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T he Six Perfections by Dale S. Wright

The Six Perfections (Wright)The Six Perfections: Buddhism & the Cultivation of Character by Dale S. Wright. Oxford University Press 2009, 292 pages.

After reading a couple examples of “popular” books on the Buddhist paramitas, this one came as a very welcome relief.  The difference was immediately noticed and profound: as opposed to the fluff, irrelevant stories and pop psychology of Das and Boorstein, this is a mature philosophical reflection on the Buddhist “perfections” by a man who is less an entertainer than a real thinker.  Wright’s language is sophisticated, nuanced and densely meaningful, and he offers a critical, contemporary assessment of Buddhist attitudes and practices.

The book is entirely Mahayana in orientation, taking its cue from the “Perfection of Wisdom” literature, specifically the Diamond Sutra, the Large Sutra on Perfect Wisdom, the Perfection of Wisdom in Eight Thousand Lines, the Vimalakirti and, of course, the Bodhicaryavatara of Shantideva.  (I knew I was in the hands of a good scholar when Wright actually stated up front what his sources would be.)  The book covers (per the title) the traditional six paramitas as opposed to the Theravada and later Mahayana ten.  For each of the six Wright first discusses how the paramita has been understood in traditional Buddhist culture.  He then offers a contemporary critical assessment of that “perfection.”  I found this added reflection absolutely critical to the quality of the book and one of the reasons why I would recommend it so unhesitatingly.  Wright recognizes–as is rarely done, it seems–that many images of Buddhist sainthood are so rarefied and elevated as to be impossible to emulate.  Somehow, though, they must be rendered concrete, and so the question Wright pursues is how can these examples be made valid models for contemporary people.  He spends a lot of time exploring this and similar questions, making the old texts relevant and comprehensible to us.  In this he renders great service to the tradition as a whole.

It should be clear to anyone who reads this book that Wright is a man of great integrity and insight.  The book simply could not have been produced by someone who had not reflected seriously and at length upon these issues.  But my simply saying this will not adequately convey what I mean.  Put it this way: I know a book is “great” when I cannot help but read it with a pen or pencil in hand and feel excited to mark out passages that particularly strike me, when I am compelled to write notes to myself for later reference.  When I know I have to read a book again, I get a feeling of great gratitude to the author, for in such instances he or she has created something that affects and alters me, for the better.  This is such a book.

I offer a few examples from the text:

What is it that we are perfecting in the six perfections?  The best word in English for that would be our character.  It is through resources of character that we undertake enlightening practices, and it is our character that is enlightened (7).

Unless we as donors can see clearly and unflinchingly that who we are as donors–secure in wealth and health–is completely dependent on numerous turns of good fortune, on the care and help of others, and on opportunities not available to everyone, our acts of giving will be less than fully generous.  These acts will therefore not have the liberating effects that they might otherwise have had.  When we are able to see that the homeless person’s parents did not do for him what ours did for us, that his teachers did not do for him what ours did for us, then we begin to understand the contingency of our fortune, and, looking more deeply, the thorough interdependency of all reality (25).

The culmination of Buddhist practices of generosity can be seen in their ideal form, the bodhisattva who gives unselfishly out of a deep compassion for all living beings.  Compassion is the ultimate aim of these practices.  But that culmination is the result of a long process of self-cultivation.  For the most part, compassion is something we learn to feel.  It is not innate, not a “natural” feeling.  For these reasons, we cannot feel compassion simply by deciding to feel it, or by telling ourselves that it is our responsibility to feel it.  We do, however, have the capacity to develop compassion by cultivating our thoughts and emotions in ways that enable it.  This is the function of the “practice” of giving.  Making generosity of character an explicit aim of self-cultivation, we sculpt our thoughts, emotions, and dispositions in the direction of a particular form of human excellence (30).

In the same way that etiquette resembles morality while not yet embodying it, morality imitates compassion while still falling short of it (81).

The perfection of tolerance is the art of understanding what, when, and how to tolerate (110).

Anger as a response to injustice presupposes a kind of selfhood that will at some point stand in the way of justice (117).

The role of energy in ethics can be highlighted by reflecting on ways in which we might fall short in life. There are two basic ways in which it is possible for a person to fail ethically. The most obvious of these is to act unjustly, to commit crimes against one’s society and oneself, to be a negative, destructive force. But another way is to fail in the positive, failing to live constructively on behalf of oneself and others. This second failure signals a deficiency of energy, a lack of constructive striving toward something worthwhile. Failing in this sense, people may never commit a crime against others or do anything explicitly wrong; their failure consists of not generating the energy of constructive life, thus failing to live a life in keeping with their capacity (146).

I could of course supply many more quotes–the author is eloquent and thoughtful at every turn.  But the book is not without its faults.  Two points stood out for me. First, Wright has a tendency to go on longer than necessary, which can make the chapters seem over extended.  He clearly gets caught up in his own ruminations at times, to the detriment of the text.  If anyone thinks any part of the book is “boring,” this will be the reason.  The second problem is much more profound.  Through the first four paramitas Wright was spot on in his understanding and elucidation of Buddhist concepts, but in the section on meditation (chapter 5) the wheels came off his cart.

I think once again we have here the age-old conundrum of the scholar who has not practiced beyond thinking, learning and reflection; it’s clear Wright does not really know what meditation is.  For example, on page 194 he says “…in contrast to samatha or calming kinds of meditation, vipassana cultivates thinking in the service of enhanced awareness and wisdom.”  He continues, saying “…vipassana meditation takes several forms. But in each case the practice entails focusing thought on an idea or a series of ideas” (194).  He clearly believes vipassana is primarily reflective, cognitive or conceptual, so the essence of the fifth chapter is an elucidation of meditation as a kind of disciplined, guided thinking.  While it is true that some types of meditation (think of the Brahmaviharas) begin as discursive reflections or visualizations, that is never their end.  As regards vipassana, however, it doesn’t even begin there; Wright would have done well to read Kornfield’s Living Dharma to get an idea what vipassana really is about.

I have to confess I am at a loss to explain how Wright so totally misses the point here.  Clearly he is an intelligent, thoughtful and well read man.  Clearly he has put a lot of time into understanding Buddhist culture.  But the fifth chapter, while not without insight (here and there), is largely a toss on account of how badly he misunderstands what dhyana is actually about.

