BOOK REVIEW: Modern Buddhism: Vol. 1 (Sutra) by Geshe Kelsang Gyatso

Modern Buddhism: The Path of Compassion and Wisdom - Volume 1 SutraModern Buddhism: The Path of Compassion and Wisdom – Volume 1 Sutra by Geshe Kelsang Gyatso
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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This is the first book in a three-volume overview of Buddhism that is available for free (or for the minimum Kindle book price on Amazon.) The book is written by a Tibetan Buddhist scholar-monk, and, therefore, emphasizes the Mahayana approach and specifically that of the Gelug school. (I’m a neophyte, but I don’t think this book goes into so much detail as to be controversial among Tibetan Mahayana Buddhists, but if you are thinking you’ll learn about, say, Zen or Theravadan Vipassana, not so much.) The theme of this volume is an overview of the Limram, which is a sutra describing the path to enlightenment.

The book is divided into four sections. The first offers a broad overview of Buddhism with particular discussion of the Kadam Lamrim (the specific sutra discussed) and Kadampas (which is the name for an individual who pursues practice of the Kadam Lamrim.) The other three sections describe the information needed by an initiate, middling practitioners, and advanced practitioners, respectively.

The section on persons of initial scope (i.e. initiates) emphasizes the need to recognize the limited scope of a human life, to reflect upon one’s imminent death, and to consider the importance of avoiding lower rebirth.

The section on persons of middling scope echoes the four noble truths. They are discussed by way of the four questions: 1.) What one should know? 2.) What one should abandon? 3.) What one should practice? And 4.) What one should attain? In essence, it suggests one understand suffering, the path to is cessation, and that one follow that path.

The largest section, by far, is the portion on individuals of great scope. It is divided into four parts. The first part describes the need to revise one’s approach to love by taking oneself out of the center and practicing loving-compassion for those that one doesn’t know. The second subsection outlines the six perfections (giving, moral discipline, patience, effort, concentration, and wisdom) and the importance of each. The third section is about emptiness and truth. The final section is a brief description of the Lamrim practice.

There are a small number of line drawn illustrations of important figures in the tradition. There are no notations, citations, or ancillary material.

I found this book to offer a concise overview of the subject of Buddhism—specifically from the perspective of the Gelug tradition of Tibetan Buddhism. While there are some historical stories, such as those drawn from the life of Milarepa, the book is not designed to be entertaining reading. It’s a straightforward transmission of knowledge. In that regard it does a fine job, it’s clear and concise.

I’d recommend this book for one who’s interested Tibetan Buddhism, but one should be aware that it’s not a nonsectarian overview of Buddhism as the title might suggest to a reader.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Life of Milarepa ed. by Lobzang Jivaka

The Life of Milarepa: A New Translation from the TibetanThe Life of Milarepa: A New Translation from the Tibetan by Lobsang P. Lhalungpa
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Superhero stories can be surprisingly hard to make interesting. The hero’s vast powers make it hard to build obstacles that seriously challenge him. Make no mistake; while this book may be the biography of a Tibetan Buddhist yogi who was born in the eleventh century, it’s a superhero story as well. At various points, the titular character can control the weather, fly, read minds, predict the future, and cover a distance that would take a mere mortal months in just days. Milarepa is basically the entire cast of the X-Men rolled into one monk. [Note: the introduction of 1962 Lobzang Jivaka edition features a series of rants against Westerners that put a bad taste in my mouth early in the reading–basically suggesting the reality of these magic powers should be taken as a given even though the deficient Western mind has trouble wrapping its head around difficult concepts. It made me think I’d probably not like the book, but I’d forgotten it by the time I got around to the end of the book.]

“The Life of Milarepa” is essentially a hero’s journey, which begins with his widowed mother, his sister, and he being taken advantage of by a mean Uncle and Aunt. Milarepa takes up Black Magic to influence the weather so that he can exact revenge. Doing so makes him feel great shame, and puts him on the path of a religious ascetic. After his initial training, he is put through a great series of trials by Marpa, the man who will eventually his guru. Were it not for the encouragement and support from Marpa’s wife, Milarepa would never have made it through the training, and at one point—in fact—he goes away to learn from one of Marpa’s most advanced students because it seems Marpa unwilling to teach him.

