Sunday, January 13, 2008

Samsara Dog - Buddhist Children's Book

With all the kids' books published each year, you'd think there might be more Buddhist stories than there are. Unfortunately, there aren't that many. So I was pleased to see a review of this book in the New York Times Book Review, one I will certainly be adding to my collection (yes, I own a whole mess of children's books).

Samsara Dog
By Helen Manos.
Illustrated by Julie Vivas.
Kane/Miller. $17.95. (Ages 8 and up)

Animals — wild or domestic — are sentient creatures and have much to teach us about our own emotional lives.

To the spiritually inclined, this is old news. In the classic training manual “How to Be Your Dog’s Best Friend,” by the monks of New Skete, in upstate New York, is this quote from the Book of Job: “Ask the beasts and let them teach you, and the birds of the air and let them tell you.” Buddhism in particular stresses a compassion for all living creatures, transcending the boundaries of species.

For anyone unfamiliar with these traditions, here is “Samsara Dog,” a lovely and surprising picture book by Helen Manos, an Australian writer. The book illustrates the twin Buddhist concepts of samsara (the cycle of rebirth) and nirvana (fulfillment, or more literally, the extinction of earthly desires) in the story of a dog: “Samsara Dog lived many lives. Some of his lives were very long, some lasted only a few days. ... Dog lived each life as it came until, finally, he learned the most important lesson of all.”

In matter-of-fact language, this is the story of a dog’s journey from violence and anger to companionship and love. Watercolors by Julie Vivas, an award-winning illustrator, complement the text with soft washes of color. Samsara Dog — who clearly has some dingo in his ancestry — sports a fox-colored pelt (recalling the saffron robes of Buddhist monks?), and the face of his final companion, a small boy, has the smooth androgynous geometry of an ancient statue. In the end, the dog devotes himself to the boy, saving the boy’s life and in the process attaining nirvana.

The dog’s death — his final departure from the cycle — may have some children in tears (not to mention some of the adults reading to them). But Manos, a practicing Buddhist whose previous books include “Lucky Baby Yak,” a story of ethnic displacement in Tibet, published in Australia, has an insight and sensitivity that make her an excellent guide to this difficult subject.

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