penguin-colophon

Some Penguin Classics open up windows on alien worlds, and they do so every bit as effectively as the very best sci-fi and fantasy, but through radically different means: by showing us what was, not what wasn’t. A perfect demonstration of this would be the slim and elegant new Penguin Classic penguin life of buddha coveredition of Tenzin Chogyel’s 1740 work The Life of the Lord Victor Shakyamuni, Ornament of One Thousand Lamps for the Fortunate Eon, here given the slightly more manageable title of The Life of the Buddha by its brilliant and unashamedly effervescent translator Kurtis Schaeffer, who assures us in his Introduction that Tenzin Chogyel had what beleaguered readers of pre-modern literature (especially the large student audience at which one can’t help but think this volume is aimed) would consider the best of intentions:

In his telling of the Buddha’s life he endeavors at all times to tell a concise and quickly moving story that is at once exciting and emotionally engrossing. Occasionally he will stop to note an alternate version of a particular episode, or pause to speak directly to the reader about the proper way to pay reverence to the Buddha or to keep him in mind on holy days.Yet he never tarries too long. Tenzin Chogyel is not interested in systematically laying out Buddhist doctrine or prescribing practice. His task is to tell a good story.

Tenzin Chogyel, Schaeffer tells us, was a prolific and respected Bhutanese writer, a leader of the Drukpa Kagyu school of Buddhism, and the country’s tenth Lord Abbot, its highest ecclesiastical authority, and he wrote his Life of Buddha two thousand years after the Bodhisattva made his Earthly debut as a concept and a literary figure. And although it can be very jarring to read such a sparse and liturgical work as this Life of Buddha while remembering that it was composed in the same year James Boswell was born (as was no doubt intentional, it very much has the feel of an ancient text), Tenzin Chogyel nonetheless thoroughly grounded his work on a huge variety of literary precedents, foremost among them the huge work by 14 th century historian Buton Rinchendrup, whose History of Buddhism, Schaeffer writes, “is a model of scholastic writing, brimming with quote after quote from Buddhist scriptures, entertaining historical arguments, and theological queries, and it is ever willing to sidestep criticism by posing rhetorical questions only to offer the ‘correct’ answer.”

“This is the treatise’s great strength as a work of Buddhist doctrine,” he tells us sadly, “and it is its great downfall as a compelling work of literature.”

This isn’t a downfall shared by Tenzin Chogyel’s The Life of Buddha, which at 100 pages is as almost as lean and every bit as compelling as any Christian Gospel – especially if you picture a Jesus who, instead of vanishing from sight during his sexy, turbulent teenage years, lived those years to the fullest as the Bodhisattva does, bedding women, debating men and gods, trying his hand at all manner of crafts, beating everybody at feats of strength and skill, and doing it all with a happy, eager smile on his handsome face. I might not agree with Schaeffer’s implication that Buton’s History of Buddhism is too abstruse for Penguin Classics to touch – this is, after all, the publisher who gave us a Penguin Classic of the Domesday Book – but I couldn’t agree more with his characterization of Tenzin Chogyel’s book as too good to miss. I haven’t been this entertained by a Penguin Classic in many, many months, and our translator deserves a lion’s share of the credit for that, since even my untutored eye could easily tell this is a text that, however short, could easily have been rendered inert in less skillful hands.

Instead, Schaeffer perfectly captures the lightning-fast changes of pace and tone that Tenzin lucy reads about the buddhaChogyell crams into his little book, moving from the pathos of prose passages to the sharp tang of poetry, like the verses the seventeen-year-old Bodhisattva hears “wafting” up from the quarters of his harem, reflecting on the various obstacles to true dharma:

The pain of age and illness burns the worlds.

With no protector, people never know

How to depart this blazing fire of death.

They scramble like a bee inside a jar.

 

Autumn clouds, the three worlds pass fleeting.

We’re born, we die, we’re actors on a stage.

One life, a lightning flash across the sky.

A cascade falling, speeding down the cliff.

 

This little Life of Buddha is, then, a resounding success and a fantastic addition to the Penguin Classics line. And if Schaeffer’s comments sound like they’re closing the door on a future Penguin of Buton, well, what about a fresh new edition of the seminal Indian life of the Buddha, the Lalitavistara Sutra, referred to by Schaeffer as the Living Out of the Game Scripture, which surely deserves a Penguin Classic of its own? I happen to have a translator in mind.

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© 2007-2017, Steve Donoghue