Considering the flood of books focused on Eastern wisdom published these days, it’s not hard to imagine that our era is witnessing the largest outpouring and dispersion of Buddhist philosophy since the construction of King Ashoka’s pillars across the Indian subcontinent. Yet how many of the titles rolling off the presses today are essential in terms of transmitting Dharma, and how many should simply be shelved in the self-help section?
As editor of the book reviews for this journal, I’ve leafed through tens (maybe twenties) of books in the last several months, many of them making big promises to readers, assuring happiness, bliss, enlightenment. Cautiously easing into Anam Thubten’s new book, The Magic of Awareness, I quickly realized that this was not another self-help tract full of promises of enlightenment but rather a fresh and frequently entertaining take on waking up.
Thubten’s teaching is filled with pithy metaphors and references to contemporary living:
We will find Buddhism in the wonders of life, in the trees, in the stones and rocks, in the breath, in the heart, in joy and in pain. We will not find it in the texts. What we find in the texts are ideas about Buddhism. To be totally lost in these conceptual systems and books is like going to a restaurant and being in love with the menu but never ordering the food.
A large part of the book’s charm is Thubten’s ability to make the reader feel as though he or she is sitting in the same room while this teacher gently passes along his experience with the Dharma. The Magic of Awareness, like Thubten’s first book, No Self, No Problem, is culled from down-to-earth talks translated and edited by his student Sharon Roe. Thubten has an aptitude for working complex ideas into elemental language, and I feel that one of the best examples of this is his crystalline description of how a meditator can intensify his or her practice by focusing on a specific object. He likens our daily, open-ended observations to a telescopic overview of a forest, and then suggests shifting one’s awareness to a near-microscopic level by dropping into the branches, to the point where one’s focus can zero in on a drop of dew on a leaf: “When we pay attention to an object, even a very finite object, it can become infinite because [it] grabs our attention.” In this way, he says, the “mind stops for a while.” At the end of that paragraph, I was ready to make a run for my zafu with the image of that dewdrop on that leaf still glistening in my mind’s eye. Is there a greater compliment than that for a book on the Dharma?
Such imagery throughout the book shook this reader into new views of familiar notions. In the spirit of full disclosure, I admit to having a garden and cop to being tilled under by the following analogy, which I found both beautiful and convincing:
Imagine that every morning we walk past a garden with many exquisite flowers. We catch a glimpse of them every time we walk by. Then, one day, we stop and start chatting with the gardener who invites us into the garden where we fully enjoy the fragrance and magnificence of it all to the fullest. Just like that, the glimpse of the truth is the invitation to enter into it, so we can be fully immersed in it and live in it.
I have mindlessly strolled by that garden on many occasions despite my lifelong desire to meet such a gardener. The passage made me wonder why I’ve never bothered to enter the garden fully and without reservation. The imagery is deceptively simple, yet it suggests how close we really are at any moment to enlightened experience.
For all of the seeming ease and flow of these teachings, though, there is one facet of the book that got under my skin: Thubten sometimes uses language that smacks inordinately of the American vernacular. Steeped for years in formal Dharma texts, my stodgy brain blanched at references to the “Terminator,” and at an invitation to an “exotic place” where there’s “no hotel, no spa . . . and the food is pretty bad.” (I actually loved the metaphor, a description of an approach to absolute freedom, but was thrown by the word “spa.”) I also balked at achieving oneness with everything as akin to winning the “whole universe in a lottery.” It sounds good, but I’ve had some bad experiences at the lottery kiosk at the corner store.
And in reading the chapter provocatively titled “Melt Into Love,” I bristled and groaned when I landed on the word “yucky.” I found myself distractedly wondering if the Dalai Lama or Dogen or even the Buddha himself would’ve ever invoked “yucky” to make a point. Just as my discursiveness reached its crescendo, Thubten stepped into that very passage and, maestro that he is, anticipated my consternation and gave me a much-needed kick in the seat of the pants. Cutting through my tantrum, he suggested that I, the reader, simply drop the self:
Perhaps our heart doesn’t want to use any words, any language, any spiritual lingo to say this is what we are witnessing. This is very fearful to the spiritual ego because the spiritual ego always needs precise vocabulary and precise measurement because its melting is very wishy-washy to the spiritual ego. The spiritual ego doesn’t like anything that is wishy-washy. . . . So this melting is very wishy-washy but it is the real deal after all. This melting is enlightenment.
As I read the passage, a chill shot through me because Thubten spoke directly to my “wishy-washy” confusion. It felt as though he’d read my mind, foreseen the spin cycle my ego was entering, and was encouraging me to let it go, let it go.
That’s what I’d call real teaching.