Like Jessica Simpson picking up a philosophy textbook by mistake: That's the way I felt when I, the occasional yoga-doer, first checked out Tricycle: The Buddhist Review. Many articles explicate Buddhist texts with dense language and jargon; one blurb alerts us that a story will examine "the dilemma of good and evil in human nature." Now that's an ambitious topic, one that should be part of religious discourse. I just wasn't expecting so much, well, intellectual content from a magazine placed on the "Healthy Living" shelf at Barnes and Noble, next to pubs whose cover lines say things like "ABSolutely Best Abs Exercises!"
All of which sets up the identity crisis that may afflict modern--or at least U.S.--Buddhism: is it a trendy way to attain well-being or an actual religion? Tricycle comes down solidly on the latter side--though its front-of-book section includes lightweight pieces that co-exist oddly with the earnest tone of the rest of the book. For example, there's a reprint of an Onion story, "Coming Up Empty," about a spiritual seeker concluding that there's nothing really to be found, and "the sooner you realize that... the sooner you can get on with what's truly important: celebrity magazines, snack foods, and Internet porn."
Well, I could relate to at least the first two items. As for the rest of Tricycle--in between the chart "Decoding the Four Immeasurables," the unappealing graphics (mostly text broken up by reproductions of abstract art) and a badly written book excerpt on the concept of equanimity, I actually found articles that a Buddhist beginner could enjoy and understand.
For example, James Shaheen's "Editor's View," one of several sophisticated takes on current religious-political issues, discusses the controversy over creationism in the classroom. A report on the first Spiritual Activism Conference explains this new movement that aims to take spirituality and moral values back from the religious right.
And in what may be the one article that could be plopped down in the middle of any general interest magazine, "Raising The Stakes" does a lively job of exploring the contradictions in the life of Andrew Black, a practicing Buddhist who came in fifth in the 2005 World Poker Championship.
Other pieces show how Buddhist practices can ease the burdens of modern life, like Erik Hansen's essay on evacuating New Orleans when Hurricane Katrina hit. Driving through Tennessee, Hansen recalls, "For sixteen years of meditation I've trained my mind to dwell in the present, and this is the consequence. I'm here and everything is okay." Despite seeing the effects of Katrina's devastation on TV, Hansen concludes, "from this perspective... an enlightened person... would say: we have a responsibility to both ourselves and others to avoid needless suffering."
Hansen's article is clear and accessible. So, too, is the review of "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory"--at least through the middle of the piece, which calls Johnny Depp's Willy Wonka "a wicked parody of God, dysfunctions and all." And then comes this sentence: the "tour of the factory has become a bardo journey, in which the children confront visionary manifestations of their own kleshas."
So, OK, maybe Tricycle, well-written as it is for the most part, isn't for the casual reader. While I don't plan to subscribe, I do appreciate that it broadened my knowledge of Buddhism and piqued my interest in learning more. Tricycle also introduced me to what may be the most memorable book title of late, a Buddhist volume on "life's difficulties": Who Ordered This Truckload of Dung?