False Idols and Endless Quests: Setting Out To Kill a Few Gods

By Holly Lebowitz Rossi

Published January 16, 2004, issue of January 16, 2004.
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Holly Lebowitz Rossi is a freelance writer in Arlington, Mass.

Killing the Buddha: A Heretic’s Bible

By Peter Manseau and Jeff Sharlet

Free Press, 304 pages, $25.

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In the beginning there was the Bible. It is a blueprint for human experience and “the book waiting for a sweaty-palmed rendezvous in every motel room,” as Jeff Sharlet and Peter Manseau write in the introduction to their new anthology, “Killing the Buddha: A Heretic’s Bible.”

The title of the book — and the smart, articulate webzine, www.killingthebuddha.com, that inspired it — comes from the story of a ninth-century Buddhist teacher, Lin Chi, whose disciple excitedly tells him that he has seen the Buddha walking down the road. Instead of offering hearty congratulations, Lin Chi tells the monk that the next time he sees Buddha in the flesh, he must kill him. Why? Because the Buddha would never be so obvious as to present himself to a believer face-to-face. The man on the road could not have been a spiritual being, then, but must have been a projection from the inner yearnings of the monk’s own heart. Manseau and Sharlet — the son of a former Catholic priest and nun and the son of a Jewish father and Pentecostal mother, respectively — pondered this point and realized that the same could be said about Jesus, Shiva or any other Higher Power. If you can look your deity in the eye, they concluded, then you are most likely staring down a false idol.

These questions about divinity and humanity prompted a classic response from the old friends, who met when they worked together at the National Yiddish Book Center: Manseau and Sharlet packed their bags and hit the road for a year in search of…well, in search. What sounds at the start like a typical young-people-looking-for-themselves road-trip, however, is actually an intelligent, challenging collection of essays and reflections that is a sharp addition to the too-large body of spiritual journey memoirs on the market today.

Despite the title and foundational anecdote, the Buddha and his religion are barely mentioned in the book’s 300 pages. This is mainly due to the configuration of the book, which is organized around the structure of the Bible: Main chapters by various writers are bracketed with brief vignettes by Manseau and Sharlet from their voyage.

Manseau and Sharlet set out on a quest for nothing less than the One, and they were not afraid to look in strange places for it. They seem drawn to the big dreams of small people, like the one-eyed rodeo preacher they feature in one of their travel vignettes. They see stories everywhere and nowhere, managing somehow to maintain both healthy skepticism and rare hopefulness.

The two friends visited jails, stopped to talk to strangers on the side of the road and spent time with a woman whose daughter was brutally murdered. Readers quickly realize that these lives, which other travelers might just have driven right by, are fascinating and instructive companions to the biblical themes of the main chapters. Reading any chapter in this collection feels like eating a wonderful, huge meal. You feel satisfied, like you just consumed something of quality, but you are slightly uncomfortable, wondering how you will ever process it all before it is time to eat again.

It’s not an entirely pretty picture. The writers who contribute the reflections on biblical themes and stories often depict a bleak vision of a world filled with pain, failure and cruelty. An immediate lesson is that this is a weird world peopled by weird, incomprehensible creatures.

Michael Lesy’s meditation on Leviticus, the biblical book that contains so many of the specific directions for living the life God wants us to live, is unafraid to ask the question, Why do bad things happen to those who follow the rules? Peter Trachtenberg’s chapter on the all-suffering Job uses Venn diagrams to try to answer it. Charles Bowden shines the light of Isaiah’s prophetic anger on the sorry state of human affairs. These essays, which sojourn from Genesis to Revelation, are not straightforward narratives of the Bible or even moving reflections on the stories’ themes. The books of the Bible need not be retold here with their original characters, times and places. Rather, they recur today, in the Mexican political climate of Bowden’s Isaiah; the mourning of lê thi diem thúy, through Ruth, for her Vietnamese mother; and the Greek Revelation of Haven Kimmel’s last word.

This is an ambitious (if at times overwhelming) book in its scope and explicit desire not to find answers to the big questions, but to hone and shape the ways in which they are asked. Some of the essays are so serious as to bring tears to the eyes; others are entertaining and even funny. It is a large menu of ideas, but Manseau and Sharlet are skilled at making everything seem appetizing, even as they acknowledge that not everything will sound edible to everybody.

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