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A well-spun tale: Review of Spinning Karma

When a young Edward Schwartz joined the Buddhist ashram Mind of Pure Enlightenment (MOPE), he unwittingly took on more than he bargained for. Originally MOPE focussed on standard Buddhist practices, but like some ashrams of the era eventually added sex and drugs into the mix, boosting its popularity and attracting famous devotees–but also like many in those days fell prey to legal and public relations problems. No longer allowed to lead the sect, their guru passed the torch and title of rinpoche to Edward, for reasons no one could fathom, especially Eddie. 

Rinpoche Schwartz returned the sect to its original, less scandalous roots, and over time managed to take it from weakness to weakness. The story picks up with a much older Schwartz, with little to show for his life and an ashram shrunk to nearly nothing. Hoping to reconnect with his estranged son, he takes a trip to Taipei to visit him and his wife. The all-too-human and rather hapless protagonist, however, is about to launch on a wild path of worldwide fame, sex, dumplings and international political intrigue between China and the United States–all over a well-meaning, but spectacularly ill-thought-out online media post. 

Billed as a “Buddhist comedy”, the book is genuinely very funny and at times laugh-out-loud hilarious. The Buddhism, while central to the character and the plot, is easily accessible regardless of how much the reader understands the subject. Leaving aside some of the names used (“Badger News Network”) and one very amusing vehicle choice, the author avoids the common tactic of going over the top for comedic effect. Most everything that happens to the flawed, but sympathetic rinpoche is believable, and only somewhat improbable. That was a good choice. The underlying story stands on its own merits: The humour is a bonus. 

Originally written as a film script, the book is fast-paced with tight, relatively short scenes. That doesn’t come at the expense of character-building, the author has a deft skill at drawing out even the most marginal of bit players. Scenes and characters often don’t turn out as expected, but always in the end giving the reader a sense of understanding why, with satisfying completeness. Humanity, with all its flaws, struggles and glories is at the very core of this book. And of course, there is nothing funnier than our humanity. 

Spinning Karma is a joy to read. Thoughtful, yet fun. Insightful, and insightfully funny. Camphor Press has published a winner. 

Spinning Karma
Joshua Samuel Brown
Camphor Press | December 2020 | 240 pages

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Written by 石東文 Courtney Donovan Smith

Courtney Donovan Smith is co-publisher of Compass Magazine and editor-in-chief of Taiwanfun.com

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