Buddhism, more or less

The path in plain English

Trish Deitch Rohrer

Taming the Mind
Thubten Chodron
Ithaca: Snow Lion Publications, 2004
228 pp.; $15.95 (paper)

When I first started reading about the dharma, I was drawn to atmospheric books about the fundamentals of Buddhism such as Suzuki Roshi's Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind and Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche's Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism. I liked the books that made little sense to me and yet, in another way, made more sense than anything else I'd ever read or heard. It's like reading poetry: The most brilliant poems are so often difficult to penetrate but when one does, some kind of transcendent experience takes place that is beyond words.
   
So the transcendent truth of these dharma books—the way they gave me what seemed like glimpses of direct experience—began to change my life. Rather than giving me answers, they gave me questions I felt compelled to seek the answers for. Egolessness, nonattachment, emptiness, wisdomwhat were those? How did these teachers cut through what seemed like "reality," to a truth that was truer than true?
   
Thubten Chodron's latest book, Taming the Mind, does not work like Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind, or Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism. It doesn't, through its transcendent language and wisdom, give you moments of direct experience. It's not outrageous or poetic or even mind-expanding. It merely lays out the building blocks of Buddhism the way a book on sailing would layout the knots.
   
The book—a follow—up to her Buddhism for Beginners—is Chadron's attempt to "explain the essence of Buddhist teaching" in "plain English." She does this, she says in her introduction, so that if someone who isn't a Buddhist wanted to know what Buddhism was all about, there'd be a book for them. In that spirit, Chadron—an L.A.-born nun and student of the Dalai Lama—sets out to cover the fundamentals of the Hinayana and Mahayana paths, including quick but clear explanations of the Four Noble Truths, the six realms, samsara, karma, and rebirth, the paramitas, emptiness, egolessness, refuge, precepts, and how to find a good teacher-all in the first eighty pages.
   
Then, using those fundamentals as a foundation, she advises the reader about how best to work with their lovers, their parents, their children, their colleagues, and their friends so as to do what is most beneficial in both the short and long term (that is, over lifetimes). This is followed by an overview of the history of Buddhism, including descriptions of how and in what form it moved across the globe. And finally Chadron talks about tolerance, and the importance of staying
open to different views, whether they be within the Buddhist world, or outside of it.

Readers can find other books that present this kind of straightforward, informational overview: Patrul Rinpoche's Words of My Perfect Teacher, for instance, masterfully describes the Buddhist path in comprehensive detail. But unlike Chodron's book, Patrul Rinpoche's work is not meant for non-Buddhists, or for readers just passing through.
   
And that's the thing: Taming the Mind does a good job of laying our the path in plain English. It carefully, respectfully offers the bare bones of the Buddhist path for non-Buddhists. What Taming the Mind doesn't do, though, is what the most brilliant dharma books do-they make you work for the experience they're describing, rather than just for the facts. They don't merely give you the map, the way Chadron's book does, but they give you a taste for the road.
In the chapter on love, for instance, from Chogyam Trungpa's book Myth of Freedom, Trungpa Rinpoche says,

Sometimes people run away from you because they want to play a game with you. They do not want a straight, honest, and serious involvement with you, they want to play. But if they have a sense of humor and you do not, you become demonic. This is where lalita, the dance, comes in."


Far from being easy, rote advice, Trungpa Rinpoche's words require contemplation: Without a sense of humor, one might ask oneself, do I become demonic? Could there be benefit in a strictly playful relationship? This sort of personal reflection helps to loosen the grip of one's ego and open one's mind.

Chodron, on the same subject, says this:

Mutual respect is crucial in a marriage, and this is shown through how we speak and act toward the other. Slanderous or reproachful language doesn't lead to harmony. Neither does any type of physical violence. When we're angry, we make everyone miserable if we vent it on those near us.


The reader is not left with much to ponder.
   
Still, Chodron's advice above, though not mind-blowing or magnetizing or even intriguing, remains good advice. Taming the Mind may not inspire a personal experience of the dharma-the kind that becomes, through contemplation, diligence and patience, part of your muscle and bone-but it will tell you how the Buddha hoped students of the dharma would conduct themselves on the Buddhist journey.

Trish Deitch Rohrer has written for GQ, Mirabella, Elle, US, the New York Times, Shambhala Sun, and others. Her most recent story for Tricycle was "Putting Spot Down" {Summer 2002}.

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