Sunday, November 27, 2011

The Dalai Lama's "Becoming Enlightened": Book Review

This ambitious account delves much more deeply than I expected into Buddhist philosophy, drawn from ancient teachers such as Tsongkhapa and Nagarjuna. It sums up Tibetan concepts, as expected, but given its rarified explorations of higher-level approaches to liberating one's self from suffering and embracing the rejection of lust, hatred, and ignorance, it may not be the best place to begin, despite its welcome approach for all readers.

After quite a few introductions and some advanced texts about Buddhism reviewed, I came to this with interest. I've weighed in on Amazon [and this blog] about the Dalai Lama's other works "Beyond Religion," "The Universe in a Single Atom" and "The Way to Freedom." I've also reviewed his adventures as told by Stephen Talty in "Escape from the Land of Snows," and Tetsu Saiwai's manga graphic novel on the same. Also, Robert Thurman's books about the DL interested me, and Pico Iyer's interviews in "The Open Road."

I say this to set in context my repeated textual encounters with the Dalai Lama; after a while, his familiar stories and often cogent examples tend to blur or repeat somewhat altered in his talks as edited by his translation team, so this does not diminish but enhance the motifs he returns to as he emphasizes his teachings. He is accessible and his topics are diverse and well-chosen, but it's not an easy read. More than once, this jumps about in challenging fashion.

Following a great overview of how "religion" differs from or resembles certain Buddhist interpretations, the DL leaps about in what seem more like transcribed talks from various places and audiences. Some are considerably more intricate than others, and it's a long way into this work before even a basic Buddhist introduction to doctrine is given. The delayed nature of this exposition of basics, rather than a "chronological" approach from the life and times of the historical Buddha forward into his legacy and then Tibet's refinement of the concepts, adds another layer that may discourage newcomers to these complex ideas and subtle moral lessons, often drawn from enumerated lists of three-this and ten-that that fill many pages, in a somewhat scholastic and dry method that hearkens back to perhaps traditional ways of inculcating doctrine, but which seem to smack of the seminar or treatise.

Jeffrey Hopkins, one of the first American students of Tibetan Buddhism (along with Thurman), renders this teaching in a similarly academic manner. On the audiobook I heard this as, Professor Hopkins reads it in an avuncular, teacher-like tone. I rewound many passages, to get the meaning clear or to stop my mind from drifting, as this naturally contemplative theme, combined with some difficult points, demanded close attention. This is not to diminish the value of this work, but I wanted to advise audiences that this is quite a lot of important material, conveyed in an equally mature, and perhaps not the easiest, fashion, for those entering the high summits of Buddhism with such a compact but dense volume. (Amazon US 11-16-11)

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