Tuesday, October 25, 2011

The Dalai Lama's "Beyond Religion": Book Review

If you've read a few books by (or interviews with) the Dalai Lama, much of his message here's familiar. Rather than a drawback, this may be an advantage, for he (and his editorial team) winnow down the essential kernels of wisdom into an accessible, brisk review of compassion and morality rooted more in what we have in common rather than what may religiously, culturally, or politically separate us. He makes the analogy of tea--it's mainly water, so the particular flavor of our own blend as if in a religious context effects the whole drink far less than the basic nourishment given by the primary ingredient, the universal liquid. In ethical terms, what we yearn for as righteousness and lovingkindness resembles the common nature of water, more than the religiously flavored tinges of a particular tea vintage or sweetener.

To connect this approach to secularism, he turns for this exemplar of  "ethics for a whole world" to the Indian concept that tolerates and respects expressions of religion (as in the Charvaka school), whereas the Western historical view tends to regard the secular state or mindset as opposing that of faith. While the Dalai Lama does not deny the good done in the cause of religion, he figures it's far more imperative to find a common level of ethics that people of all or no religions can agree upon. This stems from compassion, that Buddhist essential ingredient coupled with wisdom. By broadening the scope of his teachings so nobody reading this little book of advice can feel left out, perhaps it can widen the impact of his guidance. There's a winning humility in this book that seems very difficult to argue against.

The core of this book, thus, takes up a venerable theme of the Dalai Lama, how to gain personal and then social happiness, and this progresses into compassion, for one's self, and those around us, all of creation. He's not arguing for meekness or escaping conflict, but taking it on out of a sense of righteousness, instilled with the determination to defeat injustice, and who could argue with that? Awareness, in his Tibetan-filtered training, necessitates the establishment of the harmonious goals of science of mind schooling that the Dalai Lama figures can apply to any human being, regardless of religion or non-religious outlook. He detaches as it were the cultural underpinnings from his own background, so as to elevate mindfulness and "educating the heart."

His scientific and cultural reflections about goodness and human potential are ones he has pondered before, and how could he not, given his orientation? (For instance, see my reviews of his "The Universe in a Single Atom" or the interviews in Pico Iyer's "The Open Road.") The gist of this calmly conveyed look at how justice, well-being, and equanimity can be cultivated or "familiarized" by the meditator and the committed actor who wishes to direct goodness from one's self outward, therefore, follows Buddhist prescriptions for healing and detaching one's self from attachment to transience. It's a low-key collection of thoughts, to be read slowly. There's nothing really new about this compendium, and that in itself is a recommendation, for it comes as it were time-tested from the Dalai Lama's own encounter with a fulfilling, peaceful, and principled way of life.

As in many of his works, the Dalai Lama offers altruistic advice in discerning good, furthering ethical treatment of all beings, pursuing an interconnected role in society and in spirituality, and dealing with destructive emotions such as doubt, anger, and fear. Patience becomes key as he concludes this short book of advice, for nothing seems as simple as many leaders in politics or the pulpit may make it seem! Human values, this "old man" tells the reader, need to be applied now more than ever, as seven billion people must integrate as an imperative, however gently phrased, given the demands of a complicated interrelationship that pulls us all in together. (Posted to Amazon US 9-27-11)

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