These are comments on three biographical and autobiographical books I read whilst on my travels.
A narrative account of the Buddha’s journey from Siddhartha the Prince to Gautama the Monk to Buddha. I have not read much of Chopra’s work, and it is probably my loss. My resistance was some hang-over from an anti-American, anti-Oprah-Winfrey-endorsed-authors from my early twenties I suspect. But this book, I think, is a stroke of genius. In a simple way it tells the story of the Buddha free of the dogma and religion that has emerged around his teachings. In contrast to the images you may associate with ‘buddha’ as some happy fat man, Siddhartha did not have it easy. In fact, he spent decades as a starving skeleton, and faced every horror you can imagine, and all voluntarily. And in doing so, became enlightened which changed everything, for all of us. I enjoyed this book and sought it out to read as I have become more and more interested in the subjective accounts of the lives of great people like Buddha, Gandhi, Mandela and also Ken Wilber, and Andrew Cohen etc. [Any suggestions for female biographies I should read, anyone?] Reading these accounts makes them human, making them human makes them similar to me, and so pushes me to ask of myself “what is it that stands between me, and making the type of contribution that these people have made”.
My Master is My Self: The Birth of a Spiritual Teacher
This is a collection of letters written back and forth between Andrew and his friends and spiritual teachers over a period of critical years when he had his ultimate realisation and finished his searching. I read this while in Rishikesh, where many of the critical moments in this book actually occurred. Cohen is a spiritual leader who is pushing the edge in attempting to support the emergence of a new community of active, enlightened people. This account of the early stages of his journey are really valuable for me to read because it gives me insight into the kind of commitment required to walk on this path, and gives me some taste of the subjective experience of enlightenment and what follows. If, as Gandhi and Buddha both said (not verbatim) ‘I am my message’ then autobiographies of spiritual and world leaders are very insightful documents. I enjoyed this one for sure, and can appreciate the content in ways that I doubt I could have even three years ago e.g. the state of consciousness from which some of the more strange entries emerge.
Down and Out in Paris and London
Brilliant. I worked on homelessness projects issues in the UK and wish I had have read this earlier. Orwell’s first-person accounts of homelessness in England have unfortunately, in some respects, not dated. His accounts of low-wage working in the backrooms of Paris restaurants are so rich. But richest of all are his reflections on what causes and perpetuates homelessness (and his ideas hold weight in the UK, Asia, and I dare say in the dynamics of wealthy vs. poor nations), the psychology of homeless people that he met, his proposals for social enterprise as a way to end homelessness (remember, this was written in 1933) and why homeless are so despised (because they don’t do work that could conceivably make them rich). The Bio on the inside cover was also incredibly interesting reading. I had no idea about Orwell’s life, and seems more varied and tragic in circumstances than I would have guessed: war, poverty, insanity, he had seen it all.