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You Can't Tell a Book...

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... by its title.  Here's one that has been sitting on my desk for weeks, awaiting the moment for me to get past my resistance.  It was the title, Open Heart, Open Mind: Awakening the Power of Essence Love, that alerted the received notions at the root of my prejudice.  I have read a lot of books recently, with similar-sounding titles, and had begun to bundle them into a genre of well-intentioned screeds in which the author -- one possessed of special knowledge and experience -- feels ready to pass on his or her wisdom to the waiting world.  The wisdom, in this genre, is generally a Buddhist-inspired path to happiness, the key to a better, more fulfilling life.

I can't quarrel with the intention -- or, mostly with the books.  It's just that, in my great wisdom, I was getting bored with them.  They were all beginning to sound the same and, dammit, I knew this stuff already, didn't I?  I was making, in my mind, a distinction between what I call "teaching" and what I call "preaching."  The preacher has discovered the secret and deigns to share it.  The teacher learns with his students along the way.  Preaching tends to be abstract and theoretical; teaching is experiential.  (My distinction is, of course, an arbitrary one: there are wonderful preachers out there, and pretty opinionated teachers.  But for the sake of argument...)  So when Tsoknyi Rinpoche's Open Heart, Open Mind reached my desk, I chose to believe that it belonged in that genre of book I was beginning to be bored with, and set it aside.

It's not the first time I've been misled by prejudice -- a useful lesson in itself.  Once I got to it, I found the book to be a deep and subtle exploration of the fundamentals of Tibetan Buddhism, in language that makes sometimes esoteric principles accessible even to a layman like myself.  What makes it so approachable is that it's tied in, page by page, with the personal experience of a true teacher who struggled mightily with his own conscience and his own cultural heritage to find his mission and, once found, to pursue it without stint or compromise.  It's further tied, page by page, to the personal stories and struggles of those who have entrusted their conflicts with him as a teacher, so that the teaching is rarely abstract or theoretical, but realized in the lives of actual human beings.

Tsoknyi Rinpoche was identified as a child as a tulku, the reincarnation of an enlightened master who chooses to return in human form -- from the Western point of view an almost cruel burden to place on the shoulders of a young child.  In keeping with the cultural traditions, he was sent off to be trained as a monk in the teachings of the dharma, and spent years in the grip of a demanding education that required not only much rote learning but also obedience to a strict moral code of behavior that conflicted with the freedom he had learned to love as a small child and continued to yearn for.  His description of his anguished adolescent years and the inner battle between his natural inclinations as a human teenager and the precepts of the monastic code is particularly poignant -- as is the courage with which he eventually challenged tradition, culture and family in relinquishing his monastic vows and dedicating himself instead to the life of a globally itinerant teacher.

Rinpoche tells this story with great dedication to the path he chose as a husband and a father, as well as to the demanding work of an internationally respected teacher, and with profound respect for those from whom he received -- and continues to receive -- the teachings of the dharma.  His writing exudes the all-embracing openness and love about which he writes.  Along the way, he invites the reader to experiment with simple practices that open the door to the experience of "open heart" and "open mind" and offers encouragement to those who may feel them to be beyond reach; with admirable modesty, he includes himself amongst the beginners and those of us who all too easily wander off the path.  Even after decades of study and practice, he reminds us -- and himself! -- there is always more to learn.

Aside from a great deal of new knowledge about Tibetan Buddhism and its traditions and an endless supply of insights into the processes and potentials of the human mind, I left the book with two big takeaways.  The first of these was the experience of spaciousness.  I had already come to an understanding that the Buddhist concept of "emptiness" is far removed from the Western sense of the word as suggesting a kind of void, a nothingness;  in Buddhist thought, it opens the mind to infinite potential.  And I have had glimpses, mostly in meditation, of the awesome potential of what I call "mind-space."  What I learned from Rinpoche was more of the mind's power to put that sense of space to work as a tool that can help us to deconstruct the identities to which we so readily become attached, restricting our freedom and our potential.  That sense of spaciousness can help us to stand back a little from the body and its physical sensate, from the emotions and the thoughts we allow to become our "reality," and to see them for the insubstantial and ephemeral things they really are.  If we look at them closely enough, Rinpoche suggests, we can locate and expand the spaciousness within these things that seem so solid and so real, disempowering their hold on us and allowing our true, generous nature to bloom.  (I tried, this morning, finding the interstices between the seemingly solid, unified, ever-present ache that stress creates between my shoulders, at the base of my neck, breathing space into those interstices and allowing them to expand.  It's a useful practice.)

My second big takeaway had to do with generosity -- the "open heart."  Reading Rinpoche's words, I realized how much my actions are determined by the expectation of reward, even those I like to believe to be generous ones.  I think of my writing, for example, as a giveaway; but I am attached to the ego-gratification that comes from a growing readership and response.  I get disappointed and discouraged when my books don't find a public, when my lectures or my "One Hour/One Painting" sessions fail to attract the number of participants I feel they deserve, when my "gift" seems to be under-valued or ignored.  Rinpoche reminds me, gently but firmly, that true generosity requires no gratitude or response, and indeed that the ego attachment makes the act of giving less fulfilling for the giver.  I will be a happier and more generous person if I can manage to do the giving freely, without expectation of reward.  It's a lesson I value.

There are many such lessons in this truly generous book.  Each reader will come away with what she or he needs to learn, and with a renewed sense of the mind's potential to enrich not only our individual selves but, more importantly, our responsibility towards those with whom we share this planet.  Open hearts and open minds would surely do a lot to heal the challenges and crises that we face.