Eventually, Milarepa ends up returning to his home and, thereafter, meditating on his own. Here he runs into the aunt and uncle (now separated) who made his family’s life hell after his father died. These elders aren’t the only ones who think Milarepa is a ne’er-do-well. However, most people are too scared of his superpowers to create problems for him, at first. He eventually wanders off and becomes the poorest of ascetics—with not so much as covering for his naked body as he live off nettles.

There are oddities in the book. The Buddhist teachers he studies under both use him as weapon (i.e. his hailstorm magic) as a requirement to taking him on as a student, despite the fact that this will pile onto his Karmic debt (and ostensibly theirs), and it leaves him feeling horrible—as well, it seems, these black magic powers make Marpa hostile to the young man and not take him seriously as a student until the guru receives an omen.

So why does this story turn out to be so satisfying? For one thing, for all his powers, Milarepa is constantly confronting challenges that keep the story tight. (I should again emphasize that this is nominally a work of biography. It just doesn’t read like one because of all the magic and the classic story elements. Few people have such a novel-shaped life. A hagiography is a more apt descriptor but instead of only displaying Milarepa’s good side (boring), this book presumably dances around facts to make a more engrossing product.) While Milarepa could concoct all manner of magic, he mostly doesn’t with the exception of some ESP. After Marpa has taught him, Milarepa deals with people with calm and compassion. (His return home is a little like Alex’s from “A Clockwork Orange” in that people have ill feelings about him because of his past, but at first they are afraid of him. When they discover he can’t defend himself, they start to lay into him.) For another, we can see Milarepa’s growth and we come to respect his intense devotion tremendously as he becomes quite virtuous of the course of the book. While he is a superhero, he’s also an ascetic who denies himself with the utmost of discipline in pursuit of liberation.

I’d highly recommend this book for those who like biographies—especially if you like to learn about Buddhism in the process. In the latter half of the book there are some lessons transmitted through the text as Milarepa interacts with students and other people. Eventually, even his loathsome aunt becomes a student.

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DAILY PHOTO: Fudō-Myōō

Taken on October 30, 2016 at the Buddha Tooth Relic Temple in Singapore

Taken on October 30, 2016 at the Buddha Tooth Relic Temple in Singapore

 

Fudō-Myōō is the name used by Japanese Vajrayana Buddhists for the wrathful deity otherwise known as Acala [the Wisdom King.]

BOOK REVIEW: Sleeping, Dreaming, and Dying ed. by Francisco J. Varela

Sleeping, Dreaming, and Dying: An Exploration of ConsciousnessSleeping, Dreaming, and Dying: An Exploration of Consciousness by Dalai Lama XIV
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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This book is a product of the 4th Mind & Life Institute Conference that took place over five days in October of 1992 in Dharamsala, India. It reads as a narrated description / transcription of the event. The Mind & Life Institute was established as a dialogue between science and Tibetan Buddhism, and is actively supported by His Holiness the Dalai Lama—who is an important figure in the book, both asking questions of the presenters and offering clarification on Tibetan Buddhist thinking on various points. The exact subject of each conference is different, but the mind is a recurring theme. Which makes sense as Tibetan Buddhist practices of the mind are as advanced as any, and it would be of great benefit to understand them better from a scientific perspective.

As the title suggests, this conference (and the book) deal with three topics: sleeping, dreaming, and dying. This may seem like a case of “one of these things doesn’t belong,” but from the Buddhist perspective on consciousness it’s a sensible enough grouping. One can think of it this way, sleeping and dying are points at which consciousness goes bye-bye. [Although, lucid dreamers retain consciousness in REM sleep, and there are unsubstantiated claims of the ability to maintain consciousness in sleep by extremely advanced practitioners.]

