BOOK REVIEW: What the Buddha Taught by Walpola Rahula

What the Buddha TaughtWhat the Buddha Taught by Walpola Rahula
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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It might seem like any book on Buddhism would — by definition — be a book about “what the Buddha taught,” but, no. Buddhism, like all religions that I’m aware of, has experienced the drift that occurs as part of the religification process – though some sects and sub-sects remain truer to the Buddha’s original approach than others. I was happy to stumble onto this book because whenever I’ve read the ideas attributed directly to the Buddha, I’ve always found them to be brilliant in elegance and simplicity.

Walpola Rahula’s book is a summation of what the Buddha actually taught, presented in a way that makes sense for today’s English-language reader. The book is just eight chapters, plus appendices comprising ten texts (excerpted or in whole, depending upon the document’s length and contents.) The first chapter explains the Buddhist conception of the mind, and gives the reader a context for much of the rest of the book. Chapters two through five each link to one of the four noble truths: i.e. dukkha (suffering-ish — the controversy of that translation is addressed in detail), the arising of dukkha, the cessation of dukkha, and magga (the path to the cessation of dukkha – i.e. the eight-fold path.)

Chapter six addresses one of the most controversial and unique of Buddhist ideas, the doctrine of no-soul (anatta.) This is the idea that the idea of a permanent self or soul that is ever-present and that lives on past the body is an illusion. The Buddhist conception imagines the self as being more like a river. It only appears to be a permanent entity, but, in reality, it is different every moment and what appears permanent is more an emergent property than a thing or entity. I found this chapter to be the most interesting, because it is such a unique idea (though one a number of neuroscientists seem to be converging on this way of thinking), it appeals to my sense of simplification versus needless complication, and it was interesting to read Rahula’s challenge of those who have tried to deny Buddha argued thus (presumably seeking to make Buddhist doctrines converge with their belief systems.)

Chapter seven discusses meditation, mindfulness, and misconceptions about the two. When I took the Vipassana ten-day course, it was emphasized to us repeatedly that in the Buddha’s conception is that one needs to do two things in pursuit of enlightenment, live ethically (as per the eight-fold path) and practice (meditation and mindfulness.) While Rahula doesn’t put it exactly like that, that message comes across. (Rahula presents the eight-fold path categorized in three divisions of ethics, practice, and wisdom.) Whereas the doctrine of no-soul is controversial on metaphysical / philosophical grounds, the necessity of practice is passively objected to on the grounds that people really don’t want to practice because it’s challenging and it keeps them from getting the most out of all the apps on their phones.

The last chapter ties things up by bringing what the Buddha taught into present-day in order to ask questions like how it can be applied and what it means to be a Buddhist.

Besides the appendices of texts and text excerpts, there are photos throughout the book, mostly of Buddhist sculptures from around the [Buddhist] world.

I found this book to be very informative. It’s concise and readable, and seemed to me to be very consistent with those beautiful ideas I’ve come to associate with the Buddha. I would recommend this book for anyone who’s looking to learn what the Buddha actually told his students back in the day.

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5 Profound Pieces of Kung Fu Panda Wisdom (That May Seem Dumb)

5.) Po’s Wu Wei: In his fight against Tai Lung at the end of the first film, Po takes a hard hit from his Snow Leopard nemesis, and through ripples of undulating flab returns a devastating strike that sends Tai Lung flying. While I wouldn’t recommend one try it at home as demonstrated in animated form, the idea of not resisting, but rather redirecting forces is an old school approach. It also reflects the ancient Taoist wisdom of wu wei, effortless action.

 

4.) “But I realized having you in Po’s life doesn’t mean less for me. It means more for Po.”  In the third movie, there’s a scene in which Mr. Ping (Po’s avian dad by adoption) explains to Po’s panda dad, Li, how he came to grips with Li’s presence (which at first made Mr. Ping insecure and envious.) The lesson is to be careful in assigning a situation zero-sum status (one person’s gain requires another’s loss) without having reason to believe it reflects the reality of the situation.

