[Shambhala Publications, 408 pages]
What do you read after finishing the Dhammapada?
That’s a question every neophyte to Buddhism experiences.
Reread the Dhammapada? Sure, but it gets a bit repetitive.
Dive into Goddard’s A Buddhist Bible and tackle Buddhist metaphysics head-on, including systems that rest on centuries of commentary and analyses of the mind and the very fact of Being? Not now, maybe after a visit to Dharamshala [India].
This is where Pema Chödrön, and by extension, her book’s ghostwriter Shantideva (more on this later) come in.
Pema Chödrön, born Deirdre Blomfield-Brown, is a well-known Tibetan monk, a Western female face to the movement that is otherwise headed by Tibetan males.
It’s because of her ability to get to the truths of the everyday life—and how Buddhism opens up any situation it confronts to untangle it—that people flock to learn from her.
If you’ve heard any of her tapes or lectures, it’s hard to not want to spend time with her. With a smooth and reassuring voice, she comes off less as a cleric and more as a folksy teller of tales who teaches through parables and examples to help others blossom.
As is usually the case, you might wonder: Whose voice does she look to for comfort and guidance?
Buddhism, like many religions, loves characters who appear simple, but who then go on to say the most profound things that make everyone rethink their world.
Shantideva was an Indian monk in the eighth century, known more for his eating and sleeping than profound ideas on the nature of Reality … until the day he was challenged by fellow monks to speak on what he knew. The lower their jaws dropped, the higher he rose into the sky, until at last, he disappeared.
His discourse, the Bodhisattvacharyavatara, which was fortunately recorded, is included in its near entirety in this book (Chapter 9 was skipped, as Pema Chödrön plans on writing an entire commentary on this one profound chapter).
What sets this book apart from others?
What sets this book apart from other translations of this book (Shambhala Publications’ The Way of the Bodhisattva, with its foreword by the Dalai Lama, is a commendable forerunner) is Pema Chödrön’s commentary that’s included in-text instead of being relegated to an Appendix or a footnote. Worth the price of one excluded chapter.
Take, for example, the translation and her commentary on Chapter 8, verse 108 (8.108):
The oceanlike immensity of joy
Arising when all beings will be freed
Will this not be enough? Will this not satisfy?
The wish for my own freedom, what is that to me?
PC: Could we become fearless enough to venture into places of unremitting agony? Could we do this as enthusiastically as swans sweep down upon a lotus lake? Nothing gave Mother Teresa more pleasure than relieving suffering. Happiness for her was helping people to die knowing they weren’t alone.
In her own characteristic way, Pema Chödrön uses the verse as a springboard to tie together, in one paragraph, some of the most prominent Buddhist imagery (birds on water that symbolize the enlightened one’s ability to have sin slide off them; the lotus plant that grows from waste to become something beautiful), a Saint that some of us have seen or heard of in our time (Mother Teresa and her work in the slums of Calcutta), and the attitude a person needs to adopt in order to face a world of struggle and pain (fearlessness in the face of agony).
Not only does her commentary add to the understanding of the verse, but more importantly, it adds to the reader’s understanding of what it means to be an existing being invited to the dukkha party.
Or, take another gem a few verses later (8.110):
Just as I defend myself
From all unpleasant happenings, however small,
Likewise I shall act for others’ sake
To guard and shield them with compassion.
PC: Perhaps the easiest way to appreciate what Shantideva says is to think of our relationship with animals. It’s not that complicated. We’d happily save an animal from a cruel situation, not to be seen as virtuous, but just to guard and shield them from pain. We might easily be more protective of their welfare than our own.
For Chödrön to pluck out of the ether the relationship we have with animals—to illustrate our own attitudes towards saving others—is no small feat, particularly given that there’s nothing explicit in the verse that would even hint at animals.
The verse or the commentary?
It’s hard not to look at Chödrön’s commentary, and how reading it so enlivens the verse that it elucidates, and wonder: which came first, the verse or the commentary?
And that’s the beauty of this book: the verses and commentaries are paired so well together, it’s hard to separate them once you’ve read them. They fuse and become greater than the sum of their parts.
A hallmark of a book worthy of a commentary, and a commentary worth reading!
image: Dean Hochman