Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse's "What Makes You 'Not' a Buddhist": Book Review

Elucidating four "truths," as in "seals" or hallmarks of Buddhist doctrine (rather than the Four Noble Truths relating to suffering), Bhutanese monk Khyentse emphasizes these as the foundation of practice. "In order to be a Buddhist, you must accept that all compounded phenomena are impermanent, all emotions are pain, all things have no inherent existence, and enlightenment is beyond concepts." (5)

"They are secular truths based on wisdom, and wisdom is the primary concern of a Buddhist." (4) These seals, which are neither edicts nor commandments, carry not moral force but literal truth. Their adjectival qualifiers prove important. As all things dissolve back into their components, as an ice cube melts back into a glass of water, so all that seems so real cannot endure without change. Similarly, even the most pleasurable experiences we enjoy cannot long be grasped; they as with the rest of what we hold and seek do not linger long. When even "nirvana" can be understood as outside of any category or even the absence of such, the ultimate truth will arrive.

Khyentse's short primer devotes a pithy chapter to each of these four truths. One caveat may be his pop culture examples. While fresh for readers today, they may not be in a few years. This may weaken the long-term impact of this valuable set of reflections, but for the short term it may expand his readership: a difficult trade-off? He does appear, if righteously so, to be ticked off at the West and especially the U.S. for all sorts of sins against simplicity, compassion, and moderation.

I would add that at least he does not insist that one must renounce the world in order to better one's self; this book unlike those from some other advanced Tibetan-oriented practitioners does not make you feel you are doomed to another million lives of lowly rebirth if you do not flee to a monastery post-haste to make up for wasted eons. Khyentse instead prods you and nags you to accept the four seals, practice them, and get on with letting go of all the rest that holds us back and lets us down.

His references may in time make this as dated as a Jesus People tract of 1972 might to us, but for now, Eminem and wardrobe malfunctions, hanging chads and John Lennon's assassin, Bush's foreign policy and MFN status for purportedly Communist China all exemplify the wide-ranging and topically applicable illustrations for his points. He writes as if speaking to you, and this direct method keeps the doctrine fresh, as a good preacher or religious guide should for listeners.

He reminds us of our contradictions, seeking to pin down Buddhism rather than delving into the elusive message of emptiness beyond the many forms such a practice may embody after 2500 years and so many cultures and adaptations. Karma and especially rebirth get downplayed; instead, we are told to regard ourselves as if cleaning a wineglass of accumulated imprints, temporary defilements that do not mar the glass itself, only bring it back to its original intended condition.

This cleansing can lead one to discover a renewed "buddhanature" that we generate as we create love and spread compassion. We get hung up on seeing our fears akin to Jack in a dark room who shrinks from a snake. The snake's only a striped Armani tie, but it takes Jill to illuminate the room by turning on the switch. Thus, Jill can end Jack's phobia. Jack's shown the reality that he has unreasonably been afraid of all his life.

Given that Buddhism takes on so many methods of revelation, how do those curious about it find the method right for them? He compares this to the four seals being tea itself. Skills of making tea and ways to drink it have developed into rituals and ceremonies. Yet, the tea, he chides, should be appreciated, not the cup it's in or the ceremony surrounding its imbibing. He stresses the separation of the colorful trappings from the attractive void within. All are guilty: it's easy to be a hipster blaming others for greed, but even those smugly protesting "No Blood for Oil" often sip kiwifruit smoothies whose flavor depends on fuel and globalized transport.

Forget the "cultural trappings," he suggests; the four seals themselves remain the goal one must keep in mind and in practice. "People are more inclined to sit straight in a quiet place on a meditation cushion than to contemplate which will come first, tomorrow or the next life." (120) What's crucial is that the seeker accepts that even Buddhism is no more than a start down the infinite methods, the path leading away from the real teachings: "At the point of total realization, you must abandon Buddhism. The spiritual path is a temporary solution, a placebo to be used until emptiness is understood." (77-78)

Urging readers not to dive into any particular manifestation of Buddhism or any practice that diverges from the seeking of peaceful wisdom, he cultivates detachment from the weary frenzy of getting and spending all around us. He compares an adult able to nourish such freedom from grasping, such an embrace of letting go, to grown-ups on the beach, sipping a coconut cocktail while watching kids building sand castles. "They are not caught up in the drama the way the children are. What more enlightenment could one ask for?" (102)

The book does not allow for a lot of in-depth debate about assertion such as how a conventionally portrayed Almighty God can be impermanent if His "actions are an assemblage of beginnings and ends," (18) and in these stressful times I did find his easy acceptance of less anxiety about how one in the world must worry about making a living a bit too detached from most of his reader's reality, but I do recognize that such a recognition that "all things must pass" does represent the core teaching of Buddhism.

This introduction might be compared with Thubten Chodron's "Open Heart, Clear Mind" (also reviewed by me) from a psychological and Tibetan perspective for Westerners, in that much learning comes lightly and its expression encouragingly. I'd add, however, that despite the Himalayan origin of this author, his book avoids any Tibetan-centered teaching, and strives to be more streamlined, even to the point of detouring away from identification with any cultural manifestation of dharma. As other reviewers have noted, this book may be better for non-Buddhists, or those who eschew such identifications with or without a denominational marker to trap them into one way of regarding the search for ultimate meaning-- which supports Khyentse's whole point of this book as wisdom anyone can follow. Free from God, free from dogma, these truths penetrate boundaries.

One can be, he concludes, a Buddhist in many ways and garbs, but the essence of Buddhism only comes to those honestly ready to accept in the end the termination of such superficial categories and transient definitions. "You can change the cup, but the tea remains pure." (125) The Buddha left us responsible, his disciple in this book teaches, to be our own master.
"It is time for modern people like ourselves to give some thought to spiritual matters, even if we have no time to sit on a cushion, even if we are put off by those who wear rosaries around their necks, even if we are embarrassed to exhibit our religious leanings to our friends. Contemplating the impermanent nature of everything we experience and the painful effect of clinging to the self brings peace and harmony-- if not to the entire world, at least within your own sphere." (124)
This monk makes no dramatic claims for what he believes. He turns not towards doctrine but its practice to make his truth stick with us. He leaves his readers eager to seek the other shore, the empty quarter, where one abandons the boat and walks ahead into uncharted terrain.
(Posted 5/2/09 to Amazon US. P.S. A book since then I've reviewed matches well this: Stephen Batchelor's agnostic revision, "Buddhism Without Beliefs." Both authors use the sandcastle analogy, and the snake!)

No comments: