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 Journal, and 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