I’ve come to the conclusion that this kind of fault is cultural in nature, the culture in question being the “culture of scholarship,” aka “academia.”  (Remember when someone says It’s academic they really mean it’s beside the point, not useful or applicable.)  I was once myself an aspiring scholar/academic and I can say how tempting it is to think that if you’ve read the books and published the articles, then you must really understand something in a serious way.  If you’re talking about Renaissance French literature, that might be the case, but human consciousness ultimately transcends culture and time–structures and capacities are innate–and contemplative technologies which seek to alter those structures and capacities cannot be adequately understood from the vantage point most of us start from.  These are not things one should simply think about–you have to do them.

On account of the problems I’ve described, I’m giving the book four stars.  However, the first four chapters are five (even six!) star material, and the last chapter is also quite excellent, though it lacks the practical groundedness of the first four.

The Beginning Bodhisattva’s Practice of Virtue

Continuing comments on Acariya Dhammapala’s “A Treatise on the Paramis” (4)

The middle third of Arya Dhammapala’s “A Treatise on the Paramis” is, fittingly, taken up with a discussion of how the paramis are actually practiced (this would be section (x), running from pp. 35-56).  Of that chunk, more than half is devoted to the first two paramis, generosity (dana) and virtue (sila).  This is not so surprising since they are the foundation for everything else; remember in the suttas the Buddha’s teaching is often explained in brief as danasila and bhavana (mental cultivation or meditation).

I think generosity is a pretty easy concept to get–give ’til it hurts, as Mother Teresa said–but virtue, aka morality or ethics, is an entire subject itself, abounding with subtleties and potential complications.  So for this post I’d like to discuss Dhammapala’s take on virtue.

how_important_ethics_cartoon

Dhammapala tells us virtue is purified by four ways or modes:

  1. by purifying one’s inclinations, meaning the things that attract or interest you (practicing dhutangas vs watching porn, for example);
  2. by undertaking precepts;
  3. by non-transgression, or keeping, of those precepts;
  4. by making amends (penitence and apologies) for transgressions.

All of these are cultivated, undertaken, encouraged and maintained by a sense of shame over moral transgression (hiri) and moral dread (otappa), which is fear of the results of transgression, and I’d say that it is really these two innate sensibilities that determine, to a greater or lesser degree, how you will behave from an ethical standpoint.  On this a lot could be said, but I will note that there are people who possess neither shame nor moral dread, and they are known as sociopaths.

Most of us, fortunately, are not sociopaths.  If we break rules or promises (especially those we value), the violation of which lowers us in our own eyes, we feel shame (guilt, too, probably, but there is a difference).  We also probably take a quick look around to see if anyone is watching, and, oddly, our relief is not complete even if we’re pretty sure we didn’t get caught.  In other words, we fear the consequences that come from breaking trust with others and ourselves–even if the police aren’t going to come get us, the world we know somehow manages to gnaw at our gut.

The important thing is that these tendencies, which in the morally healthy person are strong and quick to come online when needed, can be cultivated, and the four steps above are the process of that cultivation.  So what Dhammapala is telling us is that first we must incline toward taking on moral standards, then we must decide to do so, then we have to try to keep the promises we’ve made, and if we don’t….well, we must make it up to someone, as often as not, ourselves.

Precepts are different from commandments.  I hope everyone can see this.  In Exodus the sky god Yahweh tells his people “You must do this, that and the other thing…or else.”  Moses doesn’t stand there and ask why he and the rest have to do all these things–it’s unnerving to have conversations with burning bushes, after all–and Yahweh certainly doesn’t volunteer any justifications: “It’s good for social cohesion,” “You’ll have fewer altercations,” “Your love life will be better,” etc.  It’s just a matter of here’s the list, now be obedient.  

Notice a commandment is something given without explanation; it’s externally imposed.  However, precepts–in Buddhism, at least–are rules of training you take upon yourself because you’ve considered and reflected and come to understand the intelligence behind them.  If you have the goal of spiritual awakening, then you will realize that without the guideposts of ethical training rules the chance of you getting to your goal is nil.  I’ve written at length elsewhere upon this subject.  Here’s a snippet of what I’ve said:

What then is the purpose of ethical behavior?  The Buddha discusses this specific question innumerable times throughout the suttas.  In brief, one adopts sila (ethical precepts) specifically for the purpose of eliminating mental, verbal and physical actions that give rise to negative mental states, relationships and consequences that hinder mental culture (bhavana).  Also, we try to behave generously, graciously, and compassionately because such modes of deportment foster good mental states both within ourselves and others.  In other words, depending on what we think, say and do we have the power to increase or decrease suffering in ourselves and others.  Since the Buddha’s teaching is concerned entirely with the elimination of suffering (i.e. existential angst), ethical behavior is the bedrock upon which everything else must be built.  Without it, the attainment of higher states leading to [nirvana] is out of the question.

Once one understands this, then hiri and otappa come naturally and abundantly and Dhammapala’s four-fold schema follows as a matter of course.

Ethics meds

Conditions for Practice of the Paramis

Continuing comments on Acariya Dhammapala’s “A Treatise on the Paramis” (3)

This is my third post commenting on Acariya Dhammapala’s “A Treatise on the Paramis.”  In my last post I discussed the aspiration for buddhahood and the daunting list of prerequisites required for it to have any hope of succeeding.  But additional to the specific characteristics of the aspirant there are also conditions that must exist for one to even practice the paramis, and I think it’s safe to say these conditions apply whether you really are a bodhisattva or just want to become a better person and/or better spiritual practitioner.  So all you regular folks, take note!

Dhammapala writes that three conditions in particular are required just to get the practice of the paramis started.  First is the aspiration for buddhahood (or, at a more regular seeming level, the desire for self-improvement), and then great compassion (mahakaruna) and skillful means (upayakosalla).  Now at first glance it might seem the aspiration would come first, but a closer look indicates that’s actually not the case.  First ask yourself, Why would anyone even make the vow? They would have to be motivated by compassion (big or little), by the desire to help others and to alleviate their suffering.  Along with that, they would have to possess the wherewithal, the can-do spirit and facility of skillful means.  Merely wanting to help others won’t cut it–without the ability you’ll be ineffectual and probably make a mess of things.  On the other hand, ability without interest will result in nothing done.  So, one without the other doesn’t work, but when these two exist together, then the determination can be made, so they must precede the aspiration.

temple gate

But there’s more to it than even that.  Dhammapala also mentions four factors, called the “grounds for Buddhahood” (buddhabhumiyo), that need to be present: 1) zeal (ussaha), meaning the energy that strives for the requisites, 2) adroitness (ummanga), which is wisdom in applying skillful means to the requisites, 3) stability (avatthana), or unshakable will for their perfection, and 4) beneficent conduct (hitacariya) which is the development of loving-kindness and compassion.

