Since the Buddha first presented his teachings some 2,500 years ago, they have been elaborated on and explicated countless times. We are fortunate to live in a time when numerous Buddhist teachers of uncommon lucidity and deep compassion are publishing widely accessible books and illuminating the Dharma for a readership eager to free itself from the more burdensome tendencies of the human mind, to say nothing of the more pernicious tendencies of the modern world.
Into this distinguished company comes Phillip Moffitt’s new book. In Dancing with Life, the noted vipassana teacher (a member of the Spirit Rock Teachers’ Council), president of the Life Balance Institute, and longtime Yoga Journal columnist has produced a book that immediately merits a place of distinction among Buddhist works. Moffitt accomplishes this not by focusing on issues of lifestyle or targeting a particular demographic but by zeroing in on the dilemma that has plagued human beings since time immemorial and which the Buddha analyzed so succinctly: the problem of suffering and what to do about it. And unlike virtually every self-help book published in the last fifty years (and many that take Buddhist teachings as their inspiration), Moffitt’s does not promise a suffering-free solution; rather, it prescribes a purposeful embrace of the suffering that characterizes the human condition. “The path to happiness and a sense of well-being in this very life,” Moffitt writes, “lies not in avoiding suffering but in using the conscious, embodied, direct experience of it as a vehicle to gain deep insight into the true nature of life and your own existence.” If Moffitt’s book contained no other insights, that one sentence would be worth the cover price, so crisp is its articulation of the Four Noble Truths’ essential summation of the path to liberation.
Dancing with Life contains many other jewels of wisdom, such as the “Twelve Insights” that Moffitt first encountered in talks on the Samyutta Nikāya delivered by his teacher, Ven. Ajahn Sumedho. These insights derive from three distinct ways of engaging with each of the Noble Truths: “first reflecting, then experiencing, and finally knowing.” These mean, respectively, first considering a given Noble Truth “as a conceptual description of a general truth in life,” then “seeking direct experience of it in your own life through mindful, compassionate awareness,” and finally “mindfully integrating what you’ve just learned and felt into your daily life”—or, as Ajahn Sumedho refers to it, “the call to know that you know.” (This last, Moffitt notes, is sometimes cited as “what needed to be done has been done.”)
Apart from a hard-to-find 1992 book by Ven. Sumedho, The Four Noble Truths (Amaravati Publications)—itself an important source for Moffitt’s work—Dancing with Life appears to be the only book-length treatment of the Dharma structured in this way, and a welcome treatment it is. The process it presents—for which Moffitt offers detailed instructions—is designed to radically alter one’s relationship with suffering. The Twelve Insights, Moffitt writes, “are revolutionary because they transform the Truths from a philosophical statement about suffering into a method for directly coping with suffering in your life.”
Adding a contemporary liveliness to the book are Moffitt’s original turns of phrase, such as the chapter title “How Suffering Got a Bad Name,” and elegant sentences one wants to chew on repeatedly, such as the following: “The first insight of the Truth of Dukkha is realized when you are able to distinguish between carrying the weight of your life with all its loss and pain, and collapsing underneath these difficulties.” The net result is a highly readable text that balances nuanced concepts (which in lesser hands could prove abstract or remote) with recognizable, real-life experience. Moffitt’s narrative flows gracefully and builds gently but steadily, so that by the end of the book’s final chapter, “The Courage to Be Happy,” we not only believe (perhaps for the first time) that we can summon that courage, but that we are ready to begin doing so. Dancing with Life is a powerful work that offers lovingkindness in ample measure to a world that could use a generous portion of it right now.