In the West, where Zen and Mahayana Buddhism have long been in vogue and where Tibetan Buddhism is beginning to take stronger hold, there is often an impression of Theravada Buddhism as something remote and unapproachable, a mysterious and austere tradition practiced by hermit-like forest monks in the remote corners of southeast Asia and having little contact with the outside world. At worst, the Theravada tradition is seen as being too focused on individual personal enlightenment at the expense of helping others. Perhaps this pleasant little book will help to shake off some of those misconceptions. Bhante Walpola Piyananda, himself a practitioner of the Theravada tradition, presents a collection of personal stories from his meetings with a broad cross-section of others in need of guidance since his arrival in the United States more than two decades ago, revealing a humble monk who is anything but reclusive and too self-focused.
More importantly, "Saffron Days in L.A." emphasizes the power of compassion. The prose does seem to wander into new-agey, self-help territory now and then, but while some may criticize this book for those faults, or for being overly simplistic, with easy answers to tough problems, that's missing the point of Bhante's stories. He uses his seemingly encyclopedic knowledge of the vast Pali canon to present to those in search of help a potential way to see the solution to their problems, yet he is able to reach out even to non-Buddhists because his message is conveyed with such a kind, gentle sense of universality that one is never left with the impression that he is doing anything more than to offer help and comfort-not to proselytize (even though we do meet a few Buddhist "converts" in the book) or speak only to those already "in the know." And although his sharing of the Buddhist "basics" with others can indeed provide a basis for understanding the Buddhist path and living a harmonious life accordingly, what shines through in his stories most brightly is his incredible storehouse of equanimity, lovingkindness, and compassion that, again, stretch beyond the borders of Buddhist philosophy. How many of us would not lash out at a person who jumped out of his car and spit in our face, as happened to Bhante? How many could defuse a hostile situation in which a group of punks made fun of us and in the end have them laughing along with us? *Here* lies the true message of this book, which Christians can understand as Jesus' teachings to turn the other cheek and love your enemies. These sound like tough things to do, as every Christian knows, but Bhante shows it can be done-even by those who aren't followers of Jesus. Such virtues, Bhante proves, are universally attainable, and even if just a little bit of that message rubs off on the reader from having explored "Saffron Days in L.A.," Bhante will have helped to make the world a little bit of a nicer place to be.
An anecdote of many feel-good stories written by an ordained monk of the Theravada school of Buddhism, the book is simply written and contains some canonical discourses relevant to the situation described in each chapter. Try not to read it as a biography or a self-help book; most people who do so will be sorely disappointed. However, it is a comforting work that leaves one feeling a little more hopeful, and perhaps that's what the bhiku is aiming for and nothing more. The collection is not an explanatory work on Theravada Buddhism and does not really cover the "tenets" of that sect per se. However, since Buddhism relies less on vicarous experience than on personal, individual experience, the lack of theology may even be a good thing! I did find the stories to become a bit too formulaic, but none-the-less they were all heart-warming and at times even humorous.