 

3.) “There is just news. There is no good or bad.” This bit reflects an old Taoist story about a farmer and his neighbor. One day the neighbor sees the farmer has a beautiful new horse. The farmer tells the neighbor that it’s a wild horse that the farmer found at the back of his property. The neighbor says, “That’s good news.” The farmer says, “Good news? Bad news? Who’s to say?” The next day when the neighbor stops by the farmer tells him how his son got a broken arm trying to break in the wild horse. “That’s bad news,” says the neighbor. “Good news? Bad news? Who’s to say?” The next day the army comes by, conscripting young men, but the farmer’s son is not forced to go to war because the young man has a broken arm. The story goes on like that.

 

2.) “If you only do what you can do, you’ll never be more than you are.” In the third movie, after Master Shifu explains to Po how he knew that Po would fail on his first day as a teacher, the Master utters this bit of wisdom. It’s a warning to avoid loitering in one’s comfort zone.

 

1.) “The secret ingredient of my secret ingredient soup….  The secret ingredient is … nothing… To make something special you just have to believe it’s special.”: For some reason, people love to get attached to trappings and secret wisdom, even to the point of losing sight of what’s important.

It reminds me of a story about Dr. Herbert Benson. Benson famously wrote a book entitled, “The Relaxation Response about the effects of relaxation on health. Back in the sixties, students of the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi (famously, the Beatles’ guru) asked Benson to do a study of the health effects of their teacher’s system of meditation. The Maharishi taught transcendental meditation, an approach in which students focused on mentally repeating a mantra that is “given” to them personally by the teacher. (I put the word “given” in quotes because the Maharishi actually charged a significant amount of money for these mantras.) Anyhow, after much badgering, Benson agreed to do the study. One has to realize that, while today such a study would be considered quite respectable, in those days a study of the effect of meditation on health would have been akin to a study of voodoo.

So, Benson conducted the study and — lo and behold — he found that patients who practice meditation do have better recoveries and less ill effects. The Maharishi and his people now love Herbert Benson. They sing his praises. But Benson is interested in science and couldn’t care less whether any particular guru’s system of meditation is validated. So he repeats the study with all participants using the word “one” as their mantra, and he gets the same result. Subsequently, other forms of meditation are studied, and with similar outcomes. Needless to say, the transcendentalists love affair with Dr. Benson was short-lived.

BOOK REVIEW: Light on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali ed. by B.K.S. Iyengar

Light on the Yoga Sūtras of PatañjaliLight on the Yoga Sūtras of Patañjali by B.K.S. Iyengar
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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The “Yoga Sutras” are 196 aphorisms about yoga that were penned by a sage named Patanjali around 400 CE (i.e. AD.) Unless you’re a Sanskrit scholar with expertise in the history of yoga and the region that birthed it, it’s hard to gain anything from reading the Sutras directly. The Sutras are written in a terse style in a sparse language, and so most readers aren’t equipped to interpret them – which takes not only knowing the language but have some understanding of the context in which they were written. This means the Sutras are most commonly packaged into a book-length manuscript that includes not only the translation but also analysis and commentary.

There are many such books available, but the challenge is to find one that: a.) comes as close to the original meaning as possible without either misunderstanding or tainting the meaning with the translator’s and / or commentator’s worldview / ideas / ego; b.) is approachable to a modern reader. With respect to the latter, it’s easy to find free translations on the web, but often these were produced over a century ago, and can make for challenging reading for today’s readers. While it may seem like it would be closer to the source material, it can also be thought of as injecting another layer of culture in between the original and the present-day reader.

The Sutras are organized into four sections. The first section introduces the reader to yoga and explains the state of mind called Samadhi. The second section outlines the eight-fold practice of yoga called Ashtanga Yoga. The eight limbs include the two aspects of yogic ethics, yama and niyama, as well as postural yoga (asana,) breath exercises (pranayama,) sensory withdrawal (pratyahara,) concentration (dharana,) meditation (dhyana,) and the aforementioned Samadhi. The third section focuses on the super-normal abilities yogis are said to achieve, along with a warning that the pursuit of these abilities can become a fatal attraction with respect to one’s growth. The final section discusses the liberation, that is the ultimate objective of the practice of yoga.

