Thursday, October 9, 2008

Book review: An Open Heart

My children caused me to think about compassion, appropriately enough. One morning, about two weeks ago, I was lying in bed, exhausted and wanting to sleep in. As usual my kids woke up early and were not interested in going back to sleep at all. My son, less than a year old, is hungry and needs his diaper changed. I saw that more than anything else it takes compassion for me to meet his needs as well as my own. A profound, calm, abiding compassion.

I was pleasantly surprised when I read "An Open Heart" by the Dalai Lama. I was looking for information about how to develop greater compassion in my life, and this book was a direct answer to that question. When I had briefly looked at other books under his authorship, I dismissed them as having a lack of depth and looking like a lot of other new age nonsense. (I am especially critical of anything that generates wide spread acclaim or appeals to a popular audience.) But now my opinion has changed. In this book at least, the Dalai Lama provided a detailed presentation of the mental techniques used by Tibetan Buddhists to increase virtuous thoughts and responsible actions. The explanations behind why they are used reveal an apparently rich understanding of the way the mind works. This may all be pseudo-science, but if nothing else it is at least a window into the cultural and religious history of Tibetan Buddhism.

According to the Dalai Lama, in order to generate genuine compassion, one must combine a feeling of empathy for others with a profound understanding of the suffering they experience. Empathy is generated by reflecting on the kindness of others, and recognizing how our fortune is dependent on the cooperation and contribution of others. We can extend a recognition of our own suffering to the suffering of others. (Suffering is a word that I dislike. It conotes a sense of graveness that I feel only the most extreme situations warrant. So I offer "stress" as an appropriate substitute henceforth.) The Dalai Lama identifies three kinds of stress: the "stress of stress", the "stress of change", and the "stress of existence". I will spare you the details here, but that pretty much covers everything.

I got about twenty pages to go before finishing the book (it isn't very long). As an important political as well as spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama cannot avoid getting his hands dirty in these two most contentious human institutions. That makes the book all the more interesting. And oddly enough he has been in the news just today with doubts about his physical health as he has been in and out of hospitals. But at 73, physical problems are not unheard of for anyone.

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