by Walter Mason
At one point I wanted to do my post-graduate work on the free books distributed at Buddhist temples in Australia. The various media on offer – books, tracts, holy cards, pamphlets, CDs and DVDs – have always attracted me, appealing as they do my bower bird instinct. But I was encouraged instead to concentrate on my other great passion, the literature of self-help. So the final word on free Buddhist literature must await the attentions of another scholar.
That doesn’t mean, however, that my interest in such ephemera has abated. Not at all. It has just shifted somewhat. These days I am obsessed with documenting the religious literature distributed for free outside herbalists and vegetarian restaurants in Cabramatta, my home suburb. Every week I make my way around these forlorn little shelves of devotional material to see what’s new.
I have something of a history, you see, with free religious literature. I grew up in a tiny town in North Queensland, and for some years I lived on a remote tin mine up in the mountains about 100 kilometres from the nearest town. I was educated at home by correspondence and about once a fortnight or so we made the long trip into town to shop, visit family and collect our mail. I was a bookish child, and somewhat starved of stimulating new reading until, at the age of 11, I discovered that one of the shopping centres in town distributed a free magazine called ‘The Plain Truth’, produced by a millennial Christian cult called the Worldwide Church of God. I would pore over this publication, glorying in its tales of healthy living, Mosaic Law and the impending destruction of civilization.
This started a whole phase of religious mania that never really left me, and I began to extend my reading by writing away for bizarre booklets from the Christadelphians, the Mormons, the New Covenant Church and anyone else who took out cheap ads in the back pages of magazines. I had a large duffel bag under my bed in which I kept this obscure library, and at the end of a year I knew way more about the Book of Revelation than any 12yo probably should.
When I began to travel in my 20s I was delighted to discover that the world was full of free religious literature going begging. I picked up books of prayers in Taiwan, meditation manuals in Thailand and once, bizarrely, the life story of the Duchess of Windsor translated into Vietnamese and handed out for free at a temple in Saigon.
The production and free distribution of devotional texts is an important part of Buddhist culture, hence the presence of shelves of free lit anywhere where quantities of Buddhists might be expected to collect. According to Buddhist theology the propagation of the Dharma through such publishing is one of the most powerful methods of acquiring good karma, and traditionally the death of an important family member is honoured through the printing of a religious book or image to be made available to everyone. This has been augmented in recent years by the advent of cheap printing and the easy replication and distribution of CDs and DVDs.
Now the free books shelf is a constant surprise, where once you could only expect to find a few sombre titles and the occasional wallet-sized image of the Goddess of Mercy. Laminated cards featuring sets of prayers and rituals have become a commonplace, as have recordings of talks by monks and of sessions of recitations of the Buddha’s name. It is a multi-media adventure. The shelves, though normally established by one particular group (most often a large religious organisation based in Taiwan) quickly become a free for all, with everyone leaving material there. So within a week or two of one being established they are quickly filled with the books and tracts of rival sects, popular moral literature that is not necessarily Buddhist, and even the occasional copy of ‘The Watchtower’ translated into Vietnamese. Those who maintain the shelves seem to cultivate a live and let live kind of policy, and I rarely suspect there is any significant censoring of what goes out.
So what did I collect during my rounds today? It was quite a good little haul, including a couple of short tracts devoted to the worship of Avalokitesvara, the Bodhisattva of compassion (one printed in Vietnam, which is a rare discovery in Sydney), a book called “Gratitude to Parents” by Ajahn Sumedho, an American Buddhist monk who is revered as a saint in Thailand, and sneaky little propaganda piece devoted to the propagation of veganism dsistributed by a quasi-Buddhist cult devoted to a charismatic Vietnamese religious teacher called Thanh Hai.
I couldn’t wait to get home and start reading.