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.

Today is Edgar Allan Poe’s birthday. He was born in 1809. American author, poet, editor and literary critic, inventor of the detective story. He really needs no introduction.

If you are familiar with Poe’s legacy, then perhaps you are aware that to mark the anniversary of the writer’s birth, each January 19th since the 1940s a mysterious man dressed in black with a white scarf and wide-brimmed hat has come in the dark of night to leave three roses and a bottle of cognac on Poe’s grave. He is called the “Poe Toaster.”

On occasion, this anonymous man has left notes. A few indicated that the torch had been passed on to a new person after the death of the original “Poe Toaster” in the late 1990s. Over the years, crowds have gathered outside the gates of the Westminster Burial Ground for a vigil, waiting for the mysterious stranger to lay down his tribute. However, this year, he had been a no-show for two years in a row and Poe fans were saying they would hold one last vigil before ending the tradition.

Early this morning the visitor once again failed to appear and thus ends a rather sweet story, one so befitting Poe, whose name alone conjures up images mysterious women, madmen and murderers, premature burials, tell-tale hearts that beat on after death, and ravens croaking upon midnights dreary.

In my small tribute to Poe, here is a poem first published in 1849, some six months before the author’s death. In it, Poe muses about the state of his existence, apparently feeling that so many important elements of life were slipping away from him, falling through his fingers like grains of sand. What should be obvious to Buddhists here is how he mirrors the famous passage from the Diamond Sutra: “All conditioned things are like illusions, bubbles, shadows or dreams; Like drops of dew, or flashes of lightning, this is how they should be seen.” Although, it is highly unlikely that Poe had ever heard of the sutra.

A Dream Within A Dream

Take this kiss upon the brow!
And, in parting from you now,
Thus much let me avow-
You are not wrong, who deem
That my days have been a dream;
Yet if hope has flown away
In a night, or in a day,
In a vision, or in none,
Is it therefore the less gone?
All that we see or seem
Is but a dream within a dream.

I stand amid the roar
Of a surf-tormented shore,
And I hold within my hand
Grains of the golden sand-
How few! yet how they creep
Through my fingers to the deep,
While I weep- while I weep!
O God! can I not grasp
Them with a tighter clasp?
O God! can I not save
One from the pitiless wave?
Is all that we see or seem
But a dream within a dream?

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“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 . . .

This holiday season was hell . . . A few days before Christmas, my step-mother was in the hospital for two nights, after she experienced yet another in the series of strokes she’s been getting since October which has left her disabled and somewhat confused in mind . . . Two days after Christmas, my father fell, fractured his femur and destroyed his 20 year old hip replacement equipment in the left leg . . . Two days later, while in surgery to repair the hip, he went into cardiac arrest – they performed CPR on him for 33 minutes . . . and he made it. That doesn’t happen often, so it is rather amazing. He even achieved a sort of legendary status at the medical center: the 89 year old guy will an iron will to live.

Members of my step-family attributed his survival to Godly intervention. I didn’t buy that for a minute but I kept quiet. My take was that it was attributable to his spirit, (alluded to above), good genes, great doctors who wouldn’t give up, and the fact that he had lived a good life. While I have my doubts about the whole of the karma theory, I do believe that if you spend your entire life being kind to others, being honest and non-judgmental, you can create a measure of good fortune. Taking some care about your health helps, too.

Immediately after the surgery, however, my father’s prognosis was rather iffy. So I flew up to where he lives the next day. I spent two nights camped out in the ICU waiting room with two of my step-brothers, stayed one night at the folks house so I could visit my step-mother, then slept the next four nights on a cot in my father’s hospital room. After some initial setbacks, he rallied. I flew back to Los Angeles on Thursday, spent one night at home and then at 7am Friday I checked into the hospital here for a chemotherapy treatment. What an end to a lousy first week of the year . . .

They kept me overnight, letting me go late yesterday morning (Saturday, January 7th, the tenth anniversary of my biological brother’s death). This was my second treatment to reduce the size of the tumors on my liver. The last treatment was a pretty much a cake-walk but had no effect on the tumors. They must have given me a double-dose this time because I am sitting here getting chills (I can barely type as my hands shake), experiencing flu-like symptoms, occasionally vomiting, and strangely, having reoccurring bouts of hiccups. In other words, I feel like shit.

Latest word on my dad is good. He’s doing much better and will be released from the hospital on Monday. He’ll go to a rehab facility where my step-mother, who needs 24 hour care, will join him and they can be together there for a few weeks.

