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Pay Attention, for Goodness’ Sake
Practicing the Perfections of the Heart: The Buddhist Path of Kindness
New York: Ballantine Books, 2002
282 pp.; $24.95 (cloth)
“A rose is a rose is a rose.” This well-known poem by Gertrude Stein conveys the intense presence of any one rose amidst all others while reminding us of the absurdity, the necessity, and the subtlety of language to convey this presence. If the line is read too fast, only absurdity is evident.
Buddhism can be similar. Out of its core of simple presence, a plethora of lists has blossomed. Its Four Noble Truths, Noble Eightfold Path, and so on may sound grandiose, impossible, or alienating. How can description become experience so that a lotus can be a lotus, a practitioner unfold into a Buddha?
Much of Buddhism’s charm—and its challenge for practitioners and teachers—lies in finding the points of illumination where, as Sylvia Boorstein’s editor says in a “Letter to the Reader” of her new book, “light bulbs of recognition brighten in your mind.” This search for ways of bringing ideas to life is also where cultural and individual factors intervene: schools diverge, styles find adherents, and the westernization of Buddhism becomes a living question.
It is at this juncture, too, that Boorstein, a vipassana meditation teacher from California, places her new book, Pay Attention, for Goodness’ Sake. Overtly, it’s a guide for cultivating the Ten Paramitas, or Perfections, the “qualities of heart that laid the foundation for . . . Buddhahood.” Less articulated, yet evident, are the author’s concerns about how to teach Buddhism in a way that is vivid and workable for people in our time and place. Her book is careful, kindhearted, intimate, pragmatic, and wise. At times, though, these virtues seem to muffle the book’s vaster implications, transmuting Stein’s poem into “It is my rose, and this is how I see it.”
The Ten Paramitas are Generosity, Morality, Renunciation, Wisdom, Energy, Patience, Truthfulness, Determination, Lovingkindness, and Equanimity. (Some Buddhist schools name only six, but there’s no big controversy over the matter.) As in the circularity of roses being roses, when the Paramitas are practiced, they rediscover the innate beauty of the person; to develop any one develops all the rest. “Starting anywhere ends everywhere,” Boorstein says.
Introductory sections set out the goals of practice, offering an overview of the Paramitas in grid form. This grid, an invention of Boorstein’s, is worth studying for its own sake. It meshes the list of the Paramitas, one of Buddhism’s relatively minor lists, with the two most important ones: the Four Noble Truths and the Noble Eightfold Path. Chapters on each Paramita begin with a meditation to evoke it; these, again developed by Boorstein, are delicious and effective. Commentary follows, mostly in the form of illustrative anecdotes; finally, there are suggestions for enacting the Paramita in ordinary life.
Boorstein’s title, a whimsical, grandmotherly admonition, announces her inclination to be personal, as do the book’s first words: “My friend Lew Richmond. . . .” Whether this strategy feels inclusive or somewhat the reverse will surely depend on readers’ predispositions. Overall, the book rewards rereading. It would be a great basis for a meditation group in which members practice each Paramita for a period of time and then meet for discussion. For people practicing alone, Boorstein’s warm, friendly presence provides a sense of companionship.
Don’t worry, she reassures us, perfect virtue sounds big, but it’s really part of you. Stay awake—here’s how I did it! “Beds—and minds—get rumpled. It’s the same rumple, requiring the same straightening, day after day. Tidying up—beds and minds—reveals lost car keys and lost insights,” she says comfortingly in the chapter on determination. She finds meaning in deleting e-mails, or talking to a taxi driver, or dealing with a refused invitation. Such is the stuff of which our everyday lives are made, and despite this confinement to the quotidian, the corners Boorstein turns are all “light bulbs.” Still, is there not a life-and-death urgency in this world to go beyond tidy resolutions; is grandeur not our birthright; are the Buddha’s more radical instructions not also pragmatic?
Boorstein barely alludes to the edifice of wisdom already developed on her chosen topic. Possibly this is because in her Theravadan tradition, the Paramitas receive scant notice. Yet in the Mahayana many techniques exist to develop them, and the fact that she mentions studying with the Dalai Lama makes it puzzling that she makes no reference to these. Mahayana meditations on Paramita must include an awareness that in essence there is no doer, no deed, and no recipient of virtuous acts. This distinguishes Paramita from ordinary goodness and removes limitation. Traditional instruction may seem dry in comparison with Boorstein’s, yet its abstraction also allows interpretation at many levels.
She could easily have put some teeth into her inquiry— for example, by deepening the meditation on wisdom. She uses a question, “What’s happening, really?” as a spur to develop the Paramita of wisdom, but its potential depth and intensity dissipate before it can be used to displace the ego from the center of experience, or expose ordinary assumptions about reality to be a source of suffering. Boorstein’s sweet, mild-mannered tone can be subtle in its suggestions; yet she almost seems to want to protect us from some of Buddhism’s most basic, yet most radical, ideas—such as emptiness, suffering, the relativity of the ego, even our unlimited capacity for wisdom. This may result from her intent to ground everything in an experience she can vouch for, but it does a disservice to both Buddhism and the reader.
As the Dalai Lama has said, “Until now, we have let ourselves be dominated by our foolish clinging to 'I'. It is high time we put a stop to this childish behavior. If we can do that, it is certain that our suffering will one day come to an end.” Until then, any reader would be lucky to develop a spiritual friendship with this book. Perhaps the author could be encouraged, next time, to be bolder in exploring the implications of her teaching, even for beginners. And to recognize that it isn’t always an unkindness to leave aside the personal. Sometimes this may be just what’s needed: a plain, red word to show a rose.
Lastly, it might also have been helpful to send readers to check out other books on the Paramitas, as well as teachers and meditation centers. When things get really tough, strategies fail, and meditation feels intractable—or a life is being built, or deeper development is desired—further support can be indispensable, as Boorstein knows quite well, given that these elements form the body of many of her personal anecdotes. ▼
Kate Wheeler, a contributing editor to Tricycle, is the author of When Mountains Walked, Not Where I Started From, and the editor of In This Very Life: The Liberation Teachings of the Buddha. She lives in Massachusetts.