Transforming Problems into Happiness

Steven D. Goodman

Lama Zopa Rinpoche.
Edited by Ailsa Cameron and Robina Courtin.
Wisdom Publications: Boston, 1993.
88 pp., $10.00 (paper).

Clive Arrowsmith/LondonNobody likes to suffer, and that's probably why those with physical pains, mental problems, and spiritual crises are the target market for the recent outpouring of "how to overcome" books. And at first glance, Transforming Problems into Happiness might be regarded as belonging in that "how to overcome" genre. Indeed, the author tells us:

Happiness and suffering are dependent upon your mind, upon your interpretation. They do not come from outside, from others. All of your happiness and all of your suffering are created by you, by your own mind.

Such statements might seem to fit nicely with the Buddhist-inspired work of such Western therapists of pain management as Jon Kabat-Zinn. Yet this reviewer does not think such unqualified statements as "all of your suffering[s] are created by you" can be regarded as sage advice for the general public, or indeed for all Buddhist practitioners. In the worldwide context of overt and systematic torture and its concomitant suffering, recently addressed by such movies as Heaven and Earth and Schindler's List, I wonder how such a statement is meant to be taken. Granted, there is among the general public a prevalent notion that Buddhism essentially teaches "It's all in your head." Yet there are other approaches and understandings of Buddhism. The growing movement and appeal of what has been called "engaged Buddhism" stresses the interdependence of all suffering beings, and encourages a frank and courageous recognition of the social, economic, and political factors implicated in such webs of suffering. The question remains, then, for whom is this volume and its approach to the teachings of the Buddha intended?

The ideal audience for Transforming Problems into Happiness would seem to be already committed Western students—the newly converted and the seasoned practitioner—of the Tibetan form of Mahayana Buddhism. Originally published as a booklet in 1988 under the title "Utilizing Happiness and Suffering in the Mahayana Path," this reissue is the edited transcript of teachings on the Mahayana practice of mental purification, or, in the preferred phrasing of the author, "thought transformation" (Tibetan lo-jong). Based on such Indian Mahayana classics as Nagarjuna's Ratnavali and Shantideva's Bodhicaryavatara, these teachings came to Tibet in the tenth century, were popularized by the Kadampa school, and subsequently gained wide appeal among practitioners of all the major sects of Tibetan Buddhism.

Transforming Problems into Happiness essentially consists of an oral commentary on a "thought transformation" text entitled "Using Suffering and Happiness in the Path to Enlightenment," by the famed Nyingma Lama Jigme Tenpai Nyim, Dodrupchen Rinpoche III (1865- 1926). The oral commentary is by the Gelukpa Lama Thubten Zopa Rinpoche, heart disciple of the famed Gelukpa Lama Thubten Yeshe, and now spiritual head of the Foundation for the Preservation of the Mahayana Tradition. In seven short chapters, the informal and personal style of commentary makes this volume a useful companion for those who have embarked on the arduous path of the Mahayana. The author tells many stories, some traditional and some from his own life.

It is refreshing to hear how a nowfamous lama tells of his first encounters with "thought transformation," and the dangers of a worldly reputation:

I was afraid of receiving a reputation and becoming famous. There was much fear in my heart. At that time I was trying to practice dharma—now I have completely sunk into the quagmire of worldly concern!

Lama Zopa Rinpoche stresses how one can develop a different attitude to problems: realizing that happiness and suffering are created by one's mind, one can begin to see how to transform problems into the service of the Buddhist path. Thus, in essence, these teachings consist of practical, slogan-like advice for the committed Buddhist practitioner on how to develop and deepen bodhicitta, the altruistic intention and engagement in actions which ideally, are motivated solely by the desire to alleviate the suffering of all beings, ultimately leading to the highest contentment of enlightened realization. Such teachings are regarded as the basic preliminaries that should be stabilized before embarking upon the more esoteric practices of Tantra.

Lama Zopa uses two sources for his commentary: in addition to the first part of Dodrupchen Rinpoche Ill's text, "Using Suffering as the Path to Enlightenment," he also uses the Gelukpa Lama Pabongka's "thought transformation" section of his larger treatise known as "Liberation in the Palm of Your Hand." At the end of this little volume there is a short glossary of some key Buddhist concepts as well as a list of suggested further readings.

For the curious reader who may want to consult an actual translation of the entire text by Dodrupchen Rinpoche III, it was published in Tulku Thondup's Enlightened Living (Shambhala, 1990).

Finally, it is to be noted that after a decade or so of many works devoted to the Tantric forms of Tibetan Buddhism, the foundational texts of the Mahayana finally seem to be gaining a greater degree of attention. Indeed, for both the interested general reader, and the committed practitioner, Transforming Problems can now be read side by side with two other works of the "thought transformation" genre: Chogyam Trungpa's Training the Mind and Cultivating Loving-Kindness (Shambhala, 1993), and Dilgo Khyentse's Enlightened Courage (Snow Lion, 1993).

 

Steven D. Goodman is Professor of Tibetan Studies at the Institute of Buddhist Studies, Graduate Theological Union, Berkeley.

Image: Lama Zopa Rinpoche. Clive Arrowsmith/London.

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