A Practical Approach to Modern Life
with Steven Wilhelm
194 pp., $14.00 (paper).
Tibetan Buddhism from the Ground Up is a clear, accessible, and useful book. It compresses an enormous amount of information about Tibetan Buddhism into a scant two hundred pages and provides a sophisticated overview that introduces readers to the complexity and profundity of Buddhist philosophy.
Allan Wallace was a monk for fourteen years and is now a scholar, practitioner, teacher, and translator. As his choice of subtitle indicates, he has written the book expressly for beginners, for people who have heard of the Tibetan way of dharma and want to know more. Yet in spite of its virtues, the book tends to be pedantic and left me feeling lectured at, exhorted.
Wallace begins with "Life's Oldest Illusion"—the irrational conviction that we will not die—and even a short passage shows both the strengths and drawbacks of his approach:
Anxiety about death may be likened to the fear felt by a person who has ingested a poison for which there is a known, available antidote. A useful response, motivated by fear, would be to find the remedy....A ridiculous reaction to such a discovery would be to dismiss it as morbid....While the fact of death cannot be altered, the nature of our experience of death and what follows can be transformed. The experience may be miserable and barren or it may be blissful and fulfilling. The Buddhist view is simple: nonvirtuous behavior leads to misery; virtuous behavior leads to joy.
Clear, logical, and readable, yes. But his distillation of the Buddhist view is, to this reader, not merely simple but simplistic and therefore questionable.
Wallace is thorough in covering the big questions of life. He asks—and supplies brief answers to—many sweeping and profound questions, such as "What is Enlightenment?" and "Where is Happiness?" His explanation of karma—which has become so common a term in colloquial English that many people don't even know it's central to Buddhism and Hinduism—is notably clear:
The karmic impressions from our past deeds can be likened to fuel that propels us from one life to another, but the motivation behind those deeds is like the steering mechanism. If our predominant incentive for spiritual practice is to attain the fullest possible spiritual awakening for the benefit of all beings, this is where the fruits of our labor will ripen.... Striving to maintain this continuity of gradual awakening from one life to the next is far more important than counting on the attainment of Buddhahood in anyone lifetime.
He is also insightful in discussing the mind during meditation and various meditation techniques. His final chapter on tantra, while brief, covers this often-misunderstood topic with clarity.
But other passages boil down complicated questions into too-simple answers, answers that, for me anyway, are too neat, too pat. Although Wallace is informative, he leaves the reader no room to draw his or her own conclusion. Instead, he dispenses Tibetan Buddhist philosophy—dharma—as fact. This is how it is, he seems to be saying. If you do this then that will happen. For example, in "What is Enlightenment?" Wallace writes:
To think we will be released from suffering once this life is over is mere wishful thinking—from the Buddhist perspective there is too much evidence to the contrary.... As a young man [a Tibetan teacher] longingly wondered if death might simply mean the cessation of all experience. How comforting that would be: instant, effortless liberation from all of life's woes! But he decided the matter was so important that it required thorough investigation. As a result of many years of study and meditation, he concluded that on both theoretical and empirical grounds the nihilistic view of death is untenable. Waiting around to die or hastening that event is no solution to the problem of suffering.
He may well be right. But that did not—to me—make the passage less irritating. What, precisely, did this teacher discover that made him so sure about life's biggest unknown? Whatever it was certainly convinced him and Wallace. But why not convince the reader as well? If this conviction—that death does not end suffering—must be experienced to be understood, a parable or a statement to that effect would be helpful.
Similarly, the author flatly answers a somewhat different, but equally loaded question when he asks: "When is it appropriate to speak of the faults of others?" (The section concerns the "Ten Unwholesome Deeds," which are killing, stealing, sexual misconduct, lying, slander, abusive acts, idle gossip, avarice, malice, and false views.) As far as the author is concerned, the answer is hardly ever:
If at times we feel it necessary...we are well advised to look first into our own hearts to see if we are motivated by any mental distortion. If we find our intention is thoroughly wholesome, that we sincerely wish to speak out of a desire to benefit the other person, then we may proceed, drawing on our full capacity of wisdom and kindness....Many people find that by this simple act of discipline, their minds become more serene. Try to recall a person who rarely or never speaks of others' faults. We can feel very much at ease with this person, because if we never hear him or her speak of others' shortcomings, we can feel confident the person is not abusing us behind our back either.
Well, nobody can defend malicious gossip. But the image that Wallace paints—of a person who has almost nothing but nice things to say about others—is too reductive of people and the complexities of their relationships. Perhaps these facile passages are the necessary result of condensing an entire philosophy.
Even so, there is a great deal of useful information in this book. As the title suggests, it covers Tibetan Buddhism from the ground to the sky. A scholarly work with an excellent index, the book provides a clear and thorough grounding in the important points of Tibetan dharma for the novice. It may also inspire those looking for a "practical approach to modern life," and may draw them into going further, to study and meditate. But this would not have been the book that attracted me, for one, to buying a cushion, sitting on it, and beginning to attempt to learn about the nature of my mind.
Barbara Stewart is a freelance writer living in New York City.