The organization of this volume makes it suitable for readers of a wide range of levels of experience and scholarly understanding, and allows a reader to benefit from a shallow or deep approach to reading / research of the Sutras. It includes the original Sanskrit, then a Romanized alphabet phonetic write up of the original Sanskrit Sutra, and then a listing of the various meanings for each of the Sanskrit word. Then it has the English translation of the Sutra as literal as possible. Finally, there is B.K.S. Iyengar’s commentary and analysis. Sometimes these elaborations are just a few lines and sometimes they’re a few pages, but most commonly each is about one page. I like the approach of providing the original as well as information that facilitates the reader systematically piecing together his or her own understanding of each Sutra. I think it shows both humility and eagerness to support students on the part of the editor.

There are various appendices, indexes, and a glossary to make the book more useful.
This isn’t the first book of translation and commentary of the Sutras that I’ve read. However, it is the most readable, approachable, and useful that I’ve read. I would highly recommend this book for all practitioners of yoga.

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5 Readable Philosophical Novels

There are many philosophical novels in existence. However, many of them are difficult reads either because they are complex in language or concepts (e.g. “Thus Spoke Zarathustra” or “Faust“) or because — while readily understandable — they were badly in need of an editor (e.g. “Atlas Shrugged.”) Here are a few novels with interesting philosophical lessons that aren’t killers to read.


5.) Ishmael by Daniel Quinn: A man answers an ad that begins: “Teacher seeks pupil.” The teacher he discovers and the lessons he is taught aren’t what he bargained for. The book considers the impact of modern man versus aboriginal people, and the two groups’ respective place in the world.

 

4.) Brave New World by Aldous Huxley: In a futuristic world, people are controlled and manipulated by genetic engineering, classical conditioning, sleep-teaching, not to mention heaping helpings of drugs and promiscuity. The book considers the role of technology in humanity’s trajectory, and it contrasts Orwell’s bleak vision of dystopian governance with one that is every bit as manipulatory — if a great deal more pleasant in appearance.

 

3.) The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry: A young prince from a far-away land comes to Earth, and shows how wise the young can be and how absurd adults often are.

 

2.) Steppenwolf by Hermann Hesse: A man who feels out of step with humanity faces events that force him to reconsider what it means to be a man in the world of men.

 

1.) The Journeys of Socrates by Dan Millman: The prequel to Millman’s acclaimed book “The Way of the Peaceful Warrior.” It blends Eastern and Western philosophy in the training of a warrior.

POEM: The Endrow, or: How To Survive a Cornfield

I was once a kid in the corn.

News at Eleven ran a story
about a child found dehydrated
and on death’s door — deep in a field.

Any farm-boy will tell you,
you can’t get lost in a cornfield —
not truly lost.

Pick one of the two directions
that your row runs,
and walk.

When the rows re-align at right angles,
that’s the endrow —
you’re almost out.

Sure, it sucks if you hit the river,
because then you’ve got to walk
all the way back past where you started,
moving in the opposite direction.

But a kid has a lot of walk in him.

The only way to get lost in a cornfield
is to panic, and lose all faith
in the logic of a field.

In nature, one may walk oneself in circles
’cause one leg is stronger than the other,
and nature’s chaos is omnisymmetric
to an order-loving human brain.

But, in a field, the rows run true,
and the only way to walk in circles
is to feed your fear
and lose faith in the straightness of rows.

One can’t teleport a harvester into a field,
it needs to be driven there on a road.

Find your endrow, find your road.

BOOK REVIEW: Be As You Are ed. by David Godman

Be As You Are: The Teachings of Sri Ramana MaharshiBe As You Are: The Teachings of Sri Ramana Maharshi by Ramana Maharshi
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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In the early days of yoga, before there was Power Yoga or Yin Yoga — or even Hatha Yoga or Raja Yoga, there were three approaches to yoga. Bhakti yoga was devotional yoga, the yoga of the believers who pursued the path through worship. Karma yoga was the yoga of action: practiced by doing selfless deeds. Jnana yoga, often said to the hardest, was the path of knowledge, and it involved intense study and – in particular – introspective study of the jnani’s own mind. Sri Ramana Maharshi was one of the most well-known Jnana yogis of modern times (he lived from 1879 to 1950.)