Honestly, I am doubtful about the usefulness of this list.  I think it’s an unnecessary add on, since every one of these is, in some form or another, already a parami.  (In other words, I see the paramis as a self-referencing, self-reinforcing system.)  When he next adds “six inclinations,” I really feel it’s a bit of Theravadan style list making for the sake of list making.  Basically, his idea is you have to be inclined toward the paramis to develop them.  Well….duh!  Dhammapala also says we should review their opposites to understand the fault of not developing them, and this is certainly a smart mode of reflection to motivate oneself, kind of like reflecting on the merits of fidelity if you imagine yourself getting caught in bed with a paramour!  This actually leads to one of the treatise’s meatiest sections, an extended reflection on the positives of parami practice versus the negatives of not practicing.  This part of the text, pages 22-33, is really excellent and inspiring reading.

But to get back to the point of this post (which is in danger of getting lost!), on page 33 Dhammapala makes what is certainly the most telling statement in his entire treatise:

Thus one should arouse an especially strong inclination toward promoting the welfare of all beings. And why should loving-kindness be developed toward all beings? Because it is the foundation for compassion. For when one delights in providing for the welfare and happiness of other beings with an unbounded heart, the desire to remove their affliction and suffering becomes powerful and firmly rooted. And compassion is the first of all the qualities issuing in Buddhahood–their footing, foundation, root, head and chief. [emphasis added]

I can’t help but be reminded of Jesus’ saying in Matthew regarding the Biblical Law:

You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment.  And a second is like it, You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the law and the prophets.

While I might quibble with his theistic metaphysics, the notion that positive, altruistic motivation should be the inspiration behind all of one’s life is clearly the common thread to the messages of Jesus and the bodhisattva path.

So if we map out the the conditions for the practice of the paramis, and what engenders their development, it might look something like this:

Compassion–>effort–>skillful means (upaya)–>determination–>Aspiration (vow)

Just think of these as baby steps to buddhahood!

baby steps

Buddha Is As Buddha Does by Lama Surya Das

Buddha Is As Buddha Does

Buddha Is As Buddha Does: The Ten Original Practices For Enlightened Living by Lama Surya Das.  HarperCollins 2008, 264 pages.

I had actually looked forward to reading this book.  Das is a well-known name in Buddhist circles, and his book Awakening the Buddha Within was promoted by Ken Wilber and even became a best seller.  The man apparently also has several (3?) intensive retreats Tibetan-style (living in a shack for 3 years, sleeping upright, the works) so I assumed he must have an abundance of insight to offer.

Maybe he does.  I’ve now read the book, but I’m still not entirely sure.  You see, the first thing that hit me when I started it was that it felt like a self-improvement tract, ala Anthony Robbins.  There is the relentlessly exuberant optimism that pervades much of the more lightweight self-improvement books, and the saccharine prose was freighted with the sort of populist, feel-good catch phrases of American Buddhism that I’ve really become tired of–“we’re all Buddhas” filled with “Buddha-nature” if only we could see into our “inner being” yada yada yada.

The book is about the paramitas (“perfections”) as they are described in Mahayana and Vajrayana Buddhism.  Contrary to the subtitle, though, the practices described here are in no way “original.”  The oldest texts (the Pali) also describe ten perfections, but they are a different ten.  (See Acarya Dhammapala’s little gem of a work A Treatise on the Paramis for more about this.)  The later traditions (Mahayana and Vajrayana) compiled a different set of practices (also ten), but even there the Mahayana initially had only six, and these form the core of the list Das describes.

This kind of loose “scholarship” (if that’s the right word for it) is evident also in his frequent quotes from Buddhist literature and sutras.  He may be quoting the Buddha or some text, but a reference is never offered, and in more than a few instances where he quotes the “Buddha” I know the quote–which is probably his reworded version of it–is not from the Pali but a Mahayana or tantric text.  Someone of Das’ stature ought to know better than to pretend those passages, however edifying, come down to us from the Buddha.

For anyone who read my earlier post “On reading Buddhist books” you will know that the above marks this work out as a “popular” text.  Indeed, Lama Surya Das is a no-holds barred propagator of marketable American Buddhism, i.e. Buddhism as politically correct, feel-good pablum.  One manifestation of this is his relentless ecumenicism.  Stories from any number of traditions are bandied about freely, with the impression that everyone’s religion is equally filled with enlightened masters and sages.  I do not have any problem with ecumenism per se, so long as accuracy and depth are not sacrificed.  But what I’ve noticed about this style of thinking and writing is that it tends to dilute the depth and subtlety of the tradition on hand, in this case Vajrayana Buddhism.   The uniqueness of the tradition is disguised behind the attempt to make it seem that its truths, whatever they may be, are universally known and understood.  Yet I would wager there are many insights the Tibetans have which, for example, the Muslims do not.  (Actually, I can easily think of several.  But I digress…)  However, you will never learn that with a book like this.  Other examples that mark this out as populist fodder are: endless stories that obscure what could be meaningful points, the author’s seeming to be old buddies with every well known lama in the country, the minimal use of appropriate technical terminology (you don’t even learn the Sanskrit for several of the perfections), and the abundant use of feel good jargon.

Das also displays some serious problems of judgment.  For example, Lance Armstrong is repeatedly cited as a hero and bodhisattva.  This, of course, is terribly unfortunate (for Das) because only three years later Armstrong’s reputation totally unraveled under the weight of a doping scandal.  Of course there was no way for Das to know this at the time, but reading it now does nothing for the author’s credibility.  A worse error is citing Muhammad Ali (p. 65) as an exemplar of the first precept (not killing) because Ali refused to go to Vietnam.  This is truly PC run amok–anyone who takes up a livelihood of beating strangers’ faces to a pulp can hardly be considered a practitioner of “non-harming,” the real intent of the first precept.  Finally, offering the Vietnamese monk Quang Duc’s self-immolation (p. 42) as the act of a bodhisattva is highly questionable, as I’ve never come across anything in the entire Pali Canon to indicate the Buddha would espouse dramatic public suicide for the sake of a socio-political cause.