There is some front matter (a forward by the Dalai Lama and an editor’s Introduction) and then eight chapters. The first chapter discusses both the Western and Tibetan perspectives on “the self,” what it is, and whether it is [real or illusory.] This topic seems unrelated to the book’s theme, but it’s a way to develop a common understanding for the rest of the discussion. If participants have different views on what a person is, mentally speaking, and what consciousness is, then it’s easy to talk past each other without even realizing it. The second chapter is an overview of what was known about sleep, principally from the perspective of neuroscience (it should be noted that neuroscience was a fairly fledgling term at that time.) The next three chapters (ch. 3, 4, and 5) are about dreaming. The third chapter is a bit unique. The general approach throughout the book is to give the understanding of science and then to compare and contrast that with Buddhist thinking. However, chapter three’s discussion is led by a proponent of psychoanalysis (i.e. the Freudian approach,) which isn’t so scientific, but is a Western philosophical approach. [Chapter one is also heavily philosophical.]

Chapters four and five delve into the subject of lucid dreaming, which is referred to as dream yoga in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition. For me this was the meat of the subject, and it was the reason that I bought the book. Tibetan practices on lucid dreaming are incomparable, and at this point science’s understanding was beginning to blossoming as well.

The last three chapters are on death, and each offers a different character. The first two emphasize Western views, but in different ways. Chapter six outlines the Christian position on death—a theological rather than scientific understanding. Chapter seven explains the medical community’s view of death. This sounds straight forward, but it’s a much more technical subject than one might imagine. What organ has to stop functioning and for how long before one is actually dead. Besides all the coma patient stories, one may be aware of cases historically in which people were discovered to have been buried alive accidentally due to bad calls by doctors. The last chapter is about near-death experiences. This is an area in which there is a great potential for differing views. While science doesn’t deny that people have all sorts of fascinating experiences such as seeing bright lights at the end of “tunnels” and out-of-body experiences, scientists tend to attribute such events to material causes. [Neuroscientists can now induce out-of-body experiences by zapping a specific part of the brain.]

There are graphics in the form of diagrams and tables in the chapters that are most technical (e.g. chapter two and chapter seven,) but they are used sparingly. There’s an appendix that describes the Mind & Life Institute, as well as a glossary that explains both Tibetan and scientific terms. There are also a few pages of end notes that will help one find related material.

The weakness of this book is clearly its age. The Buddhism probably hasn’t changed much, but the science has changed a lot. Since 1992 there has been a revolution in understanding of the brain due to advances in functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) and other technologies.

However, despite the book’s age, there’s a lot of thought-provoking discussion, which offers plenty of room for both scientists and Buddhists to gain a better understanding of the mind and consciousness. I’d recommend this book for anyone interested in dream yoga / lucid dreaming, or—for that matter—death.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Tibetan Yogas of Dream and Sleep by Tenzin Wangyal Rinpoche

The Tibetan Yogas Of Dream And SleepThe Tibetan Yogas Of Dream And Sleep by Tenzin Wangyal
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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I stumbled upon this book in a used bookstore, and didn’t know what to expect–but was intrigued. It’s a book on the Tibetan Bön approach to dream yoga and sleep yoga, written by a Bön lama (monk.) Dream yoga is a term used in Buddhism and other Eastern traditions to refer to what is called lucid dreaming in Western scientific circles. My review will focus on the more than 3/4ths of the book that deals in dream yoga (lucid dreaming.) The 40-ish pages that deal with sleep yoga are outside my wheelhouse. The author suggests that that part is for initiates who are familiar with certain background concepts. I’m not an initiate, and—in fact—I have no idea whether there is any merit to sleep yoga practice. Lucid dreaming is a well-studied and documented phenomena, but, as far as I know, what the author calls sleep yoga remains unstudied. All I can say is that the part on dream yoga is readily comprehensible, despite much of it being couched in spiritual terms, but a lot of the section on sleep yoga is arcane and ethereal.

As it happens, I was pleasantly surprised with the portion of the book about dream yoga. Having read a number of books dealing with the subject recently, I wasn’t sure whether I would learn anything that was both new and useful. But I was exposed to ideas that were new, useful, and mind-blowing. There were a few ideas for helping one to achieve lucid dreaming—mostly through practices carried out during the day—that I’d not seen in other works, at least not put in such clear terms. Also, while there is a lot of reference to the Bön and Buddhist spiritual traditions, this didn’t result in the explanations being needlessly complicated or arcane. There is a lot of information that one doesn’t need if one is a secular practitioner, but many readers will find it interesting, even if it’s not necessary to advance their practice.

