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(Don’t) Revisit:

The Accidental Buddhist: Mindfulness, Enlightenment, and Sitting Still

by Dinty W. Moore

Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill

1997

(Don’t) Revisit is a series of reviews highlighting past releases that don’t deserve a second look.

The mention of Buddhism’s influence in America can induce some serious eye rolling. How obnoxious and presumptuous of Americans to think that we can adopt the practices of an ancient Eastern religion without any real foundation or education, right? Well- that is one way to look at it, but considering the way that Christianity is practiced by most Americans these days, there isn’t actually much of a difference. For someone like me, raised by atheists, Buddhism is certainly the least threatening religion to dip a toe in.

For this reason I was optimistic about Dinty W. Moore’s The Accidental Buddhist: Mindfulness, Enlightenment, and Sitting Still. With this book, published in 1997, Moore seeks to answer the following question: in what ways is Buddhism being used in America and how can it be used to improve our busy, stressful lives? As a Catholic-raised baby boomer, Moore describes a “rocklike ball of anger” he felt in his gut throughout his youth, which evolves into a persistent feeling of dissatisfaction as an adult (we can all identify with this to a degree, right?). He hopes that through Buddhism, he will be able to quell this feeling and find inner peace at last.

Moore’s journey begins at a Zen Buddhist retreat in New York, and takes him through several other states where he visits monasteries, attends public appearances by well-known Buddhist teachers (most notably the Dalai Lama himself), and even sits with small neighborhood meditation groups. He explores the different types of Buddhism (Zen, Theravada and Tibetan) and through many long, difficult periods of meditation and self-analysis, which he chronicles in detail for the lucky reader, he is able to calm his “Monkey Mind,” if only for short periods of time. After all of his travels he comes to find that all he needs to explore Buddhism is right there at home with his wife and daughter and garden; he even discovers a local sitting group.

The Accidental Buddhist falls short in several respects. One hopes that by reading this book we will gain some perspective on how Buddhism can influence our lives as it has other Americans. By the time I finished this book (and it must be said, it is a slow, tedious read), I felt cheated. This book does not give any insight on how Buddhism can be used by Americans- it is about how Buddhism (or something like it) can be used by Moore. He himself seems to recognize this fact: “Maybe my project failed, maybe I didn’t find the big answers, but you know what? I feel clearer. I feel calmer. I feel good.” Good for him, but truth be told, a middle-aged man’s half-assed spiritual journey is not the most enthralling of tales.

Furthermore, Moore doesn’t cover all his bases. He uses the resources that are easily available to him, like Buddhist retreats, but he doesn’t delve deeper. It seems like most of his peers along this journey are demographically similar to him: white and middle class. Also, his experiences mostly take place in the Midwest and East Coast, when even he notes that “…heading further West, I would eventually have reached California, a state with nearly as many zendos as it has convenience stores.” Why didn’t he then? Despite his efforts, his study is very limited in scope.

Perhaps one person’s religious journey is too personal to be interesting to another. Perhaps I need to practice mindfulness more in my own life so that I am not so easily bored by such topics. Either way, I wish that I had skipped right to the last chapter of “The Accidental Buddhist” in which Moore advises the reader that “You don’t need to be a Buddhist…You simply need to be someone who turns off the television, shuts off the distractions, ignores the phone, and just sits, listening to the signals of the mind. Buddhism can help, though.” That limited sentence about sums up his entire argument, if you can call it that.

by Jessica Bari

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