Saturday, August 16, 2008

The Dalai Lama's "The Way to Freedom": Book Review

Reading this short introduction to the heart of dharma, it struck me: the author uses "we" to include himself amidst his fellow humans who by definition according to the tenets of his teaching, long to become freed from our "untamed mind." You often forget, given the esteem in which the author's held by many, that he's still caught up in the same karmic whirlwind as anyone else. This down-to-earth acknowledgment of basic shortcomings of human character permeates this short treatise. He also raises insightful comparisons, based on first-hand knowledge to be sure, of how idealism and good intentions, as with Mao and Chinese Communism, can lead one awry if one's inner nature cannot find its own unselfish fulfillment. This perspective enriches the relevance today, sadly, of this 1994 edition. It's based on Tsong-kha-pa's 15 c. "Lam Rim," or "Stages of the Path to Enlightenment," itself an elaboration of Atisha's 11c. "The Lamp on the Path..."

This textual ambiguity confused me at times. The Dalai Lama includes his own comments, while at other times he paraphrases or summarizes (I suppose, as Tsong-kha-pa's never quoted verbatim) the "Lam Rim." Therefore, when reading, I was unsure who was telling me what. Also, there's no index or glossary; a newcomer like me finds it easy to forget what, for example, the "three trainings" were deep into these short but intricate chapters. (Try Thubten Chodren's "Open Heart, Clear Mind" as another primer, from an American convert who became a Tibetan Buddhist nun; it's also reviewed by me.) Perhaps this Western wish for academic clarification pales before the Eastern message. Not who said what, but what is said remains the "core teachings of Tibetan Buddhism," as the subtitle indicates.

It's an insistent, and often severe message. You close this short explanation better informed about the essence of Buddhism, but also you might be discouraged at how difficult it can be to overcome karmic imprints of bad habits, how deeply scarred we may be from past actions and indeed past lives that pull us back from bettering ourselves now and in the future, and how severely Buddhism regards unethical behavior. The path, we learn, must be taken if we are to escape our suffering, of course, yet it's a daunting labor of endless mindfulness and relentless self-scrutiny. This isn't a feel-good collection of jolly platitudes. Those expecting light inspirational encouragement will instead find stern warnings to begin immediately to practice compassion, engage in altruism, reject delusion, incorporate renunciation, and to prepare for death's separation from all we now hold so dear.

"To practice Buddhism is to wage a struggle between the negative and the positive forces in your mind. The mediator seeks to undermine the negative and increase the positive." (1) So this work begins, and the work of any who take the formidable challenge of living up to the encouragement of, and chastisement of, dharma seriously. The powerful passage on pp. 61-63 imagining our death, from the perspective of a palliative doctor's bland assurances to our self vs. the warnings to prepare for the funeral to our relatives in the next room, captures for me the impact of this catechism. It packs quite a punch behind its innocuous title and unassuming format.

Morality, to the surprise perhaps of some seekers, as the Dalai Lama conveys it, obligates sexual control, meticulous examination of conscience, and scrupulous adherence to right behavior, fulfillment of vows, and committment to the compassionate care of others before one's own satisfactions. It's more in line with ascetic practices in Islam, Judaism, or Christianity than you might expect, with the key difference that sins accrue over eons and no confessor or intermediary's there to ease our burden. There's, by the way, no ecumenical outreach in these pages. From the context and the culture, it appears this is pure Buddhism distilled as strong medicine.

The weight of one's past can prove quite an impediment, and the heroic way to liberation opens, as the author cleverly puts it, with our re-orientation of ends and means to tilt in our favor, and that of everyone else.

"I often remark that if you want to be selfish, you should do it in an intelligent way. The stupid way to be selfish is the way we have always worked, seeking happiness for ourselves alone and in the process becoming more and more miserable. The intelligent way to be selfish is to work for the welfare of others, because you become a Buddha in the process." (154)
Shades of Jesus enjoining his followers to make friends with those of this world, so as to acquire treasure in the next life?

Speaking of Tibet & Freedom: 3 months ago: A Tibetan exile takes part in a candlelight vigil to support a freedom call in the northeastern Indian hill resort of Darjeeling April 25, 2008. Thousands of Tibetan exiles in India marched on Friday to demand the release of the Panchen Lama, the second highest ranking figure in Tibetan Buddhism, who they say has been a prisoner in China since 1995. Reuters. For those of you less than enchanted with the spectacle in Beijing, under 300,000 new surveillance cameras funded and installed with the eager help of Wall Street and our military-industrial complex. The Cold War's over, and communists and capitalists celebrate our harmonious co-existence prosperity sphere. We make friends with Mammon.

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