The book is organized into six parts: 1.) The Nature of Dream, 2.) Kinds and Uses of Dreams, 3.) The Practice of Dream Yoga, 4.) Sleep, 5.) The Practice of Sleep Yoga, and 6.) Elaborations. The last part has information pertinent to both dream yoga and sleep yoga.

There are some graphics in the book including photos, line drawings, and tables. Most of these aren’t essential, but some make it easier to imagine what the author is describing (e.g. when he discusses sleeping positions.) The book has a glossary and bibliography. The former is useful, and the latter doesn’t hurt (but it’s only one page and offers only a handful of citations.) The glossary is mostly of foreign terms, but includes English terms specific to the religious traditions discussed. It offers both Tibetan and Sanskrit variants of the word if they exist, which is a nice feature. There is also an appendix which summarizes the crucial practices elaborated upon in the book.

I’d recommend this book for those interested in developing a lucid dreaming practice. I will say that it may not be the best first book to read on the subject, unless you are a practitioner of Bön or intend to be. (For that, I would recommend Charlie Morley’s “Lucid Dreaming: A Beginner’s Guide…” which I recently reviewed.) However, this book makes an excellent follow-up once one has read a book that is couched in simpler terms (i.e. not specific to a certain spiritual tradition) and which reports on the science. I found that the book gave me a number of new ideas, and—in fact—offered some insightful ideas.

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Even imaginary monsters get bigger if you feed them

Public domain image sourced from Wikipedia

Public domain image of Epictetus, sourced from Wikipedia

There’s a story about Epictetus infuriating a member of the Roman gentry by asking, “Are you free?”

 

(Background for those not into Greek and Roman philosophy. Epictetus was a Roman slave who gained his freedom to become one of the preeminent teachers of stoicism. Stoicism is a philosophy that tells us that it’s worthless to get tied up in emotional knots over what will, won’t, or has happened in life. For Stoics, there are two kinds of events. Those one can do something about and those that one can’t. If an event is of the former variety, one should put all of one’s energy into doing what one can to achieve a preferable (and virtuous) outcome. If an event is of the latter variety, it’s still a waste of energy to get caught up in emotional turbulence. Take what comes and accept the fact that you had no ability to make events happen otherwise.)

 

To the man insulted by Epictetus, his freedom was self-evident. He owned land. He could cast a vote. He gave orders to slaves and laborers, and not the other way around. What more could one offer as proof of one’s freedom? Of course, he missed Epictetus’s point. The question wasn’t whether the man was free from external oppressors, but whether he was free from his own fears? Was he locked into behavior because he didn’t have the courage to do otherwise?

 

I recently picked up a book on dream yoga by a Tibetan Lama, Tenzin Wangyal Rinpoche. Lucid dreaming has been one of my goals as of late. I wasn’t expecting to learn anything new about practices to facilitate lucid dreaming because I’ve been reading quite a bit about the science, recently. I just thought that it would be interesting to see how the Tibetan approach to lucid dreaming maps to that of modern-day psychology. Tibetan Buddhists are–after all–the acknowledged masters of dream yoga, and have a long history of it. Furthermore, I’ve been doing research about the science behind “old school” approaches to mind-body development, lately. At any rate, it turns out that there were several new preparatory practices that I picked up and have begun to experiment with, and one of them is relevant to this discussion.

 

This will sound a little new-agey at first, but when you think it out it makes sense. The exercise is to acknowledge the dream-like quality of one’s emotionally charged thoughts during waking life. Consider an example: You’re driving to an important meeting. You hit a couple long red lights. You begin to think about how, if you keep hitting only red lights, you’re going to be late and it’s going to look bad to your boss or client. As you think about this you begin to get anxious.  But there is no more reality in the source of your fear than there is when you see a monster in your dreams. There’s a potentiality, not a reality. Both the inevitability of being late and the monster are projections of your mind, and yet tangible physiological responses are triggered (i.e. heart rate up, digestion interfered with, etc.) It should be noted the anxiety isn’t without purpose. It’s designed to kick you into planning mode, to plan for the worst-case scenario. Cumulatively, one can get caught up in a web of stress that has a negative impact on one’s health and quality of life.  For most people, when they arrive on time, they forget all about their anxiety and their bodily systems will return to the status quo, until the next time (which might be almost immediately.) Some few will obsess about the “close call” and how they should have planned better, going full-tilt into a stress spiral.

