It's been a while since I've done a book review and in light of my exhibition of dharma-inspired artwork at the Oolong Tea House in Calgary this month I thought it would be suitable to review a bit of dharma* that has hugely influenced my life.
My first forays into Buddhism began when I started seeing my psychologist. As someone involved in the Shambhala community she had a lovely balance of psychological expertise and common sense in Buddhist packaging. In many of our sessions she referred to Pema Chodron and told me that a lot of what I said and how I thought fit with her teachings. Eventually I caved and bought a Pema book: Start Where You Are.
Reading Pema made me realise that I was a Buddhist, through and through. Her teaching style is clear and easily understood even without extensive knowledge of Buddhism. It really is common sense and she presents it in such an accessible way that I was soon hooked.
I moved on to read The Places That Scare You and When Things Fall Apart and then I purchased this book:
I was fully prepared for more of the same, so imagine my surprise as I began reading and realised this book was not Pema's usual pithy instructions, but a commentary on a famous Buddhist text written in 700A.D.: The Way of the Bodhisattva.
This was dharma - deep, profound teachings on Buddhism and how to be an effective, authentic, genuine human being.
At the time I'd only been meditating for a few months. My grasp of Buddhism was weak although I was already aware of an unwavering enthusiasm I had for it. Here was a practice that asks us to work with our own minds, empowers us to be our own greatest teacher and teaches that the most difficult moments in our lives are the best for having a lasting transformative effect.
But 'The Way of the Bodhisattva' is not exactly beginners Buddhism text.
My first reading of it was a bit of a slog. I struggled through it but stoically stuck to it because at the time Pema's books were acting as a life-line. As long as I had a book of Pema's to read I felt like I could control my anxiety, keep an even keel and maintain a sense of sanity I desperately needed.
Looking back I'm both proud of and amused by my efforts. I was seeking comfort in her writing and instead I was confronted with a scholarly text composed twelve centuries ago that asked me to do the work.
This didn't phase me. In fact, as soon as I finished reading it I flipped back to the introduction and began again. I wanted to understand the words because I had found comfort in reading them - but not for the reasons I'd found comfort in reading Pema's other writing.
There was something about how applicable The Way of the Bodhisattva was to my own life at that time, even though it was over a thousand years old and had been composed for a very different audience. I think this must have been my first glimpse of having an understanding of the four noble truths:
Life is suffering. Suffering is due to attachment. Attachment can be over come. There is a path to do this.
I began to see them beyond the simplistic Western view of 'Life's a Bitch' and understood that they were pointing at the fundamental ambiguity of being human: Life changes, inevitably, constantly, and this terrifies us. It has always terrified us. As human beings we really don't like the idea that we and everyone we know are impermanent so we scramble for something to hold onto in an attempt to feel better about the fact that we'll get sick, grow old and die.
The Way of the Bodhisattva is teaching us how to live well by flipping our habitual patterns on their head. Rather than scrambling for ground, it's asking us to experiment with what might happen if we opened up to, accepted, and embraced this groundlessness.
What would our lives be like if we didn't resist our experience? What would life be like if happiness was more than getting what we want and not getting what we don't want? What would life be like if we let go of an idea of how it 'should' be?
I'm now reading No Time To Lose for the fourth time. It's been years since my third reading of it and my practice has deepened significantly since then. Now as I read it there is a familiarity with the language I lacked upon my first, second and even third reading.
I've come to really value re-visiting teachings because with each new experience I have the way I work with my mind and the way I live in the world transforms, so each time I come back to dharma I've read or listened to before I get something different from it. I'm excited to see what I get out of this commentary now, after over a year of daily meditation, completing the first five levels of the Shambhala training and daily consumption of Buddhist talks and books.
Even if you're not a Buddhist, this text in particular does hold some incredibly profound and pithy instructions. I recommend it very highly. Regardless of what your understanding of Buddhism is, it offers so much to make us see how every situation is workable and everything we experience has value.
*Dharma is the word for the traditional Buddhist teachings/text.