This book presents Sri Ramana’s teachings in a question and answer format. The editor, David Godman, begins each chapter with an overview of Ramana’s views on the subject at hand, and he then launches into the Q&A exchange that makes up most of each chapter. The preludes are beneficial not only because they set up the topic, but also because they help separate Ramana’s core beliefs from the way he occasionally explained matters to non-jnani’s or those who weren’t ready to grasp what he believed was the fundamental teaching. (There’s a fair amount of, “Until you realize the self, X is true, but after you achieve self-realization Y will be true.)

Sri Ramana’s central teaching is that the jnani must actively inquire about the nature of the true self (a practice called atma-vichara, or self-inquiry.) As such, the book is organized as a guide to building a practice of self-inquiry.

The book’s 21 chapters are divided among six parts. The first part investigates the self as Sri Ramana refers to it. This isn’t the individual self that one is normally referring to in common speech. Part II is entitled “Inquiry and Surrender” and three out of the four chapters, herein, discuss the process of self-inquiry. Three chapters may sound like a lot, but this practice really is the core of jnana yoga. These chapters not only explain how self-inquiry is done and what it’s supposed to achieve, they also contrast the practice with others that bear a resemblance to atma-vichara, such as reciting “Who am I?” as a mantra, as well as, neti-neti — an exercise in negation in which one considers all the things that aren’t the self (e.g. “I am not my body.” “I am not this thought,” etc.)

Part III is about Gurus and transmission of teachings. It takes on such questions as: is a Guru necessary, and what constitutes a Guru (i.e. must it be a living human? Can it be a book?) The second chapter in this part is about sat-sang, which may be literally translated as “sitting with the guru,” but refers to a kind of transference that flows from being together.

Part IV is on meditation and yoga. Sri Ramana differentiates self-inquiry from meditation, though superficially they seem to be similar activities. He discusses dharana (concentration) and mantras in these chapters as well. One inclusion that may seem unrelated to the general theme is chapter 12, which is about the four-stage model of life called the asramas (student, householder, hermit, ascetic.) The chapter on yoga is about the eight limbs of yoga described by Patanjali, and their relevance to the practice of Jnana yogi. It should be noted that Ramana downplays the importance of these practices to the jnana yogi (a.k.a. Jnani) with the exception of pranayama (breathing exercises.)

Part V discusses samadhi, siddhi (supernormal psychic powers that some yogis believe can be achieved), and other challenges and phenomena that may be experienced during one’s practice of self-inquiry. While superpowers sound cool, Sri Ramana (as well as Patanjali) warned against he pursuit of these abilities as they become distractions from obtaining self-realization.

That last five chapters are grouped under the title of “Theory.” These chapters deal in the big “meaning of life” kind of philosophical questions. Much of these chapters consist of Ramana telling the interviewer to stop over-intellectualizing about obscure philosophical matters and start asking oneself who is asking the question (in other words, get back to self-inquiry and forget about abstract navel-gazing.) At any rate, the questions include: was the universe created, and – if so – how? is reincarnation real? what is the nature of god? is karma real? is free will real? etc. They are fascinating questions, and Ramana offers a few intriguing ideas, but mostly discounts the value of philosophizing.

There are no graphics in this book, but there is a glossary, notes, and a bibliography.

I found this book to be thought-provoking. At times it can be a bit repetitive. The key point that Ramana sought to get across is (in theory, not practice) straightforward. At times it seems like the questioner is badgering the witness because he doesn’t like the answer, such as when Godman wants Sri Ramana to elaborate on the nature of suffering and the need for compassionate acts. Ramana keeps telling Godman to just go back to self-inquiry and all will take care of itself. That said, Sri Ramana offers some fascinating thoughts, and generates beautiful food-for-thought.

I’d recommend this book for anyone who wants to know more about jnana yoga or to get a different take on the philosophy of yoga in general.

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5 Things to Which My Introverted Self Has Been Oblivious

5.) In the absence of information, people write their own stories, and everyone gives himself the leading role in his own story.

