The Complete Idiot's Guide to Understanding Buddhism

Written by Gary Gach. Alpha Books, 2002

Half a billion people in the world consider themselves Buddhists, and millions of Westerners have embraced the religion and its tenets. For the uninitiated, and even for some initiates, Buddhism is overwhelming and mystifying. Often associated with Zen, it's sometimes reduced to the image of meditation, but as this hefty but accessible guide reveals, there are many streams of Buddhist thought and practice in the world today.

Gary Gach, who's racked up 40 years of Buddhist study, gives a thorough overview of Buddhist history, teachings, ceremonies and practices, starting with who Buddha was and what Buddhism stands for, and leading to a clear and engaging discussion of the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Paths that underlie Buddhist thought. With erudition and care, he also explains the major schools of Buddhism, such as Vipassana, Zen, Pure Land and Tibetan, outlining the rules and beliefs of each. He also explores the growth and development of American Buddhism, a unique animal of its own.

For those seeking more practical guidance, Gach brings Buddhism down to earth, teaching us how to cultivate its precepts in everyday life. Like a wise teacher, he dispenses advice on how to meditate (even at meals) and do yoga, what to eat, how to find the right spiritual teacher and/or community, where to go for pilgrimage and retreats, and countless other tips.

For the artists among us, there are lively sections on Buddhist cinema, haiku, art, the tea ceremony, calligraphy, music (from Yoko Ono to John Cage), science (chaos theory, holistic medicine, psychology) and interfaith connections. Finally, there’s useful information on how to bring the teachings outward, such as how to take right action about the environment, how to balance spirituality and materialism, how to be a better listener, how to have a more compassionate relationship with others and yourself, and how to care for the dying.

The text is readable and engaging, and the layout and design keep the mounds of information from being overwhelming. Sidebars, sketches, and boxes ("Leaves from the Bodhi Tree” and “Hear and Now") go easy on the eye and brain. It’s like a college seminar on Buddhism distilled into Cliff’s Notes. Before you know it, you’ll be halfway through the book and down the path.

Here’s a random sampling, showing how Gach interweaves Buddhist thought and theory into everyday life situations with compassion, creativity and humor as he discusses death and dying:

“The Buddha said, ‘Just as the elephant’s footprint is the biggest footprint on the jungle floor, death is the biggest teacher.’ Indeed, our relationship to death includes all other relationships. Consider, for example, how sex once again pokes its head at us when we consider death. You probably wouldn’t think of death as part of ‘the facts of life’ (although people whisper about death and shield children from it as if it were sex). The fact is if it weren’t for sex, we might not ever face the mystery of death.

“Consider, for a minute, that if we still reproduced by cell division, one cell dividing into two, two into four, and so on, instead of Harry meeting Sally and later bringing up baby Harry Jr., we’d have Billy becoming Bill and Lee. MaryLou would become Mary and Lou. And so on for everyone. (Imagine what weird family reunions all that would make).

“Now, if we looked at death as part of life’s sexual embrace, we might not grieve so badly when one thing becomes another. A caterpillar becomes a butterfly. (Does the caterpillar die?) An infant becomes a teenager (Does the infant die?) A breadwinner becomes a retiree. A strong parent becomes a frail being, lying in a bed, sipping nourishment through an I.V. tube. Who dies? It’s the story of anyone.

“Buddhism provides various skillful means for all life’s relationships. As death is inherent in all our life transformations, all our relationships, we come now to the ultimate question: how can we face our lives if we don’t face our deaths? The Zen answer is, ‘Die before you die.’ Then, when your time comes, you’ll be ready. (Nobody said it’s easy.)”