Quad Review: ‘Real Zen for Real Life,’ ‘The Ottoman Empire,’ ‘Sacred Texts of the World,’ and ‘Hinduism’

I’ve been in the mood for nonfiction lately, and have been listening to audiobooks virtually every day for about a month now. Fortunately for me, Audible had a recent 2-for-1 deal when it comes to buying ‘Great Courses’ lecture series. Instead of doing an individual review for all four of these courses, I’m going to do one blogpost for all four.

NOTE: I occasionally suggest you read other people’s reviews of these books before you purchase them. As I read more and more history books, and books about religion, the more I notice that some other people’s reviews on them are filled with crackpot theories about nationalism and bogus religious research. If you check out the goodread or amazon reviews for these nonfiction stories, have a grain of salt about those reviews. Some of the 1 star reviews there are written with a religious or nationalistic agenda.

Real Zen for Real Life by Bret W. Davis

This is a ‘Great Courses’ lecture about Zen Buddhism, presented by a lecturer who is both a professor and lay buddhist acolyte. I found this series to be very well done. The lecturer created both a narrative including

  • the historical perspective of Zen Buddhism in the east Asian region,
  • the metaphysical theological underpinnings of Zen,
  • a how-to guide on meditating,
  • chanting,
  • introducing the concept of Zen koans,
  • the major historical Zen masters
  • and finally some good life advice, applicable for even people who choose to not get into meditating/spirituality

I thought this was very well done. The lecturer never went over my head, and always tried to use Christian metaphors a Westerner would understand to explain Eastern Buddhist concepts. Overall, this was a well thought out series, displaying the lecturer’s mastery of the subject matter by presenting it clearly.

STARS: 4 OUT OF 5 STARS (5 Stars=Perfect, 4 Stars=Great, 3 Stars=Good, 2 Stars=Fun but Flawed, 1 Star=Not Recommended)


Genres/Tagwords: Buddhism, History of Religion, Nonfiction, Spirituality, Mysticism

Previous books by the author/in the series I’ve reviewed:

  • None

The Ottoman Empire by Kenneth B. Harl

This is a lecture series about the Ottoman Empire.

  • It begins with the pre-feudal history of the Ottomans, beginning with the Persian Empire of the Seljuk Turks,
  • Continues with the foundation of the Ottoman Sultanate under the Byzantine thumb, and the downfall of Byzantium
  • Discusses the socio-cultural conditions of Greece and Anatolia (aka modern Turkey) in the Sultanate of Rum
    • Including an extended study of the Sufi order founded by Jalal al-Rumi, the still famous poet whose works I reviewed (and loved) a few months ago.
  • How the non-Arab Ottoman Turks managed to claim the title of Khalif despite not being ethically Arab.
  • The rise of the major Ottoman Sultans like ‘Osman the Thunderbolt,’ ‘Mehmet the Conqueror’ and ‘Suliman the Lawgiver/Magnificent.’
  • The ethnic conflicts and synergies between Muslim Turks and Apostolic/Syrian/Coptic/Greek Orthodox Christians, as well as the Spanish Jews banished from Spain during the Spanish Inquisition, especially in the form of the jizya
  • Palace intrigues, especially those involving the harem politics and the assassination of brothers, uncles and cousins- as well as the legalized murder of the Sultan’s male rivals to the throne (!!!)
  • The many aspects of the Janissary core, from creation to dissolution
  • The West coming in and stealing Egypt, leading to a series of half-baked reforms seeking to modernize the Empire.
  • The gradual dissolution of the Empire, as the West (especially Russia) nibbled around the edges
  • The republic of Turkey, and making Christians and Jews equal citizens with Muslims.
  • The tragedy of WW1, and the rise of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk
  • The Armenian genocide
  • The collapse of the Empire, and the establishment of the Turkish state.
  • The war with Greece
  • The modern state

This was a good series. If any of the above topics struck you as being interesting, you should check this out.

