May 16, 2011
“Buddha at Bedtime,” by Dharmachari Nagaraja
Recently I walked into a bookstore and saw a spine bearing the title “Buddha at Bedtime.” As the father of two young children who always want a good story at bedtime, I was delighted to know that this book existed. I was even more delighted — and surprised — when I pulled the book from the shelf and realized that I knew the author, Nagaraja.
So for full disclosure, I first met Nagaraja at the Glasgow Buddhist Center over 20 years ago, and although we’ve never been close friends, we were ordained together and I’ve sometimes asked him to review books for me. But our connection is weak enough that his book could be out for almost two years before I stumbled upon it.
Nagaraja is a regular guest presenter on BBC Radio 2, where he used traditional Buddhist tales to communicate the Buddha’s teachings to a UK audience of 7.7 million people. He has been a practicing Buddhist since 1988, was ordained into the Triratna Buddhist Order in 1993, and went on to teach at and manage the Covent Garden Meditation Centre, London. He has now returned to his native Scotland, where he is now involved with the Glasgow Buddhist Centre and works as a psychotherapist.
Buddha at Bedtime is a collection of jataka stories, which are traditional folk-tales that have been incorporated into the Buddhist tradition. In the jatakas, the hero, who is often an animal, is said to be the Buddha in a previous life. The stories are similar to many of Aesop’s fables, and both traditions may well have been drawn from a common pool of tales that circulated among many cultures from Europe, across the Middle East, to India. Each tale illustrates a particular virtue, such as courage, thinking before speaking, or responding with intelligence rather than violence.
Buddha at Bedtime contains adaptations of twenty such jatakas. The stories are westernized to some extent, so that the characters names tend to be recognizable rather than foreign-sounding. Whereas a young girl in the original Indian version might be called Nandavati or Sundari, the corresponding character in Nagaraja’s version might be Rosalina or Polly. Additionally, the protagonist of the story is never explicitly named as being “the bodhisatta” (the Buddha before his enlightenment). These changes help to make the stories more contemporary and accessible. Additionally, Nagaraja has chosen not to stick slavishly to the original plot, which I think is wise, and in keeping with the original tradition of storytelling, where each teller of the tale would add his or her own embellishments while respecting the essence of the narrative. A couple of times I wished that Nagaraja had gone a bit further and changed the few references to “the gods,” although that’s just my taste.
Nagaraja is an effective storyteller. Each story has a short introductory teaser that gives a preview of the forthcoming attractions. Every time I got to the line “Would you like to know what happened?” I was surprised to hear my children yell “yes!” It’s a clever technique, using questions as a way to generate engagement. The language is simple and vivid, and yet the book doesn’t condescend. Here’s a randomly chosen sentence from “Two Ducks and a Turtle”:
For many years, he was quite content swimming lazily around the large pond, or basking in the sun on top of one of the big, rubbery, green lily pads that covered its surface. Sometimes, he would snap at a passing dragonfly, or try to catch a fat, juicy water beetle to eat.
The stories end with a moral, expressed in two or three sentences. For example, at the conclusion of “The Grateful Bull” we read:
It’s all too easy to lose our patience with people and act unkindly. A wise person knows that showing kindness and compassion is the most effective way to bring out the best in others.
These morals are as appropriate for adult readers as they are for young listeners, and perhaps even more so. I had the impression that my children’s attention had been lost the moment the story ended and that the explicitly stated moral was lost on them, but after a sometimes hassle-packed bedtime routine I sometimes found myself reflecting on how my own behavior could be more ethically skillful and kind.
The book is intended to be meditative as well: a natural meditative absorption that trains young minds in vitakka or continuous attention. Each tale begins with the words, “Relax, be very still, and listen — listen carefully to this tale…” There’s also a section at the end with child-friendly guided meditations, which I successfully tried out on my four-year-old daughter.
Buddha at Bedtime looks gorgeous. Each story is preceded by a detailed full-page illustration, and the following pages are decorated with elements extracted from the main image. The colors are rich and vibrant, and both the human and the animal characters are expressive and dynamic.
My only quibble with Buddha at Bedtime is a small one. The image of “the Buddha” accompanying the moral at the end of each tale is not the Buddha at all, but is the fat, jolly character that one sees referred to as “the laughing Buddha.” This personage is actually Po-Tei (Chinese) or Ho-Tei (Japanese) and he was a folkloric monk who has been granted the status of a household deity representing prosperity. He is a character who smiles despite having little, and who is portrayed as being generous. He carries a sack (his name means cloth sack) and in the Zen tradition he’s said to give gifts to children. Confusing Potei with the Buddha is rather like confusing Santa Claus with Christ. Rather than being portrayed as fat, the Buddha is always depicted as being slender, and he’s never portrayed as laughing, but as smiling serenely. If there’s a second edition of Buddha at Bedtime, I hope that the illustrations can be corrected. A Chinese book called “Jesus at Bedtime” where Jesus had been replaced with Santa would properly evoke wry laughter. Its time to lose the cultural confusion over Hotei and the Buddha.
That aside, this is a wonderful book. Ultimately in a book such as this the reviewer is the child. I’d expected that it would take close to three weeks to read the entire book — one story a night for twenty nights but due to demands placed on me by my two tiny tyrants we ended up reading Buddha at Bedtime in just over a week. My daughter still asks specifically for the book, and had two stories read to her just last night.
I would highly recommend Nagaraja’s book to all parents of young children, whether Buddhist or not. I’m expecting to be reading this book over, and over, and over — for many months to come.