Choosing Buddhism book review

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9780776623313_39Choosing Buddhism: The Life Stories of Eight Canadians
By Mauro Peressini

March 2016, ISBN 978-0-7766-2331-3
Mercury Series, Cultural Studies Paper 86
472 pages, 125 images, 17 x 24 cm

$54.95 pbk

From the publisher:

Choosing Buddhism explores the experience of Canadians who chose to convert to Buddhism and to embrace its teachings and practices in their daily lives. It presents the life stories of eight Canadians who first encountered Buddhism between the late 1960s and the 1980s, and are now ordained or lay Buddhist teachers.

In recent census records, over 300,000 Canadians identified their religious affiliation as Buddhist. The great majority are of Asian origin and were born into Buddhist families or were Buddhist at the time of their arrival in Canada. Since the late 1960s, however, the number of Canadians converting to Buddhism has doubled every decade, and this demographic now includes more than 20,000 individuals. The eight Canadians whose life stories are featured in this book are among the very first to have chosen Buddhism. Their first-hand accounts shed light on why and how people convert to a religion from such distant shores.

This book also offers contextual material (photos and texts) that complements the eight life stories. This material is meant to help readers enrich their understanding of the life stories by offering them the information they need to better grasp the meaning of the Buddhist notions mentioned, and the broader historical and spiritual contexts of the biographical accounts.

While this book will be of interest to specialists because of the first-hand accounts, it is primarily aimed at a wider audience interested in Buddhism, religions or spirituality in general. It will also be of use to teachers whose courses touch upon any of these subjects. By combining life stories and contextual material, and placing an emphasis on the concrete experiences of Canadians with whom readers can identify, this book is an introduction to Buddhism and to what it means to lead a Buddhist life in contemporary Canada.

About the author:

Mauro Peressini is Curator of Social History at the Canadian Museum of History and holds a PhD in social and cultural anthropology from the Université de Montréal. Dr. Peressini’s work has long focussed on questions relating to immigration and on the construction of identities that underpin the decision to emigrate and immigrants’ lives in Canada. More recently, he has been focussing on religious identities. In both instances, the biographical approach (life stories) has been his principal research method. In addition to authoring numerous publications, Dr. Peressini has curated a number of major exhibitions for the Museum, including Presenza – A New Look at Italian-Canadian Heritage (2003), Pompeii (2005), The Greeks (2008) and Vodou (2012).

The Sumeru review:

It is very exciting to see more books coming out about Buddhism in Canada! I was particularly interested in this one, since my old Dharma friend, Louis Cormier, is one of the profiled individuals. We practiced together in Montreal in the 1970s and I am familiar with most of the teachers, practitioners and experiences about whom he reminisces. That gave me a good entrance into the, text since it paralleled much of my own experience. I was also familiar with Albert Low’s story, since Sumeru recently published a memorial tribute to him by Richard Bryan McDaniel and I have also had some dealings with others whom Peressini profiles, as host for the Sumeru Guide to Canadian Buddhist Organizations.

The eight interviews featured in the book are extensive in scope and detail. The editing is excellent. Additionally, the text is augmented by a great number of well-written sidebars explaining aspects of Buddhism. As a designer, typographer and publisher, I was very impressed with the care and effort that has gone into the book, since I know well what it took to achieve.

This is a great book for a university course on Buddhism, ideal for students who have no background in Buddhist practice. But, it should be supplemented by other books that cover the same territory from a scholarly perspective (such as Wild Geese: Buddhism in Canada and Flowers on the Rock: Local and Global Buddhisms in Canada, both by Harding, Hori and Soucy, Buddhism in Canada, by Bruce Matthews, Many Petals of the Lotus: Five Asian Buddhist Communities in Toronto, by Janet McLellan), as well as those books that give voice to Canadian Buddhist practitioners (such as Lotus Petals in the Snow: Voices of Canadian Buddhist Women, edited by Tanya McGinnity, and Cypress Trees in the Garden: The Second Generation of Zen Teaching in America, by Richard Bryan McDaniel, both published by Sumeru).

On the other hand, the introduction to Buddhist history in Canada is a rather dry, statistically-based overview. Missing are many important individuals who shaped the evolution of practice in this country, as well as critical events which took place here. So, as a history of Buddhism in Canada, this book presents a very narrow segment which should not be mistaken for the whole picture. By the same token, the individuals profiled in the book represent a particular sub-set of Canadian Buddhist converts. For example, they are all white people from Christian backgrounds; there are no people of colour, no Jewish Buddhists, etc. The book focuses on Buddhist sects where meditation is emphasized; there are no Pure Land practitioners, no humanistic Buddhism practitioners, etc. While there are some examples of struggles fitting in to local communities, little is said of Buddhist teachers engaging to alleviate suffering in their larger communities (as the late Rev. Fredrich Ulrich of the Winnipeg Jodo Shinshu Temple did for many years). There are so many examples. Rather than repeat myself, here’s a link to my 2010 review of Wild Geese, which covers many of the same points:

Additionally, there are more than 1200 articles about Canadian Buddhists of note, and their activities, on the Sumeru website archive, all searchable online. You can also have a look at my 2013 article for the Journal of Global Buddhism, Highlights from the Survey of Canadian Buddhist Organizations, conducted in conjunction with Dr. Frances Garrett, Department for the Study of Religion, University of Toronto.

The teachers profiled in this book are certainly important figures in the Canadian Buddhist landscape. Their stories are compelling. However, a difficulty with Choosing Buddhism lies in its being presented by the Museum of History, and perhaps by some of the underlying issues of museum culture in general. The notion of exhibits creates a distance between viewers and the objects of their gaze. In the book, the extensive use of sidebars has the same effect, distancing readers from the immediacy of the storytellers’ experience by anthropologizing them as “the other.” As a reader, I felt a bit like a tourist on safari, looking at wild animals from the safety of my Land Rover. I could experience without fear of transformation.

I want people to see Choosing Buddhism as a valuable contribution to the study of Buddhism in Canada, in spite of its flaws. There is no one definitive text. Through cumulative efforts, the big picture emerges.


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