Happiness is an Inside Job by Sylvia Boorstein and the joy of reading books by The 14th Dalai Lama

Sylvia Boorstein’s Happiness is an Inside Job is an easy-reading distillation of the key components of Buddhist thought and practise shared through a lifetime of experiences.

The Dalai Lama

The Dalai Lama

“We’ll start as the Buddha did in his declaration of what is fundamentally true about life, with the premise that challenges in life are inevitable and that suffering, the mind in contentious mode with its experience, is the instinctive response of the untrained mind.

These premises are the first two of the famous Four Noble Truths regarded as the summation of the Buddha’s teaching.

The third truth is the definite promise that a peaceful mind, one not in contention with anything, is a possibility for human beings.

The fourth truth is the Buddha’s training program for developing that kind of mind.”

That training is basically about how to cultivate what we call ‘equanimity’, that ability to be in a situation and at the same time, be outside the situation observing it happening and our response to it, learning to use that ability to shape how we respond, from one of the great Buddhist intellects living today.

Boorstein’s book (reviewed below) talks us through the various components of developing and nurturing that wisdom, using examples from her and her friend’s lives. Before reviewing that text, and to give it context from my own personal reading, I share below a few enlightened books I’ve read over the years that penetrate this wisdom with clarity, insight and offer helpful and realistic suggestions for their practical application.

The 14th Dalai Lama

Some of my favourite books are those written by the 14th Dalai Lama, spiritual leader of Tibet, holder of the Nobel Peace prize, philosopher, intellectual, a genuinely altruistic man of great wisdom and compassion.

Many of them I pass on to others as they are too full of penetrating insights and ideas for changing our thinking in a positive way, to let waste away on a dusty shelf.  I thought I’d share three that come immediately to mind, because they each had a significant impact when I read them:

Transforming the MindTransforming the Mind: Teachings on generating compassion – this one is based on an edited series of lectures and is full of excellent practical advice and mind training on how to modify our perceptions to create a more compassionate view. This is his most important work in my opinion, it has some philosophical sections that are a little harder to grasp, but it is so worth persevering to get to the real wisdom within.

I remember when I read it, how well it resonated and how much I learned and was able to apply, it was quite a revelation the first time I read it. Such a gift.

Ancient WisdomAncient Wisdom, Modern World Ethics for the New Millennium was published just before the millennium, a beautiful, small hard-cover book that reached out to all beings, not just those interested in Buddhism, addressing the spiritual void in a non-religious way and bringing attention to ethics and to finding new ways of living that avoid destroying nature and the environment, protecting our shared inheritance.

I remember that this was the first book of his, that I felt completely comfortable handing on to almost anyone, it surpassed belief and spoke to us all, no matter what our faith or spiritual inclination, this is an important and accessible message for humanity.

How to See YourselfHow to See Yourself As You Really Are – this book is a lighter, practical guide to understand the nature of self, examining how many of the things we currently believe to be solid are an illusion and that by appreciating this, we can learn how to minimise suffering.

His older books tend to be more philosophical and can at times be a challenge to understand the way of thinking, all of which is encouraged in Buddhist thought – that we should question in order to understand – however this book is more of a modern interpretation, written not for the scholar or practitioner but for anyone with an interest in self-improvement and understanding the mind.

By the time I read this one, I recognised much of the message, it wasn’t so new to me, I was already living it, but we always need reminding and encouraging, as the path is littered with obstacles!

Review: Happiness is an Inside Job

HappinessThis book was a delightful Christmas gift I was promised I would enjoy, described by Publishers Weekly as:

‘a small, polished gem of a book’

I had not heard of Sylvia Boorstein, one of the co-founding teachers at Spirit Rock Meditation Centre in California. She has written a number of books on Buddhist thinking, meditation, mindfulness and kindness.

In Happiness is an Inside Job, she shows how mindfulness, concentration, and effort–three elements of the Buddhist path to wisdom–can lead us away from anger, anxiety, and confusion, and into calmness, clarity, and the joy of living in the present.

Split into sections on equanimity, wise effort (and speech), mindfulness, and concentration it uses anecdotes and examples in everyday life to illustrate how to put this philosophy of compassion into practice.

It sounds like common sense and indeed it is, however the mind often loses track and imagines, worries, obsesses and does everything but choose the path of common sense and we often need to be reminded of the most simple observations to declutter it.

She reminds us that much that happens in our lives is external to us and beyond our control, but that our response to it is within our ability to manage and there is much we can do to help ourselves by learning how to respond in a way that will calm and nurture us, that we can choose to respond in a way that veers more toward the path of happiness.

‘Speech that compliments is, by definition, free from derision, which clouds the mind with enemies and makes it tense. Kind speech makes the mind feel safe and also glad.’

