Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Review: The Buddha's Diamonds

by Carolyn Marsden and Thay Phap Niem. Candlewick Press, 2008, paperback review copy. This story is based on the childhood events of Thay Phap Niem, now a Buddhist monk. Growing up in post-war Viet Nam, he lived in a small fishing village. In The Buddha's Diamonds the boy Tinh is ten years old and beginning to take on adult responsibilities as he fishes with his father in their handmade bamboo boat. When a typhoon hits and their boat is destroyed he feels responsible for not acting quickly enough to save it. He struggles with mixed emotions, wanting to play with toy cars with the other boys and also wanting to help his father feed the family.

What I really love about this book is the clear, simple way the Buddhist faith is presented. In the opening chapter Tinh is at the Buddhist temple with his parents listening to the monks and nuns chant. Although his cousins and friends are outside playing soccer, Tinh looks forward to this peaceful time each week listening to the temple bells. An old monk gives a talk about how each of us has a handful of diamonds, or blessings from the Buddha. The moon, the ocean, our parents, our homes, the wind and the fish in the sea; all are gifts for us to enjoy. Tinh takes the message to heart and learns to see his world with new eyes.

Tinh offers incense, flowers, leaves and sweets to the statue of Phat Ba Quan Ahm, the Bodhisattva of Compassion, at the temple during the Lunar New Year.
"Tinh had felt Phat Ba Quan Ahm come to him. He'd felt her in the sunshine and in the breeze that tickled his cheeks. She manifested in the ripple of sun and shade under the trees. he sensed her in the air he breathed as he presented his sweet gift while the round shadow of the tray fell over his shoulders."

He understands that the statue is not the real thing but an image of the spirit of compassion. She has many arms with a thousand hands and eyes that watch over those who suffer. She is a mother figure as Buddha is a father figure.

Later on when Tinh is walking across an old abandoned mine field that may still contain live mines he contemplates the happiness and courage of the Buddha.
"By tomorrow the boat would be ready for the ocean once again. But for now, he was just walking over the sand. The repaired propeller and the flower bouquet firmly in his hands, Tinh began to smile. He was ready to accept the Buddha's diamonds; the first stars, the dome of the sky overhead, the birds hurrying to nest, his own heart. beating. Steadily, Tinh crossed the sand dunes. No ghosts came to torture him. No land mines exploded. He reached the cemetery as the light faded. He found the gravestones of Banoi and Ong Noi. Kneeling, he laid down his tiny bouquet for his beloved ancestors. Beside it, he laid the pendant. Taking a last look at the Buddha's smile, Tinh walked into the night."

This book is written for middle grades and reads quickly. I think older readers will enjoy it as well for its vivid descriptions of life in rural Viet Nam and its graceful presentation of Buddhism lived meaningfully by a boy.

All of Thay Phap Niem's royalties will be donated to the Touching and Helping Programs in Vietnam.

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