are some "good books" in the collection. Peter Trachtenberg's essay on Job takes on the inevitable relationship of spirituality and suffering in a witty and uncompromising way, featuring clever, satirical use of those "Venn Diagrams" so popular in mathematics and logic classes. His essay turns out to be an exercise in black humor that complements the actual Job pretty convincingly.

In the end, though, a reader brought up Christian or Jewish and looking for a modern re-imagining of the Bible will be better off reading Jack Miles' two books: God: A Biography, and Christ: a Crisis in the Life of God. Both Miles books provide fresh, provocative insights while staying connected to the text. For truly adventurous American Buddhism, the Beat writers Jack Kerouac (especially in The Dharma Bums) and Allen Ginsberg have not been topped yet. Do yourself a favor and start with those guys rather than plowing through the tired ideas that unfortunately dominate parts of Killing The Buddha.

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