If my review seems relentlessly negative, I am sorry.  I actually felt embarrassed reading the book on the train, and tended to hide the cover from my fellow riders.  But this is not to say it was a complete loss.  Compared to Sylvia Boorstein’s Pay Attention for Goodness’ Sake Das is actually profound.  In a number of places he gives quite meaningful and helpful advice (p. 77 is particularly excellent), and offers some very good insights (e.g. on p. 19 where he notes that the first six paramitas are bodhisattva character traits while the last four are active expressions of those traits).  In fact, I am convinced that if Das had a hard nosed editor (perhaps he’d be willing to hire me!) who could cut through the rubbish and lay bare the intelligence and experience he so plainly possesses, this book–and probably every book he ever wrote or will write–would be vastly improved.  I’m not sure if they’d sell as well, though, and that may be the catching point: like so many popular Buddhist authors, he has a foundation to support, and those things need MONEY.

I’m giving this book three stars on Amazon.  There are certainly a lot of people out there who will enjoy and benefit more from it than I have; Das is not writing for curmudgeons like me.

Pay Attention, For Goodness’ Sake by Sylvia Boorstein

Pay Attention, For Goodness' SakePay Attention, For Goodness’ Sake: practicing the perfections of the heart: the buddhist path of kindness by Sylvia Boorstein. Ballantine Books 2002, 282 pages.

Boorstein’s book is about the ten paramis (Sanskrit paramitas), written from a Theravadan perspective.  She is a practicing psychologist and vipassana teacher, hanging out with folks like Jack Kornfield and Sharon Salzberg.  This would seem to stand her in good stead, though I confess I was less than blown away by her book.  It had a rambling, chatty, fluffy feeling to it, almost like she sat down at her computer with a cup of coffee and just started writing whatever came to mind.  Often the stories she told to illustrate her “points” did not seem particularly connected to the virtue under discussion, be it loving kindness, renunciation, generosity, or whatever.  They could go on a bit too–a not particularly illuminating conversation with a cab driver concerning whatever covered three pages (pp. 117-9)!  Similarly, the quotes at the heads of the chapters often didn’t seem related to the chapter subject.

The most instructive and original part of her book was the “periodic table of virtue” (pp. 28ff).  This was not only insightful but helpful.  It reminded me of the table I created off Acariya Dhammapala’s “Treatise on the Paramis” in an earlier post.  A few of her stories were also quite good.  I especially recommend the one about Bret and his retreat experience (memories of getting mugged) from pp. 236ff, and Boorstein’s musings on her own ten year long grudge against a fellow meditation teacher (168ff).  Then there is the hilarious–though totally irrelevant–piece about Seung Sahn and Kalu Rinpoche.  I once met the former and am familiar with his book titles, every one of which prefaces his name with the self-styled title “Zen Master.”  He never impressed me and Boorstein’s story (on p. 196) not only confirmed my opinion of him but also put me on notice that it really is possible to be too Zen.  The story is so priceless I quote it here in full:

Students of the Korean teacher Seung Sahn, the founder of the Providence Zen Center, and students of Kalu Rinpoche, a lama (priest) in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, arranged for the two venerable lineage holders to appear together for a public dialogue.  Seung Sahn took an orange out of the sleeve of his robes, held it up for Kalu Rinpoche to see, and said, in the forthright style characteristic of Zen, “What is this?”  Kalu Rinpoche’s interpreters translated the question for him, but he seemed mystified.  ”What is this?” Seung Sahn repeated the question.  Still the lama remained mystified.  Seung Sahn asked a third time.

Kalu Rinpoche turned to his interpreter and said, “What’s the matter with him?  Don’t they have oranges in Korea?”

While I am always happy to be amused, I would have liked more serious practice related suggestions, such as…”here’s a parami, and these are ways you can develop it.”  Even when she did attempt “practice points” they were mostly bland mindfulness exercises which, while good in themselves, lacked the specificity to really develop that particular trait.  I would have also liked more context.  As noted, this book is about the paramis from a Theravadan perspective so, perhaps stereotypically, there was no discussion of the bodhisattva’s career–Acariya Dhammapala and his like are totally absent.  While I won’t hold that against Boorstein, in the Theravada the paramis are traditionally associated with particular Jataka stories and the use of some of these as illustrations of the different virtues would have added greatly.

This brings me to what may be the most distressing aspect of the book: the lack of a goal for these practices.  I mean, why should anyone bother?  Why be generous?  Why give up your pleasures, venial or otherwise?  This we are never told.  The reason, I think, we are never told is because the version of the Buddha’s teaching that comes through in these pages is hopelessly watered down.  For example, when Boorstein discusses the Four Noble Truths (pp. 15ff), the third is reduced to simply having a “peaceful mind.”  Well, this could mean anything, from post coital slumber to sharing a Bud Lite with your friends on the beach.  Another example of this sort of bland evasion of the Dharma’s edgy nuts and bolts is her rendition of the third of the the three marks of existence (anniccadukkhaanatta), usually translated as not-self or impersonality.  Boorstein describes it this way (p. 112):

Nothing has a substantive existence separate from everything else, or indeed any existence at all apart from contingency, apart from being the result of complex causes and a factor in subsequent experience (insight into interdependence).

Huh?  Why, I wonder, would she want to make something simple and profound into something vague and garrulous?  It seems she is trying to straddle Mahayana and Theravada chairs and falling down between them.  In the process, the teaching of anatta is obscured and the third noble truth–the point of the whole enterprise–remains unillumined.

Why? I ask again.  Well, I think what we have here is an example of the muddiness of what David Chapman has called “consensus Buddhism“–that is the impetus in certain quarters to take the various Buddhist schools, with all their nuances, contradictions and specific flavors, stick them in a blender, and puree them to a bland mixture that we all have to agree is something called “Buddhism” on account of the lack of a better term.  The resulting concoction  appeals to the masses but doesn’t say much of anything very well.  This is a whole topic unto itself, and Chapman has really run with the ball on this.  I suggest spending time on his sites to see what it’s all about.  For here and now, though, I will only point out that what consensus Buddhism can never offer is an intellectually challenging platform for practice because that might make some people uncomfortable.

This is not a bad book, but it is by no means great, either, despite all the gushing recommendations from Boorstein’s fellow Dharma teachers.  If you are earnestly inquiring into the bodhisattva project I would suggest you pass on it.

My Amazon rating: 3 stars

A Treatise on the Paramis by Acariya Dhammapala

A Treatise on the ParamisTranslated by Bhikkhu Bodhi; Buddhist Publication Society 1996; 71 pages.

The version of this text I read is the abridged booklet available in the Buddhist Publication Society Wheel format (pictured at left).  The complete text can be found in Bhikkhu Bodhi’s The Discourse on the All Embracing Net of Views. 

