Book Review: Living Fully by Shyalpa Rinpoche

From time to time, I get emails offering to send me a free book for the purpose of reviewing it. This one came from New World Library. Now, in December I ordered five or six books by a particular author from Amazon (because I decided I wanted all her stuff), last week I picked up some mystery paperbacks at my friendly neighborhood thrift shop, and yesterday, I bought six books from a great bookstore in downtown Los Angeles called The Last Bookstore. (Thank goodness these were all used and therefore, cheap.) Not to mention that I am still trying to slug my way through Crime and Punishment which I swear I will read even if it kills me and it probably will. What? Am I crazy? I don’t need any more books. How will I ever read all this stuff?

So I wrote back: sure, send me your book. And they did. It’s called Living Fully: Finding Joy in Every Breath by Shyalpa Tenzin Rinpoche. Here is the review:

Shyalpa Rinpoche is called a “renown teacher,” but I have never heard of him. Not that that means much. Apparently, he was born in the Himalayas and “trained as a lama from the age of four” and while he has received transmissions from all four schools of Tibetan Buddhism, he is primarily a lineage holder in the Dzogchen (Great Perfection) tradition, which is more or less the Tibetan version of “original enlightenment.” From his photograph, he looks as if he’s fairly young, but from his biography I am guessing he is in his 40’s. I checked him out on the Internet and he doesn’t seem to have any controversies surrounding him, so I guess he’s okay. There’s certainly nothing in this book that strikes me as unreasonable. Indeed, he seems to hit all the right notes.

I suspect that the material offered here has been culled from his dharma talks, rather than something he wrote especially for publication. It is organized in such way as to take the reader from the first steps of thinking about establishing a Buddhist practice to maintaining one, and then, beyond. He deals with such subjects as an “intelligent way to begin,” important qualities to nurture, freedom from the notion of self, facing obstacles, “Meditation is Necessary,” “Practicing on the Path,” the role of the teacher, and so on.

On the subject of meditation, Shyalpa Rinpoche says,

It is not enough to simply study the teachings; one actually has to live them. Once we have some understanding of the teachings, we need to apply discipline and practice meditation. Most of us cannot embody these teachings overnight. We may have some conceptual understanding, but we cannot put this understanding into action right away . . . If you do not actualize these teachings through practice, you may be utterly defenseless when faced with challenges, like a baby in the midst of a battlefield.”

I couldn’t agree more.

Now as you might have gathered from that excerpt, to some extent this is a book for beginners. That doesn’t mean that more experienced Buddhists will not find something of value here. We may have heard some of these things many times before, yet, frankly, there are those of us who need to hear them repeatedly until they sink into our stubborn heads. I count myself as among that number.

Shyalpa Rinpoche’s style of writing, or speaking, is simple, spare, and elegant. Reminiscent  of Thich Nhat Hanh. However, the latter will intersperse his declarative statements with interesting stories and examples. There is some of that here, but not much. In this book, it is mainly one declaration after another, and that to me, is its major fault. It becomes monotonous when nearly every sentence is a pithy little statement that could stand alone as a quote:

When you are truly integrated with the flow of your breath, you will know that all beings are blessed with this same precious gift. You will trust in your goodness and in the basic decency of others. This conviction and confidence will prompt those around you to slow down and relax and to experience their lives in a complete way. (“Confidence”)

We all experience doubt, fear, and wakefulness. We can be understanding and tolerant of others, even when they treat us badly. We are all doing our best to survive. Everyone is troubled by the stormy waves of desire, anger, greed, envy, and pride. We are full of these disturbing emotions. No one wishes to suffer, so why would we want to compound the misery of others? (“Your Highest Standard”)

The nature of the mind is unobstructed. Moment by moment, one thought is born, while another one dies. This energy is unceasing, and it springs from primordial wisdom. This energy is the essence of what we are. This essence manifests, but not in any solid or substantial way. We cannot imagine it or express it. It transcends imagination and expression. (“Coming and Going”)

Embrace freedom. Try your best not to rely on material comforts. Rather, learn how to be content by uniting with your unconditional nature. In this way, the more you challenge yourself, the more you will build confidence. (“Turn Toward Freedom”)

And so it goes. Nearly, the entire text is written in this manner. I am guilty of the same thing with some of my blog posts. I don’t know why, but I expect a little more from a book.

At the same time, it’s not the kind of book that demands linear reading, from beginning to end. Each chapter is made of several small sections of two to three pages each. They can stand alone. One can pick the book up, turn to any page, and not miss anything. In this way, Living Fully can be useful as a source of daily inspiration or wisdom.