Therefore, sitting in the corner, minding one’s own business, deep in introspection, may balloon into: “He’s giving me the silent treatment. I bet he hates me and wishes I would die.”

 

4.) Quietness may be interpreted as arrogance.

I was told this by a teacher in Middle School, but — at that stage in my life — that seemed an impossibility. In those days, I was self-conscious about being introverted — and I was shy, to boot. (That’s not redundant. If you think it is, I’d recommend Susan Cain’s Quiet)  Because I felt that I so blatantly lacked confidence, it seemed hard to imagine that someone would misinterpret my quietness as being over-confident and / or narcissistic. How could it not be obvious that I lacked the confidence to be arrogant, but people see a lot less than one (or they) might think they do.

 

3.) Miss eye contact, miss a lot.

It’s not just that one misses non-verbal communication, it’s that it might be assumed that you caught a signal when you didn’t.

 

2.) When you are in deep introspection, you may have total inattentional blindness, but others may not recognize that. 

You may be familiar with inattentional blindness from the gorilla – basketball pass video. It’s the fact that we can’t mentally multitask, no matter how much we might think we can. If our attention is given over to one task we may miss even the blatantly obvious. Most people don’t think this is the case, and it doesn’t feel that way. That’s because we are usually quite good as bouncing our attention between different events and stimuli. (Though never without a degradation of performance.) However, if you’re entranced in introspection, you may look like you’re giving the evil eye to the angry hoodlum at the bar, or that you’re seeing the projectile flying at your face, but maybe not.

 

1.) If one doesn’t outwardly express emotions, some people may not realize that you have them. 

It seems self-evident that everybody experiences fear, anger, or sadness on occasion. Some more frequently. Some less. Some wear emotions on their sleeves, some hold their cards close to the chest, and every point in between. Part of the problem is that our intuitive understanding of what it looks like to be without emotion is flawed. As is discussed in Antonio Damasio’s book Decartes’ Error, a true lack of emotion (as seen in those with damage to parts of the brain involved in emoting) may look like the inability to make a decision (i.e. paralysis by analysis,) rather than our traditional notion of Star Trek’s Spock — a perfectly rational decision maker who can’t be insulted and doesn’t get sarcasm.

Around the World in 6 Myths

6.) Thor & Loki in the Land of Giants (Norse): There’s no shame in putting a mere dent in the impossible.




5.) Rama & Sita (Hindu / from the Ramayana): Careful with your assumptions. You may end up looking like a jerk even if you’ve proven yourself generally virtuous.




4.) Anansi the Trickster (Ghanan / Akan): Don’t do favors for tricksters.




3.) Arachne the Weaver (Greek): Don’t be arrogant, even if you’re the best.




2.) Izanagi & Izanami (Japanese [creation myth]): Hell hath no fury…




1.) White Buffalo Calf Woman (Native American / Lakotan): Don’t let your lust get away from you and be careful in your assumptions.

BOOK REVIEW: The Journey to the East by Hermann Hesse

The Journey to the EastThe Journey to the East by Hermann Hesse
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This lesser-known Hesse work adopts a theme common throughout the author’s books in that it’s philosophical man-versus-himself fiction. The book’s protagonist, H.H., is a member of a secretive league [called “The League”] with whom he is undertaking a journey of self-discovery. H.H. fails to complete the expedition, and that fact haunts him into old age. Ultimately, H.H. finds Leo, a servant who’d been on the journey with him, with whom H.H. had a great affinity, and whose disappearance (along with some loot) led to H.H.’s abandonment of the trip. In the process, the lead discovers that nothing was what it seemed.The book examines how vulnerable people are to disillusionment and how quickly they can lose their passion, and it urges the reader to consider from what source one draws one’s strength.

This novella is a little under a hundred pages, and is told in five chapters. The first couple of chapters describe the ill-fated journey. The third chapter is a pivot in which H.H. is considering his inadequate attempt to chronicle events, and is advised to get closure by tracking down Leo. In the last two chapters, H.H. does find Leo, receives the man’s wisdom, and ultimately finds out what really happened.

I enjoyed this book. It’s a quick and simple read, but is extremely thought-provoking. I’d recommend this book for anyone who likes to think about life’s big questions.

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