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LIVING THIS LIFE FULLY: A Book Review

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Things do seem to happen as they are supposed to, in their own peculiar time. A review copy of Mirka Knaster's Living This Life Fully: Stories and Teachings of Munindra, was mailed to me last year, but mysteriously failed to reach me. Perhaps I was not ready to receive it at the time, who knows? In any event, a replacement did reach me this past week, at a moment when I had the right amount of time to devote to it.

And reading it reminded me of another, much bigger and more significant time lapse in my life. I'll need to return to this in a moment. First, though, Munindra's story: starting in the 1960s, after a long stint as a student and novice Theravada monk in Burma, this Bengali-born truth-seeker laid aside his robes and arrived as a simple layman at the site of the Buddha's awakening, Bodh Gaya. Here--and in his subsequent travels--he was to become one of the most widely influential teachers of the dharma, devoting his life to spreading the word throughout the world. This, remember, was a time at which an endless stream of young Westerners from both Europe and the two Americas were heading East, many of them disenchanted with materialistic values and finding, in Buddhism, a source of spiritual renewal. For many of them, Munindra became both a mentor and a role model, whose guidance provided them with lifelong inspiration.

Knaster's book embraces a vast number of these former students in the ample quotations in which they recall Munindra, his teachings, and his influence on their lives. Many returned to their home country and became, themselves, the leading Buddhist teachers of their own and following generations. Names like Ram Dass, Jack Kornfield, Sharon Salzberg, Lama Surya Das, and Joseph Goldstein are by now well known for their contribution to the promulgation of Buddhist thought and practice in this country--and these are but a handful amongst the many Knaster interviewed. (There's a useful listing of these people at the back, including brief biographies--along with a handy glossary of Buddhist terms.)

What they recall is not only a man of profound knowledge and understanding of the Buddhist texts, but one for whom the dharma was not mere abstract truth but a way of life. The chorus of their voices is a celebration of the man, and everything they learned from his example as much as from his words. That the author organizes her sixteen chapters around Munindra's teachings on the qualities that form the basis of all Buddhist practice--sati (mindfulness), dana (generosity), karuna (compassion) and so on--allows her to provide the reader with a rather comprehensive overview of the dharma itself. But it's the practical application of those principles to the skill of living life to its fullest that interests Munindra and, by extension, his students and followers. Far from a simple biography, Knaster's book should be read as a manual for an ethical, joyous, and meaningful life.

There will be those, surely, who complain that this chorus of laudatory voices borders on the hagiographic. I myself would likely have been among them, had I read all this adulation of a holy man those many years ago, when students from the West were seeking him out. At the time, in the late 1960s and early 1970s--and here I return to that other time lapse I mentioned--I was much aware of those around me who were starting out excitedly on spiritual paths and urging me to do the same: "You've got to read this book," good friends would tell me, waving a copy of Be Here Now before my skeptical eyes. "It'll change your life."

Alas--I say this now, in retrospect, but with the understanding that the important things in life do reach us when we're ready for them--I was not ready at the time. I was busy rejecting not only the Christian teaching of my youth, but anything that smacked of "religion", and with a good measure of anger and hostility. Now, nearly a half century later, I have learned differently. Had I been otherwise preoccupied than with the conceit of my own fierce rationalism, had I been ready to sacrifice head for heart, I could have learned it all back then from Munindra: it's not just about "religion", it's about "living this life fully"; it's not just about moral imperatives, it's about compassion; it's not just about righteousness, it's about love.

But as I say, things do seem to happen when they are supposed to, not when one might have wished them with the benefit of hindsight. So now, with the humility of one reminded by this book of his own late-coming to the wisdom of the dharma, I say: "Read it!"