Nov 25, 2013
“The Buddha’s Apprentice at Bedtime,” By Dharmachari Nagaraja
Three years ago I walked into a bookstore in Vancouver, where I was doing a book launch, and literally the first book spine that caught my eye in the Buddhist book section was called Buddha at Bedtime. As the father of two young children I pulled it from the shelf with excitement, and was astonished to discover it had been written by an old friend of mine from my days in Glasgow.
Of course I got a copy of the book, and it’s been a bedtime fixture in our household ever since. Now comes a much-welcomed sequel, The Buddha’s Apprentice at Bedtime.
As with the first volume, The Buddha’s Apprentice contains adaptations of traditional “Jataka” tales, which are Indian fairy tales that tell of the previous lives of the Buddha. Each tale illustrates a particular virtue, in a similar way to the Fables of Aesop, which draw on the same body of folk tales (Indian and Greek cultures have a historical connection).
The stories have been updated in order to make them more accessible, and are no longer presented as the past lives of the Buddha. In a way that’s actually more accurate, since these would have originally been non-Buddhist tales. In fact the Buddha isn’t mentioned in the stories, nor are they all set in India. Although some of the settings are (from a Western point of view) exotic, they quite are multicultural, taking place in locales as disparate as jungles, deserts, the Scottish Highlands, Thailand, and, of course, India.
The names, unless the stories are explicitly set in a foreign land, are westernized. For example, one story features Rosie (a tough girl, who injures a rabbit), Hazel (who nurses the rabbit), and their teacher Miss Poppy. This makes the experience for both the reader and the average child much easier than struggling though Sanskrit names such as Siddhartha and Devadata. Additionally, in the tale of Rosie and Hazel the genders of the characters have been changed as well, so that we end up with more female protagonists than there are in the traditional tales. Since moral truths are universal, and not dependent on gender, this tweak to the originals is a valuable way of making the stories, and the lessons they contain, accessible to all children.
And as with the first volume, this is a delightful read. The stories are exceptionally well-written and a delight to read out loud. Nagaraja is a skilled storyteller.
The illustrations, by the very talented Sharon Tancredi, are luminously colorful, and the characters exude abundant personality. At first I thought I preferred the illustrations in the original book, but actually these are every bit as good, and in many ways the facial expressions are more “alive” than in the original Buddha At Bedtime. Some of the elements — mainly the monkeys’ faces, and those of some of the other animals — seem a bit child-like for my taste, but on the whole the images are delightful.
My seven-year-old daughter certainly doesn’t find this book too childish, nor did my son, at age four, find it too grown up. I’d guess that a good age-range for The Buddha’s Apprentice would be three to eight.
One thing I was pleased about is that the Buddha, who is illustrated at the end of every tale delivering a brief moral punchline, is now actually the Buddha. In the first book the illustrations were of Budai, who is the fat Chinese monk (often called the “Laughing Buddha”) who you’ll have seen in many a Chinese restaurant. It’s a common thing for westerners to assume that Budai is “the” Buddha (i.e. the historical Buddha, Shakyamuni) even though this is rather like confusing Christ and Santa Claus! As well as being more culturally accurate, the use of the serene and dignified figure of Buddha Shakyamuni seems more proper, and many Buddhist parents will be inclined to take the book just a little more seriously.
The book contains some meditation instructions for children, which I confess I haven’t tried with my own kids. The inclusion of meditation instruction for children gives another good reason for buying this book. There’s just not enough of that kind of material in circulation.
The ultimate reviewers of a book such as this, though, are the children. Mine love it! And I’m sure yours will too. Remember, Christmas is coming!