I was on Jakusho Kwong Roshi’s lecture today and I have his book here before me. But I won’t write about it this week because I think I should first scribble a few words about books that are, in my humble opinion, better for those who never heard much about Buddhism before. I’m referring to Geshe Michael Roach’s two excellent works – “The Diamond Cutter” and “The Garden“.

You see, Zen masters often speak through metaphors, poetically – sometimes simply through poems, sometimes through stories. It is great, but some of us, with our Western, analytic minds need something more concrete, more logical and straightforward first, before we will be able to see the subtle sense behind the verses. I think Tibetan Buddhism is much better at that, it produced not only colorful art, but also lots of strong philosophy, which is very palpable to Westeners. Especially so, when it’s recounted by those of them who spent much of their lives studying ancient texts. Michael Roach’s work is just that, simple yet accurate, covering thousands years old wisdom with today language.

Michael Roach has a very interesting background. Born in LA, educated in Princeton he’s as American as you can get. Yet his life changed in 1972 when his future teacher, a Tibetan Rinpoche crossed his path. He went on to study Tibetan Buddhism in one of its major schools, Gelugpa (the one Dalai Lama heads – they often had reputation of being strong in philosophy), became himself a fully-ordained monk in 1983 and after completing all necessary retreats and studies obtained the Geshe title in 1995. Geshe is roughly an equivalent of a doctorate in theology.

Somewhere along the way Michael managed to study and practice yoga – and to work in the diamond industry. Now, this was kind of a life experiment proposed by his Buddhist teacher – to try to apply buddhist knowledge about how the world functions in a normal, busy life of American businessman and see how it turns out. It turned out great, not only because his career proved very successful but also because its final fruit is the book he wrote – “The Diamond Cutter : The Buddha on Managing Your Business and Your Life“.

The title sounds exactly like all those more or less silly self-help books about almost every aspect of life that litter bookstores everywhere. And, to some extent it is one. But more importantly is a well written, down to earth explanation on how karma works. This is a topic of utmost importance to Buddhist worldview which is very commonly misunderstood, even by scholars. Karma is not fate, as its magically sounding foreign name could suggest. It also has nothing to do with the concept of sins and repentance. It’s just the good, old law of cause and effect only how it really makes the world move.

If we agree that everything that happens has a cause, then it would be neat to know what the cause is for events that seem not to have any. Like, for example, why out of two people working in the same field, on same day, with same effort and dedication only one succeeds? Or why, despite any effort you make, you can’t move out of the country you hate to live in? Wouldn’t it be nice to know?

But I won’t try to get into squeezing 200+ pages into two-three sentences in this review, especially because the book reads very well. Even despite author’s examples from his career in a diamond company being not always necessary and sometimes just too long.

However, karma is of course not the only thing Buddhism has to say – it’s not even the main point. It’s more about how to break out of the karmic chains, how to wake up. It is about meditation. And Roach’s second book attempts to be a gentle introduction to main teachings of Buddhism as taught by his school. “The Garden: A Parable” is very different from “The Diamond Cutter”. It is a poetic story, revolving around a mystical garden to which the narrator comes again and again through his life to receive teachings from famous Buddhist masters from the past that appear there for him. These teachings vary from why practice to how practice and we progress along with the main character as he goes from lesson to lesson. After just 200 pages you can expect to have a fairly good overview of what Buddhism in its Tibetan, Vajrayana version is all about.

Roach’s writing is even better in this book (maybe thanks to lack of stories from the world of diamonds), however I think it should be read after “The Diamond Cutter”. Even though it is gentle the language is already much more poetic (although still not what Zen masters write), which may be harder for some. If, however, you don’t have problems with metaphors and parables – go ahead and start with this one. The book reads well, which coupled with its size ensures you won’t spend more than a week or two on it.

One of the interesting things about Michael Roach is that many of his works, including a series of comprehensive courses on various aspects of Tibetan Buddhism are available free on-line. And this doesn’t mean some short pages – these are complete PDF handbooks, ready to be printed and mp3 of lectures to go with them. It is really unusual, and I think this is the only place where you can actually legally get on-line so comprehensive materials on Buddhism.

The other thing about Michael is how he looks. I didn’t know how he looks when I read his book for the first time (it was “The Diamond Cutter”). And I’m glad it was so, because I didn’t judge his work by how he looks – and, I’m sorry to say, to me he looks like a freak. But, it goes on to show how such perceptions can be misleading, since his works are not freakish in any way. I just hope you won’t make the same mistake and will try them.