Monday, August 11, 2008

Thubten Chodron's "Open Heart, Clear Mind": Book Review

Trying to understand Tibetan Buddhism by starting with the so-called "Book of the Dead," to me, is akin to learning about Catholicism by beginning with St. Ignatius of Loyola's "Spiritual Exercises." While an intellectual, a mystic, or a combination of the two might be able to do this, for beginners, casual inquirers, or a combination of the two, a primer to this dauntingly diverse panoply's better suited. This introduction-- written by a woman I believe is an American convert who became a Buddhist nun-- provides English-speaking audiences with an accessible, brief, and sensible overview.

Chodron in her other books appears to emphasize psychological affinities with Buddhism rather than historical, catechetical, or inspirational approaches. Therefore, she takes considerable time exploring personal transformation; Buddhist concepts arrive gradually, and a full-fledged treatment of the faith comes only at the conclusion. First, she deals with taming our emotions, numbing attachment, managing anger, and getting a better perspective on our selfishness, pride, laziness, and fear. This leads to a more altruistic attitude.

She then turns towards the Buddhist conception of our karmic patterns and how we can escape the "ferris wheel of recurring problems." She leads us to her acceptance of "inborn goodness" and urges us to use the opportunity of human life to move towards enlightenment and recognition of our "buddha-nature." This segues into the tenets of Buddhism, its four noble truths, its ethics, its longing for liberation, its compassionate wisdom, and its meditative and sangha (community) resources to help us as we search for freedom and long to assist others along this same path.

Finally, a few pages on the life of the Buddha and various traditions preface a closing reminder to pursue "self-cultivation" and to take small steps towards a great goal. This common-sense connection makes Chodron's book easier to understand than the more lofty treatises penned by those considerably more advanced along Buddhist mindsets thanks to their growing up in societies permeated with such values.

I found her discussions direct and devoid of preaching. Although I have difficulty at my present position of comprehension with some of the teachings, as she notes, Buddhism does not expect total fealty to its dharma. Chodron tells us that we can pick and choose as if at a buffet table, and find what suits us. She does not shirk the concepts that to us Westerners appear less clear, but keeps the more challenging aspects of Buddhism in harmony with the practices we can take on more effectively.

For instance, in explaining karma, she considers how when we see dishonest rich people or kind ones who die young, "we may doubt the law of cause and effect." But, for Buddhists, this law works over lifetimes; what's done in the past may work today, and what's done now may bear fruit in a life to come. Curiously to me,
"the wealth of dishonest people results from their generosity in previous lives. Their current dishonesty creates the cause for them to be cheated and impoverished in the future. Kind people who die young are experiencing the result of negative actions such as killing in past lives. However, their present kindness creates the imprints on their mindstreams for them to have happiness in the future." (104)

I suppose this makes more sense than a capricious deity's unfathomable will, and perhaps it provides more comfort than those who tell us we are but bursts of energy within a cold universe. Still, it confronts us Westerners with a difficult mindset to enter into. She offers an encouraging analogy two pages later:
"At present, our minds are like uncultivated fields. Purification is similar to taking away the rocks, bits of broken glass and bubblegum wrappers cluttering the field. Accumulating positive potential by acting constructively is similar to adding fertilizer and irrigating it. Then we can plant the seeds by listening to teachings and cultivate them through contemplation and meditation. After a while the sprouts of realization will appear."

Chodron repeats how Buddhism demands that we take action. We cannot wait for divine revelation. No priest waits to baptize us, nor does any action guarantee salvation. It's a philosophy of re-orienting our lives away from ourselves so as to realize inner peace and outer harmony with others. It's not nihilistic, self-absorbed, or esoteric. It also expects us to make an effort, on our own resources aided by advice and consultation, to better our world one person at a time. It begins with us, then spirals outward, but it has to be worked at, not only mulled over.
"We must act to improve our lives and attain enlightenment. Although we can employ someone to clean our house and move in new furniture, we can't hire someone to clean our minds and install compassion and wisdom. However if we act, the beneficial results will surely follow." (106)

One final quote encourages us to take on what, I admit, seems quite a task. Buddhism, when we read about adepts and lamas, may seem esoteric, bewildering, and unattainable. Chodron, in true tradition, turns us towards our own capacity to learn and to better ourselves, a sign of Buddhism's respect for our own potential betterment as lying within our grasp rather than at the ministrations of a caste, within a dogma, or inside an organization.

The "seeds of perfection" lie within. We need the confidence to progress.
"At the moment, our Buddha potential is dormant within us, covered by the clouds of our disturbing attitudes and karmic imprints. Sometimes our Buddha potential is compared to honey surrounded by angry bees, or pure gold wrapped in impurities. The bees and the impurities, just like our disturbing attitudes and the imprints of actions, are temporary obscurations." (119)
We remove them by following not the path of the gods, but of a human who found the way out: the compassionate wisdom of the Buddha.


Bo said...

I might get this - I have tremendous respect for Buddhism but have always found the Tibetan variety unfathomable.

Fionnchú said...

It's a very simple introduction, and if the blurbs didn't tell you of its slight tilt towards Tibet, you'd probably not even realize it! Far easier to get into than John Powers' formidable "Introduction to TB." She does not soft-sell Buddhism, but she integrates it gradually as the narrative continues, building upon the psychological considerations of the first half. She admits we may well not agree with it all, and refers back briefly to her own first encounters with certain teachings. I'd say for those familiar with Catholicism, it's easier to grasp TB; for (low-church, evangelical, and/or non-conformist!) Protestants, Zen might appeal more.

After this, you might try the Dalai Lama's rather surprisingly chastising primer, "The Way to Freedom," which I am reading now. He urges us to not waste any of our precious human incarnation to seek enlightenment post-haste. I like Chodron (who gives a brief, clear glossary) and the DL's approaches since they reduce the vocabulary and esotericism for newcomers without diluting the concentration of the core distillation of its teachings.