Sunday, May 17, 2009

Book Review: The Essential Sangharakshita

Book Review: The Essential Sangharakshita

This book is hot with intensity. You need oven mitts to read it.

When I read The Essential Sangharakshita, I read it as someone who has asked for ordination into the Western Buddhist Order, and has been in the ordination process for almost 6 years. I have read most of Sangharakshita’s books and essays, listened to most of his talks, some many times. I have reread many times The Survey of Buddhism, Know Your Mind, and reread The Bodhisattva Ideal, Vision and Transformation, and The Yogi’s Joy. I plan to reread The Three Jewels, Living With Kindness, Living With Awareness. My friends have traveled to meet him, my good friends knew him, and know him, were ordained by him, went on seminars with him, were at the talks I now listen to on mp3s, have lived with him.

I would like to meet him myself. I have a wife, children and work, and I can’t soon justify the expense in time and money, but perhaps someday. I write these essays in small snatches of times when I can, but I’d rather go visit him. I get away for the yearly weeklong ordination retreat, and that’s an imposition on the family, which they so kindly allow. I don’t give up hope to getting there some day. Maybe after I’m ordained, I will go to an order convention in England; I’d hope to meet him then. Maybe I will go over before I’m ordained. There is the risk he could die before I get over there. Life is short. Maybe I will die first, you never know. Reading so many of his books, hearing stories about him, watching videos of him, listening to talks, he is a spiritual hero of mine, but more than that I take refuge in the refuge tree of the WBO, and thus I take refuge in him because he is on the refuge tree.

I take refuge from suffering in the three jewels, the Buddha, the example of enlightenment, the Dharma, the practical teachings to move towards enlightenment, and the sangha or the spiritual community, which supports and is a place to give support on the path to enlightenment. This is an odd kind of formulation of commitment and yet one that yields to deepening practice. When I say I take refuge in the 3 jewels, that is something very important to me. I take refuge in other things, but they are not as substantial. I have other concerns, but they don’t conflict with this emphasis, and the three jewels are what I aspire to orient my life around.

I am grateful Sangharakshita has founded the order that I wish to join and I am grateful that in creating the order, I have a context to seek ordination. He has nurtured many of my spiritual friends. The ripples of his profound actions have touched me in many important ways. I go so far as to say I would not have become a Buddhist without his creating the context in which I seek ordination. I find the other groups too foreign, Sangharakshita´s understanding feel very pure, he has winnowed off the ethnic elements to the essence. To principles and not just practices, beyond literalism.

This is the context in which I read The Essential Sangharakshita. I can’t pretend to be very objective. But I’ve also read quite a lot of him, so reading this I’m not just stumbling upon him, and this context is deep, so there is a level of objectivity in reading him and being outside the movement.

There are many familiar old friends here in this book. Reading the essay about irregular and regular steps was one of the reasons that I asked for ordination. I wanted regular steps, please, in the spiritual development. The essay "Mind Reactive and Creative" is well known to me, but the redactor has paired it down to the most intense paragraphs. One might read this book, and wish to follow through to read the complete essays and books, listen to the complete lectures, which many of his books were created out of.

The essay on religion as revelation versus discovery captures the chasm I feel in difference between the Christianity I experience in the USA, and Buddhism. When I first read it, I was jazzed up in the articulation of the differences, they seemed to capture why I could be a Buddhist and not a Christian. Buddhism is rooted in the subjective experience of the individual and the individual is the ultimate test as to whether something is actually practical on the path towards enlightenment. There is no possibility for heresy, dogma is not part of it, there is no dependent relationship on the clergy, and the freedom and responsibility is up to the individual. The bodhisattva ideal is the antidote to excessive spiritual individualism. The advice of the traditions, the teachings, and advice of our spiritual friends further along on the path, are all important, so it’s not just merely about my experience, there is of course more to it than that.

Some of the writing in The Essential Sangharakshita is very familiar. Some maybe I haven’t read but I’ve heard, or maybe I haven’t read or heard it, but I’ve heard someone paraphrase his ideas. Some, I’ve read it, but I can’t really remember it, but it seem so natural like his essay on how to read the Dharma. Some writing I began to think along the lines in my own thinking, and then I read something that seemed like what I was just thinking on my own—I probably heard it before from him.

This book is almost like a party where I know everyone, and if I don’t know everyone they’re a good friend of a good friend so it’s almost like I know them even if I don’t. Often this book was a dose of spiritual intensity, and there were times when I had to put it away and read something else that was light, not intense.

The way a Mahayana sutra is collected over time, and edited and shaped, there is a winnowing process and a redactor who compiles and edits. I would argue The Essential Sangharakshita has the flavor of a Mahayana sutra to it, though it is more comprehensible because it is of our time. This book is my ideal Mahayana sutra.

Then there are surprises. I have not read the poem that starts Part Two: Buddhism and The Mind. I’ve read some wonderful poems which are included in a profound essay by Cittipala called The Bodhisattva’s Reply, which can be found on his website along with many other excellent essays, that are in the top right margin of this blog under favorite links. There are other poems I have heard before.

Sangharakshita doesn’t expect one to study all the time (even though he is astonishingly knowledgeable, and inspires me to study). Engaging in practice, which is a wide range of activities, is more important that intellectual accumulation, a sort of night table Buddhism. He is concerned that some suffer from intellectual indigestion because they have consumed too many rich texts, without really being ready for them. He’s saying it’s easy to read, run your eyes over the words, but hard to put in into practice. Putting Dharma into practice is the thing. I think Sangharakshita put me onto this quote: “Thinking is easy, acting is difficult, and to put one's thoughts into action is the most difficult thing in the world.” (Johann Wolfgang von Goethe).

I’m reluctant to say any self-respecting Buddhist should have this valuable volume upon the shelf. Saying that perhaps over reaches this books import to those in different orders, with different primary and secondary text. But if you’re at all interested in going outside your order’s recommended text, and looking at the larger Buddhist world around you, and you’ve read some Pema Chodron, Jack Kornfield, Lama Surya Das, Thich Nhat Hahn, Bhante Gunaratna, Shunryu Suzuki, Chogyam Trungpa, Reginald Ray, Stephen Batchelor, Charlotte Joko Beck, Ayya Khema, Lama Yeshe, Geshe Rabten, Dilgo Khyentse, Geshe Sonam Rinchen, Lama Zopa Rinpoche, Geshe Kelsang Gyatso, Gomo Tulku, Robert Thurman (and many more), well then you probably should read some Sangharakshita. I recommend reading Sangharakshita before you read all the previously mentioned writers.

Exploring the spiritual classics is a wonderful thing; I have read many spiritual classics that are not Buddhist. Perhaps The Essential Sangharakshita is a world religion classic that deserves attention from that perspective. I you want to work to deepen your own spirituality and you’re seeking a spiritual classic, I think this collection would be well worth your while. I don’t imagine only Buddhist will read this book.

One thing this collection conveys is spiritual intensity. It has challenged me to ask some hard questions. I have reflected deeply on how I could intensity my practice. My schooling in psychoanalysis will be over soon, and I am going to make a serious push to deepen my practice, and I am hoping this will be the final stretch in my efforts towards ordination. Reading this book confirms me in my desire to seek ordination into the Western Buddhist Order. Even though the book doesn’t directly speak about the nitty gritty of the FWBO/TBMSG, in a way it lays down the principles, which is what Sangharakshita is all about.