Friday, February 22, 2013

The Dalai Lama's "Buddha Heart, Buddha Mind": Book Review

What does this book offer any reader drawn in by its credited author? With many titles attributed to or about the Dalai Lama, it can challenge or dissuade the inquirer. Given a brief note of receipt and a blurb comprise the two reviews preceding, I will preview its contents a bit more.

These are talks from over four days in 1997 at a monastery in France. They're translated into/ through French and then English. This may partially account for the difficulty I encountered as I made my way into what for only its first ten pages appeared accessible. I've read a few books on Buddhism, and a few by the Dalai Lama (or those credited to him--as he works with a team of translators I admit by the time his words get filtered into English I am not sure how much they've been worked on, similar to an renowned artist and his atelier). But, this one felt tougher.

While the subtitle promises treatises about the core teachings of the Four Noble Truths, these are embedded in a formidable core of philosophical allusions to major schools of Buddhist thought, and these are assumed to be familiar to the audience. So are the many asides to particular and venerable proof-texts scattered on nearly every page. The Self and Karma, suffering, the Buddha's bodies (here it gets tougher to follow), refutation of the Self, omniscience, and practice make up the main chapters.

As the Amazon summation notes, a bit of humor is welcome. The Dalai Lama in self-effacing crowd-pleasing lines nods, for instance, to his own growing navel, and how it might block the ideal of a drop falling from nose tip to lap top while in the recommended lotus position. The book, in fact, veers all over: it can delve into the most recondite references as if common knowledge to the hearer, and then advise basic meditation postures. I admit the whole presentation baffled me, and it was difficult to persevere, but I did. Further, some may remain confused by the non-annotated sentence closing the penultimate talk: "May I ask the adepts of Shoukden not to join us." (133)

I am still not sure how the "clear light" enduring defies the impermanence in the chain of "interdependent production" (aka "dependent origination" in other books by other writers). He defines a buddha: "When momentary constructions are all extinguished, or spoiled, in the dimension of the clear light, and when they no longer spring back up from it, then to remain constantly in the unique innate original clear light to be called a buddha." (46) You may sense the translation's tone. "In a sense, the clear light is not a creator, but only in a sense; Buddhism accepts self-creation, or 'production from a point of departure in oneself.' So we must envision this mode of creation in respect to the clear light. However, my clear light has uniquely created my lives, and never the lives of others." (92) The Dalai Lama continues, but this puzzled me.

More elaboration was likewise not present on how reincarnation jibes with this fundamental teaching as neatly as the Dalai Lama suggests pithily in one of the Q+A sessions appended to each chapter, but the mystery of all this kept me going. It ends well, one page admonishing those of us who have no religion to watch ourselves closely, and for all to abstain from violence and to advance compassion. Happiness of mind and self-discipline endure as touchstones for the audience and author. Yet, this is no inspirational compendium for the casual reader. It's as if I expected a Catholic child's catechism, to find a dense treatise by Thomas Aquinas.  (Amazon US 1-26-13)

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