Book Review

An Open Heart: Practicing Compassion in Everyday Life by The Dalai Lama, edited by Nicholas Vreeland, Little, Brown and Company, Boston, 2001; 191 pages, ISBN 0316989797, hardback, $22.95.

The Dalai Lama's best-selling Ethics for a New Millennium (1999) discussed in universal terms the need for living a moral life today, addressing particularly those in developed countries not practicing any religious tradition. His current book gives readers "a basic understanding of Buddhism and some of the key methods by which Buddhist practitioners have cultivated compassion and wisdom in their lives." He stresses, however, that "one doesn't have to be a Buddhist to make use of these meditation techniques. In fact, the techniques themselves do not lead to enlightenment or a compassionate and open heart. That is up to you, and the effort and motivation you bring to your spiritual practice" (pp. 29-30).

The introductory chapter, a 1999 lecture attended by 200,000 people in New York's Central Park, directly and simply expresses the personal and global importance of respecting everyone and transforming pride and anger into humility and love. In an accessible style lightened by humor, the Dalai Lama suggests in practical terms how we can become more compassionate. For example, he remarks that it is helpful to find something admirable in every person, and that we don't need to fall in with the negativity of others. Instead of mimicking the behavior of a hateful neighbor who is invariably rude, we can smile on him kindly, feeling pity for him. Soon the neighbor will stop out of frustration at not getting the angry reaction he is looking for. Impersonal love always defeats hatred, as Jesus suggested when saying we should turn the other cheek.

The remaining fifteen chapters were edited from a 1999 formal lecture series on Buddhist methods for achieving ultimate enlightenment through compassion and wisdom. It is based on two Tibetan Buddhist texts: Middle-Length Stages of Meditation by Kamalashila (8th century), which outlines the importance of analytical or mental practices to enlightenment; and The Thirty-Seven Practices of Bodhisattvas by Togmay Sangpo (14th century), which describes how to live a life dedicated to others.

The author's starting point is that everyone wishes to be happy and to avoid suffering. This could lead to a focus on oneself and one's exclusive benefit, but as the subtitle shows this is not his intent. Rather, he stresses that life is oneness, that all are inwardly kin, despite visual and other differences, and whatever affects one will in subtle ways affect all else. In each new life we confront the karma we have made -- ourselves -- and in so doing may refine and elevate our character so that we come to know intuitively how to live nobly. However, it is only by "an effort based on an understanding of how the mind and its various emotional and psychological states interact, that we bring about true spiritual progress" (pp. 60-1). The book outlines these states and the practices used at various stages along the bodhisattva path, ending with verses from 8th-century Indian Buddhist Shantideva:

With a wish to free all beings
I shall always go for refuge
To the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha
Until I reach full enlightenment.
Enthused by wisdom and compassion,
Today in the Buddha's presence
I generate the Mind Wishing Full Awakening
For the benefit of all sentient beings.
As long as space remains,
As long as sentient beings remain,
Until then, may I too remain,
And dispel the miseries of the world.

This review only hints at the wisdom in this ecumenical book, and in these tense times its readers may feel more relaxed, realizing that right thought and right action, coupled with compassion, are inherent in human nature and, when practiced, in time will result in lasting strength and peace. -- Jean B. Crabbendam

 (From Sunrise magazine, December 2001/January 2002; copyright © 2001 Theosophical University Press)

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