This is a wonderful, very dense little primer on the paramis (Sanksrit paramitas), the critical moral requisites for a Buddhist practitioner and the modus operandi par excellence of any would-be bodhisattva.  What the author, Acariya Dhammapala, has done is to create a perfect fusion of Theravada thought with Mahayana attitude.  In fact, in all my Buddhist reading, I don’t think I’ve come across any work so perfectly “hybrid” in a way that captured the best of what are often thought to be conflicting and/or competing traditions.

The booklet includes a brief but informative introduction by Bhikkhu Bodhi.  Several takeaways here:

  • the “three vehicles” (or, more accurately, “careers”) of the arahant, pacekkhabuddha, and buddha are all present in the earliest texts, though of course arahants were not looked down on as they were in the later Mahayana scriptures;
  • there are ten perfections in the earlier canon as opposed to the six better known later on (which was again expanded into ten in the Avatamsaka Sutra and other texts);
  • the author’s manner of commenting upon and discussing the paramis shows he is straight out of the Theravadan commentarial tradition.

As for the text proper: if you are interested in learning about the conception of the bodhisattva, you have come to the right place.  This little treatise captures the flavor, the heroism, the challenge, not to mention the profound lifestyle shift this “project” requires.  Here’s the “schedule of questions” Dhammapala covers:

(1) What are the paramis?  This is just a brief definition.

(2) In what sense are they paramis?  He gives four examples of how they are paramis.

(3) How many are there? Answer: 10.

(4) What is their sequence? Here he lists and defines them.

(5) What are their characteristics, functions, manifestations, and proximate causes? Further description, definition, etc.

(6) What is their condition? One of the meatier sections of the work, this defines what gives rise to the paramis, and what impedes them.

(7) What is their defilement?  That is, what hinders their development?  Answer: discriminating thoughts.

(8) What is their cleansing? Removal of the three poisons.

(9) What are their opposites?  Unwholesome qualities.

(10) How are they to be practiced?  This is what you’ve been waiting for!  This section, which is really heavy-duty inspiring and exhorting, comprises about one third of the text proper, and should cause you to get out of bed earlier and start thinking how to change your habits.

(11) How are they analyzed? and (12) How are they synthesized?  Some uniquely Theravadan commentator dicing and slicing.  I didn’t find this section particularly helpful.

(13) By what means are they accomplished? Another level of analysis, but this one is both insightful and inspiring.

(14) How much time is required to accomplish them? If you’re good, only four incalculables and 100,000 great aeons.  If your slow-witted, well, much longer!

(15) What benefits do they bring? Basically, this section will let you known whether or not you really are (per the textual tradition) on the path of the bodhisattva, or are just a wannabe.

(16) What is their fruit?  Briefly, “the state of perfect Buddhahood.”

Anyway, I highly recommend this little text.  It is much “heavier” than its number of pages indicates, and I plan to follow up with some essays further examining its contents and asking just how its recommendations can be put into practice.

dharma the cat

Clearing the Path by Ñāṇavīra Thera

Clearing the PathClearing the Path (1960-1965) by Ñāṇavīra Thera. Path Press Publications 2010, 621 pages.
How does one review a book that, arguably, is the most influential book in your life?  Well, I’ll start by directing readers to my bio of Ñāṇavīra.  This, better than anything I could say in this review, will prep you for the work itself.  But of course, a few words on that are presently in order…
I don’t actually recall how/when I first encountered Ñāṇavīra’s writings.  So, I can’t say how they struck me at the time.  But I can say that for a while–a good many years, in fact–they basically defined the Buddha’s teaching for me.  What purpose, exactly, did these amazing and unique documents fulfill in my thinking?
First, they directed me to the suttas and away from that which would interpret them for me (think the Commentaries) or pretend to supersede them (the later schools, Mahayana, etc).  And while my range in Buddhism has broadened considerably since then, I still think that if your interest is to know what the historical Buddha said this is a healthy attitude to have.  If it’s just any kind of spiritual thought or practice you’re after, there are a great many out there to satisfy you, but if your intention is to get to know Shakyamuni Buddha, the Pali canon (but not all of it!) is where you’ve got to go.  All others are pretenders and wannabes.
So Ñāṇavīra pointed me to the original texts.  But he also, to my mind, illuminated them like nobody else ever has.  In his writings there is a combination of integrity, clarity, rigor and exactness that is rarely found in spiritual writing, even the best.  The man had a first rate head on his shoulders, a wry wit, and the writerly chops to get it all across in the best style possible.  Not to mention the fact that he wrote from actual meditative attainment (i.e. sotapatti, meaning stream entry) and so knew first hand something of the Buddha’s teaching and how the texts related to that attainment.
Another notable aspect of Ñāṇavīra’s writings is his relating of the Buddhist suttas to twentieth century European philosophy—specifically existentialism and phenomenology.  This is not to say he thought Sartre & Co had somehow discovered the Dhamma on their own, but rather he noted that their perspective on the human situation mirrored the Buddha’s own position to an uncanny degree and so, for many Westerners at least, might offer a door in to the Stream.  I think there is little to argue about in this regard–that is, the case, I’d say, is pretty well proven.  So those who come to the Buddha’s teaching from an existentialist or phenomenological position might find more that is familiar than they would expect.  Ñāṇavīra pointed this out to me, and through this understanding I found myself adopting a different attitude with a consequently greater appreciation for the existentialists.Beyond mere intellectual illumination though there is also Ñāṇavīra’s wrestling with questions of life and death.  He lived, for the better part of a decade, with ill health, chronic discomfort, and the prospect that his solitary enterprise as a Buddhist monk might be go down to defeat on account of intestinal parasites.  As a result, his writings discuss with startling matter-of-factness the possibility of his death by suicide on this account, and what such a death might mean within the context of Buddhadhamma.  As one reads, the omnipresent possibility—indeed, inevitability—of his end weighs in the background, lending a degree of drama.But what about the contents?  What comprises this unique text? Clearing the Path has been described as a “workbook,” and it is certainly is that.  You should know though that it is not a single piece, but consists of one major original work—Notes on Dhamma, written to illuminate certain critical terms  in the suttas–and a slew of letters to correspondents who came to Ñāṇavīra with questions about life, the Dhamma, and the meaning of it all.  One piece, entitled Fundamental Structure, is rather forbidding and opaque–something like a mathematical proof.  Readers are advised to leave it for last and not to get their hopes up too high as for understanding it; I confess I grasped portions, but large swathes escaped me.

