Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Moh Hardin's "A Little Book of Love": Review

After forty years, Moh Hardin distills his “practical advice on bringing happiness to ourselves and our world” into a few pages. As often with books by long-time Buddhist teacher-practitioners, the prose may be brief, but the insights emanate from the depth of unarticulated experience. Inspired by the example of his Tibetan émigré mentor, Chögyam Trungpa, the author seeks to cultivate love beginning with one’s self. Then, moving to one’s partner and child, the circle widens to those around us. Gradually, “skillful means” and wisdom applied from the Buddhist tradition allow seekers to include others in this attempt to heighten compassion and wisdom, until all beings receive the goodness inherent in creation.

Such profound ambitions characterize the message of the Buddha. Mr. Hardin starts by reminding readers how a gentler approach does not preclude truth, when it comes to becoming one’s own best friend. Rather than a platitude, this foundation remains necessary, for upon an acceptance of one’s own self, without harshly judging one’s own ability, one can learn to strengthen one’s own potential to “wake up”, as the meaning of the term “Buddha” promises, and to recover one’s own “Buddha nature” as the “fundamental nature of our being”. This aligns with his mentor Trungpa’s definition of “basic goodness” as an understanding of one’s own presence. This energizes one’s own life, and offers a forgiving alternative to Christian concepts of original sin and guilt, and to scientific materialism which reduces life to mechanical functions.

This acceptance in turn stimulates inner strength, kindness to others, and the warmth of friendship. It flows away from self-recrimination towards meditation, and then action based upon a balanced perspective that analyzes the good and the bad within us, as we see this same blend within our close friends, with whom we continue our relationship even as we do not overlook their flaws or exaggerate their perfections. This draws us away from ourselves to our partner.

Here, Mr. Hardin encourages the reader to allow “giving space” to one’s lover, husband, or wife. That is, to diminish friction, one must begin to pause before reacting to another’s irritation. Basing his teachings on those again of Trungpa, one learns not to possess but to appreciate another person. This exemplifies “bodhichitta”, the “awakened mind or heart” which generously holds a partner free from one’s own projections. Trust and “right speech” play key roles here.

These “skillful means” carry over to the raising of children. A parent’s duty and responsibility must be to “touch a child’s basic goodness”. He or she teaches a parent to grow as well. By “focused attention”, a child can find encouragement to be open alongside a parent. This exchange of goodness allows “bodhichitta” to deepen, and this nourishes a child’s healthy ego, one that can live among others as with the self, confident that life can be faced and enjoyed.

Part Two expands this “basic goodness” to embrace those outside the home. The “Four Limitless Ones” or “immeasurable” components of the Buddha’s message apply: love, joy, equanimity, and compassion. This other-directed “bodhisattva path” moves an awakened heart to care about more than one’s own preoccupations. Mr. Hardin narrates how difficult such an aspiration proves. “May all beings be happy” can be an elusive wish to fulfill by one’s intentions and actions, given the reality of an often grudging reaction to those whom one judges or demeans. “Sympathetic joy”, the author explains, helps this progress towards caring about others. That is, being in touch with the happiness of others and wishing them the best can begin to replace the habitual envy, bitterness, and jealousy with which many of us have been raised to regard the accomplishments and successes of those with whom we live and among which we work.

The section on “True Bravery” incorporates Shambhala Buddhist concepts popularized by Trungpa. It stresses openness to others as they are. By a “flash of generosity”, the potential to do more may ignite one’s energy. Self-discipline, patience, exertion, and even the control of anger may play roles in teaching readers to “catch ourselves” before acting out negatively. By this re-direction of energy, one may come closer to the ideal of wakefulness promoted by the Buddha.

“Love and Loyalty” combine in the final chapter. The latter concept is defined by the author as “not giving the other person any reason not to trust you”. He cites Albert Einstein’s notion of an “optical illusion of consciousness” trapping human conception, as if we remain ego-grounded, separate from what’s “out there”. This denial of interconnectedness with all beings and creations, for Buddhists, represents a fundamental conceptual flaw within our understanding of existence.

Trungpa’s teaching of loyalty, strengthening gentleness combined with an abiding quality of causing no harm, stems from a determined “warrior” balance embedded not in weakness but in power. Open-hearted confidence in one’s power to change comes from one’s moral progress. A warm-hearted yet strong-minded, person, in this model, possesses an “innate basic goodness, the natural, clear, and uncluttered state” of being.

Discernment keeps a practitioner steady as one progresses towards virtue, with a fearless recognition of potential and action in the present moment. This transforms into an “authentic presence.” No clouds persist, for behind them, one sees “the sun of basic goodness” as always present, no matter how shadowed by the moment.

Combined with brief but practical exercises for meditation and actualization, Mr. Hardin’s small guide should prove beneficial to anyone seeking a handbook for one way out of egotism towards a self-confident, other-directed practice of Buddhist compassion. This path, as directed in this little book, may generate more happiness beginning with the reader and then circling outward. (Featured 12-27-11 at the New York Journal of Books)

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