Book Review: Faces of Compassion

Faces of CompassionFaces of Compassion:
Classic Bodhisattva Archetypes and Their Modern Expression — An Introduction to Mahayana Buddhism

Taigen Dan Leighton
Foreword by Joan Halifax

Published by Wisdom Publications, 2012

352 pages, 6 x 9 inches
ISBN 9781614290148

Review by Jonathan Ciliberto

Books on Buddhist iconography and art typically take a Field Guide approach, providing descriptions of the key visual features for identifying, in paintings and sculpture, Buddhas, bodhisattvas, and significant figures from Buddhist history and literature. Behind these details — the what of Buddhist art — is the why: “why do these images exist?”

Religious art’s purpose is, obviously, religious. Faces of Compassion, by Zen teacher Taigen Dan Leighton approaches iconography from this direction, and moves from the often distanced, scientific approach to images commonly found in volumes on Buddhist art to engaging directly the religious efficacy of observing and using images. Images in Buddhist art are a means, not an end. His approach is fresh, and of great usefulness to modern readers: by seeking for archetypes in real, familiar, modern day individuals, he provides those seeking models for a compassionate life ready and understandable guides.

Muhammad Ali, Mahatma Gandhi,  Bob Dylan, Albert Schweitzer, Branch Rickey, Henry Thoreau,  Gertrude Stein, Mother Teresa, and Roberto Clemente are amongst the diverse group of figures the author uses to illustrate fundamental characteristics of bodhistattvas: Shakyamuni, Jizo, Avalokiteshvara, and others. By providing lived lives, rather than a catalogue of virtuous, if often mythically or supernaturally removed, qualities, the book says to the reader: here are people like you, not perfect, living in your world, who evidenced qualities exhorted by the great figures of Buddhism. “By featuring some of the people in our own world who are spiritual benefactors, I wish to encourage recognition that […] we need not see the bodhisattva ideal as irrelevant, idealistic, or beyond our reach” (p.21). It is a remarkable approach, and although not specifically “about” Buddhist art, does quite effectively explain the latter’s function.

The majority of the book consists of seven chapters, one for each of seven key bodhisattvas. These each begin with a  description of a bodhisattva, including information drawn from history and scripture. Readers completely unfamiliar with, say, Samantabhadra learn his attributes, his key episodes and descriptions from Buddhist literature, and his iconography (illustrated with photographs of Buddhist art). This is followed by the modern “exemplars” of that bodhisattava-as-archetype. For Samantabhadra, the author lists Aung San Suu Kyi, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., William Blake, Mahatma Ghandi, Rachel Carson, Pete Seeger, Jackie Robinson, Thomas Edison, and others, and through brief examinations of these figures lives and works, illustrates particular aspects of the bodhisattva in action.

The book also includes three very useful chapters on The Bodhisattva Ideal, Mahayana History, and the Ten Transcendent Practices. The scholarship in this introductory section (and throughout) is quiet but commanding: neither stuffily authoritarian or excessively simplified.

Taigen Dan Leighton has conceived a superb idea, a psychological examination of the bodhisattva ideal through modern figures, and executed this idea it with skill and compassion. Faces of Compassion is not just a book which describes the what of Buddhist art, but also offers readers another method of how to follow the bodhisattva way. Thus, the author shows himself in this kind, intelligent, and wise book to be an exemplar of the bodhisattvas he re-presents to modern readers.

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