 

Mind states have consequences, whether or not they’re based in reality. I’ve always been befuddled by something I read about Ernest Hemingway. He’d won a Nobel Prize for Literature and was universally regarded as one of the masters of American literature, but he committed suicide because he feared he’d never be able to produce works on the level that he’d written as a younger man. There seems to be more to it than that. Many others managed to comfortably rest on their laurels when writing became hard[er]–including writers with much less distinguished careers.  The monster may be imaginary, but if you feed it, it still gets bigger.

 

As you go about your day, try to notice your day-dreams, mental wanderings, and the emotional states they suggest. You might be surprised to find how many of them have little basis in reality. They are waking dreams.

BOOK REVIEW: Running with the Mind of Meditation by Sakyong Mipham

Running with the Mind of Meditation: Lessons for Training Body and MindRunning with the Mind of Meditation: Lessons for Training Body and Mind by Sakyong Mipham
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Tibetan Buddhists believe Sakyong Mipham is the reincarnation of a great teacher from late 19th century Tibet. He’s also completed many marathons—nine at the time of this book’s publication. He’s certainly qualified to comment on meditation, running, and the nexus of the two–if there is such a thing. However, it may not be clear that the topics are particularly connected. Readers may have an intuitive sense that they are closely connected, but without sufficient understanding of both elements to draw sound conclusions.

The author, himself, proposes that one should recognize the points of contrast as well as comparisons between the two activities. A couple quotes make this clear:
“People sometimes say, ‘Running is my meditation’… in reality, running is running and meditation is meditation… It would be just as inaccurate to say, ‘Meditation is my exercise.’”
“The body benefits from movement, and the mind benefits from stillness.”
Later in the book, the author suggests that the apparent clarity after running usually has more to do with the “wild horse” of the mind being tired, rather than it being tamed. (Taming the mind being the objective of meditation.) That said, Mipham Rinpoche clearly believes that there are benefits to be had from an interaction between these two activities.

The book is divided into six parts. The first part gives background on basics like base-building, breath, what meditation is, and the challenge of starting to build a regime (either of running, meditation, or both.) The rest of the book is organized by way of a Tibetan Buddhist conception about how new skills are learned. This schema relies on animal symbolism. The first level is that of the tiger, and this is when one works on attentively and conscientiously building one’s technique. The lion level follows the tiger. The lion phase is a joyful one because a base capacity and fundamentals have been built and the initial struggle is in the past. The next phase is represented by the Garuda (a mythical eagle-like creature that features in Hindu as well as Buddhist mythology), and it’s expressed by challenging oneself to more demanding practice. The final phase is the dragon, and it involves moving beyond doing the activity for oneself to doing it for others. There’s a final part, entitled the windhorse, that is based on the notion of an energy that Tibetan Buddhists believe accumulates when one follows the aforementioned 4 phase path. This last part is a description of events that might be seen as the culmination of the author’s running career.

Within the aforementioned six parts, there are 40 chapters—most of which are only a few pages and deal with a specific aspect (or pitfall) of that phase of training.

I found this book interesting. Learning about the four phases (tiger, lion, garuda, and dragon) of skill development was illuminating, and I found myself thinking about how this idea could be more widely applied. It’s a handy conception with broad utility. The author uses stories from his own experience to add credibility as well as light-heartedness to the philosophy lessons being taught. While the book may seem ethereal, much of the discussion is on down-to-earth subjects like dealing with pain and injury. It should be noted that the introductory and tiger parts make up a little more than half the book—suggesting the importance of fundamentals. There’s a lot of valuable information on fear, confidence, and how to view pain.

I’d recommend this book, especially for runners and meditators—but not exclusively so. Many people who are interested in mind / body interaction will be able to draw useful lessons from the book, even if running isn’t your thing.

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