It does have some flaws: I felt it neglected more of the artistic, and cultural existence of the Empire. The author briefly mentioned poetry, but never actually read any of it out loud. This is an audiobook! Leverage your medium! The same goes for discussing painting, architecture and the like. This series is about the military conquests and politics of Ottoman Turkey. Consequently, this felt a little dry.

STARS: 4.5 OUT OF 5 STARS (5 Stars=Perfect, 4 Stars=Great, 3 Stars=Good, 2 Stars=Fun but Flawed, 1 Star=Not Recommended)


Genres/Tagwords: Islam, Ottoman, Nonfiction, History Book

Previous books by the author/in the series I’ve reviewed:

  • None

‘Sacred Texts of the World’ by Grant Hardy

I did not enjoy this lecture series as much as others. While it was very comprehensive, I didn’t learn much new information from it. That said, I will not dock stars from this because it didn’t give me any new info. This series discusses the scripture of the following religions

  • Judaism
  • Christianity
  • Islam
  • Zoroastrianism
  • Sikhism
  • Jainism
  • The Hindu Vedas
  • The Buddhist sutras
  • The Confucian Analects
  • Daoist scriptures
  • Shinto and Tenrikyo
  • Baha’i
  • The United States Constitution/Civil Religion
  • Egyptian
  • Mayan

This lecture series discussed the written history of the various religions. When viewed from that perspective, the lecturer accomplished exactly what he set out to do. He often delved into the nitty-gritty of what these religions were written upon- such as silk scrolls, or palm leaves, or carved in stone. As a result, the lecturer provides a very unique angle on the perspective of world religions.

My main problem was that by only viewing the written history of these religions, you leave out a good deal of the unwritten traditions and histories and rituals- and you don’t even mention all of the religions which DON”T have a written history.

If you want to learn about the religious history of the world, I do think you should read this. However, I do not think this should be the first lecture series you should listen to. I suggest this one first, and then you should read this one.

STARS: 3 OUT OF 5 STARS (5 Stars=Perfect, 4 Stars=Great, 3 Stars=Good, 2 Stars=Fun but Flawed, 1 Star=Not Recommended)


Genres/Tagwords: History of Religion, Nonfiction, History Book

Previous books by the author/in the series I’ve reviewed:

  • None

Hinduism‘ by Dr. Gregory Kozlowski

This was NOT a lecture. Instead I got this nonfiction book free through Audible Plus. It was only ~5 hours long, so it was a quick listen.

This is a brief introduction to the religion(s) of the Indian Subcontinent. Contrary to the title, this isn’t just about Hinduism. Sikhism, Jainism and Buddhism are also described in some detail. Also, the narrator goes over socio-political topics, like the caste system, the Muslim conquest, the European conquest, WW1, and the Indian freedom movements as well as modern conflicts between religions on the subcontinent.

This book was at it’s best when it talked about the day-to-day life of a Hindu person. For example, this audiobook leveraged it’s medium to record and play a Hindu person speaking their morning and evening prayers.

I also liked how the production company hired different audiobook narrators to speak different quotations.

I especially liked how the author showed how the religion changed over time- starting as a ritual based, priest-caste only movement, but later changing to a devotional religion based around shrine worship and the veneration of gods by everyone.

Finally, I very much so liked how the author went into the modern history of India, and discussed how religion influenced and still influences politics there- including ethnic violence amongst Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs. It felt well thought out and balanced.

This was a short, well produced audiobook. It was NOT in any way comprehensive. Hinduism is the world’s oldest, largest, and probably most internally diverse religion. Honestly, this audiobook doesn’t do more than scratch the surface on a vast topic. If you are a high school writing a course paper on the subject, this is a good source; if you are a college student writing a book on Hinduism, this book isn’t going to cut the mustard. Look for a larger book to base your research on.

STARS: 2.5 OUT OF 5 STARS (5 Stars=Perfect, 4 Stars=Great, 3 Stars=Good, 2 Stars=Fun but Flawed, 1 Star=Not Recommended)


Genres/Tagwords: Hinduism, History of Religion, History Book

Previous books by the author/in the series I’ve reviewed:

  • None

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