It’s a book to read a chapter at a time, not all at once, an alternative to the demands of fiction, more nourishing than television, food for the soul. Recommended as an introduction to Buddhist thought and the benefits of practising compassion.

“My practise is remembering that although whatever is happening, including my emotional response to it, is the lawful consequence of myriad causes that are beyond my control, the relationship I hold toward it all is within my control. I can choose on behalf of happiness.”

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The Hidden Lamp edited by Florence Caplow

Stories from Twenty-Five Centuries of Awakened Women

The Hidden LampThe Hidden Lamp is a rich source of feminine wisdom, a compilation of one hundred stories, some a mere paragraph long, each one chosen by one woman and commented on, sharing a contemporary perception of how that text speaks to her.

We as readers have the opportunity to receive the wisdom of the original text, reflect on it ourselves, observe the comments of the woman who has chosen to share it with us, often with a personal anecdote in this unique collection of twenty-five centuries of awakened women – those who in Buddhist terms have gained enlightenment.

Most well-known Zen stories or koans (according to American Zen Master, poet and author Zoketsu Norman Fischer) come from three collections Blue Cliff Record (12th C), The Book of Serenity (12th C), and The Gateless Barrier (13th C) and are an almost exclusively male domain.

In this collection, we find the long missing stories of women, shared in a unique collaborative style between its editors and commentators. Many of those interpreting the texts are Zen teachers and many others come from a wide range of Buddhist traditions and lineages, lending the collection an open-minded virtue, accessible to all, whether male or female, and regardless of knowledge of Buddhism philosophy and practice.

“Koans are powerful and succinct stories, most often about encounters between Zen teachers and students. They can be playful and humorous, mysterious, opaque or even combative.”

It is an invitation to consider what has been said, to ponder it and respond ourselves.

Reading the stories make fables seem like children’s stories. These excerpts often require an extraordinary stretch of the imagination to understand and there will be some we are simply not ready to interpret.  For those who have studied them, their revelations have often taken months or even years to realise.  Thanks to the commentaries, we can at least read of another’s insight although this does not in all cases necessarily bring clarity. We must accept that we are not yet ready for their learning.

Joko Beck

Charlotte Joko Beck

One of the first stories came from Peg Syverson’s reflection after listening to Joko Beck* give a talk. A young man raised his hand and bluntly asked “Are you enlightened?” to which she replied “I hope I should never have such a thought!”

Peg Syverson shared that she had thought of this exchange many times since she first heard it, that many of the things this teacher of hers said, surprised her. She likened it to another story of a Japanese master Nan-in, serving tea to a professor, pouring the tea until the cup filled and then overflowed, and still he continued to pour until the professor said, “It is overfull! No more will go in!”

“Like this cup”, said Nan-in, “you are full of your own opinions and speculations. How can I show you Zen unless you first empty your cup?”

The responses are often unexpected and penetrating. Their meaning isn’t obvious on first reading, they require us to look at the question, and at what those who ask are bringing along with the question. Syverson recounts her own audience with Joko, the question she was required to ponder and respond to, then despite several weeks of contemplating an answer, when she gave it, would receive another insightful, thought-provoking response, which upon reflection, changed the nature of her relationship with her son, the subject of her initial question. The clarity of the teacher’s mind in responding so succinctly is astonishing.

The answers seem nearly always to require that you go away and reconsider the exchange, eventually revealing the answer that perhaps was always within you. It is a kind of active learning, rather than the passive receipt of an interpretation and response, which can easily be set aside or forgotten.

The Hidden Lamp is not a book to read in one sitting, it is a reference to draw on now and then and a rich source of ancient feminine wisdom and modern thought, whose content is valid for one and all. Some of the names of the women in the book will be well-known and others less so, however their contributions might as well be nameless, as it is the story that brings the richness to the reader, the reputation of all the contributions having already been established.

His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama of Tibet

His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama of Tibet

Personally I always have at least one text of Buddhist thought/philosophy on the bedside table, I find them a quiet source of intellectual wisdom that easily resonates with my own world view.

Whether it’s a collection like this or one of the many excellent works of the Dalai Lama, or the pocket books of Pema Chodron, they all share a wisdom that comes from the practice of kindness, empathy and altruism while providing a prism of compassion through which to observe our everyday thoughts and encounters. A kind of preventative medicine for the mind, these awakened beings have spent years pondering the nature of suffering and both their practices and their words are a thoughtful guide and nurturing remedy to all negative emotion or thought.

* Joko Beck (American, 1917 – 2011) was a pianist and mother of four, who began Zen practice in her 40’s, founded two schools and wrote two books Everyday Zen: Love and Work and Nothing Special: Living Zen.

Note: This book was an Advance Reader Copy(ARC) provided by the publisher via NetGalley.