Which leads me to my one cautionary note: this book is for advanced Dhamma students only.  People unfamiliar with basic Pali terminology and/or Buddhist thought will be hopelessly lost.  I should also add it is not, primarily, a meditation manual; its principle thrust is the philosophical under girdings of the the historical Buddha’s thought as it is found in the Pali Canon of the Theravada school.  If you’re looking for some other Buddhist school, this will not be your cup of tea.

I leave you with a few snippets–mere appetizers–of writing from the sage of Bundala:

Existential philosophies, then, insist upon asking questions about self and the world, taking care at the same time to insist that they are unanswerable.  Beyond this point of frustration these philosophies cannot go. The Buddha, too, insists that questions about self and the world are unanswerable, either by refusing to answer them or by indicating that no statement about self and the world can be justified.  But—and here is the vital difference—the Buddha can and does go beyond this point: not, to be sure, by answering the unanswerable, but by showing the way leading to the final cessation of all questions about self and the world. Let there be no mistake in the matter: the existential philosophies are not a substitute for the Buddha’s Teaching—for which, indeed, there can be no substitute.  The questions that they persist in asking are the questions of a puthujjana, of a “commoner,” and though they see that they are unanswerable they have no alternative but to go on asking them; for the tacit assumption upon which all these philosophies rest is that the questions are valid. They are faced with an ambiguity that they cannot resolve. The Buddha, on the other hand, sees that the questions are not valid and that to ask them is to make the mistake of assuming that they are.  One who has understood the Buddha’s Teaching no longer asks these questions; he is ariya, “noble,” and no more a puthujjana, and he is beyond the range of the existential philosophies; but he would never have reached the point of listening to the Buddha’s Teaching had he not first been disquieted by existential questions about himself and the world (from the Preface).

At the time I read [Joyce’s Ulysses]—when I was about twenty—I had already suspected (from my reading of Huxley and others) that there is no point in life, but this was still all rather abstract and theoretical. But Ulysses gets down to details, and I found I recognized myself, mutatis mutandis, in the futile occupations that fill the days of Joyce’s characters. And so I came to understand that all our actions, from the most deliberate to the most thoughtless, and without exception, are determined by present pleasure and present pain. Even what we pompously call our “duty” is included in this law—if we do our duty, that is only because we should feel uncomfortable if we neglected it, and we seek to avoid discomfort. Even the wise man, who renounces a present pleasure for the sake of a greater pleasure in the future, obeys this law—he enjoys the present pleasure of knowing (or believing) that he is providing for his future pleasure, whereas the foolish man, preferring the present pleasure to his future pleasure, is perpetually gnawed with apprehension about his future. And when I had understood this, the Buddha’s statement, “Both now and formerly, monks, it is just suffering that I make known and the ceasing of suffering” (M.22:38), came to seem (when eventually I heard it) the most obvious thing in the world—“What else,” I exclaimed, “could the Buddha possibly teach?”  (pp. 404-5).

Suffering (dukkha) is the key to the whole of the Buddha’s Teaching, and any interpretation that leaves suffering out of account (or adds it, perhaps, only as an afterthought) is at once suspect. The point is, that suffering has nothing to do with a tree’s self-identity (or supposed lack of self-identity): what it does have to do with is my “self” as subject (I, ego), which is quite another matter…  As I point out…, “With the question of a thing’s self-identity (which presents no difficulty) the Buddha’s Teaching of anatta has nothing whatsoever to do: anatta is purely concerned with ‘self’ as subject.” But this is very much more difficult to grasp than the misinterpretation based on the notion of flux, so flux inevitably gets the popular vote (like the doctrine of paramattha sacca, of which it is really a part). The misinterpretation is actually of Mahayanist origin; and in one of their texts (Prajñaparamita) it is specifically stated that it is only on account of avijja that things appear to exist, whereas in reality nothing exists. But the fact is that, even when one becomes arahat, a tree continues to have a self-identity; that is to say, it continues to exist as the same tree (though undergoing subordinate changes on more particular levels—falling of leaves, growth of flowers and fruit, etc.) until it dies or is cut down. But for the arahat the tree is no longer “my tree” since all notions of “I” and “mine” have ceased (p. 175).

My Amazon rating: 5 stars

The Way of Korean Zen by Kusan Sunim

The Way of Korean Zen by Kusan Sunim.  (Translation by Martine Batchelor; edited, with an introduction by Stephen Batchelor.)  Weatherhill 2009. 182 pages.

I think you would be hard pressed to find a better, more authentic introduction to Zen Buddhism–or, as it is called in Korea, Seon Bulgyo (where “seon” is pronounced like English “son”).  But perhaps the word “introduction” is not really appropriate.  If you know nothing about Zen Buddhism this is probably not the best place to start.  If you’ve waded into the ocean of Zen and are looking for a fine “fish” to eat, something tasty and nutritious, something truly representative of these particular “waters” (to carry my analogy near the breaking point), this book is marvelous.

It is not about Japanese Zen, though, but Korean.  The Koreans have been practicing Buddhism longer than the Japanese, plus there is more active, “authentic” Buddhism happening in Korea than in Japan.  (At least that’s been my impression; let me know if you think otherwise.)  This situation, however, is changing; as I’ve mentioned elsewhere, the tradition is dying and is probably ready for life support at this point.  (In Japan it is as good as clinically dead; there is probably more authentic Zen in America than in Japan.)  That said, the Koreans understand the whys and wherefores of koan (or “hwadu”) practice in a way I never got the sense contemporary Japanese do.  This book delves in depth regarding koans and contains prime instruction for anyone utilizing this particular meditation subject.

Kusan Sunim (1909-1983)

Some words about the source of these teachings.  Kusan Sunim was, along with Seong-cheol Sunim (“sunim” means monk in Korean), arguably the greatest living exponent of Zen Buddhism in twentieth century Korea.  He started life as a farmer and barber, was even a married man.  At the age of 26 a life-threatening disease struck him.  He survived by going to a temple and reciting the mantra Om mani padme hum for a hundred days, which practice cured him.  Three years later he renounced family life and ordained as a monk and soon after took up meditation, which he did with fanatic resolve.  Sometimes circumstances intervened to interrupt his practice, but he repeatedly went back to it with increased determination.  During one stint, to fight off drowsiness he practiced continuous standing meditation for days on end, during which time “he lost any sense of the outside world.  He was no longer concerned whether he lived or died.  He was so absorbed in his meditation that birds would come and sit on his head and shoulders and take pieces of stuffing that protruded from his padded coat for their nests” (45).  Eventually he attained Great Awakening, which caused his teacher Hyobong Sunim to say “Until now you have been following me; now it is I who should follow you” (47).  This book gives you a chance to follow this great man.

