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Book: The Saint of Kathmandu, by Sarah Levine

Book: The Saint of Kathmandu and Other Tales of the Sacred in Distant Lands
By Sarah Levine
Reviewed by Brian Schell
Beacon Press, 242 Pages, ISBN 978-0-8070-1312-0
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This is a little different from the other books I’ve reviewed here. It’s not strictly a Buddhist book; it’s about various religions around the world. There are six stories in the book, each one a more-or-less true story in the experience of the author, a British anthropologist.

The first tale is about spirit possession in a Muslim town, the second is about the Cult of the Virgin in Mexico, Witchcraft in Kenya, Buddhism in Kathmandu, Charismatic Christianity in Hong Kong, and Zen in America. For the readers of Daily Buddhism, I am going to focus on just two of the stories, although all are worth your time.

The third story involves the author’s trip from Kathmandu to India, where she visits the places where the Buddha gained Enlightenment and also where he died. Along the way, she has many discussions with Guruma, the leader of the group and a Nepalese Nun, as well as being the titular ‚ÄúSaint‚Äù of the book. Guruma’s stories show what it was like to be a little girl being forced into an arranged marriage, her escape and distant travels to the nunnery, and her later work in bringing the Dharma to thousands of women who otherwise would be neglected by the male-dominated society. Interestingly, early in the story, the author laments the possibility of having to talk about western Buddhism with two Americans, yet at the end of the story she finds that she cannot tolerate the more disciplined approach of the East.

The sixth and last story is an interesting one as well. It’s about the author’s encounter with an American Zen Master (said to be the first American Zen master). While the author is initially taken by the quirky Zen Master/artist, she quickly discovers the dark side of the situation. The man loves being the center of attention, is a control freak, and never wanted to be a teacher anyway. He, as well as his students, became victims of his own cult of personality. Zen Masters do generally come off a somewhat arrogant in most tales, but this story gives a much more real sense of the problem, which is probably much more common than we in the West would probably assume.

It’s an interesting book with an interesting perspective. There are things here both positive and negative about all these various groups and religions. The author is clearly more interested in the people and their attitudes than the places she visits or beliefs the people hold, and the stories she relates are very personal in nature.

You aren’t going to learn anything about how to practice Buddhism with this book, but it’s a good read, and it’s fun to visit the unusual cultures and share the odd experiences the author relates with us here. The final chapter in particular, shows us some of the inherent problems with lineage traditions where it is assumed that the teacher is always right.

Once you reach enlightenment, does it last forever or does it fade?


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1 comment to Book: The Saint of Kathmandu, by Sarah Levine

  • Timothy Hilgenberg

    re last sentence – I think there are two ways of looking at the question:
    one is it an ability: if you are a marathon runner will you always be a marathon runner or does your ability fade?
    two is it an understanding: once you know how to solve a puzzle you always know or does your knowledge fade?