A Hundred Thousand White Stones: An Ordinary Tibetan’s Extraordinary Journey

Kunsang Dolma might have had a more ordinary life, if it hadn’t been her turn to be the family representative at the annual ten-day prayer session at their local village temple when she was 15 years old. An event peripheral to that obligation changed the path she was on, which would have been an arranged marriage to a local boy and raising children to help with the farm work. For those of us reading it however, this is no ordinary life, but an insight into an ancient culture and one courageous woman who survives its harshness, revels in its deep, spiritual wonders and travels outside all that she knows to become the wife of an American citizen.

A Hundred Thousand White StonesThe consequence of that event sets her on the path towards becoming a Buddhist nun, something she had previously considered but had been rejected by her parents, so she and a friend decided to run away from their village to ensure it happened, without parental consent.

While she doesn’t remain a nun all her life, ironically the second major turning point in her life that moved her away from being a nun towards marriage and a life in America was not dissimilar to that which motivated her action towards pursuing a monastic life in the beginning. This is a true story, however I am reminded of all those turning points in the life of the fictitious character Ursula’s in Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life and the significant power that one event can have to alter the direction of a young woman’s life.

Tibetan farmersKunsang shares her upbringing with a quiet, practical, honest voice and it is a childhood and adolescence we see as difficult, though in the context of where she lived, a small Tibetan village, it was quite like many other villagers and something she now looks back on with appreciation and an incessant longing, having left it all behind. It is in leaving a difficult way of life and family behind us, in making it no longer attainable that the deepest yearning for that which was willingly fled, is often felt.

Her parents married at 15 which is not uncommon, however they were unable to conceive until they were 28 years old, something that came as a relief as being farmers, children are essential to their survival as future workers. Kunsang was the youngest of 8 children and by the time she was born, there were sufficient children to manage the farm work; it was this fact that enabled her to have an education.

At the time, there was no birth control, so after thirteen years without a child, it looked like they definitely weren’t going be able to have any children, which are essential to help with work on the farm. My father’s sister already had two kids and felt sorry for my parents’ situation, so when she was pregnant a third time she told my father, “Look, this is my third child. I’m going to give him to you.” The baby was twenty-two days old when my parents took him home. After that, my mother started to have her own babies. My parents always thought that my adopted brother Yula had brought them good luck.

Tibet mapKunsang eventually makes a pilgrimage to Dharamsala to see the Dalai Lama and during her time here she meets her future husband, narrating the heart-breaking, tedious administrative process they must overcome to be together and the struggles she will face even when they succeed. It is a moving story of a life we can hardly imagine and a journey that crosses many boundaries most of us will never have to traverse, to hike over terrain while risking one’s life, to encounter a revered spiritual leader, create a way to support oneself financially in a foreign country alone and to raise your children in yet another country which will become their home, but never yours.

CIMG3772Reading stories like Kunsang’s is not just an eye-opener into another culture and way of life and another way of dealing with life’s issues, it invites us to practise empathy and patience in the way we interact with foreigners in our own country. Kindness and compassion are there in abundance if we choose to offer them to others and it is stories like Kunsang’s that motivate us to want to extend it.

Note: This book was an ARC (Advance Reader Copy) provided by the publisher via NetGalley.

Thomas Jefferson – Lessons from a Secret Buddha

This is a delightful and simple novella that views the life and achievements of one of America’s great role models through the principles of Buddhist thought, a man who wished only to be remembered for three achievements, author of the Declaration of American Independence, of the statute of Virginia for Religious Freedom and Father of the University of Virginia. He was President from March 1801 – March 1809.

Suneel Dhand has created a Buddhist guru whom he connects to Jefferson’s mother, and who then begins to correspond with the young man when he is a discontented, overweight child. The letters introduce him to seven ancient principles of Buddhism and the Eastern way of life and we then witness Jefferson’s own lifestyle change as he becomes vegetarian, more interested in books and develops a greater awareness of how thoughts, actions and behaviours position a man.

When we take an in-depth look at all of his lifestyle practices we see that Tom practiced very Eastern ways of living, different from his fellow countrymen. In many ways he was a well-being guru, centuries ahead of his time.

Most of my knowledge of the role Thomas Jefferson played in American society comes from having seen the excellent HBO TV series ‘John Adams’ and the awe with which he was regarded by both John Adams and Benjamin Franklin as they encouraged him to pen the Declaration of American Independence.

Portraits of John Adams and Thomas Jefferson by American painter Mather Brown 1788

The series is based on David McCullough’s Pulitzer prize-winning biography ‘John Adams’, a volume I have on the shelf and will one day set to and read as well.

As Abigail Adams would confide to Jefferson, there had seldom been anyone in her husband’s life with whom he could associate with “such perfect freedom and unreserve” and this meant the world to her.  If you haven’t seen the series, here are some of Jefferson’s greatest moments played by the British actor Stephen Dillane.

