Western Lights is, as the subtitle states, A Collection of Short Essays on Buddhism by Andrew Furst. There are 28 essays in total, and each one puts the spotlight on a concept or practice that many people tend to think of as being ‘eastern’ (such as karma, enlightenment, meditation and so on). What makes this book stand out is that the topics are discussed from a distinctly western perspective, and this makes them far easier for westerners to understand than might be the case otherwise.
The author of Western Lights practises Pure Land Buddhism, and that is something that is explored in several of the essays here. There are far fewer books available from the Pure Land tradition (in English, at least) than there are from others, so although most of the essays in this collection focus on general concepts that are common to all Buddhists, the insight into Pure Land thought is – for those outside the tradition – particularly interesting.
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As far as the essays themselves are concerned, it is fair to say that they cover a broad range of concepts and ideas. The author starts by tackling the question What is the Single Most Important Teaching? and discusses the three pillars of Pure Land Buddhism, which are Faith, Vows and Practice. He then proceeds to explore everything from How Do You Measure Enlightenment? and the Ten Steps to Paradise to Karma Computing and Darwin’s Dharma.
One of the pillars of the Buddha’s message is that all things—objects, relationships and people—are subject to constant change. The complimentary observation the Buddha made was if we want lasting contentment, we cannot put our faith in things that do not last, especially ourselves.
None of the essays in this volume assume that the reader has any existing familiarity with Buddhism, so a curious enquirer is likely to get just as much out of them as an established practitioner. Our advice is to take each essay in turn and consider it carefully, allowing it to prompt you to spend some time with your own thoughts and reflections on the topic being discussed. It will take you longer to work through the book in this way, but the additional time invested will reward you richly.
In summary, Western Lights is a refreshing title that explores a good range of Buddhist topics in a practical and accessible manner, and the fact that it also does that from a Pure Land perspective makes it well worth a place on your bookshelf.