Wednesday was a particularly tough day for me, and perhaps for my dad as well. I could see his spirit flag. He had been going in and out of atrial fibrillation. Not life-threatening but better not to have it and it left him completely worn-out. Plus he had been stuck in a bed for a week, he couldn’t move, was in pain (including broken ribs from the CPR), and he hadn’t seen his wife in 7 days – all very frustrating for him. I began to worry that it might be too much for him. It broke my heart to see my father, whom I had never seen in any situation in which he was not in control of, lying there helpless, listless . . .

In the hall outside his room, my emotions overcame me. Although I had been emotional (crying) several times before, this time was different, fueled by fear, lack of sleep, stress. I just sort of broke down in the hallway. My step-niece tried to reassure me. She’s young, an English teacher, a Christian. She felt a sense of peace, she said. My dad was in God’s hands and God loved him. She understood my feelings, she knew of the medical challenge I am facing, and she was praying that I would find peace.

Peace . . . I immediately reached for a phrase that has helped me considerably over the years, especially after the deaths of my mother and brother . . . “Sufferings are Nirvana” . . . I’ve shared that Buddhist maxim on this blog before. I feel it is one the prime points of Buddhist philosophy, perhaps the most important point of all, so I don’t mind talking about it again, and again. I shared it with my step-niece. But I couldn’t explain it properly to her. The words just failed me.

A few minutes later when I was more collected, I tried again. I said, the phrase means that the things we go through, even the bad things, are the sustenance we need to grow, to live – it means that positive things can come from negative things . . . still I failed at conveying what I really wanted to communicate to her.

I wanted to tell her that, yes I may be sad at this moment, but I have peace . . . I don’t need to rely on some other power, something outside of my own life to find peace . . . peace . . . she wished peace for me as if there were only one way that could be obtained but I know that sufferings are peace . . . If I had said that, sufferings are “peace”, maybe she would have gotten a sense of what was in my mind, behind my in-artful words. She would not have necessarily understood it, but I would have made my point better. Nirvana was too abstract. If I had used the word she used, which has the same meaning as Nirvana . . . peace . . .

I doubt I am explaining it any better now. I think it’s something you either get intuitively from a culmination of experience and study. You either get it or you don’t . . .

I’m not sure where the phrase “sufferings are nirvana” originated from, maybe from the Prajna-paramita Sutra, but who knows? Nagarjuna was one of the first scholars to discuss it in depth. K. Venkata Ramanan, in Nagarjuna’s Philosophy, explains Nagarjuna’s sense of “sufferings are nirvana”:

With regard to the life of the human individual, “conditioned origination” bears the import that whatever is one’s state of life is what one has worked out for oneself as one’s self-expression. Impelled by thirst and conditioned by one’s understanding, one does deeds which bear their results. Shrouded by ignorance and impelled by desire one does deeds that bind one to the life of conflict and suffering. The way out of these is to eradicate their roots, viz., ignorance and passion. Free from ignorance and passion one may yet do deeds and not be subjected to suffering . . .”

All right to this point, but is it possible to be living and not be subjected to sufferings? Even after Siddhartha became the Buddha, he experienced sufferings. His evil cousin tried to kill him. That’s a suffering, and there were others. The root of suffering is eradicated in our mind, that is why we practice training our mind, calming our mind . . . for when you are truly at peace, dwelling in nirvana, you do not see sufferings as sufferings . . . sufferings are only inescapable facets of life and when a person is strong in peace, inner peace, sufferings may be painful but they do not destroy, and in this sense, they are impermanent. If all things are of the nature of impermanence, then sufferings must be as well. And yet, the Buddha declared that this world is nothing but suffering . . .

Peace is a state of mind. In our mind do we see suffering as suffering, or as poison to be converted into medicine? It’s all in our mind. As simple as that. But the hardest thing to do is to change our mind, change our life, win over ourselves . . . Ramanan continues:

Nirvana is the ultimate goal toward which all beings move seeking fulfillment. The Buddha drew the attention of the monks  to the log of wood being carried along the stream of the River Ganga and told them that if they, like the log, do not ground on this bank or the other bank, and also do not sink down midstream, then they will ‘float down to Nirvana, glide down to Nirvana, gravitate towards Nirvana’ because ‘right view’ [seeing the world as it really is] floats, glides, gravitates towards Nirvana . . .”

Turn off your mind, relax and float down stream,
It is not dying, it is not dying

Lay down all thought, surrender to the void,
Is it shining? Is it shining?

That you may see the meaning of within
It is being, it is being

Love is all and love is everyone
Is it knowing? Is it knowing?

That ignorance and hate may mourn the dead
It is believing, it is believing

But listen to the colour of your dreams
Is it not living, is it not living

Or play the game “Existence” to the end
Of the beginning, of the beginning

“Tomorrow Never Knows” – John Lennon