Deciding on a title for a book is not always an easy task, but the authors of GEMS: An Introduction to Canadian Buddhism for the Young and Young at Heart, Kenneth K. Tanaka, along with Durgesh Kasbekar and John H. Negru, have chosen one that functions as both a noun and an adjective. The work is truly a gem!
The introduction explains that the title “comes from the Buddhist teaching which regards all living beings as precious jewels. Each shining gem is located where interconnecting strands intersect in the vast web of the universe. (11) This opening, based on Indra's Net story of the Flower Garland Sutrasets the tone for an engaging and uplifting read.
As the title promises, young and young-at-heart readers are introduced to Buddhism as a global religious tradition that took root in Canada. The authors contextualize Buddhism in contemporary Canadian culture in several ways. First and foremost, Tanaka sets the tone for the book with a cartoon announcing that Buddhism is “here now” in North America. Tanaka himself is American, but has teamed up with Canadians Kasbekar and Negru to explore how Buddhism manifested itself in the northern neighbor.
Next, Tanaka shares something very special about Buddhism in North America: "For the first time in 2 years of Buddhist history, practically all the major Buddhist denominations of the world today co-exist in many of North America's largest metropolitan areas,” including Canada's two largest cities, Toronto and Vancouver. (8) Readers need only consult the "About the Author" sections for proof, as Tanaka has personal and academic experience in Theravada (Thai) and Mahayana (Chinese and Jodo Shinshu) Buddhisms. ), Kasbekar is associated with Jodo Shinshu Buddhism, and Negru has experiences from many Buddhist traditions, but identifies primarily with Tibetan Buddhism.
Tanaka's introduction to Buddhism for young people, first published in his book Jewels: An Introduction to American Buddhism for Youth, Scouts, and the Young at Heart (2020), is an accessible representation of the Buddhadharma for any English reader at any age and stage of life. He bases the offering on early Buddhist teachings, stating that this foundation provides a commonality represented in the teachings and practices of all traditions, but can never do justice to the "distinct characteristics of the many Buddhist denominations". (8) Visually appealing pages contain an accessible depiction of the Buddha's life story, his teachings, comforting parables, popular metaphors, and advice for applying Buddhist principles to the challenges of youth.
Tanaka's tone is kind and caring. For example, when teaching the Second Noble Truth and the concept of craving for existence, Tanaka offers a joke: Why couldn't the Buddha vacuum the couch? Because he had no attachment (paraphrased from page 139). The jokes in the book are adorably cheesy and would be considered "dad jokes" by today's younger generations, which is fortuitous, since a recent study found that dad jokes have the ability to make us better humans, according to a 2023 study by Marc Hye. - Knudsen. Like the Buddha, Tanaka skillfully adjusts the tone for distinct audiences.
Co-authors Durgesh Kasbekar and John H. Negru are doing an ambitious job of contextualizing Buddhism in Canadian culture. It is their chapters that allow GEMS to function as a welcome addition to books on Buddhism in Canada. Currently, readers can consult four scholarly works, an oral history, and a sectarian history for information on Buddhism in the Great White North (listed below). Nowadays, GEMS is the only book on Buddhism in Canada that speaks directly to young Canadians.
Kasbekar's contributions include "Chapter 1: Buddhism in Canada" and "Chapter 5: A Brief History of Buddhism in Canada". The contents of these chapters would appeal to a more discerning reader, since Kaskebar has the broad task of guiding Buddhism in Canada both geographically and temporally. Kasbekar uses well-researched demographic data and skillfully summarized historical information to situate Buddhism within an ever-changing Canadian cultural landscape. It strikes a cordial yet educational tone, using the first person plural “we” to include the reader in a compact rendering of how all types of Buddhism are now flourishing in Canada.
Negru's “Chapter 2: Living the Buddhist Experience in Canada” and the photo selection he curated are powerful examples of how Buddhism is experienced in Canada. He uses the first person singular to speak directly to the young reader and positions himself as a mature Buddhist activist and community developer. It brings the young reader together with phrases such as "Thousands of your fellow Canadians have worked tirelessly to be good Buddhist ancestors to you and your unborn children." (29) After describing how Buddhists in Canada work to build and contribute to their communities and the world, Negru passes the torch to his young reader: “I offer you my most sincere greetings of gratitude for your presence here, your energy . I am sure you will discover great truths and do great things in your lifetime. We are all gems together in Indra's Net. (40) His pleasant voice both invites and engenders interdependence.
During the lecture GEMS, I tried to put myself in the universe of the target audience, especially for the chapters written by Kasbekar and Negru. To do this, I had to abandon my usual reading position as a scholar of religious studies and tap into my role as the parent of two young Canadian adults. North American youth today are growing up in an era of identity politics. They are much more sensitive to issues of diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) than my generation was in its youth. Although not the focus of the book, DEI issues have not been overlooked.
For example, in Chapter 1 of Kasbekar, under "Characteristics of Buddhism in Canada", he writes a paragraph that notes the equality of women in Canadian Buddhism, and in Chapter 5 he points out how the Multiculturalism Act of 1988 allowed Buddhist communities to build statues, stupas, and temples, despite strong opposition from local towns. Negru's chapter on Lived Buddhism mentions individual LGBTQI+ Buddhists in a shout-out to influential Canadian Buddhists and covers the suffering caused by racism, such as the internment of Japanese Canadians during World War II.
While reading GEMS as a parent allowed me to fully appreciate the book for all it offers to young readers. In fact, my only complaint with the book comes from wearing my scholar's glasses, which reveal a small inconsistency in the explanations of the world's religions. Overall, GEMS offers young people a valuable introduction to the past, present and hoped-for future of Buddhism in Canada, and would sit well on the shelves of public libraries, community centers, sanghas and temple reading rooms.
Kenneth K. Tanaka, Durgesh B. Kasbekar, and John H. Negru. 2022. Gemstones: An Introduction to Canadian Buddhism for the Young and Young at Heart. Sumeru Press Incorporated.
Harding, John S., Victor Sōgen Hori and Alexander Soucy. (ed.) 2010. Wild Geese: Buddhism in Canada. Montreal: McGill-Queen's University Press.
Hori, Victor Sōgen, John S. Harding and Alexander Duncan Soucy. (ed.) 2014. Flowers on the Rock: Global and Local Buddhisms in Canada. Montreal: McGill-Queen's University Press.
Parchelo, Innen Ray. 2020. A Path Through the Red Maples: The Arrival of Tendai Buddhism in Canada. Ottawa: Sumeru Press Inc.
Peressini, Mauro. 2016. Choosing Buddhism: The Life Stories of Eight Canadians. Ottawa: University of Ottawa Press.
Sugunasiri, Suwanda HJ 2017. Buddhism in Canada – an oral history. Access: https://tspace.library.utoronto.ca/handle/1807/78778.