A surprising little book, one that is full of good sense and relevant to today while reminding us of the extraordinary man Thomas Jefferson was and the major contributions he made not just to American history but also to humanity.

Today millions continue to be inspired by Thomas Jefferson, the genius who galvanized his people to freedom. A truly enlightened soul indeed – and that, without ever requiring any lessons from a Secret Buddha.

Note: This is an Advance Reader Copy (ARC) provided by the publisher via NetGalley.

Passionate & Dedicated – Aung San Suu Kyi ‘The Lady’

It seems appropriate in the year that three women won the Nobel Peace prize, that we remember ‘The Lady’, Aung San Suu Kyi, who won this prize twenty years ago in 1991, nominated by the admired leader and humanitarian, former Czech president Václav Havel, who died this month.

It is debatable whether most know Aung San Suu Kyi for her steadfast dedication in promoting the ideals of democracy and metta (a Buddhist term meaning loving kindness) to the people of Burma, or for the longevity of her term as a prisoner of conscience, held under house arrest for 15 of the 21 years from 1989 until her release in November 2010.

Winning the Noble peace prize increased her prominence and brought her cause and the plight of suffering Burmese and hill tribe people to the attention of the international community.  Just this year she was visited with open arms by Hilary Clinton, not long after announcing she would run for election in upcoming byelections.

I picked up Justin Wintle’s book ‘Perfect Hostage’ Aung San Suu Kyi, Burma and the Generals, believing it a biography, mislead perhaps by the striking portrait which graces the cover and select testimonials describing it as so. In fact, I would call it a historic treatise of Burma and while of significant interest in itself, I did find it frustrating that it took close to 200 pages to encounter Aung San Suu Kyi within its covers. Though there is depth in the historical account, I found the reverse to be true in terms of the author’s evocation of Aung San Suu Kyi, in fact I found many of his comments patronising and uncomfortable:

Had SLORC not placed Suu Kyi under house arrest, it is improbable that she would have been given the Nobel Prize…‘ and on a tribute she wrote about her father ‘ This, the notion of St Aung San, may have been over-egging the cake’ and ‘When I saw that Aung San Suu Kyi had got a third class degree I let out an involuntary chuckle.

I am certain that the author interviewed many people, that is clear, but as to coming to some understanding and appreciation of Aung San Suu Kyi and her perspective or her personality, the text remains curiously detached.  Dare I say, I detected a hint of what could almost be compared to a colonial attitude, as referred to in George Orwell’s novel ‘Burmese Days’ (himself born in India with unacknowledged Burmese relatives in the family). That would be going too far I am sure, but it frustrated me enormously and made me yearn to read something actually written by Aung San Suu Kyi herself, something this book is remarkably short on.

However, letting go of the expectation of an exquisite biography and seen as the historical treatise that it is, I find a thorough and detailed account of a remarkable country and ethnic melting pot of people who have long been subject to tyrannical rule. Sitting between India in the west and China in the east with borders that touch so many countries, Tibet, Laos, Thailand, Bangladesh, it is not surprising that it comprises so many ethnic groupings and hill tribes and has encountered so much conflict.  It has a unique history of rising to great prominence and descending into chaos, as each successive victor sought to impose their will.

It provides an interesting introduction to Aung San Suu Kyi’s father Aung San, his haphazard entrance into politics and the fraught relationship with Japan, set up to assist in the removal of the British, only to find they had replaced one empire seeking power with another.

‘I went to Japan to save my people who were struggling like bullocks under the British. But now we are treated like dogs. We are far from our hope of reaching the human stage, and even to get back to the bullock stage we need to struggle more.’ Aung San, at Maymyo, June 1942

With independence secured, the future looked positive in many respects. Democratic elections in April 1947 elevated Aung San to leadership, until he was betrayed and assassinated by one of his fellow countrymen. The country struggled to take advantage of its newfound independence and while the coup in 1962 was seen by many at the time as a hopeful resolution, it signalled the beginning of torturous dictatorships that have cost many lives, exiled others and kept Burma’s icon for free, democratic choice under arrest.

Aung San Suu Kyi was a reluctant hero; married with two children to the Oxford academic Michael Aris, a leading Western authority on Bhutanese, Tibetan and Himalayan culture, she returned to Burma to nurse her mother after a stroke and found herself sharing the hospital ward with many student victims of the atrocities occurring under the regime.  Astounded, she absorbed the horror of their stories and they listened to her reflections urging her to become actively involved in the struggle.

Just as Buddha gave himself up for the betterment of sentient beings, so Aung San Suu Kyi by offering herself to the people of Burma, was put in such circumstances she had little choice but to leave her family behind, a test the regime continued to dangle in front of her, in their hope she would leave and the people forget her. Her persistence in staying kept the candle of hope burning for millions and perhaps we may now see the fruit of that hope manifesting in their upcoming elections.