15. When Things Fall Apart

by Pema Chodron

Like the late great Zen master D.T. Suzuki, Pema Chodron is gifted with the ability to make Buddhism meaningful to Westerners without watering it down or misrepresenting it for the sake of our ease.

Pema Chodron is a Buddhist nun living at the Gampo Abbey in Nova Scotia, Canada. Her dharma talks and essays are challenging, to say the least. At the center of this book (which is a collection of "talks" she gave in the mid-90s) is the notion that the goal of Buddhist meditation practices is first to make friends with ourselves, to know ourselves, including all the so-called bad feelings and emotions we so often run away from or try to drug out of existence.

Hope and fear, she argues, occupy attention that should be devoted to the moment in which we are actually living. In Buddhist thought, the greatest teacher is the present moment. Hope and fear are merely our imagined future, and despite the fact that they are not real beyond the imagination, they preoccupy us in the present reality. The effect is that we are never really living. Our minds are not awake to the present reality because we are busy about the imagined future (or the remembered past).

Thsi is not to say that we should admonish ourselves for fearing, or avoid experiences that cause fear. Instead, Chodron says, we are to face our fear, without judging it, and accept it as part of who we are. She argues that when we encounter fear, we should "lean toward it," not to eradicate it, but to embrace it and try to understand it just as we should with our perceived qualities.

She tells a story of her teacher, Trungpa Rinpoche, whom she often witnessed do remarkable things. She, Rinpoche and four other monks were walking into a monastary when they passed an large, angry, snarling guard dog on a chain. They walked past warily while the dog grew increasing angry and determined to eat them. Just as they got some twenty yards into the monastary, the dog broke the chain and came tearing after them. All the monks cried out and/or ran away in fright except for Trungpa Rinpoche, who ran directly toward the dog. Needless to say, at the sight of this monk running toward him, the dog stopped in its tracks and decided to run elsewhere instead.

Later in the book, on a slightly different subject, she tells another story. During the horrible campaign by the Chinese to occupy and control Tibet, the leaders of a local monastery decided that it was too dangerous for them to stay any longer. They joined other refugees and fled for the hills and surrounding countries. All except a monk (whose name I can't remember) who said good-bye to them at the monastery's front gates and walked toward China.

Your fear. Lean toward it. Face first. Eyes open. What is it, really? Whatever it is, embrace that part of you with loving kindness. And do nothing else about it. Just keep loving yourself until it radiates outward.

Well, my review of this book is slanted. It is actually a very useful manual for Buddhist practice, especially meditation (which is really where we should be facing our fears).

I'll be revisiting the chapters in this book for a long time. I'd be crazy not to.

14. Brave New World

by Aldous Huxley

This was my first time reading Brave New World. I will save you the unnecessary plot description and just tell you what I think:

It was a very good book but I often found myself reading just to get through it to the end... and move on to something else. This is a great read if one imagines being a 1930s American reader. It's a good read if you don't.

Drugs. Lot's of drugs. I enjoyed reading Huxley's exploration of why humans use drugs. In the Brave New World, drugs are used to ease existential pain, to dicourage the imagination, to escape, to control behavior. In the Brave New World, Soma's got, "All the advantages of Christianity and alcohol; none of their defects." Basically, even ancient mind-expanding "drugs" such as soma (and ancient Indian and Iranian psychotropic substance used for spiritual exploration and mind opening) is reduced to the equivalent of Prozac or Xanex, albeit a far more powerful one. In a liberty-less society such as Huxley's BNW, it would have to be very poweful indeed! For instnace:

"I don't understand anything," she said with decision, determined to preserve her incomprehension intact. "Nothing. Least of all," she continued in another tone "why you don't take soma when you have these dreadful ideas of yours. You'd forget all about them. And instead of feeling miserable, you'd be jolly. So jolly."

Of course, BNW is primarily a warning cry about the society's movement toward totalitarianism, or a one world totalitarian state. It's an important one. But for me the most fascinating aspect of the novel is that in 1932, Huxley was engaging in a discussion about society, the mind and psychotropic substances.

One and a half thumbs up.