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Reflections on Silver River: Book Review

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I'm gong back to the beginning of Ken McLeod's Reflections on Silver River: Thirty-Seven Practices of a Bodhisattva and reading it again.  Slowly.  I "read through" it first because I wanted to write this review.  But "reading through" this book doesn't do it.  It needs work.

I say that not to deter anyone from reading this profound, disturbing, constantly challenging book, but rather to encourage them.  I hope, too, that no one will be turned away by a glance at the subtitle, which may suggest something too esoteric for the lay reader.  It's about Buddhism, yes, but it's also a book for anyone who is seriously interested in learning to slow down and pay attention to what is happening in their life--and to make the most of the short time they are given here on earth.  There is an abundance of books out there that might be described as Buddhism lite, and they have their place.  They started me on the path and have accompanied me supportively along the way.  I'm grateful for their help.

This book is different--not heavy reading, but profound.  Indeed, McLeod writes with a light touch, with clarity, in language that a layman like myself can read and appreciate.  You'll not be held up by knotted prose and needless obfuscation.  Instead, if you're really reading him, you'll be held up on every page by the doors he opens and the practical mind-work that he proposes.

Reflections on Silver River is in part McLeod's translation of those "thirty-seven practices," written down in pithy verse form by the early 14th century Tibetan monk, Tokme Zongpo; in part his own much more expansive reflections.  (I love the double meaning of that word: the reflected image on the surface of a mirror or a body of still water, and the meandering activity of the mind.)  The book is an exhaustive guide to Buddhist practice, but let that not deter non-Buddhist readers.  At a mere 170 pages, it is an exhaustive guide to the art of living life to the fullest, to attaining the freedom we all seek if we are to spend the years we are given in a meaningful way, untrammeled by the distractions of our busy, often misguided minds.  All too often, we are the unwitting slaves of what McLeod calls the "reactive patterns," mostly learned in childhood, that condition our thoughts, our feelings, and our actions in the world.

The insights of this remote, reclusive 14th century monk are startlingly modern and relevant as McLeod translates and glosses them.  The path along which he guides us is the path of clarity and attention--a clear-eyed gaze into the illusory nature of everything that governs our lives, including the powerfully deceptive, thinking "self," the seductions of wealth, success and power, and the often distressing vicissitudes of life.  The alternative is an unwavering attentiveness to the experience of the moment ("rest in the looking, look in the resting" is McLeod's constant refrain) that shines light on the delusion and dispels it, creating the inner space to replace it with qualities of generosity, humility and compassion, a heart and mind open to everything that life can thrust upon us.

The pain, fear, sorrow and grief that all of us experience at moments in our lives can be overwhelming, as can the petty anger, the envy, the ambition and the greed that we experience almost every day.  We know in our hearts that nothing good can come of it if we allow them to control us.  Yet try as we might to hide, suppress or deny them, they keep showing up, as unwelcome as uninvited guests, to occupy our mind-space.  More than an aggravation, they are task-masters, requiring our obedience to their will.  With them, they bring self-obsession, small-mindedness, and wreak havoc on our relationships with those around us, even--perhaps particularly--those we love.  What a way to spend our precious lives!

So, knowing all this, as McLeod asks at the end of his commentary, "What do you do now?"  It's this challenge that his book confronts us with, and to which it provides a practical and plausible response.  The work it requires of the reader is not easy, but the rewards it promises are demonstrable, and great.

Reflections on Silver River is due to be released in January, 2014.