08 September 2010

No Books. OK, Maybe a Few.

Yesterday I was asked by a dear friend, Dharma sister, and current intern at Wisdom Publications to write a review of a newly released or forthcoming book to post here. In a quick follow-up email, she said that of course there was no pressure to do so, if I didn't want to do book reviews on here.

I was grateful for the easy out. I don't want to do book reviews on here.

I earn my keep as an academic. I've had to read books for a degree, for a job, for a living. I used to own many hundreds of books, books I just had to have, books that no one who did what I did could be without, the latest books, the classic books, the "this will transform the landscape of x studies" books, books that chronicled the "P vs Q Debate." Then I went abroad for three years and left all the books on the shelves in my office. When I returned, I realized that a) I hadn't opened many of them in many years, b) the ones I had opened I could easily nab from the library if I needed to take a look again, and c) I really didn't find that most of them in the end had terribly much to say. So I took pretty much all of them off the shelves (I kept back those I needed for use in the classroom), put them in the hallway outside my office door, stuck up a "Free Books" sign over the lot of them, and felt the cool breeze of liberation waft in as they disappeared one after the other.

I have never regretted doing that. Not once. I don't miss them at all.

I still own a few books. The Connected, Long and Middle-Length Discourses of the Buddha (Wisdom gets a plug, after all), a few Mahāyanā sutras, some Zen records, some books of Chinese poetry, and some field guides. Except for the Pāli canon, perhaps, I wouldn't even replace those if a fire or flood or friend took them.

This is one of those things one comes to on one's own. I've heard of Zen teachers forbidding their students to read. I get the idea, but I don't think that's the way to go about it.

For me, it's a renunciation issue. Renunciation isn't a forced march to annihilation. It's what happens when, having first aroused bodhicitta (using the language of the tradition), one sees the pursuit of something else as utterly beside the point. One then sets aside that something else, not in order to see more clearly, but because one has already begun to see more clearly.

I found books to be a distraction for me, something of a waste of my time, something that kept me from something better. It's not that occasionally I won't get a real itch to buy some title or another. I do. But if I let it sit in the Amazon cart overnight, I'm usually free of the itch by morning.

For you they may not be a distraction, so read on! But I won't point out the good ones or the bad ones for you. You'll have to figure that out by yourself.

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