My only other gripe about Living Fully is that in his presentation Shyalpa Rinpoche makes it seem too easy. As he says above, we should “embrace freedom.” But simply embracing freedom does not make one free. There’s a process involved. He says, “Our lives will not be truly satisfying if we cannot live each moment deliberately and grasp the essence of our precious human nature.” Well, I’ve read basically the same thing many times by many authors, but rarely have I found someone who goes on to talk about how difficult it is to achieve. Living deliberately, living fully, being in the present moment and maintaining that awareness, grasping our true nature – none of it is easy. It’s damn hard. But somehow, Shyalpa Rinpoche makes it sounds as if all you have to do is cherish life and each breath and remember the perfect moment and you’ve got it made. Well, he’s not the only one. And while he does remind us that practice is not about avoiding adversity and that there are obstacles and “obscurations” along the path, it seems to me that he glosses over these challenges.

For instance, in the section “Look inside the Fear” he asks, “How does fear arise? Where does it come from? Where does it go?” Good questions. But then he launches into a discussion of the emptiness of views which he equates with fearlessness and he concludes with, “We labor hard at boosting our image and enhancing our reputation, without ever discovering the inner beauty that is our true essence.” Yes, but what about fear? How does one look into it? How does obtain this fearlessness?

The book as a whole does answer those questions, but I think readers would be better served if he had addressed them more specifically, and with more substance. Ultimately, then, Living Fully is just a bit too sugar-coated for my particular cup of tea. That doesn’t mean it’s not a good book, or that it doesn’t contain timeless wisdom. It is and it does.


Demigods, Swastikas, and Bookstores

“I’m all right now, but you should have seen me last week,” began many a monologue by comedian Rodney Dangerfield. A week after chemotherapy, I am starting to feel human again. The point to having these treatments is to keep the size of the cancerous tumors on my liver small.  If they get too big, a transplant is out of the question. I hope this one does some good. I sure don’t look forward to any more.

But, enough of my gloomy stuff.

EARLIER THIS WEEK I received two emails asking for information and/or advice about the Soka Gakkai International. I thought this was a bit strange, but in the off chance they were legit . . . Dude, if your girlfriend has been in the SGI all her life, my advice is either become a fanatic yourself or find another girlfriend.  You can’t change her. You won’t be able to save her. It sounds to me like you are not that into Buddhism yourself, so I say go find a nice yoga girl  . . .  Now, as to the current state of health of the SGI fearless leader, Daisaku Ikeda – I haven’t a clue. There are rumors that he has been secluded in a hospital for some time, and that he is in a coma, etc. I am sure that no one, outside a small circle of people in Japan knows the truth. There are also rumors that he will be mummified after he passes away. Well, I have heard of crazier things . . .

YOU MAY HAVE HEARD about the controversy stirred up by the sale of Buddhist jewelry at a New York store. Jewish groups and some politicians were outraged and, as the New York Daily News reports, “The apologetic owner of a Brooklyn jewelry store blasted for hawking earrings that look like swastikas said Wednesday that she will stop selling the controversial baubles.”

The swastika is a traditional Buddhist symbol and it is not unusual to see them displayed in temples and on Buddha statues. Although this latest controversy is a different situation, I have long felt that ethnic Buddhists should cultivate more sensitivity about this issue. Regardless of which way it is facing (the Nazi’s turned it around), to many people it is odious symbol, representing hate and mass murder, particularly for those Buddhists with Jewish origins. I, who am not Jewish, know the difference between a swastika and the Nazi emblem. My elementary school in Wichita Kansas had swastikas carved at each corner. I thought that was kind of cool, then. Now that I am an adult and have met a few holocaust survivors, when I walk into a Buddhist temple and see swastikas about, I feel uncomfortable.

The swastika just carries too much emotional baggage and bad karma with it to be useful. Traditional or not, it serves no purpose to continue using the swastika as a Buddhist symbol. Ditch it, or use it with more sensitivity. And you definitely have to wonder what is in the mind of someone who would walk around in New York city wearing swastika earrings . . .

FINALLY, some very sad news . . . After 40 years, Bodhi Tree Bookstore has closed. Yes, that great smelling, cozy little institution on Melrose Ave in Los Angeles is a thing of the past . . . As Teresa Watanabe wrote in the LA Times, the store had served “as a world-renowned spiritual mecca for seekers of all persuasions — including Gov. Jerry Brown, Beatle Ringo Starr and actress Shirley MacLaine, whose memoir chronicled how her metaphysical journey began at the Bodhi Tree in 1983.”

I spent many an hour perusing the titles in the Buddhism corner, and listened to many great talks there as well. Of course, this is part of a growing trend but I have to say that there is just something wrong about a world without bookstores . . .