The contents offer a good variety.  The introduction (by Stephen Batchelor) chronicle the history of Buddhism in Korea, a much neglected area of study by Western Buddhists.  Readers who wish to delve more deeply into this would be advised to check out Mu-Seong Sunim’s Thousand Peaks: Korean Zen Tradition and Teachers.  Those with a philosophical bent will appreciate Tracing Back the Radiance: Chinul’s Korean Way of Zen.  (Chinul, a contemporary of Dogen’s, is the intellectual godfather of Korean Zen, though in the last several decades he has been somewhat overshadowed by Seong-cheol’s “sudden awakening, sudden cultivation” teachings which hearken back to the Sixth Patriarch.)  There follows an overview of life in a Korean Zen monastery and a brief bio of Kusan.  Those wishing to know more about the former should read The Zen Monastic Experience by Robert E. Buswell.

The second half of the book constitute the teachings proper.  They consist of meditation instructions, specifically how to practice the koan (hwadu), as well as discourses from winter retreats delivered by Kusan to monks assembled at Songgwang-Sa, where Kusan was the abbot.  (This is also the temple where I lived most of the time that I spent in Korean temples.)  There are also less formal talks–“advice and encouragement”–and a series of poems and commentaries on the traditional “Ten Oxherding Pictures.”

Entrance to Songgwang-Sa

The feeling one gets from reading the words of Kusan is This is the real deal.  Imagine if one of the ancient Chinese masters–Huang-po or Linchi or even Huineng–were suddenly resurrected in the here and now and started spouting off–this is what you’d expect to hear.  Kusan has the same punch, energy, sense of paradox, and intrinsic authority.  You can’t help but want to take this man’s advice, to run off to the mountains, live in a cave and risk all for the breakthrough.

But don’t believe me.  Listen to him:

To live long would be to live for a hundred years. A short life is over in the time it takes to inhale and exhale a single breath. A hundred years of life depends upon a single breath, for life stops when respiration ceases. Can you afford to wait for a hundred years when you do not know how soon death will come? You may die after having eaten a good breakfast in the morning; you may die in the afternoon after a good lunch. Some die during sleep. You may die in the midst of going here and there. No one can determine the time of death. Therefore, you must awaken before you die (78-9).

What will it take to awaken?  Kusan tells us:

The Buddhas and the patriarchs did not realize Buddhahood easily. They realized it through great effort and much hardship. They exerted themselves with such great effort because the sufferings of birth and death are so terrifying. Therefore, even though you want to sleep more, you should sleep less. Even though you want to eat more, you should eat less. Even though you want to talk a lot, you should try to talk less. Even though you want to see many things, you should see less. Your body will definitely feel restrained by acting in such a way. This is indeed a practice of austerity. However, none of the Buddhas and the patriarchs would have awakened had they not trained themselves in this manner (81-2).

Finally, if you want to help sentient beings, how can you do it?  Kusan says

In order to be able to actually help others, you should seek to emulate the spirit of a great hero.  This is necessary because only one who is the greatest hero among heroes is able to accomplish this difficult task [of awakening]. You need supreme courage in order to bring this practice to its completion. To transform this world into a Pure Land and to change ordinary sentient beings into accomplished sages is no easy matter. It is truly the work of a great hero (118).

I advise all you wanna-be great heroes to get a copy of this illuminating and inspiring book and enter soon the practice of the Way!

My Amazon rating: 5 stars 

Shobogenzo-Zuimonki by Dogen Zenji

Shobogenzo-Zuimonki: Sayings of Eihei Dogen Zenji recorded by Koun Ejo.  Translated by Shohaku Okumura.  Kyoto Soto Zen Center 1987.  232 pages.

To what indeed shall I liken the world and human life?

Ah!  The shadow of the moon as it touches in a dewdrop

The beak of the water fowl.

–Dogen Zenji

Dogen was the ultimate Zen philosopher.  He was also one hardcore, butt-kicking meditation master.  If you feel like slacking off in your practice, if you just want to sit back, watch a game and drink a Bud Lite, Dogen is the man you should turn to:

The practice of being released from samsara and attaining the Way seems to be sought by everyone, but those who accomplish it are few.  Life-and-death is the Great Matter; impermanence is swift.  Do not let your mind slacken.  If you abandon the world, you should abandon it completely (113).

Across so many centuries this man speaks very clearly to us.  His philosophy is one of direct Realization, not of study.  Though he himself was brilliant and wrote extensively, he did not see the point of such things unless one had already attained the Way:

I have heard that Ku-Amidabutsu of Koya was an eminent scholar of both Exoteric and Esoteric Buddhism.  After he abandoned his temple and entered the Nenbutsu School, a Shingon priest visited him and asked about the doctrine of the Esoteric teachings of the school.  He replied, “I have forgotten everything.  I don’t remember a single word.”  Thus, he did not answer the priest’s question.  This should be the ideal bodhi-mind.  He must have remembered something, but did not talk about things he thought were useless…  Students today should also cultivate this attitude.  Even if you used to know about the philosophy of the teaching-schools, it would be better to forget it completely.  Needless to say, you should not begin studying now (88).

Perhaps this seems contradictory to some things you think you know.  Sometimes Dogen seems to contradict himself, but then he was talking to different people at different times and in different circumstances.  So it is all works out.  What is important is to read this book as something you can and should put into practice.  It is easily one of the hardest hitting, most visceral and memorable books on spiritual practice I have ever come across.

Let me step back, as I am now meandering a little. I went to Japan in 1989 to practice Zen. At the time I prepared by writing various temples for advice and suggestions. One temple sent me this book. I have treasured it ever since, and though I have bought and given away multiple copies, I have always tried to have one on hand. There are just not enough good things I can say about it.

Here you will read stories direct from the life of Japan’s greatest ever Zen monk.  You will hear about the challenges and tribulations of those who practiced under him, of laity he knew, and of his evaluations of his Ch’an ancestors (“the Patriarchs”).  Forget the sound of one hand clapping and the romance of pretty Zen gardens–Dogen talks about life-and-death and clarifying the mind in the immediate present, of how our actions, thoughts and attitudes facilitate or frustrate our accomplishment of the Way.

