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From The Asian Reporter, V15, #29 (July 19, 2005), page 20.

Buddhism for beginners

I Once Was a Monkey: Stories Buddha Told

Written and illustrated by Jeanne M. Lee

Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1999

Hardcover, 40 pages, $16.00

By Josephine Bridges

The monsoon came to the forest that morning. Suddenly the wind rose, ushering in dark clouds. Shrieking birds filled the treetops, and the monkey families that lived there jumped nervously from branch to branch. Then the sky exploded with thunder and streaks of lightning, and the rain came pouring down. In the frenzy, a young monkey lost his footing and fell from his tree."

Could there be a finer beginning to a children’s book? But wait, this is only the beginning.

This collection of Jatakas, stories Buddha told "to his disciples when occasions rose, to illustrate his teachings," is a flawless jewel of a children’s book that most adults could benefit from reading. Rarely do I wish that I had written a book, regardless of how much I may have enjoyed reading and reviewing it. I Once Was a Monkey gets my highest award. And Jeanne M. Lee didn’t just write it, she illustrated it!

You’ll be pleased to know that the little monkey finds shelter in a cave with a turtle, a jackal, a lion, a dove, and a stone statue of Buddha, who tells the animals stories to pass the time. The stories themselves are wonderful, but the conversations Buddha and the animals have about them are astonishing.

In Buddha’s story "The Monkey and the Crocodile," Buddha is a monkey, "strong and nimble, living in a forest near the Ganges River." A crocodile lures the monkey on to his back with promises of delicious fruit on the other side of the river. When the crocodile tries to drown the monkey in order to eat his heart, the monkey tells him that "monkeys never bring our hearts with us when we go near the water," and directs the crocodile to a fig tree where he says monkey hearts are hanging. When they near land, the monkey jumps from the crocodile’s back and the embarrassed crocodile sinks "to the depths of the river without a sound."

"Monkey almost lost his heart! exclaimed the dove. Little Monkey, aren’t you glad to be here with us, rather than on the back of that crocodile?"

"Wise Buddha, should we never believe what people tell us?" asked the jackal. "You were nearly eaten by the crocodile when you believed him."

Jeanne M. Lee’s illustrations, some in color, some in black and white, are just lovely. A pile of fish skeletons at the base of a tree is deliciously creepy. The final picture of Monkey choosing not to step on two ants "as he had always enjoyed doing" makes it clear that we can all change for the better.

The author ends with an Afterword in which she tells the story of Buddha’s life and recommends two other books "for the curious." That would be everybody who has the privilege of reading I Once Was a Monkey.

To buy me, visit these retailers:

Powell's Books