April 20, 2011
Yesterday the newest book by Thai Forest monk Ajahn Sumano Bhikkhu arrived in the Tricycle office: The Brightened Mind: A Simple Guide to Buddhist Meditation. I am familiar with two of the author's previous works, Questions from the City, Answers from the Forest and Meeting the Monkey Halfway, and met him once many years ago, in the late 1990s. I enjoyed both the previous books very much, in particular Questions from the City, which has a great dialectic format that makes for very clear reading.
The Brightened Life opens with a series of statements about what you will gain from reading the book: "You will be able to recognize concentration (samadhi) from insight (vipassana) and the difference between shallow (mundane) happiness and unfettered (profound) happiness." This happens to be one of the very few places in the book the author resorts to Buddhist terms, probably because these are oftem thought (by publishers and editors) to be off-putting to the general reader. Buddhist concepts, however, are employed throughout. One section I admired very much was the section on good friends, as the idea of friendship, in particular spiritual friendship, is one that I think sometimes gets short shrift.
I was not so enamored of the idea of Universal Mind, which is given a large section in the beginning and is something we are supposed to "access" through meditation:
Trying to describe the Universal Mind is like asking the eye to describe itself. There is an inherent difficulty because there is nothing behind this mind that could observe it from any distance. It is unobservable because it is the observer itself. It is simultaneously both everything and nothing. In the end all we can say is that the profound Universal Mind is stateless, as it contains and incorporates all possible states. It is the fountainhead of life, the source of reality.
Suzuki Roshi talked about Big Mind and so, later, did Genpo Roshi. Universal Mind sounds like Absolute reality, the ultimate, the Tao. It is also referred to as the "power source," the "ultimate observer," and an "energy field." Wikipedia tells us that Universal Mind may have originated with Hegel, which would be something like der absolute Geist. Humanity's link to the Universal Mind is "our primary asset as human beings." In other words, Ajahn Sumano Bhikkhu seems to have moved toward a more Mahayana understanding of meditation. I hope that doesn't come across as pejorative, because it isn't meant to be.
The meditation exercises in the second half of the back are very clear and firmly grounded in Buddhist forms readers will recognize: breathing exercises, lovingkindness, and so on. I think this slim volume can serve as a very nice intorduction to Buddhist meditation, without a lot of jargon. The concept of Universal Mind may make some readers hesitate, because this Mind seems something we can access without a huge amount of effort and once accessed, we don't need anything more to lead full lives, and this of course was one strong and recurring criticism of Big Mind. But if it gets people started on the path,on the cushion, and more importantly, as Ajahan Sumanao Bhikkhu says, thinking and learning and creatively engaging with our lives, it will be worthwhile.