He has advice on just about everything.  Are you concerned about what you should pursue for a career, which company you should work for or job you should take? Dogen has advice for you:

Students of the Way, it goes without saying that you must consider the inevitability of death.  Even if you don’t consider this right now, you should be resolved not to waste time and refrain from doing meaningless things.  You should spend your time carrying out what is worth doing.  Among the things you should do, what is the most important?  You must understand that all deeds other than those of the buddhas and patriarchs are useless (97).

Or consider the inevitability of arguments and disputes–the Universe knows I have (wrongly) engaged in too many of those.  Here is Dogen on such things:

There is an old saying which goes, “Although the power of a wise man exceeds that of an ox, he does not fight with the ox.” Now, students, even if you think that your wisdom and knowledge is superior to others, you should not be fond of arguing with them. Moreover, you should not abuse others with violent words, or glare at others angrily…

Once, Zen Master Shinjo Kokubun told his students, “In former times, I practiced together with Seppo . Once Seppo was discussing the dharma loudly with another student in the monk’s dormitory. Eventually, they began to argue using harsh words, and in the end, wound up quarreling with each other. After the argument was over, Seppo said to me, ‘You and I are close friends practicing together with one mind. Our friendship is not shallow. Why didn’t you help me when I was arguing with that man?’ At the time, I could do nothing but feel small folding my hands and bowing my head.

Later, Seppo became an eminent master, and I too, am now an abbot. What I thought at the time was that Seppo’s discussion of the dharma was ultimately meaningless. Needless to say, quarreling was wrong. Since I thought it was useless to fight, I kept silent.”

Students of the Way, you also should consider this thoroughly. As long as you aspire to make diligent effort in learning the Way, you must be begrudging with your time. When do you have time to argue with others? Ultimately, it brings about no benefit to you or to others. This is so even in the case of arguing about the dharma, much more about worldly affairs. Even though the power of a wise man is stronger than that of an ox, he does not fight with the ox.  Even if you think that you understand the dharma more deeply than others, do not argue, criticize, or try to defeat them (176-8).

In short, this little book is a primer of life.  It will tear you down and build you back up. It will pluck out your eyes and stick them back in your head and set your feet off down a different path.  At times in my life I have obsessed over it, reading it repeatedly and earmarking and outlining it.  It is a lovely and poetic book and hard as diamond.  Buy it.  Read it.  Practice it.

My Amazon rating: 5 stars

Unlimiting Mind by Andrew Olendzki

Unlimiting Mind: The Radically Experiential Psychology of Buddhism by Andrew Olendzki.  Wisdom Publications 2010.  190 pages.

Book blurbs are invariably hyperbolic, laudatory and, well, a wee bit exaggerated.  In this case, I think they’re actually spot on.  Consider this from Christopher Germer: “This book has the power to change how you see yourself and the world.”  Or the following from Joseph Goldstein: “[Olendzki] enlarges our understanding of basic principles and raises occasionally unsettling questions about familiar assumptions.”  Or, from David Loy: “Olendzki’s presentation of the Abhidhamma is particularly helpful and informative.”  I could go on, but you get my drift.  This is, indeed, a work of great knowledge and perspicacity.

First, as to the contents.  The book consists of previously published essays from a variety of venues, mainly Tricylce, Insight Journaland Buddhadharma.  The upshot of this is that there really is no sustained polemic or argument to the text, though it is organized into sections with such titles as “Caring for the World,” “Constructing Reality,” “Self and Non-Self” etc.  I admit I hardly noticed these as I read though. The individual essay topics hit all the traditional Buddhist favorites–dependent arising, not-self, suffering, impermanence, karma, ethics, as well as war and peace, the environmental crisis, modern psychology, and other things besides.  However, the book does not really develop progressively from section to section.

This hardly mattered to me because each essay is itself a little gem.  Olendzki brings several strengths to his work.  First, he is very familiar with the Pali texts, the oldest Buddhist scriptures and the only ones that can claim a direct link to the Buddha himself.  Second, he has clearly read and pondered and used these texts in the way they are meant to be studied and used–as guides to one’s world of inner experience.  He has done this thoroughly and reflectively, and brings a strong teaching resume to the work.  (His academic credentials are solid, plus he has a long-time association with IMS.)  Third, Olendzki is an excellent writer.  He is quotable, to the point, clear, and succinct.  In other words, he’s got all the ingredients necessary to turn out a masterful book, and that is what he’s done.

This is a work that can speak for itself, so I offer a few quotes as examples.  Here is Olendzki on the ever-controversial issue of anatta:

One assumption challenged [by the Buddha] is that the self has some sort of privileged ontological status as a substance, an essence, or a spiritual energy that is something other than the manifestations of a person’s natural physical and mental processes.  Self might be a useful word for referring to a person’s body, feelings, perceptions, behavioral traits, and consciousness, but it cannot be construed as something underlying or transcending these manifestations.  It may be a good designation of a person, in other words, but a person is not something other than how he or she manifests in experience (9).

Olendzki adds much as well to the understanding of paticca samuppada:

As an example of interdependent origination making a specific contribution to the new psychologies, we can look more closely at the relationship between feeling and desire.  As we have already seen, Buddhist psychology regards feeling–the affect tone of pleasure or displeasure–as an intrinsic feature of the mind/body organism.  Every moment’s experience of an object will come with a feeling tone, whether or not this feeling is accessed by conscious awareness.  In response to a feeling of pleasure or pain, an emotional response or attitude of liking or not liking the object may also arise.  Most of us conflate these two experiences much of the time, concluding that a particular object is liked or disliked.

However, in fact the object is merely experienced, and the liking or disliking of it is something added by our psychological response to it.  This difference is a subtle but important nuance…  It is the difference between “I am an unworthy person” and “I am a person who is feeling unworthy just now” (13-14).

Here Olendzki puts the Buddhist path into perspective, at the same time revealing its non-theistic origins:

Having identified that suffering is caused by a thorn–craving–lodged deep in the heart, the Buddha offered to pull out that thorn, allowing a person to find peace in any circumstance.  It turns out that extracting the thorn is not something magical, requiring the special grace or powers of a transcendent being; rather it is something that can be learned by almost anyone.  Since the causes of human suffering are ultimately psychological, the healing process is psychological.  This somehow puts the whole enterprise within reach, and renders it attainable (15).

Amazingly, the above passages are all found just in the introduction!  With such a wealth of well-put insight, how could any sincere and open-minded person not benefit from this book?

My Amazon rating: 5 stars

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