Thursday, April 07, 2011

Guttersnipe Reviews: Sutra of the Wise and the Foolish

Sutra of the Wise and the Foolish

Stanley Frye

Library of Tibetan Works and Archives, 1981

I’ve read several collections of jataka tales (or Buddhist past-life stories) and this one is by far the most exuberant. ‘Zany’ is a better word.

Sutra of the Wise and the Foolish is a translation of a Mongolian scripture, and is very similar to its better-known Tibetan predecessor, The Ocean of Stories.

What a waste it would be to leave this work of scholarship to scholars – this fabulous book is a mine for storytellers, artists and dreamers. Fans of Calvino, Kafka, Rushdie, Borges or Lem will be right at home with these stories, which are often time-jumping shape-shifting mind-bending exercises in sheer exuberance. The stories sprint from life to life, and pile up transformations with a speed that might make Ovid gasp.

From “In Praise of the Blessings of the Monk”:

“Going on, they came to a woman tending a large copper kettle. First she poured water into it, then kindled a fire beneath it. When the water began to boil she removed her clothing and jumped into the kettle. Her hair fell out, her flesh cooked, and as the water boiled harder, her bones were seperated from her flesh and were scattered to the winds. The bones then turned into a man who tried to eat the flesh from the kettle. Standing behind the monk and watching, Majestic Being felt his hair rise in terror. When he asked who the person was who was eating the flesh, the teacher replied: “When the time comes, I shall tell you.”

There’s more than one king sleeping with a lioness and more than one queen laying eggs. The names alone are intoxicating: there’s a monk named Excellent Honey, a king named Mirror-Face and (my personal favorite) Prince Stump, who does quite well until he looks into a mirror and decides he’d rather be dead than so totally unfortunate-looking. . .

Or how about the story “A Householder Without Organs”, in which a son is born without “eyes, ears, nose, tongue, hands, or feet” and the writer goes on to question why the one small part he does possess is so terribly significant!

Published by the Tibetan Library of Works and Archives in Dharamsala, India, this book is well-worth tracking down. The Sutra of the Wise and the Foolish is as fun as scriptures get.

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